Adaptation, the ability to adjust to new political and military challenges, is what defines NATO. It is the overarching theme of a timely publication from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), edited by John Andreas Olsen, Norway’s Defence Attaché in the United Kingdom. Fifteen authors – diplomats, military officers and think tankers – look at NATO’s agenda from various angles. In ten chapters that range from threats to NATO’s East and South, the maritime dimension, technological challenges and NATO’s partnership approach, they examine current policies and offer a glimpse into the future.
If a volume on NATO features a foreword by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and the editor starts his introduction with a reference to “the most successful political and military alliance in recent history”, the reader would not expect an in-depth critique of NATO’s policies. Still, the essays in this collection offer much more than predictable court reporting.
For example, in their first chapter, Svein Efjestad and Rolf Tamnes of Norway’s Ministry of Defence and Institute for Defence Studies, respectively, do not shy away from identifying the “erosion of democracy and the rise of populism” as being among NATO’s major current challenges. They also offer a rich and interesting menu of suggestions for NATO’s future evolution, including the development of “competitive strategies”, which seek to avoid predictability and exploit an opponent’s vulnerabilities.
Alexander Vershbow and Philip Breedlove, NATO’s former Deputy Secretary General and former SACEUR, respectively, offer recommendations to overcome the gaps in Allied force posture in North Central Europe, where they deem the Alliance to be most vulnerable. Among these are more surveillance and reconnaissance assets, more long-range weapons systems and an increased naval component in the region. However, they also urge Allies to agree on indicators and thresholds that would allow military commanders to take action. A modest increase in the US military presence in Europe, they argue, would further bolster deterrence.
But is NATO’s current Eastern focus justified? In discussing NATO’s Southern Flank, Ziya Meral, a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI, argues that NATO has been neglecting its “soft underbelly” -- all the more so as developments along the Mediterranean shores are raising questions about NATO’s priorities. He considers NATO’s current engagement mechanisms with the Middle East and North Africa to be insufficient, and he discusses in detail the frictions that persist among several NATO Allies over Mediterranean security issues. However, his suggestion that NATO should play a bigger part in mitigating such frictions appears rather optimistic.
Malcom Chalmers, Deputy Director-General of RUSI, examines NATO’s partnership policies, focusing in particular on the European Union. In his view, the NATO-EU relationship is critical “if the West is to survive as a coherent entity”. Unsurprisingly, he also devotes considerable space to the implications of “Brexit”, which he argues will change the role of the United Kingdom as one of NATO’s most important members. He also describes NATO’s unfinished enlargement policy, including its “conflicted” policy vis-à-vis Georgia and Ukraine, two countries that have been promised membership but are still not likely to join anytime soon. Chalmers states that NATO’s relations with countries from Northern Africa or the Middle East, for example, are “less deeply rooted” than relations with likeminded partners such as Sweden and Finland. However, he also observes that “… the heart of NATO is not hardware” but “the sense of being a shared security community.”
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and Jeffrey Edmonds, a Research Scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, focus on Russia, “NATO’s most significant external challenge”. The authors argue that Russia’s priority is regime stability, which requires cultivating a narrative that sees Russia surrounded by enemies. They also note that “Moscow’s increasingly assertive foreign policy is a reflection not of the country’s growing strength, but of the perception that US and Western disarray has created an opening for Russia to exploit.” And they warn that “with a formidable military as a result of its reforms, the Russian leadership can take greater risks below the level of conflict knowing that NATO and the US may hesitate before taking actions that led to war with the Russian Federation.” Hence, “sub-Article 5 attacks are likely to be the most frequent challenge that Russia poses to NATO.” By investing in resilience, enhancing military readiness and streamlining its own decision-making, NATO should be able to “undermine the Russian leadership’s confidence” in carrying out coercive measures.
Janka Oertel, Director of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, looks at “NATO’s China Challenge”. She notes that while China is currently still a regional military power, its ambition is global. The modernisation of the Chinese armed forces, the intensifying partnership with Russia, and Beijing’s expanding economic footprint constitute three challenges that NATO has to find ways to meet. However, given that NATO has only recently begun to analyse China in depth, the rather prescriptive chapter falls short of concrete recommendations to this end.
Keith Blount, Commander of NATO's Allied Maritime Command, and his Chief Political Advisor, James Henry Bergeron, look at the maritime domain, which “has again become a principal stage for strategic competition.” They provide an overview of the various maritime theatres, ranging from the High North to the Black Sea, with Russia posing a significant challenge in all of them. However, they also look at the growth of the Chinese navy. Their proposals to strengthen NATO’s maritime dimension include a greater emphasis on offensive strategies, better anti-submarine warfare capabilities and more streamlined command structures. If such reforms are undertaken, the authors assert, NATO would be able to maintain its strategic advantage in the maritime domain.
Tim Sweijs, Director of Research at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, and Frans Osinga, Professor at Leiden University, discuss technological innovation. They note that maintaining NATO’s technological edge requires much higher investments in areas such as cyber defence, artificial intelligence, unmanned systems and space capabilities. Given the role of these technologies as critical enablers of NATO’s military performance – and the attention China and Russia devote to them – NATO should not only seek to regain the ability to conduct high-intensity warfare but also embrace technological innovation head-on. This must also include the ethical and legal dimensions of autonomy and similar changes, and the development of “a coherent operational concept that undergirds NATO’s conventional deterrence posture.”
NATO’s nuclear dimension is discussed by Corentin Brustlein, Director of the Security Studies Center at the French Institute of International Relations. He argues that the events of 2014 were a “wake-up call” for the Alliance, including in the nuclear domain. The higher profile of nuclear weapons in Russia’s policy and rhetoric as well as Russia’s ambitious nuclear modernisation efforts are among the worrying trends that have driven NATO “to start relearning the grammar of nuclear deterrence.” Brustlein also discusses the outlook for arms control, which he deems bleak.
In closing, Heinrich Brauss, a former high-ranking NATO official, offers his thoughts on NATO’s future, thereby revisiting many of the themes from the other chapters. Among the most urgent steps to take, he lists enhancing societal resilience against hybrid challenges, consolidating NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in Eastern Europe, improving military mobility, and defining NATO’s response to Russia’s regional nuclear threats. In the longer term, Brauss argues, NATO will have to deal with the rise of China, as well as disruptive technologies.
Unlike most edited volumes, which take a year or more to materialise and are often outdated when they are published, “Future NATO” is remarkably up-to-date. This, as well as a strong cast of contributors, ensures that the volume delivers on what it intends to do: any reader who may have been irritated by statements, including by Western leaders, about NATO’s pending obsolescence will come away less concerned. The range of challenges for NATO is huge and getting consensus remains a tough business, yet as these chapters suggest, Allies share a basic understanding that they are much better off together than alone. Thus, “Future NATO” is an effective antidote to the gloom-and-doom literature that seeks to relegate NATO to the dustbin of history. NATO is still needed, and this book goes a long way in answering why. The “Reflection Group”, appointed by NATO’s Secretary General, which is to deliver their findings later this year, would be well advised to have a glance at this volume.