Conflict and bloodshed on the periphery of the NATO region must be dealt with head-on at this year’s summit if the Alliance is to remain relevant to its members’ interests, argues Damon Wilson
As NATO leaders gather in Wales, transatlantic security faces the most serious challenges it has confronted since the end of the Cold War. From Ukraine and Syria, to Iraq and Libya, the frontiers of the Alliance are plagued by conflict and bloodshed. Yet, as NATO seeks to look beyond Afghanistan and chart its future course in Wales, many Allies are reluctant to face these new challenges head-on. Dodging these issues at the UK Summit would be a mistake. In fact, focusing exclusively on the defence of NATO Allies’ risks would leave the Alliance less secure over time.
After more than a decade of war-fighting and peacekeeping, NATO Allies are understandably eager to bring an end to the Alliance’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and transition to a strictly training and advising mission. At the same time, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has reinforced many of the Allies’ desires to focus on collective defence of the Alliance and to ensure the credibility of the Washington Treaty’s Article 5 commitment that an attack on one Ally would be treated as an attack on all
Wales, no doubt, will reinforce Allied solidarity and commitment to each other’s defence as the most essential elements of deterrence. Yet, in the absence of a NATO strategy to deal with instability on its periphery, the Alliance will face more difficult security challenges in the future.In the East, if Russian aggression is not stopped, a series of conflicts and crises will unfold, threatening European stability.
In the South, continued conflict and instability in the Arab world could not only threaten to destabilise NATO Ally Turkey and key partners in the region, but also lead to massive refugee and immigration flows to southern Europe.
If the Wales Summit ignores these challenges, it risks creating a perception of an Alliance licking its wounds, reluctant for a fight, weakening its greatest contribution to security: deterrence. An agenda that avoids the tough issues may even embolden adversaries who oppose NATO interests and values.
To NATO’s east, a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin has invaded and annexed Crimea and continues to wage a hybrid war against Ukraine, undermining the pillars of stability that have been the guarantee of peace in the region.
On NATO’s south-east frontier, extremist terrorist forces are waging war in Syria and Iraq, posing a direct threat to Turkey’s security and broader transatlantic security in the near term.
To NATO’s south, the collapse of civilian authority in Libya and increased repression in Egypt risk producing further instability that breeds future terrorists and sends waves of refugees seeking asylum across the Mediterranean.
These challenges are daunting. There are no simple solutions. And NATO is not always the answer. Yet NATO’s strength is its adaptability – that is, the Alliance’s ability to be relevant to ensuring the security of its members.
During the Cold War, NATO provided security to its members through its deterrence of the Soviet threat, helping to avoid large-scale bloodshed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO advanced its members’ security by reaching out to former adversaries, forging far-reaching partnerships and, ultimately, welcoming many as new Allies.
The Alliance responded to the crises in the Western Balkans by becoming an operational Alliance, demonstrating its capability to use military force to bring peace. Since 9/11, NATO has agreed to tackle security threats from wherever they may originate, leading to its long mission in Afghanistan. But this has also helped to transform the Alliance so that it is better prepared to defend against new threats, for example, the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, as well as terrorism and cyberthreats.
Today, the question is whether the Alliance has the will and capability needed to continue to adapt, in order to remain relevant to ensuring the security of its members.
Prepared for the future
In the run-up to the Wales summit, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen deserves immense credit for advancing an agenda focused on precisely this necessary adaptation. He has pushed the Allies to make sure that NATO is fit for purpose, as well as prepared for the future.
First, Allies have left no doubt about their commitment to collective defence, underscoring this with a focus on military deployments to NATO’s easternmost Allies, including the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. Along with the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), Rasmussen has led the charge to ensure that Allied forces are prepared to respond to any threat quickly, including by reinvigorating the NATO Response Force to achieve its original purpose of serving as a rapid-reaction force in the event of a crisis
NATO’s operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya have also demonstrated the value of military contributions from non-NATO members. Wales will mark a watershed in not only recognising the value of these partners, but also providing a pathway to a guarantee that the Alliance’s capabilities are permanently bolstered by like-minded partners, rather than hastily assembled in an ad hoc fashion in each new scenario.
After years of difficult training missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Alliance and its militaries have developed capabilities critical to helping local forces provide security. Significant to NATO’s adaptation, the Wales Summit will launch a new defence capacity-building initiative in which the Alliance will work with other nations and organisations to help them develop the capacity to manage crises and conflicts. The idea is that NATO’s advance spadework will help prevent future crises while also making certain that partners can increasingly address their own regional security needs. In turn, NATO and the member countries themselves won’t so often be called on as the only forces capable of ensuring peace.
These Wales initiatives are the key to the Alliance’s adaptation. However, it is equally important how NATO leaders agree to apply these new tools. To ensure that the Alliance is relevant, they should seek to offer and apply these to the relevant crisis the Alliance is facing today. First, they should agree to make the Alliance’s temporary measures – put in place to reassure the Eastern Allies – more permanent, ensuring that NATO forces and infrastructure are in place to help deter a Russia that now treats NATO allies as potential adversaries.
Second, the countries designated as NATO’s most capable partners should include Georgia and Ukraine, two that are on the fault line of European insecurity today. Georgia, after all, has been the partner that has contributed more than any other to the mission in Afghanistan. Ukraine, meanwhile, has participated in every NATO operation since the Balkans, and is, unfortunately, swiftly gaining credible fighting capacity. These nations, along with Sweden, Finland, the United Arab Emirates and Australia, will buttress the Alliance’s capabilities, binding them closely in a network of contributors to security.
Third, NATO’s new defence capacity-building initiative will most likely be targeted to help Montenegro prepare to become an Ally quickly, and to train the African Union and its leading force contributors to better manage crises on the African continent. However, this initiative should also be offered to Ukraine and Libya, the two countries most in immediate need of stronger defence capacities to maintain security on their own territories. To be relevant NATO’s capacity building initiative should address the two countries that are most in need of greater capacity on the Alliance’s periphery.
This initiative could evolve into a new strategy for the Partnership for Peace countries that now feel threatened by Russia. This kind of targeted partnership package would not address issues related to membership, but rather focus on helping partners, ranging from Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, to build their capacity to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Fourth, as the Allies put a new emphasis on intelligence-sharing to guarantee more common situational awareness, they should focus on ensuring shared information to inform more common strategies toward the disasters of Iraq and Syria, while preparing for potential challenges in the Arctic.
This effort should form the basis of a new strategy among key NATO Allies – the United States, Turkey, France and the United Kingdom – in cooperation with Arab partners to make sure that terrorist forces hostile to NATO members’ interests do not prevail in Syria or Iraq. The Alliance will not provide the answer to all of these security challenges. But to be relevant to its own members’ interests, it must not relegate itself to a peripheral role on today’s greatest security threats.
Mr Damon Wilson is Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council of the United States. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President, and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, the White House. He has been involved in every NATO summit since Washington in 1999