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NATO at the crossroads: where do Australian interests lie?

Do Australia and NATO have common interests? Given the geographic divide, this might not be an obvious issue, but it was perhaps the central question emerging from a public lecture delivered on 2 August 2010 at the Australian National University by the Chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Military Committee, Admiral Giampaolo di Paola. The Chairman emphasised the growing political dimension of the alliance, which finds itself at a strategic crossroads.

At the recent public lecture, Chairman di Paola noted positive steps towards further collaboration, on issues such as Somali piracy, between NATO and Australia’s most populous neighbour and key trading partner, China. This can be seen as a positive development for Australia because, as the Foreign Minister noted in a speech in March 2010, the problem of piracy falls within Australia's strategic interests. Although it is unlikely that Australia or any of its Asian neighbours will join NATO in the near future, their engagement in NATO’s global operations—both civilian and military through NATO’s comprehensive security agenda—is broadening.

It is expected that by early 2011 NATO will have a new operational strategic framework to guide its outlook and future responses to the multi-dimensional security threats that were mentioned at the lecture, such as nuclear terrorism, proliferation, cyber-threats and piracy. It might also be observed that as the largest non-NATO troop contributor to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force’s exigent mission in Afghanistan, Australia needs to define where its interests lie in its relationship with NATO. This is particularly important as NATO undergoes transformation of its strategic and institutional thinking towards greater burden-sharing activities and collaboration with its strategic partners world-wide, including in the Asia Pacific region.

Australia’s parliamentary engagement with NATO has intensified in recent years, building on the Australian Government's history of collaboration with NATO which dates back to the early 1950s. In September 2008 the Australian Government facilitated a visit to Australia by members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Defence and Security Committee, who also delivered a lecture at Parliament House emphasising cyber-security. In November 2009 Australia sent a parliamentary delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly's 55th annual meeting in Edinburgh, UK. These meetings are generally useful for information-sharing, but it may not be clear in which areas Australia's and NATO's interests intersect, and where they stand apart.

It might be that in this regional context Australia would need to delineate and communicate more robustly its interests with regard to the NATO engagement—in particular on the political, civilian, operational and intelligence-sharing fronts. An updated Australian Government White Paper on foreign policy could initiate the way forward.
(Image sourced from: www.nato.int)