NATO Heading the Way of SEATO? Bloated, incoherent and indecisive

The NATO summit concluded in Wales last week with British Prime Minister David Cameron claiming that the alliance had become “a stronger NATO, better able to keep our people safe”. This after question marks were raised about the organization’s priorities and capabilities in the wake of Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine.

The 'Ukraine Crisis' was a key topic at the 2014 NATO summit
The ‘Ukraine Crisis’ was a key topic at the 2014 NATO summit

Whilst Ukraine is not a NATO member, the fact that open warfare could break out on the European continent without a substantial NATO response is embarrassing for its leaders. In an era when international institutions proliferate whilst often accomplishing very little, the future of NATO has become less secure, just like the European borders it seeks to protect.

An example of an international military institution that ultimately accepted its shortcomings and disbanded is the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Formed in 1954 as a Southeast Asian counterpart to NATO, SEATO comprised the following members:

  • Australia
  • France
  • New Zealand
  • Pakistan
  • The Philippines
  • Thailand
  • UK
  • USA

Hardly representative of the region it was supposed to be protecting, SEATO was primarily intended as a tool to prevent the spread of communism. As has sometimes been suggested with NATO, SEATO was seen as an extension of Western (particularly US) foreign policy.

SEATO delegates in 1961 - the alliance was incoherent in its membership, objectives and practices
SEATO delegates in 1961 – the alliance was incoherent in its membership, objectives and practices

Despite its small membership pool, SEATO was wracked with internal divisions, disagreements and differing strategic objectives. It proved the difficulty of achieving a consensus within an intercontinental military alliance. Indeed, this is something that NATO has to deal with, particularly in recent years when its membership has expanded considerably.

Military considerations are, understandably, counterbalanced by other implications of engagement. This has been evident during the ‘Ukraine Crisis’ with several European states (such as Germany) unwilling to consider a NATO military response (or hefty sanctions) against Russia when they are heavily reliant on that state’s economy.

SEATO was unable to prevent an escalation of the Vietnam War, the most significant regional conflict in the 20th century. It could be argued, as with NATO and Ukraine, that given that Vietnam was not a member of SEATO it did not have the privilege of military protection. Yet the US would ultimately use SEATO as a justification for its escalation of the Vietnam War even when the other alliance members failed to show similar enthusiasm for a prolonged conflict.

NATO’s primary responsibility is to ensure the collective defense of its members. Yet there are recent examples of it undertaking other, less clearly-defined roles; military interventions in the Balkans and Afghanistan, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, anti-piracy operations.

Are the objectives of the organization constantly evolving or are they created randomly on a case-by-case basis? Is it merely an extension of US foreign policy, a concession to its biggest donor?

SEATO had the foresight to disband when its objectives were no longer clear and were not shared by its members. NATO, whilst a far more enduring and successful institution, has seen its capability for consensus-making weakened by its greedy expansionism, whilst simultaneously antagonizing neighboring states that have the capacity to wage war.

NATO's non-response to the 'Ukraine Crisis' encouraged further Russian military incursions
NATO’s non-response to the ‘Ukraine Crisis’ encouraged further Russian military incursions

It is high time that NATO redefines, or at the very least clarifies, its perceived responsibilities and objectives. Otherwise confusion reigns and, rather than enhancing global security, it helps to destabilize it.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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