A testing time for NATO leaders

This week, NATO will hold a summit in Newport, Wales. It could prove a milestone in the organisation’s history. Since the last such event in Chicago in 2012, the security landscape has changed dramatically and important questions about NATO’s performance, rationale and future direction will need to be addressed.

The agenda will be threefold: to reinforce the collective security of NATO members, to consider the problems of the Afghanistan withdrawal, and to ponder the future of NATO in the twenty-first century. 

The first item is about responding to Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. Russian security forces have been engaging in ‘hybrid warfare’ using irregulars and arming dissidents to undermine the stability of a sovereign state. The tragic consequences include the shooting down of MH17 in July, with the appalling result of 298 innocent civilians killed. 

The arms-length nature of Russia’s actions pose real problems for NATO’s collective defence. Here we have citizens of NATO countries murdered and yet no accountability as Russia denies its responsibility for the outcome. Hybrid warfare falls between Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that ‘The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened’ and Article 5 which commits all the parties to consider ‘an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America’ as ‘an attack against them all’. 

The difficulty lies in how far support for dissident movements, including the arming of rebels, constitutes an ‘armed attack’. If collective security is to be meaningful, NATO members will have to consider how to deal with what policymakers are calling ‘Article 4.5’ activities (including cyber attacks), and where they will draw the line. Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), are, and they have significant Russian minorities. President Putin has found stirring up trouble on Russia’s borders a useful way of shoring up domestic support.  NATO needs to ensure that collective security guarantees are robust in the face of Russian subversion. 

The larger problem is whether NATO needs to rethink its whole strategic relationship with Russia. Many European countries are reliant on Russian energy supplies and others, such as the UK, have strong investment links with the country. The British Chairman of JCB, Lord Bamford, has decried European sanctions as “absurd” and risking British jobs. But there is no trade without security and the rule of law. Europe has to demonstrate that it will respond to aggression or risk further destabilisation in the future. 

Understandably, Western policymakers do not want a return to Cold War animosities when their economic recovery is so fragile. But the Cold War analogy is wrong. Russia does not promote an alternative ideological position to the West in the way that the Soviet Union did. Instead, it is reverting to a nineteenth century pattern of spheres of influence and great power politics to assert national pride. Such a policy is dangerous. The anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War is a reminder that national pride and great power rivalry can have terrible consequences.

Dr Jamie Gaskarth said:

In extending its operational reach beyond the Atlantic area, NATO could be in danger of diluting its original purpose – the defence of the Euro-Atlantic area – and morphing into a global security organisation

The second item, the Afghanistan withdrawal, poses a whole other series of challenges for policymakers. After the collapse of Iraq’s security apparatus this year, there is less room for optimism about the performance and loyalty of Afghan forces after NATO pulls out. At a political level, the dispute over the recent Presidential election seems to be a harbinger of future strife. Tribal divisions in Afghanistan are likely to lead to the fragmentation of the state along ethnic lines, as has happened in Iraq. Meanwhile, there will be worries about whether global terrorist groups might one day return to exploit the security vacuum.

Another dilemma for NATO policymakers is whether 9/11 and the subsequent NATO leadership of ISAF in Afghanistan were an anomaly or a blueprint for the future. The 9/11 attacks caused a paradigm shift among security thinkers. Suddenly, distance no longer seemed to matter when it came to evaluating threats. Terrorist networks became joined in the mind of policymakers and a more global and holistic counter-terrorist approach was attempted. 

This had an important impact on NATO’s geographical scope. Invoking Article 5 in response to 9/11 led to the first NATO deployment outside of Europe or North America. It has since been used in Libya in 2011 to help topple the Gaddafi regime.  Whilst this is not expected to be a summit that expands NATO’s membership, there will be talk of further partnership agreements with states outside of the Euro-Atlantic area. There will also be calls for a stronger NATO role in confronting the Islamic State.

The danger of overstating the global dynamics of terrorism is that it can lead to an exaggerated sense of threat (according to Europol only one individual died in Europe in 2013 as a result of Islamist terrorism). It can also imply strong connections between groups and crises across the globe when in reality these may be quite superficial. In July, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary General, described Europe as encircled by an ‘arc of instability’ stretching from the Middle East and North Africa to the Sahel. David Cameron has repeated this refrain. However, these crises are better understood as a series of discrete problems whose causes and solutions are primarily local. Nor is NATO necessarily the best organisation to deal with them. Military action might be immediately necessary to confront the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but political and civilian solutions will have to be sought here and elsewhere.

In extending its operational reach beyond the Atlantic area, NATO could be in danger of diluting its original purpose – the defence of the Euro-Atlantic area – and morphing into a global security organisation. This may allow it to confront diffuse threats abroad; but, the more members, partners and tasks NATO takes on, the more fragile its collective security guarantee will become.

When NATO policymakers gather in Newport, they should dare to rethink how global most security problems really are, consider whether terrorism does constitute the main threat to their citizens, and focus on the immediate and tangible danger that Russia now represents to regional security.

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