Adrian Hamilton: If Nato was a family, you'd have to call it dysfunctional

If you think the G20 a fractious affair, you should look to Strasbourg

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Today the G20 summit in London, tomorrow the Nato summit in Strasbourg. And if you think the G20 summit is a fractious affair, you should look at Nato.

The Organisation, celebrating its 60th anniversary, is unable to announce a new Secretary General because the Turks are opposing the choice of the Danish Prime Minister, Ander Fogh Rasmussen, because of the Danish cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammed.

The US and Britain are at odds with most of the rest over the level of troop commitment to Afghanistan, with surreptitious and not-so-private accusations of cowardice against those, such as the Germans, held to be holding back from the real fighting.

The old members from West Europe and the new members from Eastern Europe are at odds over how to treat Russia and whether to encourage Ukraine to join. Spain has withdrawn without consultation from the deployment in Kosovo. Even the good news, the return of the French to Nato military command, has aroused mixed feelings about motivation. If this were a family, you would say that it had become dysfunctional. If this were a business organisation, you would say that it was time it was broken up.

It is the family analogy which will probably serve best for tomorrow's summit. For all the mutual antagonisms and jealousies, the members of Nato do seem to want to be part of a wider unit. Just as with the G20 today, a form of words will no doubt be found to smooth over the differences.

The reluctant participants in Nato's Afghan venture will be asked to contribute civil advisers and money rather than fighting troops. The argument over new members will be glossed over for another day. Antagonisms with Russia will be put aside. Turkey will be mollified.

And yet it is the analogy with a failing business that is most apposite for Nato. Like the car industry, Woolworths and half the banking industry, it is a model that has passed its sell-by date. Nato was founded with a clear purpose, to contain and challenge the USSR. Once the Soviet Union collapsed it lost that job definition.

Instead, its partners and its bureaucracy invented two raisons d'etre, both of which have proved quite the wrong turnings. One was to expand as an alliance to lock in the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe and redefine its purposes as a promoter of democracy rather than a simple security pact to protect the West.

The second was to redraw its borders of activity, re-inventing itself from a defensive alliance confined to Europe to an offensive military organisation capable of operating outside its normal theatre in Africa and Afghanistan. As a means of avoiding redundancy and preserving jobs, both moves were entirely logical.But as a business plan for the organisation itself, it has been been a disaster of over-reach.

By politicising its goal to promote democracy in the former Soviet Republics, Nato has been taken into a direct confrontation with Russia which half its membership didn't want and believe is misdirected. While US president George Bush saw Nato moving rapidly to lock in Ukraine and the other countries on Russia's border, Germany and the north Europeans saw the way to wrap up the Cold War as lying through a new entente with Russia.

The impact of the Afghan venture has been even more destructive for Nato. While all the partners signed up to action to drive out the Taliban and root out al-Qa'ida post September 11, what few were prepared for – and even fewer had the popular mandate to do – was to get locked in to a long-term occupation of the country.

There is no future down this road. Nato is going to have to pull back and start again. For some, like a bankrupt car company it should be simply left to fail. But, aside from the disruption this would cause and the fear that it would free the US to abandon Europe (not necessarily the disaster it is made out to be), it would also deprive Europe of a military alliance of proven capability.

There remain real problems of security within Europe and even more along its borders, from failed states and rogue elements, if no longer the massed tanks and attack bombers of the USSR. There is a huge challenge, too, in disarmament, which the US under Obama seems ready to tackle and Russia is keen to further.

A Nato bent on mutual defence and determined disarmament would truly have a purpose. What won't work, post Bush, is an alliance aimed at propagating a political gospel or one that envisions Nato as a world policeman. At 60, Nato, like the car industry, faces the prospect of retirement or a new start. The old life isn't on any longer.

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