Reshaping NATO for an uncertain future
A Chatham House expert panel outlines the challenges for delegates at the Madrid summit where the roadmap for the transatlantic alliance will be created
This year had already been earmarked as pivotal for the shape and direction of European security even before Russia, a nuclear superpower, rolled its tanks into Ukraine.
On the agenda at the NATO summit in Madrid in June is the Strategic Concept, which sets out the alliance’s direction and priorities for the next decade. There is much to discuss. From shared values to the state of the security environment, the Strategic Concept will have a direct impact on the global security landscape.
Ten years ago, the world was a very different place. The United States had just withdrawn from its bloody war in Iraq and was still embroiled in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban. In China, Xi Jinping was poised to become the next president, while refugees escaping the vicious civil war in Syria were heading towards Europe. In Africa, Islamist activity in Mali was about to spread throughout the Sahel.
Now, Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine rages on NATO’s doorstep, spurring the once neutral countries of Sweden and Finland to seek membership. How will Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine affect the western security agenda and what will be the shape of the new NATO that emerges from these talks? To help answer these questions, The World Today convened a panel of Chatham House experts to consider what the next 10 years holds for NATO.
Here is what they said.
We shouldn’t expect a revolution, but more an adaptation of reforms that have taken place at NATO for quite a long time, especially since the Wales summit in 2014. NATO allies will have to decide on the Russian threat perception and decide how they want to reinforce their deterrence and defence posture in the East, and how this affects their ability to maintain a 360-degree approach and to carry out the ambitious NATO 2030 agenda.
We need to understand how deterrence works far better and we should have better metrics by now. Russia and NATO do not wish to engage in conventional warfare with each other, which suggests that Nato’s conventional deterrence is working. That said, Putin’s nuclear threats have not been within the framework of deterrence. But nuclear deterrence has not worked in the way strategists imagined since the end of the Cold War, and we need a much clearer hard look at these weapons once this is all over.
Had we followed through on disarmament in the 1990s, Putin would have held very little sway today. Nuclear weapons and despots are not a good mix and with these weapons there are no small mistakes. We would be foolish to imagine that rationality will hold when it comes to nuclear decision-making.
It is time to put arms control back on the agenda and strengthen our efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. We need to put the elimination of these weapons back on the UN Security Council agenda.
Finland and Sweden coming into NATO completely transforms the Baltic. It makes the deployment of reinforcements to the Baltic states an awful lot easier. From the Kremlin’s point of view, the last thing they want is another border with NATO. Russia is already overly committed and hasn’t got enough forces to deal with Ukraine. Its border with Finland is enormous. And NATO would be gaining two very robust, well-organized military forces. You are seeing a lot more NATO assets starting to look at the high north.
I am actually slightly less worried about the Russian threat to NATO countries than I was before February 24. The war has demonstrated how weak the Russian military is, and so the idea that it might present a threat to Finland and Sweden seems less plausible than before. It is not even clear to me that Russia could do very much in other south-eastern European countries. It already seems pretty overstretched. This should make us more relaxed, rather than more worried, about threats to other countries and in particular to NATO countries or to Finland and Sweden.
Sweden and Finland moving forward with their requests for membership is a sign of success for the West, but it also raises important questions for the future of European security. The possibility that we lock in a division that might suit Europe and the United States now does not bode well for a Russia maybe 10 years out or with a different leader.
We need to avoid mission creep, but we also need to avoid going back to a position where NATO only focuses on Russia and then set an agenda for 10 years based on that threat assessment alone. We will risk missing out on the next big challenge if we go back on something too specific. We risk being reactive, whereas the Strategic Concept is an exercise that should be proactive and provide a space for transatlantic partners to share broader common security concerns.
NATO is open to all countries in the transatlantic area, and it is even possible that Russia could join in the future should they wish to apply. But it is important to remember that NATO is a political-military alliance, and its politics are fundamental to its cohesion, far more than that of any weapon system or a specific enemy. It will continue to address a wider range of threats as it has in, for example, Afghanistan and many of those will be directly related to the impacts of climate change.
One thing to note, in light of Russia’s nuclear threats, is that NATO’s characterization of itself as a ‘nuclear alliance’ should be revised. NATO needs to be resilient to ebbs and flows of weapon systems and not become over-reliant on one system which has recently demonstrated severe negative impacts.
During the Cold War, what held the alliance together was a shared perception of a threat from the Soviet Union – not a set of shared values. After all, there were authoritarian states in NATO. After the end of the Cold War that overwhelming sense of a shared threat from the Soviet Union disappeared and NATO tried to reinvent itself as a community alliance of democracies with shared values.
But we now once again have authoritarian states in NATO. So it was really in danger of being pulled apart. The war in Ukraine has refocused NATO on its original, historic mission: collective security in relation to Russia. In that sense it has given NATO a lifeline.
Shared values are still an awful lot stronger as an element of what ties NATO together now than they were in the past. I think you now have the threat perception coming back full force. But I still think you have that very strong element of values, indeed the extra countries that are coming in are very strong democratic countries.
The interesting question is the out-of-area stuff – the Afghanistan-related stuff and counterterrorism more generally, and how important those threats remain. I guess there is an element to that which is a global kind of threat, counterterrorism, but there is also the out-of-area activity which obviously has been transformed following the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The crisis management mandate needs to be looked at again with some of the lessons learnt after Afghanistan and Libya, especially given what happened in Kabul, and all the discussion around cooperative security. The question is not only how do we work with partners and countries in the region, but how do we want to engage with China, for instance? How do we want to work on new technologies? How do we want to work with the European Union, with the United Nations?
The alliance must decide what it wants to do versus what it wants to set aside and have other organizations do, while it refocuses on its core historic tasks.
One of the sensitive, ongoing debates within NATO is whether it has a global role or whether it has a more transatlantic role. There are divisions within NATO about which is its focus. I think the answer, to a degree, is both. One of the real challenges for policymakers, particularly the Biden administration, is that they are going to be pushing for NATO to act as a global player.
This is one of the dilemmas that NATO faces. It could spend all its time focused purely on the short term – that is Russia – and ignore China, and then suddenly need to think, ‘Oh heck’. What happens if , as a result of this, Russia is essentially dropped into the China camp and Putin becomes Xi Jinping’s poodle? That is a real dilemma, and why I think the US is going to focus on a global NATO.
NATO may have a role to play in Washington’s China strategy. But it won’t be the most important institution. The Biden administration is relying on multiple frameworks for engaging in the Indo-Pacific. For example, the Quad – a partnership between the US, Japan, India and Australia – is designed to secure India’s participation. Pulling India into the region where it has economic power, influence, military and security capabilities and can move the needle. It is both an intelligent and pragmatic strategy to have a number of groupings, a patchwork of overlapping partnerships, including existing alliances. That seems right to me.
It is unlikely that the US would want to create a global NATO. The US and its allies in other regions may wish to model future alliances on NATO, that have strong relationships with it in areas such as political coherence, interoperability, and joint training and exercises and such. But political decision-making would be better suited to sit within specific regional contexts.
Washington has formal alliances in the Indo-Pacific region that commit the US to, for example, the defence of Australia through the Anzus security treaty, as well as Japan. As Washington increases its focus on the Pacific, the existing political-military relationships in the region could become more coherent. We might see a version of a Pacific-Asia Treaty Organization emerge – a Pato. All this depends on how China uses its power and how perspectives in the region evolve.
I am not sure it is a problem that NATO does not have a specific focus on dealing with the China threat. It potentially has a role in dealing with those things that are seen by the membership as common threats. Which clearly is Russia now but has added terrorism in the past and may well include other things. China is not a common threat in the way that Russia is perceived to be. Of course, something could happen, not least something with Taiwan, which would change that, but that is not where NATO is at present.
I think we should really avoid a false dichotomy between ‘NATO should do only Russia’ and ‘NATO should do everything’ because there are lots of activities in the middle where the alliance can bring some added value – and that is exactly what we should be discussing. The issue around China and NATO is being completely overblown. We need to be very clear that the purpose of NATO is to defend the Euro-Atlantic space, but that may include keeping an eye on ‘when China comes to us’, as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg often says.
None of the regional partners in Asia that you need to deal with the China challenge are in NATO – and can’t be – so it is just the wrong vehicle to deal with the Indo-Pacific. But there is also a bit of a tension here between Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic. People in Asia also look at the different threat perceptions in completely different ways than we do in Europe. There are a number of reasons why people in India do not support the war in the Ukraine, but one of them is that they see China, not Russia, as the real threat.
I think so much of the debate we have had so far is about political NATO as supposed to military NATO. One of its key roles is how military forces operate, engage and conduct operations, plan operations through deterrents and so forth. NATO as the template of the West does work. That is why it is in the interest of the US to keep this going. It is one of the ways of making sure, for example, the US Pacific fleet remains compatible with the US Atlantic fleet by forcing them to operate the same system, which is the NATO system.
It is one of the things the American forces learnt out of Afghanistan and Iraq. There is a NATO way which is a global footprint. NATO’s role within the African Union is as a template for peacekeeping operations. You have got the likes of Australia and South Korea and Japan very much integrated into NATO. It doesn’t have to be a formal political NATO, but it does strike me to be in the interest of the West to have them reach forces capable of operating with one another.
One of the most interesting developments in the past year has been the creation of Aukus, the security pact between Australia, Britain and the United States. That grew out of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership which led to the need to develop new, interoperable equipment such as nuclear-powered submarines. We will have to see how it develops, but maybe it could be the start of a PATO in the region.
In the current situation, we have a crucial partnership between NATO and the EU over Russia, in terms of the long-term future they hold out for Ukraine, but also with the G7 because that is the place to organize the financial support for Ukraine and the economic and financial sanctions against Russia. They are different memberships but the combination of the EU, G7 and NATO is an absolutely crucial alliance of different alliances, with different memberships serving different purposes but having an overall impact that can potentially be very effective.
We work with the institutions that we have, but not always with a clear recognition of their limitations. We are facing a dark moment for the UN Security Council, with one of its founder members blatantly violating the UN’s most important norm. Yet many people in the rest of the world say, ‘Yes, but in 2003, the United States violated Iraq’s sovereignty …’ Where the West sees moral clarity, and so condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is an assumption by much of the rest of the world of moral equivalence between these two invasions.
Working through the UN Security Council is going to be difficult for some time. This means that states are probably going to find different strategies for working around, rather than through, the Security Council.