Germany's Foreign Minister on NATO 'We Face New Threats and Challenges'

NATO is turning 60, but what is the meaning of the alliance today? On the eve of a NATO summit to be held in France and Germany, Berlin's foreign minister sketches out his vision for the military alliance's future and warns against taking on too many new tasks.

By Frank-Walter Steinmeier

A NATO summit is always an opportunity for history to be made. All the more so when the upcoming summit marks an anniversary. When, for the first time, it will be hosted by two countries. When a new American president is on his first official visit to Europe. When, after so many years, a French president announces the return of his country into the Alliance's military structures. And when we are about to welcome two further members, Albania and Croatia.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier: "What kind of NATO is needed in order to meet today's security challenges?"

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier: "What kind of NATO is needed in order to meet today's security challenges?"

Certainly, all this should be enough for a summit to qualify as "historic". Still, my hope is that this summit will be remembered chiefly for one thing -- setting the course for the future of the Alliance. For 60 years, NATO was the guarantor of security in Europe. And Germans in particular have profited from it very much. But the world has changed. The Cold War -- and with it its clearly defined frontlines -- is over. Today we have to face new threats and new challenges.

With this in mind, we have to build a new vision for the future of NATO. Clearly, the question is not whether we still need NATO, but rather, what kind of a NATO is needed in order to meet today's security challenges.

This week's NATO summit is being held in Strasbourg, France and Kehl and Baden-Baden in Germany.
Getty Images

This week's NATO summit is being held in Strasbourg, France and Kehl and Baden-Baden in Germany.

One thing is clear: NATO was founded as a system of collective security. Guaranteeing the security of all partners of the Alliance and mutual defense -- i.e. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty -- is the base upon which NATO was built. It must remain our main point of reference also in the future. In other words, if we take on new tasks, they should first of all provide a tangible increase in security for the territory of the Alliance itself. NATO cannot replace the United Nations as a framework for global security, and it is even less equipped to act as a "global policeman" for each and every conflict that may arise anywhere in the world. Of course, this should not not prevent NATO, within the scope of its security commitments, from cooperating closely with the United Nations and other international organizations.

Another important issue when we think about the future of the Alliance is, of course, Afghanistan. Lest there be any doubt, the future of Afghanistan is of crucial importance to all of us. It is the supreme test for our resolution to act together, bound by solidarity and common purpose. We certainly welcome the new US strategy. We have to work together to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists. We have to enable the Afghans to assume themselves the responsibility for security in their country. And there was a broad and common understanding at the recent conference in The Hague that we need to devote more efforts and means to civil reconstruction, and that we have to develop a regional approach that includes Pakistan.

Graphic: NATO at 60

Graphic: NATO at 60

Another key issue for NATO is the future of its relationship with Russia. Is the country an opponent or a partner? Do we choose to rebuild confidence or cement a policy based on mistrust? It's a fact that Russia is and will remain a difficult partner. But at the same time it is true that in the end we can only achieve pan-European security by working with, and not against, Russia. That's why I'm advocating an active NATO policy toward Russia. We must use the instruments we have for dialogue, such as the NATO-Russia Council. And at the same time we have to do more than just formally revive them. We must strive to develop these instruments into a platform for active security cooperation. From Afghanistan to fighting pirates, the list of relevant areas for cooperation is long.

That brings me to another question: How much can or should NATO expand? There is no doubt that the enlargement rounds that followed the lifting of the Iron Curtain were right and historically necessary. But there are more countries knocking at our door. How much can we grow? On this issue, I advocate circumspection and care. As early as 1995, even before the first enlargement, we defined the three "goods" for accession: good for the candidate country, good for NATO, and good for pan-European security. These criteria are more relevant than ever; we should meticulously and thoroughly apply them at every step along the path to further enlargements. More members, but less security -- in the end this would be in no one's interest, neither of the Alliance nor in the interest of candidate countries.

One final point that takes on a new dynamic with France's return to NATO's military structures is the relationship between the European Union and NATO. There are people who would say that the two institutions are rivals. My view is exactly the contrary: they are not rivals, but rather ideal partners. Because, very clearly, both institutions are in the same boat, they have an overlapping membership, and they share common security interests. There may have been misunderstandings in the past, but it is time put them behind us. I am convinced that it strengthens NATO as well, if Europeans develop the capabilities to act on their own, working in close coordination with the Alliance.

These are some of the issues we have to address when discussing the future of NATO. And I haven't even mentioned disarmament yet. On this issue, too, we face a number of key decisions this year and NATO needs to play an active role if we want to make progress. Of course, it takes much more than just one summit to find answers to all these questions. What is important now is to launch an effective process for addressing them -- not only in the technical jargon of experts, but in a way that makes sense to a wider public. Only if we succeed in this there will there be a chance for NATO to keep its date with history.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier is Germany's foreign minister.


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