How Can We Go About Changing the Supra-National World Order?

… Or: NATO Might be Dying, the UN Might be Impotent, But Might There be Another Way?

I was inspired by a quote in this post with the thought that in future, interventions should be unilateral in undertaking, multilateral in mandate.

The quote from Stephen Walt that triggered the thought was this:

If the Afghan war ends in a defeat or even some sort of messy compromise, then more people will ask if the Alliance ought to be in the nation-building business at all.

I’ve been following the “Decline of NATOdebate, off and on, for a while, since researching a paper on the possibility of the EU becoming a military superpower.

It’s been difficult for NATO to maintain a coherent and cohesive message (something that is vital in counterinsurgency) throughout its mission in Afghanistan. The mission is, according to Bob Woodward’s account of the debates within the White House around the situation in Afghanistan, becoming increasingly ‘Americanized’. Were it not for America’s ability to be largely self-reliant in terms of manpower, weapons systems and, crucially, strategic lift, there would be more call for NATO writ large to have a presence in Afghanistan.

As it is, according to NATO/ISAF’s ‘Placemat’ which gives the locations (by province) of ISAF deployments, helpfully very recently published, US troops out-number their British counterparts (who have the second most troops deployed) by almost 10:1, and account for 69% of all international forces in Afghanistan. Certain nations contribute infinitesimal numbers of troops, Austria (3), Iceland (5) and Ireland (7) to list just a few. Their commitment is clearly not present. I’m not suggesting in any way that this is a bad thing, or meaning it as a slight against them as nations. But counterinsurgency requires the full commitment of a large number of troops, operating under on exclusive mandate, and set of instructions.

Cultural Difficulties, Added Complexities

This hasn’t been happening. There are plenty of stories of the differing attitudes of the soldiers of NATO countries, embodied in this Telegraph article:

The Dutch approach to the war in Afghanistan is focused more on winning hearts and minds through development and diplomacy than on killing insurgents linked to the hardline Islamist Taliban regime, which was ousted in 2001.

That can make life a little complicated for the troops, some of whom suggest only half-jokingly that they envy US soldiers who, they believe, have more licence to “kick ass”.

Further to these individual cultural differences, there are also more institutionalized cultural discrepancies between NATO’s member states. They are known, rather charmingly, as “caveats”. They are limitations on the activities in which a given nation’s troops may be put to task. This piece (PDF) puts the problem very well. David Auerswald and Stephen Saideman suggest that “caveats have shifted the burden-sharing debate within NATO from budgets in the 1980s to body bags in the 21st century.” And Arnaud de Borchgrave points out in this article for UPI that the Americans, “British, Canadian and Dutch are the only national contingents under NATO command that are not handcuffed.”

Some of the caveats are inconsequential. Some of them are more serious in terms of the mission in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most pressing is that expressed in the concerns of former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General John Craddock, quoted by de Borchgrave as saying, “[s]ome governments say their troops cannot take part in any counter-narcotics operations.” This, of course, hamstrings NATO’s efforts as a whole in dealing with a problem that supplies the Taliban with “about $400 million a year from its opium poppy crop.” While insurgency is, according to Robert Taber at least, only occasionally economically focused, the narcotics trade still constitutes a large part of the problem in Afghanistan. Also, it is one that is specific to that country. Without these cultural differences (indeed, the nuances of individual countries should decide how they are deployed to intervene) contained within one entity, like NATO, a great deal of unity of direction could be achieved.

Imagine if the job of assigning interventions was multilateral, thereby offering a check against imperialism. Imagine if the job of intervention was then strictly unilateral, thereby discarding any issues of ‘caveats’ or ‘cultural differences’, even the language barrier would disappear. (Although the latter problem was delightfully parodied in No Man’s Land.)

With this thought, bringing together many of my other thoughts, the myriad pieces of the puzzle, I might be formulating something of a TPMB Grand Strategy. It is just the germ of an idea at present, and I don’t know that it would work. I would love to have you spread this idea around and pick holes in it, make it stronger and see if it doesn’t gain some traction.


As a brief post-script to this, I didn’t have time to read it before I posted this piece, but I remembered the headline: Sweden Plans to Start Withdrawal of Troops in 2012. When the Obama administration has announced a date of 2011. Is this not a clear case-in-point of the problems that exist in a multilateral occupying force? Surely for the draw-down date to be believable, although it is not really feasible or sensible, there must be agreement on when it will take place?


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