Security & Defense

Symbolism of the New NATO Headquarters

On May 25th, the new NATO Headquarters was inaugurated by the Heads of  State and Government of the 28 member states (soon to become 29 with the accession of Montenegro).

Although this event only received moderate press coverage and seems to have gone unnoticed by most people, I think this affair holds great symbolism for the future of the Alliance – and the world.

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The new NATO headquarters – Photo: NATO

The inauguration of this new head office for the transatlantic alliance screams to the world that NATO is not dead, in fact very far from it. Those who called it obsolete after the collapse of the USSR have been proven wrong: the organization survived the disappearance of the conditions that first brought it to life, namely the East-West confrontation of the Cold War.

This would indeed confirm the thesis put forward by many IR scholars: R.O. Keohane’s After Hegemony (1984) analyzes the stickiness of organizations even after the decline of US hegemony, and the possible maintenance of organizations even after the conditions that made it possible had disappeared; and P. A. Weitsman’s 2004 article explains the formation of alliances for both internal and external purposes – namely that such an endeavour can be aimed at protecting oneself against an enemy by pooling resources, but also by deterring conflict between members. In the case of NATO, both arguments seem to hold up. And the new headquarters signifies just that. It shows that NATO is set in stone and the need for it is still a reality.

NATO Headquarters

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NATO headquarters, Palais de Chaillot – Photo: NATO

Initially, NATO was located in London, at 13 Belgrave Square. In 1952, it moved in to Paris, first to Palais de Chaillot and then to Porte Dauphine in 1960. However, ensuing Charles de Gaulle’s withdrawal of France from the Integrated Military Command, the Alliance had to move elsewhere, and found shelter in prefabs on the outskirts of Brussels, halfway between the city and the airport – it so happened that the chosen location “was once an airfield used by Nazi Germany during World War Two”.

A new headquarters has been needed since then, and increasingly so with the expansion of membership, guest representations and partners, visitors, and widening of activities. It was finally in 1999, at the annual Summit then held in Washington, that the construction of a new building was approved.

Finally, during the Brussels Summit in 2017, host nation Belgium handed over the new building, located across the street from the old HQ, to the Alliance in the presence of the 28 heads of states or governments. For a virtual tour, see here.

The New Headquarters

Although the cost of the building itself has been widely criticized for the amount of the price tag and going over budget, no one seems to have questioned the initiative itself. First, because the project has been in the pipeline for decades, but also because it has been perceived and showcased as a necessary event, especially by Ander Fogh Rasmussen, former Secretary General of the Alliance. The move to a new modern-looking building was there to put the final nail into the old Cold War order’s coffin, along with structural reforms and a new strategic concept inaugurated during his mandate.

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The new building displays two panels of the Berlin Wall, and “a piece of the wreckage from the 107th floor of one of the Twin Towers in New York” destroyed on 9/11, two landmarks of NATO history – Photo: NATO

NATO has described the inauguration and the move as a symbol of modernization of the Alliance, finally adapting the bureaucratic structure to the needs of the twenty-first century. NATO’s website comments on the architecture of the construction:

“The design of the new NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, reflects the unity and adaptability of the Alliance. State-of-the-art facilities will enable the building to respond to the Alliance’s evolving needs long into the future, while its forward-looking design delivers a sustainable building that significantly reduces the Organization’s environmental footprint.”

Sustainability can here be understood in two distinct ways. The sentence clearly appeals to the energy-efficient materials, collection of rain water, use of natural light, etc., used to reduce the environmental imprint of such a structure. It can also be interpreted in terms of long-term commitment. By inaugurating this new building, NATO declares to the world that it is here to stay.

Symbolism of a New HQ

And what is more clear than a new HQ to do that? When it was finally decided to start the construction, NATO was still in a period of redefinition of its mission, amidst the US-led airstrikes in Kosovo and the ensuing controversies.

9/11 acted as the ultimate turning point for the Alliance, whose mission was shifted to fighting terrorism and external threats to the Allies. And even if Russia has made its way back onto the international scene and is now a source of insecurity for the Eastern allies that needs to be reckoned with, NATO is no longer the same alliance that it once was.

NATO has changed over the years – the Cold War brought it to life, but that is not what is keeping it alive. Rather, it is a commitment to peace. And it can arguably be labelled one of the most successful organizations for its ability to survive and reinvent itself throughout the years – even though this has not happened without controversy.

It is a forward-looking, modernizing military structure that keeps adapting to the current security needs and threats. The East-West feud is no longer the leitmotiv for the organization – discrepancies between East and South, between threats coming from Russia and those originating from the Mediterranean and the Middle East, make most of the discussions internally.

New NATO Headquarters Handover Ceremony and Fly-past - Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government in Brussels

New NATO headquarters handover and fly-past, May 25th, 2017 – Photo: NATO

So, Keohane may be right: the conditions that bring an organization into being do not need to be sustained in order for an alliance to survive. Weitsman’s insights are also certainly true: one also needs to look into what happens within the Alliance, and in spite of its resilience, NATO is not without its problems, especially in terms of defining its current priorities. The Alliance is a token of peace in Europe, within its members despite their differences. Weitsman indeed argued that “under certain circumstances, adversaries may have incentives to form alliances with each other, either to react to other threats confronting them or to contain or manage the threat they face from each other” (Weitsman, 2004, p.2). Today, this entails keeping the continent together, as well as ensuring that the US does not disengage despite isolationist tendencies in recent years. NATO is also the reflection of a continent that is faced with external threats that cannot be fought off without unity in the face of adversity, and mutual help.

A new, flashy building thus sends a message to the outside world, both to detractors and admirers, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is still relevant in this day and age; but it also sends a message to its members: a message of hope, a boost to morale and an encouragement to follow the Alliance into the future.

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Countries, Decolonization, Security & Defense

Interview with Sir Graham: Gibraltar, Brexit and Territorial Dispute

Last week, I had the honour of meeting Sir Graham Watson, former MEP, and ask him questions about Gibraltar a few days after the Brexit had been announced. I also had the opportunity to ask him about the dispute with Spain, a territorial disagreement which is far from being resolved. You will find some of what the former leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Group in the European Parliament shared with me during the interview below, in italic. I have tried to complement his arguments with others found in the press and provide additional background information when deemed necessary.

Sir Graham, former MEP for South England between 1994 and 2014, was appointed in October 2014 by HM Government of Gibraltar to lead “the lobbying activities of the Government in the EU capital which includes advising and guiding the Government in connection with the implementation of strategies for the promotion of Gibraltar’s interests within the European Union.” The Representation Office of Gibraltar to the European Union was opened on 27 May 2015, thus confirming Gibraltar’s eagerness to further participate in the EU decision making.

Gibraltar joined the EU (the EEC at the time) alongside the United Kingdom, of which it is an overseas territory, in 1973.

In Gibraltar, EU treaties apply, as outlined in Article 355(3) of the Consolidated Version of the Treaty On the Functioning of the European Union, but VAT, customs rules and excise rules do not.

Although Gibraltarians are obliged to follow EU directives, they had no say in it until 2004, after which Gibraltar was added to the South West England constituency for European Parliament elections. Gibraltar was considered by the UK to be too small to have its own MEP.

Amidst the results of the EU referendum, Gibraltar has made it back to the headlines. The Rock’s future would be uncertain if it had to leave the EU along with the UK, but Spain insistence on getting the territory back to Spain is increasing tension in the region.

Can the dispute between the UK and Spain about Gibraltar be considered as a frozen conflict?

“It cannot really be considered as being frozen because it is alive. There are daily incursions of Spanish vessels and of the police into Gibraltar territorial waters. Spain justifies this by invoking the preservation and environmental zone whose responsibility was given to them by the European Commission. Of course, no shots are being fired, but there are frictions every day. The issue could then be assessed as frozen conflict, with melting edges.”

Sir Graham was referring to the Estrecho Oriental a 69-square-mile marine conservation area site which englobes “all but one small segment of the British zone –  two square miles in the north-western corner.”

Why is it that Spain has relentlessly tried to regain control of Gibraltar since they lost it and the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713?

The Peace of Utrecht, or the Treaties or Utrecht, were signed in 1713 between France and other European powers, and between Spain and other nations. They marked the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714).  Spain, among others, lost Gibraltar and Minorca to Britain.

Sir Graham explained Continue reading

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Security & Defense

Incompatible Needs: Denuclearization vs. Nuclear Deterrence

This article analyses how short term security priorities are forcing NATO to revise its nuclear strategy despite the West’s support for  denuclearization, arms reduction and non-proliferation.

This article was originally published by Atlantic Treaty Association here

On May 27th, 2016, United States (US) President Barack Obama used his visit to Hiroshima, Japan, to refocus the world’s attention on denuclearization, a project which has been Obama’s concentration since he took office, and which awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

Obama speaking at a wreath-ceremony with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial

President Obama spoke after a wreath-laying ceremony with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on Friday 27 May, 2016. (Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The speech was deemed hypocritical as the US is currently heavily investing into the modernization of its nuclear arsenal, instead of reducing it, as the denuclearization guidelines would suggest. Washington has also supported the deployment of more nuclear weapons to NATO’s eastern front in response to Russia’s threatening attitude. Of course, some efforts have been made towards nuclear arsenal reduction, notably through the signing of the New START Treaty signed by the United States and Russia, but overall, Obama’s project has been stalling since it was first announced.

The discrepancy between discourse and action is not only visible Continue reading

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Countries, History and Culture, Uncategorized

No Chance for Biafra: Africa & Balkanization


Welcome back to florafranca.com!

This time, this topic is inspired by the film “Half a Yellow Sun” which is itself inspired by the book of the same name. The author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a Ted Talk on the “The danger of a single story”, which is also extremely inspiring.

The story is about a young woman, Olanna, who grew up in a wealthy Nigerian family and studied abroad, who decides to take up a position at the University of Nsukka, in the South of Nigeria where her boyfriend works. It is with Olanna’s story that the breaking of the Nigerian civil war, or the Biafran War, erupts in 1967. Olanna and her family are then forced to flee their home and see their loved ones die amidst this conflict.Olanna’s family are Igbos and (or Ibos) wanted to seize independence from the rest of the country after years of oppression.

The Biafran War

Like many African countries, Nigeria is a purely colonial creation which did not exist as a political entity before being colonised by Britain. Organised in tribes and kingdoms, the parts of what constitutes Nigeria today were independent fragments in contact with one another, notably for trade. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the United Kingdom conquered all administrative regions, which were regrouped in Protectorates. In 1914, the Protectorates were merged to form Nigeria.

Nigeria seized independence from the United Kingdom on October 1st, 1960, after decades of ‘struggle for freedom’ and self-determination. The Republic of Nigeria was subsequently divided into three federal regions, then four in 1963. In 1966, the government was toppled and replaced by a succession of military governments, which continued until 1979.

The military governments exacerbated ethnic divisions, of which the Igbos, the ethnicity from the South Eastern region of Nigeria, were at the receiving end. As a consequence, on 30 May, 1967, the Head of the Eastern Region, Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, unilaterally declared the independence of ‘East Nigeria’, renamed ‘Republic of Biafra’. On 15 January 1970, the loyalist army, backed by British, American and Soviet troops, regained control of the Biafran region, seven days after Col. Ojukwu had fled to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.

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Col. Ojukwu ready to flee while the population of Biafra suffers

Almost three years of civil war where the central Nigerian government tried to regain control of the secessionist region left 1 million civilians dead from fighting and famine. The Biafran war also led to the creation of modern humanitarian interventions.

De facto state and African Unity

Foreign interests played a very important role in the resolution of the Biafran crisis:  first for securing the stability of oil supplies (the Biafra region sits on most of Nigeria’s underground and offshore oil resources, the country’s only natural resource); second, for guaranteeing the unity of Nigeria for stability reasons. Note that those arguments are also applicable to the Nigerian government as well.

On the Biafran side, the strategy was to make the conflict last as long as possible in the hope of gaining international support, and thus armament. This worked to a certain extent as several countries like Gabon, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Zambia formally recognized the newly created state. They also counted on the emotion created by the death toll (referred to as a genocide against the Igbos), the displacement of population and general humanitarian crisis in progress in Biafra to appeal to the international community’s emotion to support the Biafran cause.

For the Nigerian central government, maintaining the Nigerian unity was essential. The African Unity Organization, the ancestor of the African Union and whose principal objective was to “promote the unity and solidarity of African states”, strongly sided with Lagos. It was also in most African countries’ interest to do so as if Biafra would have become an internationally recognized state, it would have created a precedent which would have certainly inspired many secessionist regions to do the same, thus shaking the fragile post-colonial fragility of the continent. Britain and the USSR, surprisingly amidst the Cold War, both supported the territorial integrity option.

The fear of Balkanization

The case of Nigeria in the late 60s is not an isolated case as several ethnicities, notably in Africa, have been fighting for fair political representation and equal rights with other groups within their own countries. No need to look too far back to find examples: think Syria, Iraq, and even Turkey.

The issue that is often brought up to explain why Africa is so conflict-ridden since the end of colonialism in the 60s is that states are colonial constructions that have been arbitrarily drawn (also see the Sykes Picot agreement which redrawn the Middle East).  Before Europeans arrived in Africa, borders were formed by natural obstacles – rivers, mountains, etc. – and each ethnicity had its more or less defined own territory. To ease their ruling over the newly conquered lands, European settlers regrouped several regions under the same jurisdictions; this inevitably caused friction as the different people composing those administrative districts had never had to work together as part of the same entity, be it political, economic or cultural.

It is thus without surprise that ethnic tension and independence movements have been emerging in Africa, causing civil wars and sometimes genocide. Some regions would potentially be viable as independent states: Somaliland, on the southern shore of the Gulf of Aden, possesses all the attributes of a sovereign state (currency, stable government, army and police force, etc.), much more than Somalia itself which is considered a failed state. Despite this, Somaliland is not recognized as an independent state by the international community. Among all the African regions claiming independence, only two managed to get international recognition since decolonisation: South Sudan which officially seized independence in 2011, and Eritrea which seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Other than that, the colonial map has not changed since the independence waves.

Does the secession of a country solely depend on international support? It appears that South Sudan was able to access to full statehood because of the strong support the independence movement received from the international community, notably in the US. Is it then still down to international powers to decide? One could invoke the argument of genocide of ongoing civil war which helped the case of South Sudan; but this argument still did not allow countries like Rwanda (or Nigeria if you consider the Biafran war as a genocide) to be divided.

In general, the international community fears the “Balkanization” of Africa, whereby countries were to be divided into several smaller one (think Yugoslavia which is now divided into 7 independent countries). Dealing with one government is easier than with multiple; organizing a territorial partition is never an easy task, especially when natural resources are involved. Supporting the independence movements in Africa would come to question the inheritance of the colonial era. In the international community’s mind, and especially in that of the former colonial powers involved in Africa – France and Great Britain – more African members of the United Nations would potentially mean mmore voices to oppose the old colonial order. It would also have probably meant more members of the Non-Aligned Movement to question the West’s superiority.

Going back to the case of Nigeria, the independence of Biafra was not feasible as the project was carried by a single self-interested man who did not hesitate to leave the ship when he saw it was going to sink. National and international interests were also strongly opposing this option, making the project of an independent state totally unlikely.

The case of Biafra is an interesting one because it was the first case which raised the international community’s interest due to the extent of the humanitarian crisis. It, however, was not sufficient to push for the division of Nigeria. Today, Nigeria is the fastest economically growing country in Africa thanks, in parts, to the oil reserves. The destiny of Nigeria would probably have been very different if Biafra had become independent, leaving with most natural reserves.

Further thoughts

This fear of the balkanization of Africa is not only applicable to this continent. The remodelling of borders is dreaded by all nations, including Western ones. It is widely accepted that current states are in their final forms. But the independence movements such as in Scotland, Britany, Catalonia and others, tend to think otherwise. The redrawing of borders has been a constant in history, and there seems to be an urge to continue to do so in certain regions. There is, however, a strong tendency to maintain the status quo even if it leaves many discontent.

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Security & Defense

Abomination in the Central African Republic: Sexual abuse by international troops

What do we really know about has been happening in the Central African Republic (CAR) for the past few years? Well, not much, and definitely not enough. What usually comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Sangaris’, or the name of the French stabilisation operation which was launched in December 2013 in CAR, is the rape allegations that were made against French soldiers.

Rape is a commonly used war tactic. Sexual assault has been used throughout history to disgrace and punish the enemy. In CAR, the parties to the sectarian conflict used this method to punish the women and girls “suspected of interacting with people on the other side of the sectarian divide.” The UN Secretary General Report of March 2015 outlined that “2,527 cases of conflict-related sexual violence were documented in the Central African Republic” between the end of 2012 and the publication of the report.

The fact that rape is commonly used in conflicts does not, however, make the practice acceptable as it strongly goes against human rights. The fact that soldiers, who were third parties in a conflict and were deployed to protect the local populations would take part in Continue reading

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Security & Defense

France & NATO – pt.4

[Click here to read part 1]

[Click here to read part 2]

[Click here to read part 3]

France, NATO and the EU

Throughout France’s 2013 White Paper on NATO, the EU is omnipresent. Even though it is clearly stated that “NATO and the European Union are not in competition” common sense would suggest otherwise. First, a strong NATO cannot happen without a strong EU. Second, it is stated that NATO should take into account European defence industry to develop smart defence. It is common knowledge that France has always been a strong supporter of a Europe de la Défence project, which is often thought that Paris would be eager to let it replace the Alliance. Indeed, “France will continue to support the European initiative aimed at sharing and pooling military capabilities.” The creation of the Weimar initiative with Poland and Germany confirms France’s determination to increase the EU’s military dimension, a project in which Paris is deeply involved.

The EU and NATO, two organizations serving complimentary purposes

However, the White Paper suggests the complementary posture of the two organizations, emphasizing their diverging scopes, interdependence in terms of operation and crisis resolution and values. France intends to reinforce the European pillar within NATO to shift the responsibilities from North America to the Old Continent when it comes to Europe’s security concerns. Capitalizing on its strong positions in both organizations, France Continue reading

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Security & Defense

France & NATO – pt.3

[Click here to read part 1]

[Click here to read part 2]

The French Government’s Vision of NATO

In order to determine the current importance of NATO for the French government, it is important to analyse the latest White Paper on Defense and National Security, which was published by Francois Hollande’s government in 2013. The issues covered are the new political landscape France has to evolve in, the strategic priorities, France role in NATO and the EU, how and with which tools to realize those goals.

French White Paper - Defence and National Security, 2013

French White Paper – Defence and National Security, 2013

The White Paper clearly states that France acknowledges the importance of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance as both sides of the Ocean are linked by history and common values. NATO thus gathers Europe and North America around common objectives, including collective defense on which France also depends on for its defence and security.  The official stance on the reintegration into the Integrated Military Structures explains the importance of the gesture which was a natural one. France has, according to the White Paper, retrieved its “rightful place” in the Alliance. As a founding member and one the biggest contributors, France now holds the power it deserves considering these two elements.

France and International Organizations

The French government sees its engagement in both NATO and the EU as indispensable in order to attain its strategic goals and ensure its security. Three possible alternatives are Continue reading

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