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Most people – at least those in the know – regard Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty as the bedrock of Europe’s security architecture. That is not surprising, since the principle of collective defence is at the heart of all our security arrangements. But Articles 3 and 4 of the same NATO founding treaty receive scant attention. And they do deserve closer scrutiny.
In NATO’s Article 3, the member states commit to ‘continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, [and] will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack’. In Article 4, the member states, promise to ‘consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security’ of any member state is threatened.
These are what I consider to be the ‘resilience’ articles. Peace is not easy to achieve; it requires constant courage, preparedness to deter opponents and a willingness to defend your values, your country, its politics and its people. And today’s NATO requires its members to have resilience planning and preparedness for crises, by providing for the continuity of government and government services, for energy, medicines, food and water supplies. It also involves safeguarding the integrity of communications and transport systems, while planning for mass casualties and the uncontrollable movement of people.
Sadly, when it comes to preparedness Britain is lagging behind other NATO states and allies, in particular the Baltic and Scandinavian countries. That matters, because the tools of hybrid warfare are numerous: propaganda and disinformation; cyber attacks; disruptions of energy and communications; economic coercion; food, water and energy denial as we have seen in Syria; military pressure; intimidatory exercises on borders; incursions into other countries’ space without permission; blocking of sea lines; submarine activity under sea lanes and alongside internet cables; exploitation of religious, language and culture divisions; and irregular warfare via little green men or proxy forces.
But are these attacks known and understood by our public? Is the public aware of this activity in the so-called ‘grey zone’ between peace and war? Is it aware that the aim of such warfare is not to defeat armies but to undermine trust in the state and to create tension that diverts government attention and resources from external threats?
We are not building awareness of how quickly a democracy can collapse when services stop being available, and resources become inaccessible. Then anger, distrust, frustration, tension and conflicts erupt. We in the west are vulnerable because of the very values take for granted: openness, freedom; access to the law; high levels of connectivity.
Such vulnerabilities have always been there and have always been exploited by adversaries. The difference is that today the pace is much faster, our interconnectivity is higher, our reliance on technology is unprecedented and our awareness and tolerance of threat and disruption is much lower than in previous generations.
Today, critical national infrastructure – water, energy, waste disposal, transport – is owned by companies, not the government. This has brought new risks. The UK government’s Cyber Breaches Survey for 2018 shows that over the 12 months 43% of businesses were targeted by cyber attacks. The figure rises to 72% among large businesses.
Businesses are, however, reluctant to admit they have been attacked. Because trust in services and the share price must be protected, blame is more likely to be attributed to systems faults and upgrades that need tweaking.
The risks are just as high in communications. The Financial Times reports that trust in the media has fallen from 53% last year to 43% this year.
Then, there is the issue of trust in the unregulated social media, where huge numbers now go to access their news. A study by MIT of three million Twitter accounts over 10 years showed that people were 70% more likely to retweet a fake story than a real one. The MIT researchers created a database of the words that Twitter users used to reply to 126,000 contested tweets, then analysed it with a state-of-the-art sentiment-analysis tool. Fake tweets tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust.
There is also an awful lot of it. A researcher at the University of Swansea estimated there may have been as many as 150,000 fake Twitter accounts with links to Russia deployed during the campaigns for the UK’s EU membership referendum.
So why is the UK so lagging in resilience efforts and in the recognition of the attacks we experience every day? The Baltic states, Sweden and Finland have a much better understanding of these threats than we do; the same is true for many other countries. Since January I have met with Georgian, Ukrainian and now North Macedonian MPs and heard first-hand about the daily threats, intimidations and cyber attacks.
What does Britain need to do? We need to be honest with the public about the threats we face. Oddly enough the government is talking about resilience planning but its focus on resilience is in the face of a collapse of services as a result of Brexit, not hybrid warfare.
We need to prepare the public to deal with the threats like the ones experienced every day in countries like Georgia and Ukraine. The malware, the disinformation and the electoral interference: we need to learn, and to prepare our citizens for it. The UK government has been in denial because it is not a convenient conversation in the midst of Brexit. The fake news and disinformation are all about Brexit, but its wider defence and security context is not discussed.
We need education in schools to prepare our children to recognise disinformation and the need to fact check. The school curriculum has not kept up with the pace of change. In a recent statement, Education Secretary Damian Hinds told the House of Commons that: ‘Given the lack of distinction that young people see between online and offline contexts, we have expanded teaching about internet safety and harms to include content on the potential risks of excessive screen time and how to be a discerning, discriminating consumer of information and other content online’.
We need even more information for our older generation, as older people are even more vulnerable to disinformation, fake news and malware.
All of this amounts to one fundamental point: we need an honest discussion with the public about the civilianisation of war, and we need to raise public awareness that we are on the front line of a grey zone war. We need to defend our society against the threats to our democratic structures and our electoral system. Without political will and political unity, we have no deterrence, and without consensus on the problems and solutions, we have no resilience.
Madeleine Moon has been the Labour Member of Parliament for Bridgend since 2005. She is also serving as president of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.