Nato – All dressed up and nowhere to go

The standing man principle

There is an apocryphal story of a commanding general visiting for the first time one of his modern motorised artillery units. Everything goes well: the guns fire accurately, everyone salutes and much fun is had by all. Towards the end of the exercise the general notices one strange thing – at the back of each artillery troop and standing at a distance is a solitary trooper that takes no part in proceedings. 

As new to commanding artillery he asks the obvious question: “What are these men doing?” The answer: “They hold the horses”. Replied the general “But there are no horses”. Swiftly came the reply: “But there were”.

The standing man principle is common in many profit centered enterprises and non-profit organisations as change leaves old procedures still being served because no-one is willing to stand up and take the risks inherent in change. This is even the case when all or almost all of the elites involved realise that the continuation of a particular policy makes no sense. 

Ranke, the great German historian identified this trend in what has become known as Ranke's Syndrome:

“Neither blindness nor ignorance corrupts peoples and governments. They soon realise where the path they have taken leads. But there is an impulse within them, favoured by their natures and reinforced by their habits which they do not resist which drives them forward. He who overcomes himself is divine. Most see ruin before their eyes, but they go regardless into it.”

This institutional inertia prevents an objective approach to planning which always searches for the answer to three questions:

Where are we?
Where do we want to be (and when)?
How are we going to get there cost effectively?

The institutional inertia is greatly magnified by the existence of special units that are tied up with the success or continuance of the particular problem that they were created to solve by promoting its virtues and fighting for resources that could be better spent elsewhere. Planners should always question the creation of special units or where they exist their continued value. 

Go to sleep in a dream…

The creation of NATO was a simple reaffirmation of the tensions and perceived threats caused by the collapse of Germany and the annexation of the eastern part of the empire by Soviet forces, and the need to ensure that a European wide defence system would prevent further Continental rivalries.

The acceptability of this solution was further supported by the development of the Warsaw Pact (as a response to the creation of NATO), the Berlin airlift, the Cuban missile crisis, the regular appearance of stout poorly clothed Soviet leaders, regular defections of artists, and the continued depiction of the regime in Cold War spy thrillers, both in books and films in which crafty KGB agents were (nearly always) bested by smooth Western operatives.

This combination of fact and fantasy made it relatively simple to convince the taxpayer that it truly was better to be “dead than Red” . 

Planners quite happily continued with investment in all the panoply required for the maintenance of this defensive alliance, employing generations of military and employees of the military industrial complex in a programme without end.

Wake up in a nightmare

The unexpected and rapid collapse of the Soviet Empire at the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990's essentially meant that the NATO business model should have been comprehensively reviewed as part of a detailed impact analysis. This review should have included a review of the dynamics of the developing new political order in Europe, military hardware and organisational thinking.

First was the establishment of the EU. By the early 1990's it had become an economic reality and political integration was starting to gather pace. The argument had moved away from whether the Union should exist to whether it would end up as the United States of Europe, with common financial, foreign policy and defence policies. European leaders now met regularly across a wide range of issues. It was clear that this would conflict with the long term maintenance of NATO in its original form.

Second, that the United Nations, with all its faults, had grown in stature as a means of gaining legitimacy in both initiating and managing conflict.

Third, that the old Soviet Union, like all collapsing empires, would inevitably go through a period of introspection and re-definition. The length of this period would be uncertain, but history would suggest that only a significant perceived external threat would provide a catalyst for a rapid renaissance.

Fourth, that because the United States would be left as the sole superpower. This would be likely to cause a change in its behaviour with the removal of the major check and balance, with potentially serious consequences for its junior partners in the joint venture of NATO. 

Fifth, that a NATO military arsenal dominated by the perceived threat of Soviet invasion and possible global nuclear exchanges would have to change. Thus there had been a concentration of expenditure on sophisticated armour (hugely expensive tanks and armoured personnel carriers), long range artillery and anti-tank weaponry, and incredibly complex aircraft to achieve air superiority over the skies of Northern Europe. Naval forces had concentrated on confronting the threat of surface conflict by investing in packing ever more expensive equipment into a smaller and smaller number of ships, which became more and more complex to maintain at sea. Undersea warfare and the threat of the closure of the shipping lanes led to investment in similarly sophisticated systems in larger and larger submarines. The pinnacle of expenditure became the fleet of ballistic missile submarines, considered vital by the planners to ensure MAD (mutually assured destruction).

Sixth, that training and command systems throughout the forces naturally concentrated on this threat and the solution of maximum force against a clearly defined enemy and would need to be re-assessed.

Seventh, that the panoply of state surveillance and “intelligence” services that had grown up to counter the threat of infiltration were no longer appropriate. 

The key conclusions that should have come from the impact analysis completed in the early 1990's would perhaps have been:

That the European Union provided the logical framework for a re-assessment of the territorial defence pact that was the underlying principle of NATO (removing the requirement for a special unit and simplifying resource allocation);
That the militarisation of Eastern Europe would be counterproductive in potentially leading to a resurgent and bellicose Russia;
That current weapon systems were ill suited for future defence commitments and that further investment in them should be curtailed; 

Out of theatre, or out of work

The enterprise facing major change in its external environment should concentrate on the low risk elements within the golden circle, especially on consolidation to build a strong base for future development. It should never (never say never, say rarely) invest heavily in the high risk elements of product development, international development. Diversification which lies outside the golden circle should be regarded with the greatest suspicion.

It is worth reviewing what strategies NATO has followed and the implications for its future. 

The first was the expansion of NATO into countries that had been part of the old Soviet Union and/or associated blocs. Thus NATO integrated countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic and even more bizarrely Albania into its operational envelope. This thirst for expansion even proceeded against the NATO charter which made it clear that countries with large opposing minorities could not be considered for membership. Regardless of this members of the Baltic States were incorporated and both Georgia and the Ukraine received strong support for future membership. Such international expansion involved the acceptance of greater and greater risks that members would be sucked into regional conflicts produced by the political rather than security demands of individual countries (which would undoubtedly have occurred if NATO membership had been extended to Georgia) and a more and more unwieldy control structure.

Secondly, NATO diversified into becoming an aggressive rather than defensive force and applied this principle in new markets. The first sign of this new strategy was the war in Kosovo. Here the Serbian government had been struggling against an insurgent (aka terrorist) group of dissidents near the border with Albania. Without a UN mandate or without a clear threat to a NATO member (the two legal reasons that would justify an invasion) forces bombed Serbia to force the withdrawal of government forces from the region. As Serbian forces pulled out, NATO forces invaded and still remain. Post facto justifications for the action included “the first humanitarian war”, and the “domino theory” in that problems in neighbouring states could possibly lead to the destabilisation of NATO members. More cynical observers linked domestic problems of the US president Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinski and the need to change the news priorities. Which it did.

This extension of the NATO mandate continued with the war in Afghanistan. Though the US invoked the attack on member country clause in involving NATO, it is clear that there was little attempt to question the reality of the 9/11 attacks. Al-Quaida, if one accepts the narrative, organised the attack from Europe, not Afghanistan. Though there was evidence that Al-Quaida had small facilities in Afghanistan there has been no attempt to establish that the loose ruling group, the so called Taliban, in Afghanistan had any foreknowledge of the attack. Finally there was no discussion of the level of appropriate force that should have been applied to solve the problem of small localised training camps – only full scale invasion was proportionate. NATO planners were sucked into a conflict without any clear objectives, timelines or milestones. In the tenth year of occupation this failure to plan remains clear.

Successes, failures, lessons learnt

“If you are in a hole, stop digging”

Fundamental to any successful organisation or business is learning from successes and failures. An analysis of the past 20 years of NATO is that there are significantly more failures than successes. 

The much vaunted expansion of NATO has, one can agree, not been a disaster, but more through luck than judgement. However the risks that it encompasses should be understood and acted upon. The inclusion of the Baltic States with their large ethnic Russian populations has fortunately not dragged NATO into direct conflict with Russia, but the potential exists. Similarly the potential inclusion of Georgia would have meant conflict over the last dispute with Russia – a conflict started by Georgia rather than Russia. The step by step integration of Israel through shared military exercises constitutes another potential danger.

It is the out of theatre commitments that have been most disastrous. The invasion of Kosovo without a UN mandate – classified as illegal by many commentators – has led to a long term, ineffective and costly involvement in that country. Afghanistan, now in its tenth year and counting, has been even more damaging.

What both these demonstrate to the outsider is that NATO is incapable of either planning or controlling. There are no apparent objectives and no attempt to measure achievements. As there are no objectives, measurement of achievements is of course futile.

Nothing succeeds like excess – Lisbon 

Organisations with poor leadership are characterized by a lack of clear direction (focus) and a tendency to thrash about to give the impression that the organisation or business that they lead is really dynamic rather than ineffectual. By departing simultaneously in a number of directions they hope that one at least will generate some success which can be paraded in front of the population as part of a latter day Roman triumph.

NATO planners accept that the out of theatre, out of work scenario could be added to with a variety of domestic initiatives. These include a much vaunted missile shield technology (which many experts consider to be an unreliable and ineffective system for the vast investments already made), diversions into cyber defence (a threat which bears all the hallmarks of the Millennium Bug scare leading to vast and unnecessary expenditures), and the steady advance of the military into the management of terrorism, historically a concern solely of the police. 

Getting beyond Because

Edward de Bono proposed that mankind goes through three stages of thought. The young child asks why?, the slightly older child asks Why not?, and the adult says Because. 

It is clear that NATO is stuck in Because.

A useful creativity technique for establishing new directions is blank sheet planning. This works on the old Irish saying that: “If I was going there, I would'nt start from here”. 

The first stage is to establish the basic unit of control. One aspect of NATO that is obvious to the outsider is how closely the membership parallels that of the European Union. As the EU becomes more and more integrated (with financial control inevitably passing under some new umbrella following the shambles of Greece, Eire and doubtless many more), it makes sense to consider that the new unit of control should solely be the members of the European Union. We could give it a project label of the European Union Defence Pact or EUDP (politicians and soldiers can only survive if there are enough acronyms).

This would have considerable advantages. First it would mean that expansion of the EUDP would only occur as part of EU enlargement, and potential danger spots such as Georgia and Ukraine would be automatically excluded. Secondly it would align the interests of EUDP purely with the political climate of the European Union and subject to a greater amount of political control. Relations with non- European member states such as Russia, Turkey, and the US would be part of continuing working relationships, but not guaranteed by treaty.

The second phase in this blank sheet planning exercise would be the creation of new objectives. The business planner looks for objectives that are:

Acceptable to the stakeholders;
Limited in number;
Easily communicable to all stakeholders;
Internally consistent (one objective does not conflict with another)

The third stage would be to introduce some form of effective control over the way in which the new organisation would operate. An old adage holds that war is too important for the generals; it is also clear that it is too dangerous for politicians. Clear charter objectives, codes of conduct, and criminal sanctions for those that breach them would be essential.

Getting from A to B

Politics is the art of the possible. With the series of entrenched interests, the immediate scrapping of NATO is not a realistic option. However, the management of resources into NATO from the European governments could be subject to two techniques at which elected politicians excel – procrastination and resource starvation. In the large enterprise with existing entrenched interests this also can achieve the necessary implementation of a withdrawal strategy – a recent example would be the slow build up of Chevrolet as a competitor to the existing General Motors Opel operation – a clear indication that in the long term a similar policy is underway. 

Greater and greater integration of EU military could also be achieved on a step by step basis especially in relation to disaster relief for which there will be a greater and greater European and worldwide requirement.

Such a combination of resource starvation and an alternative method of delivering security to the European Union would be the obvious route for European politicians to follow. Will they? No.

David Brinton has worked for Ibis Associates for over fifteen years concentrating on technology companies and their plans. He can be contacted through