Shaping a better, more open NATO

Involving parliaments more in NATO policy would not be without its downsides, of course, especially in politically divided polities. In the U.S., for example, the requirement for Senate advice and consent to treaty ratification (but not for NATO-related agreements) makes it difficult to rally enough political support. But without it, measures agreed at NATO summits have very little legitimacy and may simply be revoked or renegotiated by the next administration.
 
{mosads}This democratic deficit matters for a whole host of reasons. It could be disguising mistakes and inefficiencies, and certainly encourages “business as usual” or “Group Think”. It also increases the vulnerability and malleability of public opinion in foreign affairs at a time when current security threats are a matter of perception and judgment. Current NATO operations involve real and growing risks and costs that need to be adequately explored and debated.
 
Despite NATO’s almost daily bombardment of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with press statements, news stories and background videos, the ‘diplomatic brick walls’ remain intact. And as for trying to secure copies of the documentation that might allow an independent evaluation of what NATO officials are thinking and with whom they are doing business – forget it.
 
NATO Defense Ministers at their October 2011 meeting, for example, discussed the initial findings of a task force to promote Smart Defense – one of the key initiatives to be unveiled in Chicago. A request for a list of Task Force members, its terms of reference and a copy of the initial findings, met with the curt response that this was an “internal task force” operating at the “working level”: in other words, outside of the public purview. But this information would normally be available for a national level task force, either as a matter of course or following a Freedom of Information request.
 
Even when the NATO policy development process moves to an agreed course of action across the alliance, the default position remains to withhold information. It doesn’t have to be like this. In September 2011, the alliance authorized the declassification and release of the NATO political guidance on ways to improve its involvement in stabilization and reconstruction. The guidance had been officially approved by NATO Defense Ministers a year earlier and sets out the principles on which NATO can plan for, employ, and coordinate civilian and military crisis management capabilities that nations provide for alliance missions. It should have been a ‘no brainer’ to make this an ‘open access’ document from the outset.
 
So what should be done? First, national member parliaments need to sharpen their scrutiny of NATO affairs. At a minimum, this means establishing permanent standing parliamentary committees dedicated to NATO. Second, the democratic mandate of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly needs to be strengthened, with greater accountability and openness about how members are selected. Third, NATO should adopt an information openness policy consistent with the access to information laws already in place in the alliance’s 28 member countries. Such a policy should include guidelines for proactive publication of core information, a mechanism for the public to file requests for information, and an independent review body for hearing appeals against refusals or failures to make information public within a short time-frame. Before proselytizing about ‘good governance’ in foreign lands, NATO needs to look in the mirror and put its own house in order.

Davis is the founding director of NATO Watch, which conducts independent monitoring and analysis of NATO and aims to increase transparency, stimulate parliamentary engagement and broaden public awareness and participation in NATO reform.

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