REVIEW: Article

How NATO Is Adapting to a More Dangerous World

NATO is adapting rapidly to an evolving security situation by strengthening our deterrence and defense, and by working with our partners to project stability beyond our borders.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the transatlantic community of Europe and North America became accustomed to a greater degree of stability. The Soviet Union was con­signed to the history books, and Russia became a new partner of the West. Many of our former adversaries in the Warsaw Pact became partners and then members of NATO and the European Union, multilateral organizations that have done so much to enhance our security and prosperity.

During that time, security challenges did not disappear, but they did change. For NATO, our focus shifted from protecting our citizens at home to managing crises outside of the Alliance, first in the Balkans and later in Afghanistan, where our mission is to ensure that the country would no longer be a safe haven for international terrorists. With the direct threat to Europe and North America from the Soviet Union gone, defense spending was cut as nations sought to take advantage of the post-Cold War “peace dividend.”

But those days have passed. Today we face greater and more complex challenges than at any time since the Cold War. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014—the first time since World War II that one European nation had taken part of another by force—and its continued support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine constitute a direct assault on the international system that has been painstakingly developed since World War II. This system of multilateral agreements and institutions has kept the peace and ensured our prosperity, and, ironically, it is a system that Russia helped to construct. Russia has also embraced so-called hybrid warfare—spreading disinformation and propa­ganda, conducting cyber-attacks, and interfering with the democratic elections of inde­pendent sovereign states. 

NATO members in the east of our Alliance look at what has happened in Ukraine and, remembering their own history, fear for the future. For this reason, NATO has imple­mented the greatest strengthening of our collective defense in a generation. 

The other great challenge of our time is terrorism. Terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have taken full advantage of widespread instability stretching across North Africa and the Middle East to spread death and destruction. While the last ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria are under attack by Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces, they are still a dangerous force. Groups and individuals across the world have been inspired by ISIS to conduct heinous acts of terror resulting in the loss of many lives, including in NATO countries.

In response to these twin challenges, our Alliance has acted swiftly and with determination. 

Since 2014, NATO has tripled the size of the NATO Response Force to 40,000 troops, with the 5,000-strong Very High Readiness Joint Task Force ready to move within days. We are currently deploying four multinational battle groups to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The battle groups are led by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany, with contributions from across the Alliance. This is not only a clear demonstration of our determination to protect our Allies, but also a true sign of the transatlantic bond between the nations of Europe and North America. We are increas­ing our presence in the southeast of the Alliance, with a multinational brigade in Romania, and are also increasing our air policing over the Baltic and Black Seas. 

To ensure the readiness of our forces, we have increased the number, size and complexity of our exercises. In 2016, NATO conducted 107 exercises of its own and was associated with a further 139 national exercises. NATO and its Allies are also taking the threat of cyber-attack very seriously. Last year, NATO dealt with an average of 500 cyber-attacks every month, a 60 percent increase over 2015. Our cyber-security experts guard NATO’s networks 24/7, and we have created rapid-reaction teams that can respond to Allies under cyber-attack. At NATO’s Warsaw Summit in 2016, Allies made a cyber defense pledge, which commits Allies to developing the fullest range of defensive capabilities. Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty enshrines the principle of an attack on one being an attack on all. NATO leaders have now agreed that a cyber-attack can trigger a full Article 5 response.

While NATO continues to keep lines of communication with Russia open, the Alliance has stopped all practical cooperation. In the face of global condemnation for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the United States, Canada, the European Union and other countries have imposed economic sanctions on Russia until implementation of the Minsk Agreements takes place. 

NATO has improved its deterrence and its collective defense, but the challenges we face require more than just strength at home. We also need to ensure that our neighborhood is more secure. NATO’s long-time and ongoing work in the Balkans and in Afghanistan has shown us the vital importance of training local forces. That is why, at our Warsaw Summit, NATO leaders agreed to step up our support of partner countries in North Africa and the Middle East. 

NATO has recently opened a new regional center in Kuwait, and we will shortly open a hub for the south in Naples, to increase our situational awareness and our ability to support our partners in the region. We provide training courses to Egypt on countering terrorism and to Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia on countering insurgency. We already train Iraqi officers to better fight ISIS, and we are now expanding that work.

NATO is doing a great deal to enhance stability in our neighborhood, but we recog­nize that we can and must do more to train local forces and build the capacity of our partners. For when they are more stable, we are more secure. This will be an important focus for NATO in the years ahead.

However, it is important to recognize that NATO alone cannot do everything. The challenges from hybrid warfare and from international terrorism demand more than a purely military response. They require resilient national institutions to protect and promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law. They also require multilateral civilian action.  That is why we work closely with other multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, the OSCE and, most closely of all, the European Union.

Last year, the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, signed a Joint Declaration with EU Presidents Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker to mark a new era of closer cooperation between NATO and the European Union. Since then, we have agreed to more than 40 concrete measures through which we can work more closely together in areas such as countering hybrid threats, maintaining cyber defense and ensuring maritime security. For example, last year, NATO launched Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean Sea to perform a range of counterterrorism and security activities, working closely with the European Union’s Operation Sophia.

Of course, all of this extra focus on security needs to be paid for, as freedom has never come for free. In 2014, just a short time after the illegal annexation of Crimea, all 28 Allies pledged to increase defense spending to 2 percent of their countries’ GDP within a decade. Since then, the Alliance has been moving in the right direction. In 2015, defense spending cuts came to a halt, and last year we saw an overall increase of 3.8 percent by European Allies and Canada—or around $10 billion—with 23 Allies increasing defense spending in real terms. If every non-U.S. Ally were to reach the 2 percent target, it would mean an additional $100 billion for defense, which is the combined current total defense spending of France and the United Kingdom every year. The “Defense Investment Pledge” also committed Allies to spending 20 percent of that expenditure on major new equipment and related research and development, to ensure that our troops have the capabilities they need for the job we ask them to do. Ten Allies now meet that standard, up from eight in 2015. 

This is a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. Of course, the transatlantic bond goes far deeper than just money, and defense is about a lot more than just defense spending. But a fair sharing of the financial burden is essential. This year, NATO calls on all Allies to redouble their efforts to increase defense spending and to fulfill the pledge they have made. 

For almost seven decades, the countries of the NATO Alliance have stood shoulder-to-shoulder in defense of the values that unite us: freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. While the challenges we have faced over those years have changed, our commitment to those values, and to each other, has remained rock solid, and it will continue to be so.

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NATO Deputy Secretary General