21 February 2003 - 23 February 2003

The future role of NATO

Chair: General Klaus Naumann KBE

Over the weekend of 21-23 February, we met at Ditchley to discuss NATO’s future role.  Our discussions were given added focus and urgency as a result of the recent damaging divisions in the North Atlantic Council on planning for the defence of Turkey on top of the open public disagreement between the USA and some of its key NATO allies over Iraq.  We were fortunate in having a number of experienced NATO and Transatlantic practitioners around the table and a Chairman who combined deep military knowledge of the questions under discussion as well as awareness of their strategic implications.  We looked at NATO’s future from the political and military points of view and at its future challenges.

Our discussions opened with an acknowledgement of the enormous changes to the strategic situation which had occurred following, first the collapse of communism from 1989 onwards, then the attacks on 9/11 in the USA including the subsequent war in Afghanistan and potentially war on Iraq.  The first major change was that an Article 5 crisis was most unlikely to arise in Europe.  Serious threats to the security of Alliance members now came from outside Europe.  The second was that some of the greatest threats would come from non-state actors which the military was not best suited to meet.  It was also claimed that the emergence of the USA as the undisputed superpower had been at least as difficult for the US to adjust to as for its allies.  All this posed a fundamental challenge for NATO.  Would it be regarded as the Alliance of first choice or as an Alliance of last resort.  Would it be seen as an instrument of value or a relic of the past?  And, if the former, did the Allies have

the will to make it both useable and used?  The first half of the 21st Century would, some thought, be characterised by nebulous threats which would not be met if Europe and the US were apart.

The arguments for and against the positions adopted recently in the NAC over Turkey were rehearsed in a direct and lively debate.  While, according to some, the French attitude was regrettable, it was not unexpected. It was the German position which had evoked the deepest disappointment in Washington.  Others claimed that the views expressed in the debate on Turkey were really code for attitudes to the USA.  Whatever the  underlying causes, most of us agreed that this level of transatlantic insult had not been seen before and that it had contributed to an unnecessary crisis, the effects of which would be with us for some time.  There was a good deal of broken crockery about.

In looking at NATO’s military role, we were urged to be aware of the gap between the aspirations for NATO expressed at the Prague summit, in terms of the missions for which NATO should prepare, and the unwillingness of many NATO members to make available the resources to fulfil those missions.  It was noted that at Prague the Alliance’s new missions were focused on the war against catastrophic terrorism and the spread of WMD and reference was made to the fact that at the Reykjavik summit there had been agreement to deal with threats wherever they might come from, a potentially world-wide role for NATO.  The NATO Response Force (NRF) and the Prague Capabilities Commitments were the first steps towards fulfilling these new tasks.

The NRF was seen as having both military and political importance.  It had been deliberately designed as an achievable target and failure to meet it would indicate a lack of will to take the new threats and tasks seriously.  However, if achieved by 2004, it could prove a catalyst for introducing transformational technology to some of the European participants and giving them again the habit of thinking strategically about their security. The Allied Command for Transformation would be linked to the American Command for Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia. We agreed that any improved capabilities would have to be matched by a streamlined command structure.  One participant recommended moving from the strategic to the tactical which would entail abandoning the large fixed headquarters in favour of mobility and flexibility.  Flexibility should also apply to decision making where the role of the NAC might be relaxed to permit planning and reconnaissance before a political decision was taken to commit forces.

One participant commented that some new members had expressed reservations about the validity of the Article 5 commitment.  These new members looked to NATO for their fundamental defence requirement.  They should be reassured that this remained the core of the Alliance’s commitments.  Others argued that all allies needed to be clear about the meaning of Article 5 in the new circumstances.  Some suggested that new members might be encouraged to develop niche capabilities of use to the Alliance’s new missions.  But, commented one participant, the question was one of principle not just practice.  Investing in niche capabilities meant relying on other members for some key aspects of defence.  Were NATO members ready for this?  We thought that significant resources might be released as a result of improved relations with Russia through reconfiguring some of the old heavy armoured forces intended for use against a Soviet attack into lighter more flexible forces for the new missions.  After nearly two years of negotiations, we noted that agreement on NATO/EU cooperation was nearly finalised and indeed the nature of the new threats increased the desirability of NATO and the EU harmonising their security efforts.  It was suggested that NATO would remain the platform for the projection of credible military power both in Europe and beyond and that the EU might focus on the development of Homeland Security and post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction.  Some were concerned that the EU might, in the new treaty to be recommended by the Convention, seek to transfer Article 5 obligations from NATO to the EU.  Others disputed this and maintained that ESDP and NATO would remain complementary and not exclusive.  It was suggested that the Prague Capabilities Commitments and the EU’s European Capabilities Action Plan (ECAP) should be formally harmonised.

In order to ensure compliance with the Prague Capabilities Commitments process it was recommended that an audit process similar to that of the EU might be introduced.  And to make the Alliance of greater relevance and interest to the US, a NATO enabling fund might be set up to develop centrally some core capabilities beyond the existing AWACS and planning.  To meet the “useable and used” criterion it was also recommended that NATO’s pivotal role in planning and command should be reinforced by allowing it visibly to play that role in Afghanistan.

In looking at NATO’s political role, some of us thought that the glue which had traditionally held NATO together had been a common understanding of the shared risks and responsibilities.  The current dilemma facing the Alliance was that there was no longer an agreed view of the risks faced by its members nor how the responsibilities should be shared in meeting them.  For the US the most direct and immediate threats to its security came from outside Europe while for some Europeans the task of completing peace on the continent was not yet finished.  In the view of a European participant, NATO was on probation in US eyes in terms of its willingness and ability to meet the new challenges, and remain relevant to the USA’s global security concerns.  In an exchange about American and European attitudes to sovereignty, an American participant commented that the US had problems over giving up sovereignty.

We reached agreement, however, on a number of important issues.  NATO should become again the transatlantic forum in which all strategic security issues would be discussed.  This was not the case at present.  An absence of political will was identified and early Ministerial input was thought to be valuable.  This inclusive approach to the Alliance was thought to be preferable to the instrumental, where NATO was seen only as a toolkit capable of use in specific situations.  NATO had been successful in the past decade in extending stability and security to Central and much of Eastern Europe.  It now faced the challenge of deciding on its relationship with those countries further east like Belarus, Ukraine and Central Asia.  The argument was made that the prospect of NATO membership should be maintained for Ukraine as a means of influencing that country’s future development.  In this context  we noted that the new NATO/Russia Council was functioning well and cooperation could be expanded.  One participant commented, however, that the West should not mistake President Putin’s commitment for that of the Russian military, or among people generally, where there was still some suspicion of NATO.  The point was made that Russia’s interest in NATO was primarily in the relationship it gave Russia with the USA.  If NATO was seen as becoming marginal to the USA then it would be of correspondingly less interest to Russia.

There was a good deal of discussion of out of area operations. Although, in principle, these were envisaged by the Reykavik undertaking we questioned if that was really the will of all Alliance members.  We thought in practice the commitment would extend to areas where the direct interests of  its members were affected or threatened;  where NATO had capabilities which were useable;  and where its presence would not only be acceptable to Alliance members themselves but also welcome to key regional actors.  This seemed to indicate that, for the present, NATO’s area for potential operations might be limited to the Greater Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucuses.  On this analysis it was thought that NATO might take over ISAF in Afghanistan and possibly also play a role in Iraq, post-Saddam, although the prospects for this were bedevilled by deep disagreements over policy towards Iraq among Alliance members.  The suggestion of a NATO flagged operation in Afghanistan  to replace the present ISAF which was a NATO operation in all but name, gave rise to some discussion of coalitions of the willing.  In a new flexible NATO these might be the rapid way of taking action.  But, commented one participant, if coalitions became the norm, NATO would, over time, lose public and political support.  It needed to be seen to be acting as a full Alliance in some situations.

In looking at NATO’s future we identified three roles:  that of a subcontractor for peacekeeping or sanctions operations from the UN;  as an enabler or toolkit to help coalitions of the willing;  and or running its own peacekeeping and other operations under its own flag.  This called for a flexible approach.  There was strong resistance to any attempt to negotiate a new strategic concept although one participant commented that, without at least agreement on the strategic threats we faced, it would be difficult to make the necessary changes.  There was a call for improved EU/NATO cooperation in civil defence against a possible WMD attack, also that NATO should be involved in the area of counter-terrorism and Intelligence although the difficulties of doing so were acknowledged and NATO’s record in intelligence sharing and analysis was judged to be poor.  This led into an interesting discussion of pre-emption.  In the view of some, the underlying problem was that even where there was a shared analysis of threats, potential actions and their legitimacy, countries had very different attitudes to the risks they were prepared to accept.  We therefore categorised pre-emption as hot or cold.  Hot pre-emption would be against a clear and imminent threat and was relatively easy to justify under NATO’s Article 5 and the UN Charter.  Cold pre-emption was more difficult.  It involved removing an assessed long-term threat as the Israelis had done with their attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.  There was a consensus that this sort of pre-emption was not for the Alliance and would almost certainly remain an area for individual nations or coalitions of the willing.  Some of us thought that for pre-emption to achieve durable success, care needed also to be given to action following the pre-emptive strike.  “Post-operative care might be as important as the operation itself”.   Missile Defence (MD) and possibly, discussion of arms control were also thought to be on NATO’s future agenda.  In the former case, we thought that MD would probably remain a US led issue with bilateral participation.  Care also needed to be taken not to divert resources from more pressing priorities. 

We thought that Iraq would continue to present serious problems to the Alliance.  If there was a second resolution, NATO would need to say something sensible about it.  A second resolution might also open the way for planning to start on the aftermath of an attack on Iraq where NATO might have particular skills to offer.   Without a second resolution and, if action proceeded, we thought that political paralysis in NATO might ensue.  A look at the existing agenda showed that it contained a number of major challenges.  Getting the NRC up and running, continuing the operations in the Balkans, ensuring that EU-NATO cooperation was successful and closing the capability gap between the European and US forces would not be easy. 

In a final look back at the ground we had covered, there was consensus that the Alliance was facing a crisis whose severity should not be underestimated.  Above all, some thought, there needed to be clarity and consensus on the fundamental changes in the international situation which affected our security.  It was suggested that among the reasons why the situation had become so inflamed were:  a new and self-confident US Administration which, in its early days, had treated its allies as optional;  the unique shock of 9/11 to America whose effects had been felt differently by the allies, and now deep divisions over Iraq.  The first priority should be to seek ways of healing the wounds inflicted by the dispute over Iraq.  While US/French relations had their own dynamic and no great change was likely, a major effort should be made by both sides to bring US/German relations back to normal.  In Europe a serious attempt had to be made to convince public opinion of the value of NATO.  We needed a short comprehensible statement of a few sentences, not another strategic doctrine.  There should be more public discussion of the nature of the threats facing European countries and more political courage shown in arguing for the resources to meet them.  Influence on decisions was commensurate with the contributions made.  Above all, NATO should become usable and the political will to use the Alliance should be shown.  The Prague summit commitments should be implemented quickly and fully with the NRF as the key initial move. 

I am grateful to those who took part in the discussions for sparing the time at what is a particularly sensitive and busy moment in the Alliance’s history.  The decisions which fall to be taken over Iraq have not made it any easier to deal with the deep-seated changes we identified in our discussions.  But clear thinking and restraint on all sides will be required if the present crisis is to be resolved without lasting damage to one of the landmark institutions in our post-war history, an outcome which appeared to all of us to be detrimental to our long-term interests, irrespective of our immediate concerns.  As is often the case in issues of this importance and complexity it is easier to identify the questions than give the answers.  Our discussions sketched out some of the practical and political steps which might prove beneficial.  A subsequent Ditchley conference will have to assess if our recommendations were up to the mark. 

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  General Klaus Naumann KBE
Chairman, NATO Military Committee, Brussels (1996-99);  Inspector-General of the Bundeswehr (1991-95)

Dr Gordon S Smith

Executive Director, Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria;  Vice-Chair, Canadian Committee of the IISS
HE David Wright
Ambassador and Permanent Representative to North Atlantic Council (1997-);  Dean of North Atlantic Council (2000-);  formerly:  Ambassador to Spain (1994-97)

Professor Frédéric Bozo

Professor and Senior Associate, Institut Français des Relations Internationales
Mr Alexandre Vulic
First Secretary, French Delegation to NATO

Baron Hermann Von Richthofen GCVO

Chairman, German-British Association (1999-);  and Co-Chairman, British-German Königswinter Conference (1999-);  former Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic of Germany to North Atlantic Council;  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation
Ministerialdirigent Rolf Schumacher
Deputy Political Director, Auswärtiges Amt
Dr Constanze Stelzenmüller
Editor and political correspondent, Die Zeit;  Visiting Researcher, Harvard Law School

Mr Zoltán Martinusz

Director, ATLANTICA Centre for Defence Policy Research (2001-);  Senior Adviser to the Prime Minister on Security and Defence Policy (2002-);  formerly:  Director of NATO Affairs, MOD (1994-96)

Mr Robertas Sapronas

Director, International Relations Department, Ministry of National Defence

Mr Jon Day CBE

Director of the Secretary General’s Private Office, NATO;  formerly:  Director of Defence Policy, Ministry of Defence
Dr Jamie P Shea
Director, Information and Press, NATO

Professor Mats Berdal

Department of War Studies, King’s College London (2003-);  formerly:  Director of Studies, The International Institute for Strategic Studies (2001-3)

Dr Janusz Onyszkiewicz

Senior Fellow and Board Member, Center for International Relations (2001-);  President, Euro-Atlantic Association (Warsaw) (1994-97);  Minister of National Defence (1997-2000)

Dr Vladimir Baranovsky

Deputy Director, Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences

Miss Alyson J K Bailes CMG

Director, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2002-);  HM Diplomatic Service (1969 2002);  formerly:  Ambassador, Finland (2000-2002)

Sir Timothy Garden KCB

Director, Royal Institute of International Affairs (1997-98);  Assistant Chief of Air Staff (1991-92);  Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Programmes) (1992-94);  Commandant, Royal College of defence Studies (1994-95)

Sir John Goulden GCMG
Ambassador and Permanent Representative to North Atlantic Council and to Permanent Council of Western European Union (1995-01);  formerly:  Foreign and Commonwealth Office;  Ambassador to Turkey (1992-95)


Mr Charles Grant

Co-founder and Director, Centre for European Reform (1996-);  formerly:  Defence correspondent, The Economist;  Chairman of the Council of Experts, Moscow School of Political Studies;  author
Mr William Hopkinson
Deputy Director and Director of Studies, Royal Institute of International Affairs (2000-1);  formerly:  Ministry of Defence:  Assistant Under-Secretary of State (Policy) (1993-97);  writer and lecturer


Field Marshal Lord Inge KG GCB DL

Life Peer (1997-);  Chief of the Defence Staff (1994-97);  Chief of the General Staff (1992-94)
The Hon Bernard Jenkin MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), North Essex (1997-);  (Colchester North 1992-97);  Shadow Secretary of State for defence


Sir Emyr Jones Parry KCMG

HM Diplomatic Service (1973-);  UK Permanent Representative to NATO (2001-);  Political Director, Foreign & Commonwealth Office (1998-01)
Mr Mark Leonard
Director, Foreign Policy Centre


Dr Julian Lindley-French

Faculty Member, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (2002);  formerly:  Research Fellow, Western European Union Institute for Security Policy (1999-2002)
Dr Edwina Moreton OBE
Diplomatic Editor and Deputy Foreign Editor, The Economist


Mr Edward Oakden

Director for International Security, Foreign & Commonwealth Office (2002-);  formerly:  Head of Security Policy Dept (2002);  Private Secretary to the Prime Minister (1995-97)
Sir Michael Quinlan GCB
Permanent Under Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (1988-92);  Director, The Ditchley Foundation (1992-99)
Mr Vijay Rangarajan
Head of European Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2001-2003);  Deputy Head of Mission, Mexico (from August 2003)
Mr Roland Smith CMG
Director, St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace (2002-);  formerly:  Minister and Deputy Permanent Representative, UK Delegation to NATO, Brusels (1992-95);  Director (International Security), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) (1995-98);  Ambassador to Ukraine (1999-2002)
Sir Kevin Tebbit KCB CMG
Permanent Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence (2001-);  HM Diplomatic Service;  Deputy Under Secretary of State for Defence and Intelligence (1997-98);  Director, Government Communications Headquarters (1998-2001)
Mr Simon Webb CBE
Policy Director, Ministry of Defence

Dr Ronald D Asmus

Senior Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund, and Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations;  formerly:  Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (1997 2000);  author


Congressman Doug Bereuter
Member (Republican), US House of Representatives, Lincoln, Nebraska;  Vice Chairman, International Relations Committee Subcommittee on Europe;  Vice Chairman, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence;  President, NATO Parliamentary Assembly (2002-)
Mr Edward Cox
Partner, Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler LLP, New York
Dr Michael Haltzel
Democratic Staff Director for European Affairs, Senate Foreign Relations Committee;  formerly:  Deputy Director, Aspen Institute Berlin;  Assistant Professor of History, Hamilton College;  author
Mr Christopher Makins
President, The Atlantic Council of the United States;  formerly:  Senior Adviser, German Marshall Fund of the United States (1997-99)
Vice Admiral John R Ryan USN (ret)
President, Maritime College, State University of New York;  formerly:  Head, Naval Academy, Annapolis
Lt General Brent Scowcroft KBE
Founder and President, The Forum for International Policy (June 1993-);  President, The Scowcroft Group (1994-);  member, President’s Commission on Defense Management;  Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs;  Director, Atlantic Council;  member, Advisory Council, The American Ditchley Foundation
Colonel Stephen Seiter
President and CEO, Seiter and Miller Inc, New York;  Commander, 53rd Troop Command