Rolf Tamnes Says Atlantic Alliance Simply Needs Four Clear Priorities, Not a New Strategy

A Russian assault on Ukraine, you say? A spike in cyber-warfare? The breadth of turmoil from Dakar to Dhaka?

These challenges may be new or rising, but NATO’s strategic plans have them in view and the alliance’s need is not to revamp its broad thinking, but to act decisively on current realities, says Professor Rolf Tamnes, one of Norway’s pre-eminent strategic scholars.

“There’s a power shift going on, and that’s of course a deep reality we are facing,” Tamnes told an audience at the Atlantic Council’s June 25 conference on NATO in an Era of Global Competition. That has “led to the idea that we should define a new strategy for NATO, but I don’t agree with that. The current concept of 2010 takes into account all the relevant threats and risks. It’s flexible, it’s sound. This is not the time to invent new buzzwords and catchphrases. This is actually the time to act.”

Speaking in a panel discussion on “The Alliance and the Global Power Shift,” Tamnes, a specialist on defense planning, NATO and Nordic security, identified four top priorities for the transatlantic alliance.

  1. Renewing collective security in the face of Russia’s aggressiveness against its neighbors. Tamnes was concise, pointing out that other speakers at the conference (like public discourse in general) have highlighted the danger from the government of President Vladimir Putin. Among NATO priorities, “the first one and the urgent one is to renew the focus on traditional collective security, because … there is a need for deterring Russia and for reassuring member states,” he said.
  2. Emerging threats. “The second key priority I would emphasize is how to manage the high-end part of the new or emerging threats. We are talking about transnational terrorism of the gravest kind; we are talking about missile threats in combination with weapons of mass destruction, a growing threat; … next come the Article V-related cyber defense challenges,” which are recognized by the alliance as a threat but which need to be acted on with specific defense plans against attacks.
  3. The greater Middle East and the danger for ‘southern NATO.’ “The third key priority … is how to deal with the greater Middle East, from West Africa to India, where things are moving in the wrong direction. … It affects us all, but of course, it’s a more apparent challenge to the southern countries of NATO – those countries that don’t regard, basically, Russia as a threat [and] that face quite another security environment. There is a growing north-south divide in the alliance – economically, of course, we have seen it for some years, but also strategically. So there is a bridge that has to be built. … And all countries in the alli will hav to take part in this effort tin fighting terrorism, [and] in building nations, institutions and capacities in this very volatile region.”
  4. Rising Asia and the ineluctable US pivot to face it. A fourth “key priority is how the alliance should adjust to the rise of [the] Asia-Pacific” region. “In the long-term perspective, the Americans will re-allocate substantial resources to that part of the world. That’s basically a good thing; it’s in the interests of all of us because it makes it possible for the United States to maintain its role as a global stabilizer. Also, it will keep … the role of a form of guardian of a rules-based international order. But there are consequences for Europe.  And I think we must gradually learn to live with the fact that the American presence in Europe will be in the form of a light footprints, hopefully in combination with a concept for rapid reinforcements.

That, Tamnes said, is a manageable challenge for NATO, “but of course it raises the … need for fundamental new burden-sharing across the Atlantic.”

The Big Question is for Washington

“Then we come to the delicate question,” Tamnes said. “Can NATO make it? I think it can. But basically on one condition: that the US assumes stronger leadership – far stronger leadership. It’s a sad fact that the United States does not [any] longer shape NATO’s agenda as it used to do. It doesn’t exert discipline as it used to do. Unpleasant at times, but I think necessary in the long term … to maintain coherence in the alliance.”

The fundamental question, Tamnes said, is for Washington:  “Could we expect stronger US leadership in the years to come? Could we expect that the administration in Washington will make it crystal clear that the European parts of NATO will have to stand up and raise its defense expenditure?”

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