A Global Partnership? The Challenges of an Internationally Connected NATO and the ‘Seven Continent Strategy’

In response to a New York Times piece from last week, Aaron Willschick argues that a globally connected NATO that confronts “global problems” is impractical and unrealistic.

In a New York Times opinion piece published last week, Columbia University research fellow Nancy Walbridge Collins offers her view on how NATO should expand to a more global role in today’s security landscape. Collins argues that NATO has become an obstacle to global security in the 21st century, when it could be a cornerstone. Because the United States and a few of its partners have over-invested in NATO, no other alliance is yet comparable which has made “Atlantic centrism” an obstacle to international stability. In Collins’ view, NATO must become connected with security partners all across the world and focus on tackling global problems such as transnational crime and cyber warfare, rather than simply local and territorial concerns.expanding nato

While Collins offers an interesting take on a new role for NATO, it is overly idealistic, especially in today’s international climate. Her assessment does not properly account for current global realities, especially the political and economic impediments to cooperation that currently exist. It is not clear whether Collins believes that a global security architecture should be a formal organization or an informal grouping of like-minded states, but either way these types of large groups have little chance of operating effectively. Global security architectures bring together too many countries with too many inequalities and regional obstacles. Respecting “universal rights of all individuals” and “core values of integrity and justice” are Western values that are not respected equally throughout the world. Many countries have little heritage of rights and justice which makes cooperation with Western countries complicated. Building a rights-based society and culture is a process requiring decades, a harsh reality currently being confronted by the new democratic regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As part of a global partnership, Collins feels that each country should aim to contribute in proportion and all nations should participate in approved missions rather than the many countries who choose to sit on the sidelines, such as with the operation in Libya. This is an appealing ideal to strive for, but resource inequalities, austerity and economic problems make equal participation highly unlikely. As a result of austerity, certain wealthier and more powerful NATO members are forced to bear the brunt of the cost in defence missions. Is it truly realistic to have expected countries such as Greece and Portugal to contribute proportionately to approved missions in the midst of the economic crisis of the last few years? Furthermore, there is often no reason for all members to participate in approved missions. Many NATO missions can be effectively conducted by only a few contributing nations. Having more contributors may be helpful in some instances, but unnecessary in others and requiring all to participate can easily lead to paralysis in decision-making.

Collins also feels that that it is imperative to develop appropriate channels for sharing information, as “distrust among NATO members has led to major intelligence breakdowns.” Information sharing is complicated by several factors, including regional tensions and conflicts, as well as bureaucratic restrictions on its dispersion. To get every member to the same level of openness and honesty with regards to vital information is unlikely and trust cannot be forced. There is a general acknowledgement of the major global problems in the Atlantic Alliance, but a global partnership would have a difficult time coming to a general consensus on accepted notions of global problems. Global warming is generally accepted as a global problem, but it is not necessarily treated with the same level of importance in other regions of the world besides the West. A “seven continent strategy” brings together far too many competing interests to effectively share and process vital information.

It would be ideal if security responsibilities could become more evenly distributed through a global structure, but Collins’ perspective on the issue seems rather impractical. NATO may have its flaws, but as of right now it is the largest and most enduring security landscape there is. Through eastward expansion into the Balkans and programs such as the Partnership for Peace and the Defence Education Enhancement Program, NATO has successfully connected with many new countries. Launched in 1994, the Mediterranean Dialogue is a forum for cooperation and stability between NATO and seven Mediterranean countries. The 2004 Istanbul Cooperation Initiative elevated the Mediterranean Dialogue to a genuine partnership and brought even more partner countries into the fold. Through these initiatives, NATO is increasing its global effectiveness in a carefully planned way to allow for consensus driven decision-making and cooperative efforts of like-minded countries. As new countries join NATO and its respective regional programs, global problems will be able to be confronted more effectively. This seems a lot more realistic than attempting to forge a “seven continent” approach with little chance of practical success.

About Aaron Willschick

Aaron Willschick is a graduate from the MA program in European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He also holds an MA degree in political science from York University and a BaH from York University’s Glendon College. His research interests include the European Union, European security and defense policy, NATO enlargement to Eastern Europe and democratization. He has extensive experience in policy and research, having worked as a trade assistant at the U.S. Consulate in Toronto and a research assistant to well-known Canadian author Anna Porter and York University political science professor Heather MacRae. Contact Information: Email: awillschick@rogers.com