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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

March 2009

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As NATO celebrates its sixtieth anniversary, a retired senior Foreign Service Officer recalls President Nixon’s initiative on its twentieth anniversary to create a NATO “Committee on the Challenges to Modern Society.” Despite great scepticism about its utility and appropriateness for a military alliance, the new body quickly became effective and highly valued for its work on the environment, and it continues to thrive. – Ed.

NATO and the Environment

imageThe North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s sixtieth anniversary on April 4, 2009, brings to mind an earlier birthday and an event that, without in the least detracting from the Alliance’s principal missions of defence and deterrence, gave NATO for the first time a human face and a peaceful link to the outside world.  In April 1969, allied heads of state and government celebrated the twentieth anniversary in Washington, the treaty’s birthplace, to review two decades of success in keeping the Cold War at that temperature and to lay out broad plans for the future.  As to the latter, it was up to the host, President Richard Nixon, to come up with new initiatives, and his gurus and speech writers did their job.

Inevitably, three “bright ideas” emerged, two without much substance and the third seemingly without hope.  First, Nixon proposed that, in addition to the occasional summit meetings, the more frequent gatherings of foreign ministers and defense ministers, and the daily consultations at all levels, military and civilian, among national delegations at NATO headquarters, there be regular meetings at the deputy foreign minister level.  Secondly, the already existing Atlantic Policy Advisory Group, charged with long-range planning, should be complemented by a new medium-range policy planning group.  Other than requiring additional manpower, these two rather redundant proposals were relatively harmless and were welcomed with a ceremonial clinking of glasses.

But it was the third bright idea that brought the assembled dignitaries not to their feet but to extremes of wonderment and despair.  A certain amount of pre-summit consultation had of course preceded Nixon’s bombshell, but nothing compared to the heavy lifting required in the weeks and months thereafter to convince loyal but unbelieving allies, as well as highly skeptical American civil servants, that NATO, designed for military purposes, and despite having had détente added to its objectives two years earlier, had, or should have, anything to do with international cooperation on seeking solutions to environmental problems common to developed nations: in short, the creation of a NATO Committee on the Challenges to Modern Society (CCMS).

Not just Alliance member states felt uneasy with the idea.  Other organizations also questioned the need for yet another environmental effort at the international level, among them the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Economic Community (EEC – the forerunner to the European Union), the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), and the United Nations, then in the process of launching the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).  All were concerned that a NATO competitor would distract attention from their efforts and command resources from national capitals upon which they depended.  Their concerns were to be borne out.

Nixon’s Commitment to the Environment
Whatever political and promotional motivations lay behind the CCMS proposal, Nixon was genuinely committed to environmental protection.  It was he who at the outset of his administration established a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) at the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), independent of established government departments, to formulate and oversee implementation of national environmental policy, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce to complement EPA’s efforts.  Nixon’s proposal to give his objectives an added international dimension should have surprised nobody.

Nor was it surprising that Nixon named as his point man for the project his special assistant (later, counselor), the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, White House intellectual-in-residence and, most likely, the brains behind CCMS.  Energetic, persuasive, charming, and very smart, Pat Moynihan was the perfect choice for the job, certainly during the opening phase when reluctant or skeptical allies remained to be convinced or, when necessary and more in keeping with Moynihan’s style, brow-beaten and bludgeoned.  Methodology aside, during the eight months between Nixon’s speech and the official inauguration of the new NATO body at a meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels, Moynihan, with a little help from his friends, created a consensus on the wisdom of allied involvement in international environmental cooperation.  It was not easy, but the idea made a lot of sense and over time produced some remarkable progress in several fields.

The assumptions underlying Nixon’s proposal, not all of them stated, were quite simple.  Many of the major problems facing advanced industrial societies were self-inflicted, and it was those same societies that possessed the means and the responsibility for addressing and solving them.  Then, Alliance members had had 20 years of experience working closely together on a wide variety of matters, many of them technological in nature.  Finally, and perhaps most crucially in terms of potential success, NATO, as the multi-national organization among many that commanded the most political attention at high levels of all member governments, was well placed to attract significant contributions from those governments in terms of resources and expertise.  From the very beginning, CCMS did just that and – not surprisingly - nowhere with greater effect than in Washington, where senior policy and technical personnel were both persuaded to support the presidential initiative and eager to seize on new budgets made available for travel and consultation with their counterparts in other participating nations.

Assuring Participation without Compulsion
Three elements of the CCMS idea were geared to assuring maximum expert participation while compelling no reluctant member to contribute.  First and foremost was the “pilot country” concept: Any member country was free to suggest taking on and leading a chosen environmental topic for study, with others free to join in as “co-pilots” for some particular aspect of the study. Yet others, for want of enthusiasm or expertise, could give it a pass.  By way of illustration, the United States was to lead a multi-faceted project on road safety in which France would serve as co-pilot on the identification and correction of road hazards, Canada on alcohol and highway safety, and Italy on emergency medical services.  Secondly, governments of countries not members of NATO might be invited to take part in a particular study which, without that outside participation, would be incomplete.  In the event, countries as diverse as Sweden, Japan, Yugoslavia, and Mexico did participate.  This in itself was ground-breaking for NATO and did its reputation no harm.  And thirdly, and perhaps most attractive of all, CCMS was to engage in only the most limited research, the goal instead being to pool already existing knowledge and put it to work for the benefit of all: willing participants, skeptical observers, and determined detractors.

Did CCMS work, and does it still?  Absolutely.  A quick check on Google will produce some 25,000 entries detailing the record of CCMS over almost 40 years in fostering international cooperation on the identification of urgent environmental problems and the implementation of strategies to solve them.  In the course of the first two years alone, substantive meetings took place in Venice (flood hazard mitigation), San Francisco (earthquake loss reduction), Indianapolis (problems specific to the urban environment), Brussels (urban transportation) and Dearborn, Michigan (testing of experimental safety vehicles). 

In the beginning, I was drafted to nurture the baby at State upon assignment to EUR/RPM, where nobody else wanted to touch the hot “NATO potato,” while fellow FSO Harry Blaney joined Moynihan at the White House.  After a year or so, Moynihan handed his CCMS hat to CEQ chief Russell Train, less flamboyant but no less talented and dedicated than his predecessor.  We few enthusiastic devotees sensed the potential for the future while celebrating the early successes, but the real heroes were the aforementioned senior officials, experts, and scientists at the substantive agencies in Washington who made it all work.  Sadly, there was little interest, much less enthusiasm, at State, where the single focus was on avoiding failure of this presidential initiative.

Six years after moving on to more traditional foreign service tasks, I secured permission from the National War College (NWC), where I was a student in 1977, to do a study on “The Environment and National Security” rather than taking part in one of the more customary group projects.  As an offshoot of this study (which concluded, of course, that the two issues – the environment and national security – were intertwined), I secured funding for travel to Oslo, Stockholm, and Brussels with the objective of measuring both policy-level and technical-level attitudes respecting the appropriateness and effectiveness, real or potential, of NATO as a forum for international cooperation on non-military matters, specifically, the environment.  The results were revealing.

Positive Assessment
Eight years after the inauguration of NATO’s environmental program over the strenuous objections of some European allies, the Europeans I interviewed during my trip, both policy officials and technical and scientific personnel, were uniformly knowledgeable about the activity and largely positive in their assessment of the work of CCMS.  As might be expected, enthusiasm among the few involved officials on the NATO international staff was high, and they were unanimous in their judgment that NATO provided the best forum for international cooperation on addressing the problems of modern societies.  I was shown documentation indicating that more than 2000 experts from 15 member countries and 20 non-member participants were interacting on CCMS studies.  I was told, and was later able to confirm, that CCMS documentation was highly prized both because of its professional quality and its practical utility.  A British CCMS report on “Bus Priority Systems” had been distributed throughout Belgium and to 2000 communities in the United States, while American CCMS documents on air pollution reduction strategies were being implemented in several countries, not all of them participants in that pilot study.

Belgians from the outset did not share the shock and skepticism of some other allies when the CCMS idea landed on their doorstep, for they had always viewed NATO not just as a military alliance but as a forum for political and economic consultation as well.  Indeed, it was Belgian Foreign Minister Pierre Harmel who had, before CCMS was born, successfully introduced the concept that NATO’s traditional pillars of defense and deterrence should be complemented by a third pillar of détente – a reaching out, as it were, to the Warsaw Pact, and an earnest of NATO’s (and Belgium’s) peaceful intentions.  Moreover, the Belgian experts with whom I spoke found far fewer impediments to substantive cooperation than they had experienced in the environmental activities of the OECD, the EEC, and the ECE, each of which presented its own problems.

If Belgians for their own good reasons had no difficulty in welcoming CCMS into the NATO structure, Norwegians were from the start hostile to the very idea.  Indeed, some expressed the fear in 1969 and 1970 that, when NATO was no longer needed for military purposes, i.e., at the end of the Cold War, CCMS would stand as a block to dissolution of the Alliance altogether.  An avid conservationist in a country where environmental issues sometimes dominated political election campaigns, Prime Minister Per Borten nevertheless let his insularity rule as he personally vetoed Norwegian participation in CCMS in 1969.  Within a few years, however, following the establishment of a new Ministry of the Environment, the tide was turned by determined bureaucrats and scientists: By the time of my visit, Norway was playing an active role in seven different pilot studies.  Many experts acknowledged openly that CCMS offered them more from the technological and professional points of view than any other organization, and several admitted happily that they had been exposed to theretofore unknown technology in CCMS workshops and in CCMS documentation originating in other countries, often the United States.

Sweden and Swedes of all persuasions were steadfast in their insistence on neutrality throughout the Cold War, and they therefore furnished the acid test of NATO’s appropriateness as a forum for environmental cooperation.  In the event, as a leading industrially and technologically advanced country, Sweden found it extremely difficult on substantive grounds to remain aloof from CCMS work on issues of vital national importance.  The makers of Volvo, for instance, could not afford to abstain, any more than Japanese car makers could, from participation in the American-led pilot study on road safety, which included pioneering work on seat belts, air bags, and experimental safety vehicles.  And participate they did, albeit with as little publicity as possible.  All of the nine Swedish officials and experts I interviewed said they would regret the cessation of NATO activity in the environmental field.  And the shelves of a government-subsidized private environmental research institute located in the woods an hour north of Stockholm were lined with CCMS documents on a variety of topics.

American Attitudes
So much for broadly favorable opinions and attitudes concerning CCMS in three European countries: one ally a fervent believer in NATO’s capacity for contribution beyond its military mission; another ally skeptical about the activity but cognizant of the substantive benefits to be realized; and an outsider highly protective of its neutral credentials but convinced of the advantages of participation.  But what of the Americans, whose president had put forward a seemingly outlandish but inspired proposal and whose government’s experts were deeply involved and in the lead on a wide range of projects?  Literally hundreds of those American experts had been first introduced to NATO itself through their participation in CCMS, and they had become firm supporters of the Alliance that had committed itself to their own professional objectives.  Did their military colleagues share their enthusiasm? It is worth noting that several CCMS projects over the years focused on the environmental impact of military activities.     

As a student at the National War College, I was able to conduct a poll of the 120 uniformed members of my class, all senior officers being groomed for greater responsibility and promotion to star or flag rank.  Of the 108 respondents, several of whom had worked on NATO affairs and all of whom had had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with CCMS if only by reading NATO ministerial communiqués, only one single officer – one – was even aware that NATO was engaged in environmental affairs eight years after the birth of CCMS.  Moreover, to a hypothetical question, 63% answered that NATO would be an inappropriate forum for environmental co-operation, while 72% were of the opinion that NATO would be an ineffective forum.

I cannot say whether a similar poll taken today would produce significantly different results, but, whatever the degree of focus on NATO environmental activities at the Pentagon, CCMS continues to this day to outpace other international cooperative efforts.  While attention at the most senior levels of allied governments has in recent years been concentrated on adjusting to the radical change in the political/strategic landscape since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, managing Alliance enlargement, and forging collective responses to terrorism, CCMS has both expanded on long-standing programs and moved into new fields of endeavor.  Foreign ministers in 1990 stated that CCMS could be useful in reaching out to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but they might not have foreseen that NATO meetings on the environment would be taking place, for example, in Baia Mare, Romania (2003) and St. Petersburg, Russia (2006).

 



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