2017 marks fifty years since the publication of NATO’s seminal Harmel Report, which reasserted the basic principles of the alliance and introduced the concept of cooperative security based on deterrence and dialogue. The Report committed the alliance to a twin-track policy, advocating the need to seek a relaxation of tensions between East and West, whilst maintaining adequate defence. Fifty years later, these issues are back at the top of the security agenda as relations between Russia and the West reach a new low. The post-Cold War evolution of NATO, which has seen it expand its membership and shift focus away from a purely defensive role towards out-of-area operations, is coming under pressure, as the alliance once again seeks to remain relevant and united. Russia is both a security problem for NATO and part of the solution, demonstrated most recently by the twin challenges of Ukraine and Syria.
Among the key themes of the 1967 report was the USSR’s place in the European security order and NATO’s quest to define a political role for itself, rather than a purely military one focused on collective defence: a state of affairs that resonates today. While there are similarities between the challenges facing the alliance in 1967 and the contemporary strategic environment, not least the disparity between the power of the United States and that of the European pillar, as well as the ongoing debate about Russia’s role in the European security order, the report’s key concern was the perceived continuing expansion of Soviet influence around the world, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. This stands in stark contrast to the situation today. Now it is Russia that has expressed its grave concerns about the perceived continuing expansion of NATO’s influence (and that of the West more generally) around the world, and more particularly within its ‘zone of privileged interest’. In the context of the Soviet challenge, the Harmel Report stated that the security of member states rested upon two pillars: the maintenance of adequate military strength and political solidarity to deter aggression and other forms of pressure and to defend the territory of the NATO countries if aggression should occur, as well as realistic measures to reduce tensions and the risk of conflict. While the tables have been turned in the twenty-first century, Harmel’s twin pillars of deterrence and dialogue remain central to Euro-Atlantic security, particularly for the alliance’s newer members. This was underlined by the focus of the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw on the continuing threat to Euro-Atlantic security from Russia, leading to an emphasis on deterrence and a strengthening of the alliance’s defence posture. However, against a backdrop of continuing tensions between NATO and Russia, and futile attempts at dialogue, the deterrence pillar appears to be by far the more resilient of the two.
The political (dialogue), rather than military (deterrence), aspect of the alliance has always been the more controversial, particularly when connected to the question of enlargement, which has exposed tensions within the alliance with regard to these twin pillars of the Harmel report. The post-Cold War policy of enlargement has brought the alliance into competition, and in some cases direct confrontation, with Moscow, the very opposite effect to that intended: NATO’s own 1995 study on the topic maintained that enlargement was only one ‘element of a broad European security architecture that transcends and renders obsolete the idea of “dividing lines” in Europe’.
Since its establishment in 1949, the alliance has more than doubled its membership from 12 to 28 states, and the majority of the new entrants have joined since the end of the Cold War. The accession of Montenegro, expected to be completed in 2017, will take the total membership to 29. These enlargements have, to some extent, undermined NATO’s stated objectives in incorporating new members, and have exposed tensions within the alliance over deterrence and dialogue, the twin pillars of the 1967 Harmel Report on ‘the future security policy of the alliance’. These outcomes are the direct result of the enlargements of the post-Cold War era being motivated by political, rather than—as the enlargements of 1952 and 1955 had been—military considerations. In a recent article in International Affairs, I argue that in the light of the fundamental tension between its current ‘open door’ policy and Moscow’s desire to preserve its ‘zone of privileged interest’, NATO needs to revisit the purpose of enlargement and the balance between the two core pillars of the Harmel Report. Only then can it address fundamental questions of why (and if) it should continue to enlarge. Enlargement has become a symbolic act rather than one of defensive necessity, as the recent incorporation of members from the Balkans demonstrates. Montenegro’s accession is a vital demonstration of the alliance’s continuing commitment to its promises regarding its ‘open door’ policy, indicating the primacy of the political, rather than military, aspects of enlargement. However, Montenegro is likely to be the last new member state for some time to come, alliance consensus regarding further expansion proving elusive in the face of a combination of ‘enlargement fatigue’ among western allies (many of which are focused on internal challenges), concern about the apparent threat from Moscow and a lack of non-contentious candidate states.
Image: Pierre Harmel. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.