New Threats and Challenges Await NATO

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NATO © Canaran

September 19, 2016 18:32 EDT

What role will NATO play over the course of this century?

Founded shortly after World War II, the main role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was to ensure the security of Europe in front of what was considered a tangible threat of a Soviet invasion.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, for many scholars of international relations, NATO no longer had any reason to exist. As it was structured on a specific reaction to a threat that had vanished, many observers posited its ending as a collective security system. On the one hand, some accomplished realist scholars contended that the alliance would lose centrality and that all states would resort to self-help on security and defense. On the other hand, many constructivist and institutional liberals maintained that NATO would shift its aim toward cooperation in Europe and the socialization between the elites of certain standards.

In 2016, we can see that the predictions of both schools were ill-founded.


Following the Cold War, the main commitment of the United States was to give centrality to the alliance—excluding the reckless Middle East policy of President George W. Bush—and to take advantage of a collective security system as a tool for reproducing its global hegemony.

Reframing the alliance’s centrality implied enlarging the tasks of the organization. This perspective no longer included just collective defense as the main target, but an extension of its umbrella security eastward and the strengthening of democratic processes in the former Soviet republics and the Balkans.

NATO significantly revisited its role within an entirely different security environment compared with that of the Cold War. The alliance, as with big corporations, adjusted itself, understanding and adapting its organizational dynamics to the ever-shifting surrounding security “ecosystem.” As a complex system—like cells, a firm or a nation-state—NATO responded to the increasing complexity of the New World by adding hierarchical levels to better manage the relationships among its members.

The postmodern world, involving the demise of the ideological confrontation between the two blocs, has witnessed the dispersal of control over organized violence to many forms of hybrid and non-state actors. The shift to a post-Westphalian international order—in which economic flows have created supra-state and fragmented sovereignties and jurisdictions across and within states—has worked as a facilitator for organized crime and terrorists to thrive steadily, as well.

This new era of instability, the surfacing of new actors and dynamics, and the widening of threats have driven NATO to broaden its security agenda and adjust its structure. That was put in place within a combined joint task force and an integrated command structure based on collective practices and procedures.

Today, NATO confronts threats encompassing cyber-defense, energy supplies, terrorism and counter-piracy, human trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea, the fight against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and it provides operations of peacekeeping.


Over the years, NATO has extended the range and scope of its operations. At the same time, the alliance has begun a project of cooperation and partnership with non-member states. It must be taken into account that, notwithstanding the attempts of rebuilding a post-Cold War centrality for the organization, Europe seemed to be reluctant to bear the burden of an alliance linked to a pre-Cold War world.

The acceleration of the integration processes within the European Union (EU) on security and defense, as well as the military expenditures that did not meet NATO’s 2% target, proved the “free-rider behavior” of Europe. This fact upset the US and led to increased tensions among allies. Moreover, the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the air campaign in Libya against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, all without a credible exit strategy, added fuel to the fire and NATO was then relegated to the role of a supporting actor.


However, the Russian annexation of Crimea breathed new life into the alliance. The actions of the Russian Federation in 2014 revived the dormant tensions due to the expansion of NATO to the East, and it once again refocused the attention of the alliance on the European continent. Despite the alliance entering a partnership with Russia called the “NATO-Russia Council” in 2002, which included training, cooperation on military and security, anti-terrorism operations and joint exercises, the eastward enlargement has always been a point of concern for Moscow.

The war between Georgia and separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 further strained relations between NATO and Russia, and was interpreted by the West as a Russian endeavor to weaken the post-Cold War order through an illegal and illegitimate redefinition of the post-Soviet republics’ borders. It was seen as a shrewd attempt by the Kremlin to thwart Georgia’s plan to join NATO, since the alliance, as per its statute, could not accept states with territorial problems with its neighbors.

But it was precisely by the time Russia seized Crimea in 2014, after the ouster of the pro-Russia government in Ukraine, that dialogue between NATO and the Russians ended permanently.


On July 8, 2016, leaders of the European Union and countries belonging to NATO gathered in Warsaw, Poland, to set conditions for a long-term strategic partnership, especially in the face of Russian foreign policy toward the West, international terrorism and the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU.

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Many analysts assessed the Warsaw Summit as the most important after the Cold War. First and foremost, world leaders overtly restated the centrality of Article V, upon which every armed attack on a NATO member has to be considered as an attack on the entire alliance. NATO took this step to reassure countries on the eastern flank that look upon Russia’s moves with great concern and see themselves as the first possible targets if Moscow retaliates on Europe.

The Russian military exercises along the border with the Baltic republics are just one example of the frosty ties between Russia and NATO. In one recent case, Russia rehearsed a simultaneous attack in Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark by deploying 33,000 soldiers with hidden transponders air raids known as “flying dark.”

To address these threats properly, the alliance decided to “scale down” the agreement signed with Russia in 1997. According to the Kremlin, the security environment east of Germany has to be marked to the status quo, with no combat troops deployed permanently unless there is a change “in the security environment that could affect any member of the alliance.”

In NATO’s view, the deployment of combat troops “on a temporary basis” and their rotation in high-risk countries—Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia—should provide some degree of deterrence to counter Russia. Canada, the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom have pledged to deploy troops in what is called the “Readiness Action Plan.” However, it is worth noting that these infantry brigades are years away from ensuring strategic parity with Russian forces, despite US President Barack Obama’s decision to strengthen the American contingent stationed in Poland.

In addition, formal talks in Warsaw were resumed with countries outside the alliance, such as Finland and Sweden, who are threatened by Russia’s posture in the Baltic and the Arctic Sea. These countries have called for greater cooperation and a common line of defense in the region, where competition for the exploitation of natural resources has stirred up. Moscow has already carried out military drills and built up a huge 14,000 square-meter military base. The outcome of these actions could push non-member countries to apply for NATO membership.

In Warsaw, NATO allies also discussed one of the main points of contention with Moscow: the disposal of the missile shield AEGIS in the heart of Europe. The AEGIS-Ashore system is the land-based component of a sea-based radar system (BMD). It is designed to intercept medium- and long-range ballistic missiles.

For NATO, the current anti-missile shield is part of a collective defense against threats posed by Iran’s ballistic missiles program, which is capable of striking Europe. For Russia, the AEGIS system would be capable of launching cruise missiles and could tip the balance of power toward NATO, thus threatening Russian superiority in the region.

While NATO has set the implementation of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) protocol, which involves a capacity of defense against continental ballistic missiles, the strategic parity with Russia is no nearer to being reached no matter what the Kremlin says. In fact, Russian missile superiority is ensured by the deployment of a sophisticated anti-air and anti-ship defense system called A2AD, which is located in the enclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania.

At the Warsaw Summit, NATO formally recognized cyberspace as the “fifth domain” for military operation and discussed a new strategy with the EU to tackle a “hybrid war.” To counter these threats, NATO has acknowledged that sharing data about information technology amongst allies is pivotal.

In addition, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has stressed how the alliance is further developing significant countermeasures against cyber vulnerabilities in order to secure cyberspace computer networks from external attacks and backdoor proxies. By way of example, in April, 26 NATO members were involved in Locked Shield, the biggest and most advanced international live-fire cyber defense in the world to date.


As previously mentioned, the lost centrality and legitimacy of NATO was somewhat restored by the aggressive stance of Russia on the eastern flank. Redefinitions of borders and undeniable violations of the international community’s shared norms has spread the image of Russia as a nation-state that is revisionist and imperialistic.

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Since 2010, Russia has deliberately demonstrated its leadership at the international level and cemented its hegemony at the regional level. Russia’s foreign policy could be well explained as the byproduct of an interaction between the domestic plight—a shattered economy due to fluctuations in basic commodities prices, a weak currency, crony capitalism and idiosyncrasies of the ruling elite translated in foreign policy—and the surrounding states’ system involving dissatisfaction with the status quo and external constraints. Therefore, growing external nationalism is seen as a way to appease domestic opinion, strengthening it against the alleged invasion of Western values.

The new security strategy of Russia clearly points out the modernization of armaments as a means of ensuring Russia’s superpower status—construction of a new stealth bomber, increase in cyber-warfare platforms and a renewal of the submarines fleet—as a result of what the Kremlin perceives as the decline of the US-led liberal order. In 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia’s military spending increased by 7.5%.

At the same time, many American analysts and former NATO generals are using saber-rattling tones and/or are pushing NATO to fill the military gap with Russia, showing the need for greater potential and integration of anti-missile systems in the medium and long term, as well as for acquisition of cutting-edge military technology in order to be responsive to Russia’s threats. In the eyes of the United States, the Kremlin’s development of A2AD systems (and China’s actions in the Asia Pacific) poses a threat to its position and, moreover, puts European security at stake. This is why NATO requires Europe to take a clear stand.

However, in what direction is Europe now headed? Some countries seem keen to move toward Washington’s recommendations—at least on the procurement level. Overall, the particular interest seems to gain the upper hand of what is labeled as “collective.” NATO appears internally at odds between western and eastern countries. The camps are split into those who want to restore business ties with Moscow—dismantling hard-hitting sanctions regime and appeasing Russia—and those who are fearful of the Russians and want greater deterrence toward the Kremlin.

Here there two issues at hand.

The first is structure-related. Cooperation among states—on defense and security foremost—has its limits, mainly because it is constrained by the ruling logic of security competition. Cooperation is necessary but is also risky and complicated. States are more likely to provide for their own security first, since sharing information and data with others could put national interests in jeopardy

The second issue is that Russia has been able to “wear down” the already-fleeting political will of NATO. Moscow has taken advantage of division within the NATO-EU relationship, sowing political divisions in order to box in the alliance.


To sum up, confidence-building instruments—such as high-level talks between officials of the EU, NATO and Russia—are mandatory to stop what appears to be a new arms race at the core of Europe, which could prove to be suicidal.

NATO and the EU have also reached a tipping point. The US and the European Union are bound by shared values and deep historic ties, and have pledged to defend one another. NATO has safeguarded peace across Europe over the last 60 years, mostly due to the balance-of-power with the Soviet Union. Those who say otherwise should check any books of strategy. Through NATO, American and European leaders have promoted Western values worldwide.

Nevertheless, the lack of common perspective and the national interests of states have driven NATO to recast its role, and it has given the EU more leverage on shaping policies of the alliance in the future. Think of the possibility to use NATO to build humanitarian corridors and manage migration flows in the Mediterranean Sea. In the long run, this is the only feasible way to reestablish NATO’s trustworthiness and the EU’s political credibility.

Russia and NATO are at a crossroads. And Europe as a whole could pay the steepest price of the great power politics of this century.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Canaran

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