NATO Must Face Looming Threats Now, Not Later
Professor, international affairs, University of Ottawa
Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are grappling with big decisions as they prepare for their major annual summit in Wales. What stance should they adopt towards Russia? Should they keep the alliance’s doors open to new members? And what role, if any, should NATO play beyond Europe?
In March, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen invited ten independent experts to provide recommendations on strengthening the alliance. The group, which included a Canadian, an American and eight Europeans, submitted their report last week in Brussels in advance of the September summit.
While the Ukraine crisis is testing NATO’s unity and resolve, this crisis is one of several challenges facing the alliance, the experts group argued. These challenges arise from four major shifts taking place in world affairs.
The first shift is Russia’s emergence as an openly revisionist power whose actions threaten to replace a rules-based order in Europe with one governed by the application of military power and economic coercion. The Ukraine crisis is a manifestation of this change.
The second shift is the sudden unravelling of states and political order across parts of the Middle East and North Africa. These places may seem far away to North Americans, but for many of our European allies, they are practically next door. Radicalization of foreign and local fighters and the spread of weapons in these conflicts pose a long-term challenge to the security of all NATO countries.
The third shift is the rapid escalation of tensions between China and its neighbours. They are engaging in dangerously militarized competition for control over islands, important sea lanes, and strategic resources in the South and East China Seas. NATO has little direct role to play in this part of the world, but all of its members have, at least, an economic interest in maintaining open shipping and regional peace.
The fourth shift is the increasingly strained system of international rules and institutions, which seems less and less able to manage the security challenges arising from the first three shifts.
NATO countries and their publics should look beyond the Ukraine crisis to these broader shifts, all of which pose longer-term challenges to the security and well-being of the transatlantic community.
First and foremost, NATO must adopt a firm stance towards Russia by demonstrating its commitment to defend all its members. This should include regularly exercising NATO combat forces in the eastern areas of the alliance; preparing the NATO Response Force to be deployed at shorter notice; investing in scalable infrastructure and pre-positioning military equipment in Eastern Europe to accommodate larger NATO forces should they be required in an emergency; and holding snap exercises to practice the deployment of these forces at scale.
NATO countries must also develop the doctrines, instruments and techniques to defend against the “non-linear” type of aggression that Russia practiced in Ukraine, which combined the use of special forces disguised as local partisans, mobilization of local proxies, cyber-attacks, mass disinformation campaigns, intimidation through displays of strength, and economic coercion. In addition, reducing the total or near-total reliance of certain European countries on Russian energy imports is critical to the future security of the whole transatlantic community.
NATO’s door should remain open to European democracies that share the alliance’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law. However, before any new members are inducted, all existing NATO allies must be willing and able to defend that country against threats. There should be no ambiguity about this and, conversely, no implied security commitments to non-members.
Nor can there be a return to the NATO-Russia “partnership” of previous years as long as Russia uses military power to threaten and to seize the territory of neighbouring states. This does not mean refusing to communicate with Russia or its president, which would be short-sighted given our common interests on a range of international issues from nuclear proliferation to terrorism.
On matters relating to European security, however, Russia is behaving as an adversary, not a partner. Moscow’s self-declared right to defend Russian-speaking “compatriots” wherever they may live poses a risk to the transatlantic community that is unprecedented since 1989. In addition to shifting NATO’s military presence eastwards and increasing its state of readiness, the allies should maintain economic sanctions on Moscow and tighten these sanctions if Russia’s threatening behaviour continues. NATO members must not trade their core commitment to collective defence in return for national economic benefits.
While buttressing collective defence in Europe is crucial, the alliance should avoid the temptation to turn inwards. NATO cannot afford to ignore rising instability in North Africa and the Middle East. Nor should it overlook China’s more aggressive posture in Asia and the mounting tensions in that region, and other types of threats from cyber-attacks and piracy.
Here is the problem: all of these challenges are growing. Western governments need to recognize – and explain to their populations – that while we now live in an era of relative peace, recent developments are raising longer-term concerns about our security. A stable neighbourhood and a secure international environment cannot be taken for granted.
NATO countries – including those in Europe – must have the capacity to deploy and sustain effective military forces overseas in case of emergency. Reckless overseas interventions will not secure us, but neither will turning away from the world.
Last year, defence spending increased in all the world’s regions but three: North America, Western and Central Europe, and Oceania. While the United States remains the foremost military power today, if these investment patterns continue, Western militaries will eventually lose the technological advantage that they have long relied upon for their effectiveness.
Western diplomacy also appears to be flagging. Ultimately, our security is best ensured through effective international rules and institutions. When the existing structures of global governance are under strain, as they are today, countries such as Canada should be working overtime to renovate and strengthen these institutions.
The shift towards a multipolar world is not a forecast; it is happening now. Adapting the global system of rules and institutions to this new reality is a historic challenge for this generation, but responding to this challenge will require more energetic, ambitious and far-sighted Western diplomacy than we have seen in recent years.
NATO countries, including Canada, have benefited enormously from the relatively peaceful and open international order that has prevailed for nearly 70 years. If they commit to doing so, the Western allies and their global partners should be able to extend this period for decades longer. But it will not happen by itself, and cracks in the foundations of this order are already visible.
Political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic need to describe this situation to their publics. Without fear-mongering, they need to explain that the world is becoming more dangerous and that ignoring these risks is not a solution. If we do not reinvest in both our diplomatic and military capacities today, we will likely pay a much higher price later.