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As NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announces the appointment of a group of experts to support his work in further strengthening the Alliance’s political dimension, this Commentary identifies six primary challenges.

NATO has maintained its relevance for 71 years because it remained committed to the values and principles of the original Washington Treaty, while at the same time adapting to the changing strategic environment. Since 2014, NATO has developed a comprehensive strategy to strengthen its deterrence and defence posture, and project stability to increase security in its neighbourhood. Looking ahead, NATO@71 should focus on six primary tasks.

Re-Energise Alliance Cohesion Based on Common Values

Democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law constitute the very foundation of the Alliance. Whenever internal disputes have arisen among NATO members, a unifying purpose based on those core values ensured that they overcame disagreements and stood together when it mattered. The Alliance’s first task is to maintain political unity and strategic cohesion. Consequently, NATO must ensure that its own members do not fall short of the Treaty’s democratic standards.

Revitalise US Leadership and Transatlantic Unity

Strong US leadership remains crucial in almost all aspects of NATO decision-making. US commitment to the Alliance, including military presence in Europe, is critical for credible collective deterrence and defence. NATO must reassure US leaders that no member is stronger without the Alliance, that NATO offers the best way of influencing developments in Europe and that there is no substitute for the transatlantic bond. The European states remain the US’s most consistent allies: they contribute more willingly than other countries to international military missions and give political legitimacy to operations that are overwhelmingly American in composition and scope. The transatlantic partnership continues to be the basis for the leading US position in global affairs.

Rebuild European Defence

European members of the Alliance are taking more responsibility for fairer burden sharing by increasing their defence budgets, rebuilding defence structures and updating contingency plans to promote higher readiness and better state and society resilience against malicious cyber activities and disinformation. Implementing cooperative initiatives currently underway between NATO and the EU is an important part of reinvigorating collective defence. A prime example is the ‘military mobility’ initiative that seeks to facilitate rapid movement of forces and equipment across the European continent, especially as it relates to border-crossing procedures, infrastructure requirements and legal regulations. European Allies taking more responsibility for their own defence also strengthens the transatlantic bond and encourages continued US leadership.

Contain Revisionist Russia

Russia is once again NATO’s most significant external challenge. Politically, it tries to undermine NATO’s cohesion and values. Militarily, Russia is strengthening its anti-access and area denial capabilities, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, through integrated air defence systems and long-range precision strike missiles. The Kremlin is investing heavily in nuclear and conventional weapon systems, as well as cyber tools and hybrid activities, to strengthen its ability to degrade NATO forces.

Given Russia’s readiness, proximity and ability to quickly mass firepower close to its borders, along with its demonstrated behaviour and objectives in the region, North Central Europe and the Black Sea are the most vulnerable flashpoints between Russia and NATO. NATO needs to continue its dual strategy of combining deterrence and defence with constructive and meaningful dialogue, and specifically to re-engage with Russia on arms control. Moscow violating the INF Treaty, suspending its participation in the CFE Treaty and circumventing some of its obligations under the Vienna Document make such engagement demanding but ever more important.

Counter International Terrorism

The asymmetric threat posed by international terrorism and violent extremism, complicated by irregular mass migration, concerns the Alliance as a whole but is most intensely felt by members along the Mediterranean. NATO has a responsibility for projecting stability, notably by assisting member states under threat and by lending direct support to weak and unstable non-member states in the region.

Recently, the Alliance launched one of its most comprehensive measures to project stability through its ‘Package for the South’. Together with other international organisations and institutions, NATO will continue its ‘coalition of the willing’ support and ‘whole of government’ assistance to promote democracy and prosperity from Morocco to Afghanistan, including a training and capacity-building mission in Iraq.

Comprehend China’s Emerging Goals and Strategies

China’s growing political, economic and military influence presents both opportunities and challenges that Alliance members need to address collectively. China has become less restrained in showing force and is increasingly prepared to dictate the terms of international cooperation. In the long term, China will most likely become a global military actor, with footprints on all continents. The most urgent security challenges are China’s cyber activity and the prospect that Chinese investments in the critical infrastructure of NATO member states could undermine Alliance cohesion, military interoperability and military cooperation.

More broadly, Chinese investments and activities in the West may bring Western nations, industries and organisations into a state of deep economic and political dependency that can undermine freedom of choice. Since many of NATO’s members have common concerns in this regard, China should become a major subject in the transatlantic conversation. As with Russia, it is important that NATO and other international organisations engage China on security and defence issues to foster cooperation and deepen common understanding.

NATO stands for the democratic values and institutions that autocratic powers contest. Its fundamental commitment to serving as a multinational defence organisation dedicated to promoting peace, security and stability has ensured NATO’s unity of purpose throughout the decades and will continue to do so. The basic recipe for NATO@71 is to sustain its role as an alliance that constantly finds ways to adapt to new challenges while firmly adhering to its original purpose and values.

Dr John Andreas Olsen is a colonel in the Royal Norwegian Air Force, currently assigned to London as defence attaché to the UK and Ireland. He is the editor of a trilogy of security and defence publications in RUSI’s Whitehall Paper series, including the forthcoming Future NATO: Adapting to New Realities (London: Taylor and Francis, 2020), which will be available here tomorrow.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


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