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NATO in next ten years: the difficult adaptation of the Atlantic Alliance

This post was published in Analisi Difesa. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.

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ROME, (BM) – The Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, a Washington think tank recently published, in partnership with NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division, the study entitled “NATO 20/2020: twenty bold ideas to re-imagine the Alliance after the US elections of 2020 “. According to the drafters, the document would aim to revitalize public support for the Atlantic Alliance in view of the far more difficult task of discussing NATO’s new and awaited Strategic Concept.

NATO 20/2020 is part of the main stream of the discussion on adapting the role of NATO initiated at the summit of heads of state and government in London in December last year when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was tasked with lead a “forward-looking process of reflection” aimed at strengthening the Alliance militarily and politically.

In this context, the initiative called “NATO 2030-Strenghtening the Alliance in an increasingly competitive world” was presented by Stoltenberg last summer. The opinions and recommendations of the various groups of experts are expected at the summit of heads of state and government next year and these too should form the basis for the definition of the new strategic concept, the seventh in the history of the Washington Treaty and the fourth after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The opportunity to start a revision of the document approved in Lisbon in 2010 (Active Engagement; Modern Defense) has been under discussion for at least three years but there has always been a lot of skepticism both in Brussels and in most of the capitals of the member countries about benefits of officially entering a phase of drafting a new strategic concept in the face, above all, of a US administration that has repeatedly officially questioned the usefulness of the Washington Treaty. As we have seen, the same US think tank points out that the food for thought offered in NATO 20/2020 should be taken into consideration “after” the November elections hoping, most likely, in a more favorable “change of course”.

On the other hand, it has always been the newly installed presidents who inaugurated the new courses of the Alliance: George H.W. Bush with the 1991 document, Bill Clinton with the 1999 document, and Barack Obama real driver of the global NATO of 2010. The only exception is the 43rd President George W. Bush who lived with the 1999 document for the entire duration of their mandate.

Taking into account that the strategic concept is the real architrave of the existence of the Alliance as it provides the “what”, the “why”, the “when”, the “where” and the “how” of NATO’s commitment in the world, it is logical to ask in what direction the Atlantic Alliance is heading in light of the changes that have taken place in the last decade and what should be expected at the end of the review process.

What has changed?

Until the shock of the Russia-Ukraine crisis of 2013-2014 culminating in the annexation of Crimea, NATO was more of a crisis manager than a collective defense organization, as well as an agent for the political transformation of would-be members of the south east european. While the application of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty nominally remained the Alliance’s raison d’être, it was essentially not considered a realistic scenario.

The armed forces were considered as projection forces to be employed outside the territories of the member countries in stabilization operations and therefore subject to a process of reorganization and downsizing. On the other hand, according to the vision of international affairs hitherto in vogue, the crises outside Europe would have been of low intensity, slow to develop and free from “manipulation” by the great powers.

As a result of the core tasks of NATO consolidated at the Lisbon Summit such as collective defense, crisis management and security cooperation through partnerships, the second and third were absolutely prevalent even though the issue of balance between forces expeditionary and those with a defensive vocation continued to be strongly debated within the Alliance.

The Russian aggression of Ukraine has completely reversed the order of priorities, in favor of collective defense, in an almost radical way.

The resulting strategic confrontation with Moscow, in its multidimensional, “hybrid” and cybernetic military dimension, has caused at least eight main effects:

1) directed the focus of operations on the northern, eastern and south eastern part of the European chessboard;

2) strengthened the political and military influence of the countries most exposed to the Russian threat on the Alliance’s decision-making processes;

3) monopolized the development of doctrine, training and operations planning;

4) influenced developments in the defense industry and procurement to bridge the capacitive gap between NATO and Russian forces;

5) caused an increase in multinational commands at the Corps level (now there are nine) and Division (now there are five), most of which are destined to conduct defensive operations;

6) increased military and non-military personnel of the NATO command structure by 18%;

7) revitalized the crucial issue of the influx and deployment of US reinforcements to Europe (establishment of the Joint Force Command Norfolk in Virginia and the Joint Support and Ambling Command of Ulm in Germany);

8) marginalized the relevance of NATO’s “Southern Flank”, where political instability and terrorism are much more difficult to deal with militarily and it is therefore more difficult to imagine a scenario for applying Article 5. In the latter case it would be much more useful talk about crisis management, but in North Africa and the Middle East the political conditions for Alliance interventions do not exist and the weak role of regional understanding exercised through the Hub for the South that has carved out Brussels in the area is the maximum to which you can aspire at the moment.

Thus, although many are convinced that it is not in Moscow’s interest to launch further military operations in the Old Continent considering a “battle of Europe” unlikely, NATO, which claims to want to maintain its “strategic flexibility”, has allocated almost all of its military resources to the deterrence and defense function in a theater where probably nothing will ever happen, leaving little or nothing for the rest.

The strategic confrontation with Russia, which has now also opened towards China, will certainly dominate the next ten years of the existence of the Alliance and therefore the new strategic concept will only reflect this reality. Basically a military “stalemate” where, however, the idea that NATO must evolve in a political key is becoming increasingly popular.

A more political and more global NATO?

Stoltenberg reiterated this on several public occasions. We need to use NATO more politically by employing a wider range of non-military, economic and diplomatic tools, and to adopt a broader global approach. But in what sense?

In Lisbon, the 2010 strategic concept was the culmination of an evolutionary path that began immediately after the end of the Cold War aimed at giving the Alliance the ability to act “across the board” and around the world, satisfying the ambition of to become an international actor able not only to manage emerging crises, but to constitute a global political forum.

In the twenty-one years since the fall of the Berlin wall, NATO had consolidated its operational profile in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo, confirmed its commitments to assist Iraq and the UN contingents of the African Union. It had launched a naval mission in the Mediterranean to prevent terrorist movements and to prohibit the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, and another for the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Aden and in the waters of the Somali Basin, contributing to security of international maritime commercial traffic.

In the air domain, he inaugurated the concept of Air Policing to preserve the integrity of the airspace of Alliance members who did not have sufficient military resources to guarantee their air defense.

The extension of its geopolitical range of action was logically accompanied by the loss of the organization’s exclusive transatlantic character. An increasing number of non-member and non-European countries have been involved in the Alliance’s political-military initiatives, participating directly in NATO-led missions in the various operational theaters, providing troops or logistical support, or military political support in the context of global partnerships that they have gradually defined themselves with countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and even Mongolia. Today NATO boasts at least forty partners around the world. What can be more “global”?

In this regard, the 20/2020 study suggests four lines of action that are nothing short of original:

1) establish an Atlantic-Pacific Partnership to address the ever-growing Chinese military political influence. Here NATO would be the central node of a global network / multilateral consultation forum to integrate existing bilateral relations with the countries of the area into the Alliance’s consultation mechanisms.

2) reviewing the Washington Treaty by placing NATO at the center of a network of alliances of democratic countries and strategic partnerships, and accentuating the role of forum for political consultation to discuss non-military issues.

3) offer membership to Mexico (yes, to Mexico!) To anchor the security of Europe to the United States, playing on the awareness of the Latin Hispanic population for NATO’s cause

4) found a bank (!) To be able to finance critical defense investments. Put simply, the limit is only the imagination.

Reinvent and revitalize?

In this context, the Washington think tank offers other ideas, in a kaleidoscope of topics at various levels ranging from anti-virus initiatives (definition of a transatlantic strategy to increase economic sanctions against Moscow for its attacks; assurance of nuclear retaliation to increase deterrence), to those to establish a “Marshall Plan” in favor of digitization, to increase cybersecurity, to enhance the role of women, to harmonize communication strategies, to establish a Carrier Strike Group on a UK basis, to deactivate the NATO Response Forces (NRF), to increase security in the Arctic region, to review the burden sharing criteria (the famous 2%), to favor decision making through the use of synthetic environments and simulation, to add the resilience of member country companies as a fourth core task.

Last but not least, the admission of Georgia as the 31st member without extending to the country the guarantees of Article 5, a useless and very dangerous provocation against Moscow. Not even an attempt to address an aspect concerning the problems of the southern flank.

For its part, the “official” NATO, through the statements of the Secretary General, seems to endorse the idea of ​​partnership with the Pacific countries, now included in the agenda of the Alliance where, so to speak, the other two issues shine rather dated the impact of emerging technologies on the European security environment (already in the Lisbon text) and climate change as “fuel for instability and conflict” (on the agenda for twelve years). In the latter case it was also stated that a “green” NATO, that is, more attentive to environmental issues, would respond to the sensitivities of its public opinion more inclined to take to the streets for environmental issues than for other reasons.

Summing up, it does not seem to me that there are, at least until now, daring ideas or particularly far-sighted visions that could inspire the drafting of the next strategic concept which, on the other hand, risks going down in history as the least significant and pragmatic of the last thirty-two years. .

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has defined and established itself on the basis of its operations. These were not only what NATO could accomplish, but what the Alliance was in its essence and have been the catalyst for its transformation and adaptation to the present day.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to bring back the debate on the balancing of the founding tasks that remain, even if immersed in an extremely complex security environment, the pillars of the transatlantic link. Ultimately, it is not true that NATO is “brain dead” as President Macron said last year. On the contrary, she seems to me to be very active in the brain, but perhaps not in the right direction.

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