Sergei Karaganov, Doctor of History, is Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics. He is also Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
Resume: Preserving the political union of the West is becoming the main function of NATO.
As a man who has been watching NATO’s evolution for several decades now, I feel profoundly, although not completely, satisfied with the Alliance’s latest summit in Lisbon.
In this small article, I will not try to embrace the unembraceable and analyze everything that happened at the NATO session. I will only focus on what is the most interesting to me.
The session adopted a new Strategic Concept of the Alliance. On the whole, I liked it – for its modesty. Seeking to find a way out of the yet another conceptual impasse, aggravated by the Afghan quagmire, many influential figures proposed adding new dimensions to NATO and broadening its functions. There was a proposal to create an “Energy NATO” with a mission of ensuring not only the security of supply routes but even access for investors to energy sources – everyone understands where. Others proposed and actively discussed an “Arctic NATO” – that is, extending the Alliance’s functions to ensure access to potential resources that may be lurking under the Arctic ice. And finally, some proposed – and discussed in earnest – a quite phantasmagoric transformation of NATO into an Alliance of Democracies that would include Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan (whose opinion no one had asked) to ensure everything, above all to counter “new authoritarian giants” – China and Russia. The Concept has included none (or almost none) of these proposals.
Also, it does not insist on further deterrence (we know whom) in Europe, as had been demanded by the new NATO members which want to keep Russia as an outside threat and thus increase their own weight in the Alliance, and, perhaps, avenge their defeats of the past centuries. Much less emphasis is made on independent actions outside Europe and more on the role of the United Nations and its Security Council in such operations, as well as on the need to conduct them together and in coordination with partners.
The door to NATO membership remains open, but the emphasis on the Alliance’s enlargement has been sharply reduced.
As follows from the Concept, preserving the political union of the West is now becoming the main function of the Alliance. This is understandable, considering the new global competition, the United States’ withdrawal from Europe in order to focus on Asia, and the erosion of the very idea of a democratic Euro-Atlantic West in the new world.
There was nothing in the Concept that worried me. On the contrary, many things pleased me. The only thing that can raise questions is the hint at the need for negotiations on reductions in tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, which I think would do only harm. NATO wants Russia, which has a numerical superiority in these weapons, to relocate them away from the territory of NATO members – one may assume closer to China, a friendly nation to Russia. But I think this passage in the document is just a tribute to advocates of nuclear weapons elimination, who have strong positions in Europe. On the whole, the words about a world without nuclear weapons sound quite ritualistic. In principle, NATO advocates a nuclear-free world, but “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”
And finally, the Concept makes an unprecedented emphasis on the need for rapprochement and cooperation with Russia, which I think is the most important thing in the document, at least for a Russian observer. This rapprochement is becoming a new form of the Alliance’s political legitimation, which is advantageous to Russia and which gives it additional trump cards.
Judging by the documents, the “party of war” and some of the “new (anti-Russian) Europeans” have suffered a defeat, while the party of “old Europeans” has won. The Russian-U.S. reset is one of the reasons for that.
Obviously, it is not this document that will determine the Alliance’s policies in the future. But its measure of influence will be positive and it will hold back forces looking back into the past – both in Europe and the U.S., where they can come to power.
My main conclusion from the analysis of the Strategic Concept and related discussions and documents is that the Alliance is trying to modernize itself somewhat and, most importantly, that it is scaling down its global ambitions, compared with the euphoria that swept it in the 1990s and the early 2000s.
Now about the Russia-NATO dimension proper. I, if I assume a role of a petty Russian nationalist, could not but be flattered by the role played by Russia at the summit and in related developments. If the Russian president had not attended the summit and if the NATO-Russia Council had not adopted a very energetic statement, which proclaimed a new stage of cooperation and which outlined promising areas for interaction, the summit would have been a failure. The Russian president came forward as a political donor to bolster the Alliance’s legitimacy. It may seem to be a trifle, but it sounds pleasant to the ear – and is good for Russia. Russia would not have gained much from yet another setback of the aging Alliance. Though, that would have pleased some other Russian petty nationalists who are sick with anti-Westernism and who are always love to see their neighbor’s cow die.
Russia gains from good relations with NATO because such relations, even if with a weakening West, strengthen its global positions – in the same way as they are strengthened by friendly relations with rising China, a de facto rival of the West.
In addition, by being a donor for NATO in political legitimacy, allied transit in and out of Afghanistan, and in other areas of interaction, Russia is building up its political trump cards in relations with the United States and Europe. Its partners will find it difficult to renounce these relations and this new legitimacy. Russia’s positions in bargaining on a wide range of issues, including trade, finance and energy, are growing stronger.
It is particularly important for Russia to retain its status as the world’s third largest political power as the other sources of its influence are small. Russia is not very attractive as a society or a country. It does not tap its cultural appeal much. The great Russian culture, which the Russians have inherited from their ancestors, lies dormant. It seems the country cannot and does not want to rest upon it.
This is one of the reasons why there are no signs yet of growth in the economy or its switch to a new track, despite the encouraging talk of modernization.
So the strengthening of political and military-political positions is particularly advantageous to Russia. It compensates for its weakness in other areas, although it does not excuse it.
Now I would like to focus on the most discussed topic. The Russian president has supported – with reservations – the idea of creating a theater missile defense system in Europe and agreed – again with reservations – to participate in it.
It is a risk, but it is worth it. Russia will not lose much, for example, by partially legitimizing the creation – over decades – of a multilevel missile defense system, if the Americans do decide to build it and if they have the money and technology for that, which is unlikely.
But there are also obvious gains. Russia will be able to influence the configuration of the European-based missile defense system – if it is ever built – although, of course, not the decision-making process regarding its use. By definition, only one country, namely the United States, can make such decisions, or rather one person – the U.S. president or his authorized representative. Similarly, it is only Russia that can make decisions regarding the launch of its interceptor missiles.
More and more efforts are being made to deter Iran from developing long-range missiles. They will be particularly dangerous to Russia if Iran obtains nuclear weapons. Russia is close to Iran, actually the closest. The construction of a missile defense system in Europe will cause Iran to rely not on missiles but other delivery vehicles. Perhaps, it will make it more cooperative on its nuclear program and will stop it at the threshold.
Apart from positive impressions, the Strategic Concept and the proposed program for Russia-NATO cooperation raise many questions – especially in me, a Russian and a former Soviet, who remembers that NATO’s original mission was to oppose my country. When it saw that it had no more enemy, it began to treat Russia as a defeated country. The euphoria from the seeming victory and the feeling of impunity turned NATO from a defensive into an offensive alliance. Eventually, NATO attacked Yugoslavia, and the U.S. and its allies attacked Iraq.
And yet, I call on the Russian government to display cautious magnanimity. NATO has begun to change perceptibly due to the sweeping changes in the balance of power in the world and a series of setbacks – in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Alliance has for years been increasingly cutting its military spending – I would say, already to a level below the minimum. Another factor, which played a sobering role, was Russia’s harsh reaction in South Ossetia. It took the last remaining triumphers, who wanted to continue the Alliance’s enlargement without regard to Russia’s opinion, down a peg.
Though, on the whole, I am satisfied with the results of the Lisbon summit, my satisfaction is not complete. The division of Europe is being overcome Russia’s accession to NATO, which would then de facto. But it is not de jure – through a new treaty on European security, or through Russia’s membership in NATO, which then would acquire a qualitatively different nature. A recurrence of confrontation is still a probability.
But, perhaps, we demand too much from NATO, which has the inborn gene of confrontation? Maybe, we should simply praise it for its positive transformation?
And, maybe, we should build a new, truly united Europe on other tracks? For example, through the creation of economic, energy, humanitarian and political unions between Russia and the EU countries – through an Alliance of Europe? And, perhaps, we should simply improve our relations with NATO and cooperate with it wherever possible?