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New challenges - new Nato

In early August, a new Division started its work in NATO’s International Staff. In itself, this may not appear particularly noteworthy. Large bureaucracies re‑shuffling their outfit from time to time is not exactly headline-grabbing stuff.

But this time, things are different.

The creation of an “Emerging Security Challenges Division” (ESCD) by Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is not just an internal exercise, but also a strong political message. For the first time, NATO is systematically bringing together work on the areas that will increasingly affect the security of the Allies on both sides of the Atlantic: terrorism, cyber attacks, threats to energy supply, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

At first glance it may appear as if these challenges have little in common. However, a closer look reveals why they belong together conceptually. These challenges not only share certain common characteristics, but addressing them also requires NATO to change the way it thinks about Alliance solidarity and how it interacts with the broader international community, notably with civilian actors and the private sector.

A well-orchestrated cyber attack can paralyse a country in ways that in the past could only have been achieved by a foreign invasion

The first common characteristic of these challenges is that they do not necessarily affect all Allies in the same way. A terrorist attack on a single Ally may generate collective concern, yet it may not automatically be regarded as an attack against the Alliance as a whole. The same holds true for a cyber attack on the banking system or an attack on the energy supply of an individual Ally. The decision about if and how to respond lies first and foremost with the country that has been hit.

In contrast to the Cold War, when a Warsaw Pact attack on one NATO Ally would have triggered a collective response by the other Allies, today’s challenges do not necessarily lend themselves to such a quasi-automatic response. Consequently, NATO Allies need to re-define the way in which Alliance solidarity will be expressed in a range of entirely new scenarios.

A second common characteristic of the new challenges is the fact that they do not necessarily require a military response. A well-orchestrated cyber attack can paralyse a country in ways that in the past could only have been achieved by a foreign invasion; yet if the attackers were an NGO, for example, NATO would hardly be able to threaten military retaliation.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, in turn, may well require new military means of protection, such as missile defences. However, dampening proliferation incentives by resolving regional security problems and applying diplomatic and economic “sticks” and “carrots” will remain the preferred approach. In short, while transatlantic cooperation remains indispensable to cope with the new security challenges, NATO’s military “toolbox” no longer suffices.

If the Alliance wants to remain an effective security provider for its members, it must become a team player. NATO has only just begun to embark on this journey – and it is going to be a difficult one.

This leads to the third common characteristic of the new challenges: since they are both foreign and domestic, as well as military and economic, they require a holistic approach. In concrete terms, they require NATO to build structured relations with a range of civilian actors.

This applies not only to the other major international organisations, such as the United Nations and the European Union, but also to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as the private sector, for example the energy and information technology sectors. All these actors become partners in the attempt to cope with the security challenges that are thrown up by globalisation. Given the vast differences in their goals, mandates and working methods, building trusting and effective relationships between them will be an arduous process. Yet NATO must not shy away from this challenge.

If the Alliance wants to remain an effective security provider for its members, it must become a team player. NATO has only just begun to embark on this journey – and it is going to be a difficult one.

Some Allies may hesitate to grant NATO a stronger role in areas such as energy security or addressing nuclear proliferation, arguing against unduly militarising a range of issues that for good reasons should remain political. Others might be concerned that dealing with these new security challenges will divert NATO’s attention away from its core task of collective defence. Such concerns can only be addressed - and, hopefully, dispelled - if Allies devote more time to discussing emerging challenges. Over the past years, managing NATO’s operations, such as those in Afghanistan and Kosovo, has taken up most of the Allies’ time and focus, at the expense of discussing future challenges.

As long as every debate in NATO is viewed as preparing military operations, a forward-looking, enlightened debate about emerging 21st century challenges will remain elusive

What is therefore needed is a new balance between the present and the future: NATO must develop a culture of political discussion which is not confined to issues that directly involve NATO militarily, but which also includes issues that may have “only” political relevance. As long as every debate in NATO is viewed as preparing military operations, a forward-looking, enlightened debate about emerging 21st century challenges will remain elusive. The Emerging Security Challenges Division will play its part in contributing to such a new culture of debate. Its Strategic Analysis Capability will scan the strategic horizon for challenges that may affect Allied security. This will help stimulate the debate among Allies and reinforce NATO’s unique value as a key forum for security consultation between Europe and North America, the world’s strongest community of like-minded nations.

A new Division in NATO’s International Staff, stronger ties with other actors, and a more forward-looking debate among Allies: these are the elements that will shape NATO’s approach towards emerging security challenges. To make this approach truly effective requires profound changes in NATO’s structure and policy.

But NATO is ready to embrace these changes. Because Allies have understood that only by embracing change will the Atlantic Alliance be able to live up to its role as an anchor of security in a globalised world.

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