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Are the challenges NATO faces today as great as they were in the Cold War?

Andrés Ortega (left) is a columnist for El Pais and author of various books on European integration and NATO. Tomas Valasek (right) is a Slovak security analyst and director of the Center for Defense Information's Brussels office.

Dear Tomas,

Can you remember the time when the threat that Europe faced was one of total war with the real possibility of such a conflict escalating to a nuclear confrontation? In the early years of the Cold War before détente, part of Europe was effectively hostage to the policy of deterrence, and much of the rest lived under the Soviet boot. Today, it seems all too easy to play down the danger of the unthinkable actually happening. But there were times - such as during the Berlin airlift and the Cuban missile crisis - when the threat of Armageddon appeared very real indeed. At the time, NATO's role could not have been clearer, namely in words attributed to its first Secretary General Lord Ismay "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down". The transatlantic Alliance was the heart of Europe's security architecture, critical to managing crises, both vis-à-vis the other

I think we have two issues to discuss. The first is whether that threat was greater than those we face today or may face in the foreseeable future. The second is whether NATO is equipped to address today's challenges and the most appropriate institution for the task. When most people talk of modern security threats, they think, above all, of that posed by terrorism, or rather terrorisms. I use the plural because there is no agreed definition of terrorism and clearly terrorism comes in many different forms, each of which must be treated in a different way.

Let's face it, terrorism has been around for a very long time and certainly pre-dates the end of the Cold War. But while terrorists have been responsible for many outrages, they have never posed an existential threat to the world. In its most sinister form, the terrorist threat must be viewed together with that posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD), even though terrorists have never actually deployed such weapons. At least not yet. Clearly, the sinister combination of terrorism and WMD does pose a formidable threat. But the difference between it and the Cold War threat of mutually assured destruction is that the latter placed our very existence in question.

There were times when the threat of Armageddon appeared very real indeed

For the above reasons, I consider today's threats to be of a lesser magnitude both for Europe and for the United States than the threat we faced during the Cold War and especially in the 1950s and 1960s. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the threat of Armageddon disappeared, the United States was the only super-power and Americans came to enjoy an almost unparalleled feeling of security. Europeans, by contrast, have never had that luxury and even in the wake of the Cold War remained conscious of their vulnerability as a result of the wars of Yugoslavia's dissolution and acts of terrorism in several countries. While the terrorist attacks of 9/11 came as a shock to the entire world, the shock was clearly that much greater in the United States. Hence today's feeling of insecurity. Even so, 9/11 did not pose an existential threat to Americans. Rather it exposed both their vulnerability and that of the rest of the Western world to asymmetric and unconventional threats.

Since the terrorist threat cannot be addressed primarily by military means, NATO, which is a political-military alliance, is not necessarily the most appropriate institution to coordinate responses. This is not to say that there is no military component to a comprehensive anti-terrorist strategy. Clearly, military power can be used effectively, for example, to intervene in failed states such as Afghanistan to prevent terrorist groups like al Qaida turning them into centres for their operations. But the only effective, long-term approach to combating terrorism must be, wherever possible, to seek to address the root causes. This must include the use of social, economic and political instruments, as well as effective policing, all of which will yield greater long-term results than the exclusive use of military force. Indeed, to talk of a "war against terrorism" or to militarise thinking about and responses to terrorism might even prove self-defeating.

Effective policing and intelligence sharing, including more international cooperation, are critical to combating terrorism. Here, countries like France, Italy and Spain may be better prepared than most, including the United States, as a result of the existence of Gendarmerie, Carabinieri and Guardia Civil, police units with a military dimension that operate throughout the country. In Spain, for example, we have developed effective anti-terrorist strategies as a result of our experience with ETA. That said, the threat posed by ETA is clearly very different from the suicidal terrorism we see on an almost daily basis in Israel and now in Iraq. Moreover, experience of these conflicts appears to indicate that the more military solutions are relied on, the greater the terrorist threat.

Today's security threats are certainly serious and should not be underestimated. As in the Cold War, they cannot be solved without effective transatlantic cooperation and NATO has an important role to play in this area. But our very existence is no longer in danger. The security challenge today is not, therefore, as great. But, as a consequence, the challenge of holding the Alliance together and building consensus on how to address today's threats is that much greater.

Yours,

Andrés

Dear Andrés,

You're right. Today's threat is not on a par with that of the Cold War. It doesn't hold the promise of the utter destruction of mankind, which the super-power rivalry of that era did. But so narrow a comparison is largely meaningless. Though the existential threat has gone, today's challenges may still be greater.

To the leader of any civilised country, the idea of terrorists setting off just one nuclear or biological device in a metropolis is as grotesquely unacceptable as a full-blown missile exchange. There is no such thing as tolerable nuclear damage. Ten, twenty or fifty thousand dead is just as absurdly wrong as 100 million.

These, on the high end, are the stakes today. What are the chances that terrorists may successfully use a weapon of mass destruction? Three factors determine the equation: enemy intentions, their offensive capabilities, and the defensive capabilities of the potential target - in this case NATO member states.

Intentions are the easiest to assess. Few would disagree that had al Qaida possessed a nuclear bomb on 9/11, it would have used it. The nature of the new terrorism is unprecedented in that it is essentially nihilistic. Extremists of the Osama-bin-Laden school of thought have no intention of embracing modern values and becoming part of the international system, and hence no incentive to curb their violence. "Traditional" terrorist groups such as ETA and the IRA always held their fire to some extent to preserve a measure of respectability and keep the door open to a future arrangement with the "enemy". The stewards of the old nuclear threat - Soviet apparatchiks - were wholly unwilling to die for the cause, and could thus be deterred from attacking with a credible threat of a nuclear response. But to terrorists bent on undermining the West's economic and political foundations, the more destructive the attack the better. Far from dreading the possibility, they view dying in the attack as a virtue. In the case of al Qaida, to cite former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana's draft EU security strategy, "deterrence would fail".

Though the existential threat has gone, today's challenges may still be greater

Concerning offensive capabilities, the greatest danger lies in a combination of suicide terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). A number of different types of WMD exist but arguably the most worrisome are tactical nuclear weapons, several thousand of which remain in Russia and the United States. Rumours of missing Russian tactical nuclear weapons have circulated in the past, only to be denied by the Kremlin. Most open-source reports agree that the weapons seem to be secure for the time being, but questionable safety standards at Russian nuclear installations point to a risk of theft in the future. By some accounts, suspected terrorists have already scouted Russian nuclear facilities, presumably to acquire bombs or bomb-making material. If obtained, how difficult would it be to transport tactical nuclear weapons to the West? No one knows for certain but the task seems worryingly within reach. Only about three per cent of all containers entering the United States are inspected at the port of entry, and the United States has the relative luxury vis-à-vis Europe of being separated from the likely source of WMD by an ocean.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of our defences against the new threats. For all practical purposes, we only began to take measures to counter catastrophic terrorism after 11 September 2001. The first line of defence lies in places that NATO refers to as "out-of-area". Denying terrorists access to WMD is key to preventing future attacks, and most likely sources of such weapons lie in the neighbourhood of the former Soviet Union. But intercepting threats overseas is a policy born as much out of a lack of alternatives as of reasons of effectiveness. There is, frankly, only so much that Western societies can do to improve security domestically without destroying the free and open nature of their economies.

Today's terrorism is a potentially catastrophic threat by any definition of that word. Its probability and acuteness are devilishly hard to assess, partly for the sheer newness but also for the complexity of the challenge. However, it offers the distinctly bleak possibility of WMD being used against Western towns. Given the stakes, the campaign against terrorism calls for the same focus and unity of purpose that NATO countries exhibited during the Cold War (if not, thankfully, the same military and financial expenditure). By this measure, catastrophic terrorism is in the same league as the Soviet threat.

Yours,

Tomas

Dear Tomas,

I prefer not to enter into a discussion about whether "ten, twenty or fifty thousand dead is just as absurdly wrong as 100 million". That said, there remains a difference and that is existential.

You say "intentions are the easiest to assess"; that "few would disagree" that if al Qaida had possessed a nuclear bomb on 9/11, it would have used it; and that the nature of the "new terrorism" is "essentially nihilistic". I disagree with all three points. The debate on "intentions" or "capabilities" is as old as NATO itself, indeed much older. If we judge intentions, we will never feel sufficiently secure. As for capabilities, the most diabolic - not the more catastrophic - aspect of 9/11 is that the attackers did not use weapons in the traditional sense. Rather they used our own technology against us by turning passenger airliners into flying bombs. Had al Qaida possessed and used a nuclear bomb, much of Afghanistan would no doubt have been destroyed in retaliation.

It has become fashionable to describe these terrorists as nihilists. But this may not be the case. I've been impressed by the research of Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago who analysed all 188 suicide attacks between 1980 and 2001. He concluded that the use of terror in this way is extremely effective, not primarily linked to religious fervour, and does have a strategic aim. Nothing to do with nihilism.

While terrorists have been responsible for many outrages, they have never posed an existential threat to the world

In the future, the threat posed by WMD, whether in the hands of terrorist groups or states, will have to be addressed. This will require preventive action, but not in the way that Washington currently appears to understand it. Rather, it will be important to reproduce the kind of approach that the United States adopted after the disintegration of the Soviet Union to persuade Ukraine and other post-Soviet states to give up their nuclear weapons, or even that which Europe is currently pursuing towards Iran. We will also have to reinforce international regimes. Refusing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and similar international agreements is not setting a good example. And, to paraphrase UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in the wake of 9/11, we have to be tough on terrorism, but also on the causes of terrorism, the former in the short term, the latter in the longer term. Areas such as police cooperation, international development and even improving the way that immigrants are integrated into our societies are key to this task, none of which can be fully addressed by a political-military organisation. To militarise the struggle against terrorism may be a mistake. Indeed, one consequence of the Iraq campaign is that terrorism used not to be a serious problem there and now it is.

Yours,

Andrés

Dear Andrés,

You wrote that: "If we judge intentions, we will never feel sufficiently secure." I couldn't agree more, which is why in my initial piece I look carefully at capabilities, of both offensive and defensive types. Seen through these lenses, the combination of terrorism and WMD represents a classic low-probability, high-impact event. Its destructive potential is important, as much as you try to play it down. It elevates the possibility of a WMD strike against a Western city into the realm of the utterly unacceptable, a category previously occupied by Soviet nuclear weapons.

Concerning intentions, I'm afraid you ignore your own advice in citing Professor Pape's work as evidence of al Qaida 's limited goals. We both agree that there are different types of terrorism. Having read the study, you should be aware that no more than six of the 188 bombings that Professor Pape analysed were carried out by al Qaida. The vast majority were Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets and Tamil Tiger strikes against Indian forces during the Cold War, mostly in the 1980s. They say little to nothing about al Qaida's intentions today. Very different goals, very different time period.

To terrorists bent on undermining the West's economic and political foundations, the more destructive the attack the better

I don't share your faith in our ability to deter terrorists from using WMD, and neither do the authors of the European Union's draft security strategy. Deterrence is a big, clumsy stick of limited use against non-state actors with a death wish. Fifteen of the 19 attackers on September 11 were Saudi nationals. Had they used WMD, would you propose that the United States attack Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons? What about Pakistan, whose lawless eastern frontier may be the current base of operations for Osama bin Laden? You see the problem. More often than not, retaliation is a non-starter. Any threat of a devastating, possibly nuclear response will always be empty. You know it. I know it. The attackers know it, which is why deterrence is not likely to work.

This is not a call to arms, even though you seem to equate warnings of threat with a quest for a "military solution". I, too, think that we need to be tough on both terrorism and the causes of terrorism. But the transatlantic stereotype of a jingoistic Washington that you unfortunately employ does not hold water when it comes to addressing root causes of terrorism, such as rebuilding failed states. In the case of Afghanistan, for example, the United States is - according to World Bank figures - the single largest contributor to the country's post-war reconstruction.

The danger inherent in the combination of WMD and terrorism should be a call for unity of purpose. NATO's greatest strength has historically been in building converging security strategies. It worked against the Soviet menace. And it remains the key to defusing the threat of catastrophic terrorism.

Yours,

Tomas

Dear Tomas,

I feel that you are misrepresenting what I am trying to say. For example, I never talked about "deterrence" as far as terrorists are concerned, but about prevention. On that note, the term "preventive engagement" has replaced "pre-emptive action" - which is not only difficult to translate into other languages but is usually associated with the use of military force - in the EU strategy paper. This latest version has been revised in the light of the difficulties involved in trying to win the peace in Iraq and is already different to the document presented at the Thessaloniki Summit in the wake of military victory.

I certainly don't subscribe to a "stereotype of a jingoistic Washington" and firmly believe good transatlantic relations are essential to Europe and good global governance. I mention Pape´s paper to illustrate that most suicidal terrorists - including that global terrorist franchise called al Qaida - have a strategic aim, not the "limited goals" you claim I attribute to them.

Capabilities? Anything can become a capability for these terrorists, like hijacked civilian aircraft on 9/11. This is one reason why the struggle against terrorism cannot be exclusively, or even primarily, a military affair. Wars have to be finished sooner rather than later. This struggle, I am afraid, will go on for a very long time.

In my view, prevention, stronger international regimes against WMD proliferation, and tackling the root causes of the violence are key to addressing the terrorist threat. But solutions can only be achieved on the basis of deep understanding - albeit with disagreement - between a more united Europe and the United States within a framework of "effective multilateralism" - to quote yet again from the draft EU strategy paper - and, ultimately, sensible policies. This is a challenge for the European Union, for NATO and for the United States.

Our very existence is no longer in danger

I feel you still haven't answered my initial questions, which should have been the meat of this debate. Are the threats that NATO and we face today greater that they were in the Cold War? And is the Alliance equipped to address today's challenges or even the most appropriate institution for the task? In both instances, my answer is a qualified no. That does not mean that NATO is not useful. It is. But its use today is very different to what it once was.

Yours,

Andrés

Dear Andrés,

I will let the readers decide whether I have misrepresented your views. But let it be said that the crux of the difference lies in whether al-Qaida-type terrorism should be viewed as an old menace in a new guise or a new threat altogether. I maintain that it is different in both its goals and, more importantly, the destructive means potentially at its disposal. A recent report by the al Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee of the United Nations (an organisation not known for warmongering) warned that: "The risk of al Qaida acquiring and using weapons of mass destruction also continues to grow. They have already taken the decision to use chemical and bio-weapons in their forthcoming attacks. The only restraint they are facing is the technical complexity to operate them properly and effectively." I think those words speak for themselves.

That said, we probably see eye to eye on many more issues than it appears. I am particularly pleased to see that you believe that: "Good transatlantic relations are essential to Europe and good global governance."

Deterrence is a big, clumsy stick of limited use against non-state actors with a death wish

NATO is an expression of only one, albeit important, dimension of this relationship - military cooperation. I think you do the topic a disservice by asking whether the Alliance is the answer to terrorism. The effort must clearly be much broader than anything NATO has ever set out to achieve. As we both pointed out earlier, action on multiple fronts such as intelligence, foreign policy and development aid is required. But NATO is better equipped than any alliance in history to organise joint military action against terrorism when needed. It has made remarkable progress in adapting its policies and capabilities to the new challenge, despite all the recent tensions and disagreements. That in itself is testimony to the gravity of the threat.

Yours,

Tomas

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