NATO for average woman and man

Societies need to be reminded about what the Alliance is for. It doesn’t take reinventing the wheel; it is about going to the library.

Sławomir Dębski
7 July 2016

How to reassure societies of NATO member states about allied solidarity?
Firstly, societies need to be reminded about what the Alliance is for. It doesn’t take reinventing the wheel; it is about going to the library. American and European politicians have been explaining what the Alliance is to their societies for nearly 60 years. It would be worthwhile to quote now its First Secretary Hastings Ismay who concluded that: “the first point therefore that the average man and woman must grasp is that NATO exists for peace by collective security — peace first, peace last, peace all the time”. No further explanations needed.

The aim of the Alliance is to grant peace by joint cooperation of its members. Of course, from the very beginning, some states could contribute more to the cause of common security than others. It was the USA whose potential successfully helped to keep the peace. There haven’t been enough discussions held recently on why we need the Alliance, why an ordinary Kowalski in Poland and an ordinary Johnson in Arkansas need it. If the scale of the discussion is insufficient, there are always some home-grown reckoners who start to sum up everything by saying that the USA contributes so much and the others contribute so little, but America actually gets nothing out of it.

Let’s not forget the American tribute of blood to finally ensure peace during and after the First and the Second World Wars. There was a plan of withdrawing all American troops from Europe after World War II. Nevertheless, it was the Cold War that made them stay, and that was the reason why Europe hasn’t seen a major war since 1945. Societies need to be reminded of it. Americans need it, and Germans need it, especially when Alternativ für Deutschland openly claims that Germany should withdraw from the Alliance. As if no-peace was cheaper than peace.

Reports by Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence from Latvia on Psychological and Information War, as well as a lot of what you say, point to a communication problem as one of the main difficulties NATO is facing. Is it going to be discussed during the Warsaw Summit, and is it going to be a separate aspect in the agenda? Or will the summit only focus on the issues of hard armament and equipment?

The Alliance is a living organism, a political and a military organism. The leaders of the member states will touch on all of the matters that are politically relevant to these leaders. As we live in a global village, it is difficult to define the range of hostile communicates, to evaluate the attempts at disinformation, or the attempts at sending the message that absolutely everything is relative and everybody is the same, everybody breaks the international law and everybody shoots down planes. That is not true.

The problem of the member states now is how to deal with this communication offensive. It will definitely be discussed at the summit, as will what the Alliance can do together to tackle the issue. Let’s remember that when talking about what NATO and the Alliance can do, we always mean the member states, so actually the question is about what we can do.


Do you have any expectations towards the outcomes of the summit in Warsaw?

I believe that the summit will be successful if the Alliance manages to generate and send a strong, clear message about its unity and readiness to tighten its cooperation. Surely, prob- lems will occur here, but they are not real threats, just basic trouble. Every leader attending the summit has an individual approach towards the most urgent issues, i.e. reacting to dangers. Each leader functions in a different political environment, and they are also subject to certain emotions arising because of what they see and what kind of message affects them.

Naturally, the societies of countries located on the outskirts of the Alliance undoubtedly have the right to genuinely worry about the on-going events just outside their borders. It could be Greece or Turkey, but it could also be Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, or Romania. The leaders of these states are troubled by different worries, and they will express their concerns during the summit. It is essential for them to realise that solving the present issues does not mean choosing which issues the Alliance will address, and which not. The Alliance needs to act in a united way, and acknowledge the feeling of insecurity present in some societies, and the fact that some countries require greater support and larger investments than the ones located at the heart of the Alliance.

In this issue Peter Siklósi talks about the lack of sufficient resources to deal with the many threats that the countries of the region face all at once. How serious does it sound when these are the words of the Hungarian deputy minister of defence?

As far as I understand it, the politicians currently holding their positions are convinced that the whole world is pounding on their heads and that they are living in extremely difficult times. But if we look at history, it appears that the Alliance has previously been in much greater trouble than today, e.g. with generating its power, with financing common actions, with disproportional contributions in a way that the USA was the main supplier of the potential.

The Alliance survived France, leaving the structure and the relocation of its headquarters from Paris to Brussels. With all due respect to these politicians who now think that the seven riders of the apocalypse got to them, it used to be worse in the past. I agree that today the Alliance has to adapt to new and strategic circumstances, not too simple necessarily, because for the last 25 years the group was adapting to a different set of circumstances and conditions.

When Russia was a partner in building the European peace, having temporarily joined our style of politics, we thought it was a solid ground for peace in Europe, i.e. not applying physical power in foreign policy or respecting each state’s borders and their political models. The fact that Russia shared similar thoughts for 25 years, allowed us to develop a different approach towards the expenses on defence, maintaining armies, and their equipment. It takes time to reverse this trend. And a political will that was sparked in Newport and will spark again in Warsaw and in the future.

NATO needs to adapt to the new reality and generate new power, which we lack now. The politicians of the member states realise the potential of the Alliance isn’t sufficient enough to handle all the arising threats, which are just further reasons for changing our policy and thinking.

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The Declaration of Allied Solidarity, signed by the leaders of the countries of Central Europe in Bucharest at the end of last year, also emphasised the awareness of the dangers and the will to act in a united way. How effective has it been since taking into account the spending of defence of individual states?

The key here isn’t the territorial division. Each of our countries is currently in a different economic situation. New strategic challenges surprised the elites tangled up in various affairs. We need a little time to harmonise our common approach. Since there were reductions and cuts in the expenses on defence, it is hard to catch up within just two years, and it could be understood as strategic negligence. I wouldn’t call it negligence, though. There were no needs for it in the world of the recent past.

After 2014, we have to deal with an absolutely new situation and new threats; we have to keep up. It can’t be done in a day; it will take a few years, 10 or maybe 15. What is essential now is that all the Alliance’s elites finally understand that. And it also takes time. The awareness of the threat of nuclear conflict is coming back again, very slowly in European societies, but one needs to realise that a military conflict, e.g. aggression on the Alliance, will bring the issue on and will turn it into our daily concern.

2016 is the year when first the Czech Republic and then Poland take leadership in the Visegrad Group, which is 25 years old. It was established to join NATO and then the EU. Has anything changed in our approach towards the cooperation inside NATO and our presence in NATO?

The Visegrad Group undoubtedly holds a unique feature, which distinguishes us from the other NATO member states. We are the nations that know what Russian occupation feels like and what it is like to lose our sovereignty. We know what blackmail is when a great empire is the blackmailer. When we hear Russian generals and analysts say that if it hadn’t been for the Alliance expansion, the conflict between Russia and the West would have been taking place in Central Europe and not in the Ukraine, we can understand the political meaning of shared experiences from the past.

It is meaningful not just for the Visegrad countries, but also for Germany. If the Germans keep saying that our part of Europe is only a taker of security and help and that we receive all the grace, we should remind our interlocutors there that Germany would now be in a radically different position if the clash of Russia and the West was happening right in Central Europe and not somewhere far away on the Russian and Ukrainian border.

Sławomir Dębski is the Director of the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs.