BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 17.11.02

Film: Paola Buonadonna reports on the challenges facing NATO ahead of the summit in Prague and asks whether the organisation has a long-term future.

HUMPHRYS: NATO leaders are holding a summit in Prague this week. For half a century NATO has been credited with keeping the peace in Europe. But now things are changing. The cold war's over and the conventional dangers in Europe have diminished. So there is a different challenge and NATO faces some tough choices. Does it adapt to those new challenges - at vast extra cost to its European members - or does it accept that its role has changed.... and may even have disappeared. As Paola Buonadonna reports, a world without NATO is now seen as a real possibility. PALOA BUONADONNA: The world might soon witness another conflict in the Middle East. American forces are getting ready. But NATO, the alliance which represents Western interests doesn't seem to have much of a role. Its own chief warned that it might sink into oblivion, unless it catches up militarily with its main member and agrees to some pretty radical reforms. NATO's headquarters in Brussels are enormous and the organisation is about to expand dramatically - at a summit in Prague this week it is expected to welcome seven new members from the former Eastern bloc. But the challenges NATO faces are daunting. Even its strongest supporters admit that there is an embarrassing imbalance between American and European defence spending. Members also don't have a clear idea of the aims of the organisation in the post-Cold War scenario. There is no hiding a growing feeling of scepticism in European and American quarters as well as in British political circles about NATO's future as a military organisation. DOUG HENDERSON MP: I think people in Britain support NATO, like I do, and want to see it strengthened but the harsh reality is that in other parts of the world that's not the view- it's not the view now in America and it's not the view in a lot of the European Union countries and therefore we've got to rethink our position to make sure that our security is guaranteed. LORD GILBERT: Well, of course NATO has got a chance but it's not going to happen. I mean, I'd love to sit here and tell you that I was confident that the Europeans would match up to their responsibilities. But I see no signs of it. BUONADONNA: The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was set up in 1949 as a defensive alliance, to protect Western Europe against a Soviet invasion. The threat was immense but straightforward. Today the main security challenges come not from established power blocs but from terrorism and failed states. Recently NATO engaged in its first ever military operation, in the Balkans, and it knows to remain relevant it must be able to operate out of area, outside the territory of its members. But the gap in defence spending between the US and other allies makes this very difficult. NATO's chief, Lord Robertson once dubbed Europe a 'military pygmy' and it's easy to see why. The United States spends three per cent of GDP on defence, the European members of NATO two point two per cent on average. In 2001 the United States' military spending was three hundred and five point nine billion dollars. Allies in Europe spent little more than half that. But it's not just a question of hard cash, it's what the money is used for. Europe's weapons and strategic assets are hopelessly out of step with the demands of modern warfare. For example, the US has three hundred and seventy-two large strategic transport planes to deploy troops, Europe just four. And while half of the US combat planes can fly at night, the figure is only ten per cent in Europe. NICHOLAS BURNS: No-one is under the illusion that we can close that gap completely. But can we convince some of our European allies to invest in a small range of military technologies that one must have to fight effectively in the 21st Century. These are vital and we need them to keep our country safe, keep Europe and America safe in the 21st Century but you can't do that with words alone, with rhetoric alone: you've got to have the capabilities that come through defence spending and through difficult decisions made by governments and that's what we're hoping some of our European allies will be able to do in the weeks and months ahead. LORD GILBERT: The idea that Western Europe is going to spend hugely more on defence is utterly unrealistic. George Robertson has been telling them to spend more and spend more intelligently for all the time he's been there and his predecessors have been giving the same message for decades. It's simply not going to happen. The reason that's so serious is that even if the Europeans did want to show up and fight, shall we say in Iraq, they are so far behind the Americans in matters of command and control that they would be an embarrassment in the battle space. They get in the way and they would be a danger to themselves and a danger to the Americans. BUONADONNA: The message these defence correspondents are about to get from the French Ambassador to NATO is very different. France's right wing government has heeded calls for more investment in defence and is determined to be taken seriously as a military power. Being excluded from the initial stages of the Afghanistan campaign didn't go down well. BENOIT d'ABOVILLE: It's true that there's been a lot of misunderstanding about the respective roles of the Americans and the Europeans within NATO. Some Americans have been saying that the Europeans are not spending enough and therefore will not be any longer be able to work with them on the military side. Some of them are saying politically the Europeans have a different approach towards the use of force. I think that after some months of confusion post-Afghanistan there is now a convergence which is in the process and in Prague there will be consensus on how to transform an Alliance. BURNS: You remember in the days following September the 11th in 2001, it was really only the United States and the United Kingdom working together that had both the political will and the military capability to strike within three and a half weeks, to strike back at the Taliban and back at al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as we did so successfully in the best tradition of the Anglo-American partnership. We'd actually like to have NATO, with all of its members, to have that capability as well as that political will. BUONADONNA: This Belgian parachute regiment is getting ready to travel to Britain to receive special training. Fostering co-operation between forces is the essence of the alliance but it's clearly not enough anymore. At the Prague summit, NATO members will be encouraged to lease transport and heavy lift equipment when they don't have it and create a NATO rapid reaction force able to deploy twenty one thousand soldiers anywhere within a week. BERNARD JENKIN: Unless NATO develops interoperable communications between its members, out of area capability, the ability to project military force in coalition miles and miles out of traditional area to tackle the sources of international terrorism today well then NATO is on the road to irrelevance. BUONADONNA: But improving military capability is not enough - members of the alliance need to find a unity of purpose once again, not least because NATO still operates by unanimity. But the war against terrorism has deepened the chasm which already existed between the US and some of the European allies. France is more than ever determined to create a strong European defence force, to intervene whenever NATO as a whole is not involved. Tony Blair used to agree but the mood in Britain is changing amid warnings from America that this issue is becoming a distraction and could even jeopardise the future of the alliance. D'ABOVILLE: It's important for Europe to create its own intervention force, which could work either with NATO or in an autonomous manner. We have learned in Bosnia that sometimes the US, the Congress for example, is not likely to consider that some things which are important for Europe should be done by the Americans. HENDERSON: I think there are some circumstances where a European military force could be effective but I don't think that would apply where military aggression was required to counter a threat. I think that would have to be a wider coalition and it would have to probably involve the Americans. BUONADONNA: A low-key peacekeeping operation in Macedonia, involving about two hundred NATO soldiers, could be the trigger for a decisive row on European Defence in the next few weeks. The mission to disarm warring factions is officially over on December 15 but France thinks troops ought to remain in the region under a European banner. D'ABOVILLE: I think it's necessary for the EU to show that it has a commitment to the stability in the whole area. The EU is already taking the biggest part of expenditure, the soldiers in Macedonia under the present NATO flag are all European and therefore there is no reason why we should not be able to try to compensate for the departure of NATO. JENKIN: The problem is what the European Union is now pursuing is an autonomous, entirely autonomous defence capability which is duplicating NATO's structures, the EU has now developed an EU military committee, an EU political and security committee, it is duplicating EU military staff, it is wasting money on duplication and is setting up a rival pole of attraction. Of course we know that countries like France very much want to sideline American influence in European security to project a different European policy. Well, this is very dangerous. BUONADONNA: It's not just Tory politicians who get exercised about the European force. Although the US officially doesn't oppose it, people close to the heart of the administration are not hiding their reservations. RICHARD PERLE: I don't think we should mince words about this - the idea of a separate defence identity for the European union will come at the expense of NATO. And in fact if the members of the European Union become self-absorbed in their defence arrangements in the European Union it will probably destroy NATO. BUONADONNA: But the biggest threat to NATO's credibility as a military organisation might come from its most prominent member. The United States is losing patience with inferior resources of its European allies and after the outrages of September the 11th it needs to be able to take military action fast, unshackled from the need for unanimity. Although individual members of the alliance might be called upon to help in places like Iraq, many predict that the organisation as a whole will be sidelined and will be seen as little more than a diplomatic talking shop. HENDERSON: The US have been pretty quiet recently about their views on NATO but I suspect that their position is that they feel if something needs to be done they'll do it themselves with whichever kind of allies they can put together on a particular project. If that happens to be NATO, fine, but if NATO doesn't fit the bill then they'll create whatever they need in order to deal with a particular situation. BUONADONNA: Of course some prominent American voices have been far from quiet on this issue. They make no bones about placing what they perceive to be the United States' security needs above diplomatic niceties. PERLE: If the only way the United States can defend itself is by appearing to be hawkish, then we're bloody well going to appear to be hawkish! If NATO can't rise to the occasion and regard itself as a political and military institution capable of defending its interests then it will sink into oblivion. BUONADONNA: NATO's chiefs say the alliance is ready to begin its journey towards the 21st Century, with new strategies to bolster its role and effectiveness. But many warn that these changes are coming too late to make an impact. In Britain a Former Defence Minister voices the thought the government can't quite breathe out loud. That NATO might not have a future after all. HENDERSON: I'm sure these concerns that I have now and I know many others have and are also understood in government circles and I think the difficulty for the government is, they don't want to let down their traditional partners in NATO by saying that they're not happy at the way NATO is developing. Therefore they're very reluctant to say anything about that but I'm sure they're looking at what kind of international coalitions are needed in the future because I don't think they will expect NATO to play a very big part. BUONADONNA: NATO's band of brothers has much to be proud of. It successfully accomplished the task it was created for - winning the Cold War for the West without firing a single shot. But in the uneasy World Order that has followed its future role and whether it has one at all, is far less certain.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.