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NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting and International Organisation Mechanisms

Dec 17, 2021

The foreign ministers of the NATO member countries met in Riga (Latvia) on 30 November to 1 December. During this first ministerial meeting held outside NATO Headquarters since the beginning of the pandemic, the ministers were joined by representatives from Georgia and Ukraine to discuss the security situation in the region. In another session, the ministers focused on Afghanistan and the lessons learned from NATO’s engagement there over the course of almost two decades. These in-depth discussions attracted much international public attention, as they considered how the Allies can improve the way NATO plans and conducts future crisis management operations, which will remain a challenging task both at the political and military levels. Finally, the ministers addressed the stability and security of the Western Balkans. Without question, the entire region has come a long way since the conflicts of the 1990s, but tensions have recently escalated, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Kosovo. For that specific final session, Allied Ministers were joined by their partners from Finland and Sweden, as well as the EU High Representative.

Overall, NATO’s foreign ministerial meeting addressed the role of the Alliance in the face of the multiple challenges that characterize the current international situation, including relations with Russia and the issues of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. The agenda also expanded to include new issues, such as climate change and China’s rising power (which will be included in the next Strategic Concept to be approved in Madrid at the next NATO Summit). Yet the main issue was Russia’s ongoing aggressive and destabilising actions against its neighbors, and its military build-up in and around Ukraine, which continues to raise grave concerns in the West. To that end, NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg said that “We need to remain vigilant and avoid escalation. Ministers made clear any future Russian aggression would come at a high price and have serious political and economic consequences for Russia.

This was a strong statement pointing to Russia’s international obligations and commitments in accordance with UN Charter conventions on national sovereignty. Still, at the heart of the matter are the role and power of the main international organisations, namely the UN, NATO and the EU. Clearly, Ukraine was subjected to hybrid warfare activities in the lead-up to the annexation of the Crimea peninsula and the ongoing turmoil in the Donetsk region. However, it is also clear that the immediate international condemnation did not lead the Russian Federation to step back. The result? Russia has now the control over the strategically important peninsula while ignoring international disapproval and sanctions. What happens if Russia invades Ukraine now, as many pundits expect? Theoretically, nobody will be able to oppose such an action. Neither NATO nor the EU have the legal right to do so, while the UN has no earmarked international force it may employ, and even it had such, this would need to be authorized by the UN Security Council, in which Russia can exercise its veto power. Conversely, Russia may not view intervention as being in its interests, but it may want to show its hypothetical capability to do so, demonstrate its power, and instil a fear in others of the “big bear.”

We referenced the phrase “same song, different verse” in the previous blog. What has come out of yet another NATO ministerial meeting seems to confirm this axiom. NATO maintains its commitment in the world of international security and stability by asserting both its power and desire to improve its position by virtue of the changes in the geopolitical scenario. In reality, the Allies can only sing about their commitment, changing the “verse” of the song. Really, there is cause for doubt: the behaviour of the great Russian and Chinese giants who have been challenging the role of international organisations, multilateral platforms and big alliances seem to have entered the downward cycle.

At the Rome G7 event on 30-31 October, the leaders among the two most populous (and relevant) countries in the world were absent: we are obviously talking about China and Russia. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin had chosen, for different reasons, to not appear in Italy, as they had previously done on the occasion of the extraordinary G20 on Afghanistan a few weeks before. They did speak via videoconference, yet diplomacy is done face to face, even amidst the pandemic. Beijing and Moscow no longer acquiesce to the line imposed by others and feel strong enough to sit at tables where they know they can deal the cards. That is why there are already some opinion makers who speak of a new phase of multilateralism, naming it "mini-lateralism," which refers to small regional or thematic organizations and platforms that pursue the common interests of smaller groups, overcoming the problem of veto rights or global cooperation which in an age of protectionism, sovereignty and “technological cold-wars” seems very difficult to maintain. Both Beijing and Moscow are insisting on alternative platforms to the established ones, which they perceive as Western-led and therefore “hostile.” In the case of Afghanistan, for example, China and Russia meet regularly in formats that involve the countries of Central or South Asia but not Western ones. Their rhetoric also is taking on an increasingly clearer dynamic: the G20, the G7 and other like organizations are platforms for the "rich and powerful Westerners," while they, in contrast, work with developing countries.

If these two giants no longer hold to the international rules to which they subscribed, does it make sense to talk about them in forums such as NATO or the EU where the two big powers are not present and relevant decisions cannot be had? Perhaps a viable solution will be to revise the obsolete decision-making mechanism of the United Nations, eliminating the vetoes and creating a new Security Council consisting of “coalition” seats such as NATO, the EU, the AU, the Arab League and so on. Perhaps this will bring a much needed change in the tunes being sung these days.

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