||Are the challenges NATO faces today
as great as they were in the Cold War?
Andrés Ortega is a
columnist for El Pais and author of various books on European
integration and NATO.
Tomas Valasek is a Slovak security analyst and director of the Center
for Defense Information's Brussels office.
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 side - presenting a
united front - and within our side, cementing relations among
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.