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‘Does Europe still need NATO?’

6 min read

NATO’s Jamie Shea takes a look at the organization’s post-Cold War place in the world

You may remember Jamie Patrick Shea. In 1999, he was the NATO spokesman whose Cockney-accented daily briefings marked the progress of the 78-day bombing campaign in Kosovo.

On Tuesday (Dec. 5), Shea gave a briefing of sorts at Harvard, at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES). His talk, “Does Europe Still need NATO?” came with its own immediate answer: Yes.

But Shea, who once called selling a war to the media “the ultimate PR challenge” – has another PR challenge on his hands: explaining why a treaty organization founded nearly 60 years ago to fight a Cold War that no longer exists is still necessary.

Charles Maier, director of the center and the Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard, introduced Shea, noting that his guest was wearing a tie that pictured brontosaurs. Of NATO, he said, “I hope this is not like some prehistoric reptile that is going to be swallowed up.”

But Shea assured Maier, and the audience of 50 in the center’s lower auditorium: “The dinosaurs on my tie relate to the speaker, not to the institution.” (Shea, 53 and an Oxford-trained historian, is a 26-year veteran of the NATO bureaucracy. He’s now director of policy planning.)

Shea admitted that NATO suffered an identity crisis after the “catastrophic success” of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union – the chief reason NATO was formed. Today, he said, 40 percent of NATO members are former satellites of the USSR, and that by 2008 that figure may be 60 percent.

But two main facts point to NATO’s survival, said Shea. One is the need for continuing security, based on a fear that is “deeply ingrained in the psyche” of Europeans after the turmoil and war of the last century.

And the other is simply practical: that two security forces are better than one. (The European Union now has a defense component, though has not yet developed a ready force.) Said Shea, who in his 90-minute visit showed a mastery of humor as well as the facts: “It’s better to walk on two legs than one.”

But the post-Soviet world has adjusted NATO’s mission, said Shea. He described a bureaucracy that has evolved from a defensive posture into one that is specialized and versatile. Its missions include not only combat (the south of Afghanistan), but reconstruction (the north of Afghanistan), logistical support (Darfur), counterterrorism (naval operations in the Mediterranean), and training and “capacity building” for troubled nations (Iraq).

“The nature of the security business has changed,” said Shea. NATO is not only more flexible than it was, but it is building fluid and hybrid partnerships – with the United Nations and the African Union, and (informally) with Pakistan, Australia, and New Zealand. “In security terms, he said, “you’re only as good as your network.”

Shea enumerated NATO’s challenges.

For one, NATO is no longer the U.S.-European alliance that has an array of tanks and missiles pointed at one enemy. Security problems have gotten more complex in the age of terrorism, and solutions that are simply military are no longer viable, said Shea. (His examples: diamond smuggling, opium growing, organized crime – all of which can feed stateless warriors angry at the West.)

Another challenge: complex security problems that no longer center on big antagonistic states, but on underdeveloped countries, whose anarchic territories can become centers of terrorist training, drug activity, organized crime, and other factors that threaten world peace. Shea gave an example. In the two decades following 1980, an estimated 120,000 jihadists passed through training camps in Afghanistan. Unstable countries today pose the same threat.

Ironically, one of the answers to those complex security problems is old-fashioned and military: more ground troops – “a soldier on every corner” to allow nations to rebuild their civil infrastructures, said Shea.

But Afghanistan has shown that NATO military forces are not up to the job, noted Shea. So the first priority NATO faces is adding troops.

Today, about 50,000 NATO troops are deployed on seven missions. But only seven of the 26 NATO allies spend more than 2 percent of their gross national product on their militaries. “That is not sustainable,” he said.

Nor is maintaining Cold War-era hardware – “legacy systems,” Shea called them, like battle tanks and fighter planes designed for aerial dogfights.

NATO needs to reverse its deployment priorities, too, Shea said. The alliance has 1.4 million troops in Europe, but only 60,000 are deployed or ready for action. (NATO’s official target for deployable troops is 40 percent.)

More deployable troops and more money in the NATO defense system point to a NATO priority, said Shea – “risk sharing.” He noted that in Afghanistan, “Those taking casualties look around and say: Where are the allies?”

The NATO of the future also needs better links to civilian groups – the kind that rebuild a nation after the storm of war. In Afghanistan, about $82 billion has been spent on the fighting, but only $7 billion on reconstruction. Without civilian help and money to fund it, said Shea, “we will leave Afghanistan with nothing to show for it.”

NATO also needs to stay on its present course of building partnerships with non-member nations, both those within Europe (Sweden, Austria) and those outside (Japan).

But so far one critical partnership is still faltering. Though NATO is headquartered just one kilometer from the EU’s main office in Brussels, and despite the fact that the two groups share 21 member countries, they have difficulty communicating. “It’s easier to talk to Saudi Arabia than it is to talk to the EU,” said Shea, speaking for NATO. “There’s no pragmatic division of labor.”

Finally, the NATO of the future needs to better understand the world beyond North America and Europe. NATO troops went into Afghanistan, he said, with little awareness of tribal warlords. And Pakistan remains “a black hole for us in terms of understanding.”

Only two weeks ago, said Shea, did NATO recruit its first Arabic-speaking staffer.

Without more understanding of the wider world, said Shea, “we’re going to launch missions eyes wide shut.”

Perhaps NATO can become “a forum for political dialogue,” he suggested. “We need intellectual clarity. There’s a lot to be done, and high stakes.”

Shea, who last visited Harvard six years ago and who has in the past lectured at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, said NATO would welcome advice from Harvard, with all its “well-known policy wonks and eggheads.”

Any advice, he said, “we promise to plagiarize immediately.”

Shea’s Harvard visit was co-sponsored by CES, Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Fellows Program, and by the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

It was the final event of 2006 for the center’s Kokkalis Program on Southeastern and East-Central Europe and the final lecture of 2006 in the center’s “Challenges of the Twenty-first Century: European and American Perspectives Series,” which started in 1996.