At the NATO Ministerial Debriefing, organized by the Atlantic Treaty Association in the wake of the Meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs back in April 2011, James Appathurai, NATO's Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy, proposed a new pragmatic approach to cooperation comprised of three fundamental tracks for partnership.
The first, and most important track, aims to build cooperation between countries and NATO "on a specific issue rather than on geographic basis". This conception fits into a broader strategy outlined in NATO's new 2010-2020 strategic concept and is one of the core aspects of the "Collective Defense" policy. The main problem with realizing this project relates to the growing capability gap between NATO states. Even increasing significant investments in their own armed forced and modern military technology will not enable Europe to catch up to the United States.
Many experts have called NATO a "two-step alliance", but the current relations between NATO allies and partners are more even more complex and convoluted. The success of future multinational military operations - both long-term and small scale - requires first and foremost a clear understanding of how partners should organize structural cooperation as well as what principles and approaches should be established.
The North Atlantic Council (NAC) plays a pivotal role in shaping all aspects of NATO's policy towards partnerships. So the real question is will the NAC be able to adjust to the current time and change its partnership policy accordingly? Moving away from a geographic approach to cooperation and towards working together on specific issues, as Appathurai proposed, is a step in the right direction, but the North Atlantic Council should embrace this new policy completely by emphasizing specific coalition missions and operations.
The faulty partnership currently in place on security only enhances the already existing gap. Based on Toffler's third wave theory, the lack of effective coordination between NATO and the EU could be described as a critical deficiency. When prompted on the issue, Appathuria dismissed the growing capability gap as a stereotype, describing the current difficulties as being the result of problems in management and communication between multinational forces on both side of the Atlantic. It is interesting to note that Appathurai emphasizes communication issues and purposefully diminishes the importance of difference in technological capabilities between NATO countries.
States continue to position themselves as separate entities in line with the Cold War-era rationale of "who isn't with us, is against us". As a result, countries are increasingly acting independently from one another in the constant search for technological superiority over potential rivals. This type of ‘niche arms race' stands in the way of reducing the growing capability gap and is the main obstacle to the formation of an effective partnership framework. It is, however, important to understand that any significant advances in technology can only come as a result of international cooperation and the consolidated effort of multiple countries, a lesson to be learned even by the United States with its state-of-the-art innovative technology.
Therefore the solution to the current gap in capability and technology is to develop Appathurai's proposed track for partnership by switching from geographic to issue-based cooperation. If NATO countries were to go beyond geographical differences and be perceived as a single entity, which brings together national forces and means, then the so-called capability gap would become irrelevant.
By allowing members to specialize in certain areas and niche capabilities, NATO could finally integrate a wide range of nations (even those with limited military capabilities) on equal footing into a harmonious structure. Instead of forcing each country to build up full-size militaries, this specialization approach would allow individual members to concentrate on a specific area of military expertise. As an important first step, the NAC should analyze and evaluate the military capabilities of each member state to develop a tiered hierarchy of allies and partners based on compatibility rather than geographic proximity.
Instead of organizing NAC as a group of national representatives, it would be advisable to establish a new structure based on common security and defense priorities, thereby grouping countries based on their core competencies. As James Appathurai rightfully notes, there is a great deal of common ground between Europe and North America on issues such as global warming, proliferation, terrorism and a host of other potential threats. This is why, now more than ever, there is a need for an effective and balanced partnership with NATO which emphasizes common over individual security.
Olga Kolesnichenko is a freelance journalist and European security expert.