A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Age of Uncertainties


NATO isn’t “obsolete;” its relevance is unchanged. Rather, it enters a phase riddled with complex challenges. It will need to talk to Russia and take cooperation with the EU to a new level.

© REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Rarely in its 70-year history has the North Atlantic Alliance faced uncertainties as complex and varied as in the beginning of 2017: a Russia that has violated fundamental principles of the European security order and made unpredictability its trademark, a southern neighborhood in turmoil from Libya to Syria and Iraq and without clear prospects of achieving sustainable stability in the foreseeable future, and new complex threats such as hybrid warfare and cyberwar. Uncertainties also characterize the situation within the Alliance. There is a constant threat of terrorist attacks, and migrant flows from the South might surge again. Turkey as a key ally faces tremendous internal and external challenges. Finally, a new US administration led by President Donald Trump will have to define its position vis-à-vis NATO as well as the old and new issues of European security. How it will do this throughout 2017 will be of the utmost importance for America’s allies and beyond.

Old Alliance – unchanged relevance vis-à-vis new challenges

Against the backdrop of manifold uncertainties and divisive trends, it is important to recall the unique value of the North Atlantic Alliance for both the North American democracies and Europe – the fact that it is an organization in which 28, and with the accession of Montenegro soon 29 nations, have pledged to protect each other in a 360 degrees perspective and on the basis of common values. For almost seven decades, NATO has been – beyond Article 5 – a unique institutional framework for daily transatlantic coordination on a wide range of security policy issues, joint defense planning and military cooperation. It has been the bedrock of European security – despite all the differences which can always occur between allies.

Since the foundation of NATO, the US has benefited from assuming its role as a “European” power by investing both politically and militarily in the Alliance and by fostering European unity. Maintaining a close network of allies in NATO has paid off for the US in many respects. Not least, uniting most of Europe’s democracies in a military alliance has made a crucial contribution to stability on America’s opposite Atlantic shores – unlike the period after World War I when the US withdrew from Europe. The political, economic and human costs associated with that withdrawal were enormous.

NATO’s value has become particularly clear again since 2014, when Russia called the European security order into question by annexing Crimea and destabilizing eastern Ukraine. At its summits in Wales (2014) and Warsaw (2016), the Alliance gave firm answers to this challenge and to growing instability in its southern neighborhood. Both summits sent clear messages of transatlantic unity and solidarity. Warsaw set out a comprehensive agenda, which will have to be implemented in 2017, on adapting the Alliance to a changing security situation and demonstrating that it is able and willing to deliver on its commitments. Any major backtracking on the agenda agreed in Warsaw would raise questions in this respect.

Swift implementation is also required, as the next NATO summit planned for 2017 will provide not only an opportunity for a first meeting between allied leaders and the new US President, but will also be a vital occasion to take stock and discuss the way ahead. In times when commentators are lamenting the demise of the West and established institutions of the democratic liberal order seem to be weakening, it is all the more important that the Alliance demonstrate unity, resolve and the capacity to act – as a key pillar of the political West.

That remains true first and foremost with regard to European security. At the Warsaw summit, the Alliance decided to move from reassurance (the key topic of the 2014 Wales summit) to strengthening deterrence and defense. While maintaining its defensive character and its readiness to conduct dialogue with Russia, enhanced Forward Presence (deployment of four battalion-sized, multi-national battle groups on a rotational basis to Poland and the Baltic states) and tailored Forward Presence in south-eastern Europe will be key deliverables for the first semester of 2017. The Alliance attached great importance to making sure that the scope and scale of this new military presence is in line with NATO’s defensive nature and does not contradict the NATO-Russia Founding Act. It represents a credible deterrent and shows that in case of crisis the Alliance as a whole will be engaged. Implementation by host nations, framework nations – the US, UK, Canada, and Germany – and other contributing allies is well under way. Furthermore, in the context of its European Reassurance Initiative, the US decided to deploy additional units to Europe, thus underlining its unwavering commitment to European security. Germany is playing a key role in the implementation of the Readiness Action Plan decided in Wales and will assume the role of the framework nation for the battle group to be stationed in Lithuania. Germany is thus showing that it is serious about its commitment to assume responsibility and, where necessary, leadership, as expressed in the new 2016 White Paper on German Security Policy.

However, strengthening deterrence and defense is not only limited to NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence. After years of expeditionary operations, national forces are being modernized and restructured to ensure that follow-on forces are also available when needed. In addition, and with a view to challenges emanating from outside the Euro-Atlantic area, the Alliance will also develop its Ballistic Missile Defense system throughout 2017.

A dual-track approach vis-à-vis Russia – dialogue is necessary

At the Warsaw summit, NATO not only decided to strengthen deterrence and defense, but also pledged to complement them by undertaking periodic, focused and meaningful dialogue with Russia in the framework of a dual-track approach. While the Alliance decided in 2014 to suspend practical political and military cooperation with Russia and insists on the implementation of the Minsk agreements, dialogue and consultation on key security questions remains important. Although there will not be a return to business as usual for the time being, necessary business needs to be done with Russia in order to avoid dangerous misperceptions and misunderstandings. This is in the Alliance’s own best interest. The NATO-Russia Council, which met three times in 2016, is a key forum for pursuing this necessary dialogue. It would be important to breathe more life into the dialogue track with Russia over the course of 2017.

There is no lack of urgent questions to be discussed, such as the conflict in and around Ukraine as the main reason for the deterioration of relations between NATO and Russia since 2014. Beyond this conflict, NATO and Russia share a common interest in avoiding unintended military incidents that could lead to serious escalation, in particular as both sides have significantly increased their military activities, e.g. through military exercises. Risk reduction and transparency are thus also important topics for the NATO-Russia Council. Air safety in the Baltic Sea region is one concrete example in this field. NATO and Russia should also continue to inform each other about their respective military posture, their (threat) perceptions and their exercises. Both sides should use their military lines of communication. However, Russia has been reluctant to take up proposals by NATO in this regard so far. It is well understood that a dialogue on these and other issues cannot replace the implementation of obligations in the context of the OSCE, in particular with regard to the Vienna Document.

NATO’s future role in the Southern periphery and in the fight against terrorism – an ongoing debate

Unlike in the past, the Alliance is now confronted with a historically new, double strategic challenge: besides the challenges in the East, it is now facing an arc of crises, violence and instability, ranging from Libya to Afghanistan. At the Warsaw summit, the Alliance made clear that as part of the core tasks laid down in its Strategic Concept, it is willing to help bring about greater stability in its southern neighborhood. It will do so mainly in the context of efforts aimed at projecting stability, in particular by building defense capacity and advising and training partners’ local forces. This approach is based on the assumption that it is better to enable partners in the region to cope with security challenges themselves than to put boots on the ground. Projecting stability also implies that NATO complements, but does not duplicate, ongoing efforts by the Global Coalition to counter the so-called Islamic State, as well as by the UN and the EU. As of January 2017, NATO will start training Iraqi forces in Iraq in specific areas, and will also do more with regard to Jordan and Tunisia. A new maritime security operation called Operation Sea Guardian was launched in October 2016 to improve situational awareness in the Mediterranean and to assist countries in capacity building. NATO has also offered support to Libya in the field of institution building, if the latter so wishes.

Undoubtedly, terrorism is a key threat to allied nations, as recent terrorist attacks in Turkey, Germany, France and Belgium have shown in a dramatic way. NATO is already making significant contributions when it comes to fighting terrorism. While NATO as such, unlike all NATO member countries, is not a member of the Global Coalition against IS, NATO AWACS have been operating in support of the Coalition since October 2016. The Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, aimed at training and advising Afghan security forces, remains NATO’s most important military operation. It too contributes directly to the fight against terrorism. Last but not least, it is worth mentioning that it was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the US that NATO invoked Article 5 for the first and only time in its history.

Nevertheless, 2017 will see further discussions within the Alliance regarding the right level of ambition when it comes to projecting stability in the South and fighting terrorism. This difficult question, of strategic importance for the future of the Alliance, will certainly be one of the key topics to be discussed at the NATO summit in 2017. It will be all the more important to have developed a realistic framework for NATO’s role in the South by then. More clarity is required regarding the question of which tools NATO can effectively use in this difficult region with its very complex threats requiring not only military answers. In any case, the Alliance should try to generate value added, but not duplicate what others are already doing. Ownership of measures by partners in the region is another important prerequisite for successful engagement in the South.

The indispensable partnership between NATO and the EU – high time to take it to a new level

NATO will not be able to cope with the complex challenges in the South alone – nor can it play the role of a first responder as it undoubtedly does in the framework of collective defense. As complex threats necessitate joint answers in a truly comprehensive approach, NATO needs to cooperate closely with other partners – above all with the EU and UN. A closer partnership between NATO and the EU makes sense as 22 EU member states are members of the Alliance – with only one single set of forces at their disposal. NATO already supports the EU Operation Sophia in the central Mediterranean. NATO’s activity in the Aegean Sea to cut the lines of illegal trafficking and illegal migration in close cooperation with Greek and Turkish coastguards and Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is another example of what NATO can do to support other actors. Substantial progress in NATO-EU cooperation throughout 2017 is necessary, as both organizations need to implement a comprehensive set of more than 40 proposals for increased cooperation endorsed by NATO and EU Foreign Ministers, as well as by the European Council, in December 2016. These proposals define a comprehensive agenda for more coordinated action, including on cybersecurity, hybrid threats, strategic communication, defense capacity building, early warning and coordinated exercises.

If the EU and NATO manage to take their partnership to a new level, they will be in a much better position to provide security for their nations. Increased cooperation between these two pillars of the political West is also necessary to demonstrate that there is no unhealthy competition between them. That is why the EU made very clear that ongoing efforts to enhance EU capabilities in the field of defense and crisis management are by no means aimed at replacing NATO in the field of collective defense or at creating a European army. US military presence and the unconditioned US nuclear guarantee will remain indispensable to European security for the foreseeable future. In the same vein, the ambition to establish a planning and conduct capability for missions within the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy does not aim to create structures like SHAPE, NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, within the EU. However, the EU needs to be able to tackle security challenges that are not or not sufficiently covered by NATO or the US – in particular in North Africa. In this respect, a stronger European Union can help to bring about a stronger North Atlantic Alliance. Strengthening European defense capabilities fosters more balanced transatlantic burden-sharing and is both in European and US interests.

Transatlantic burden sharing and European defense expenditure: turning around the downward trend, but more “bang for the buck” needed

European defense expenditure will undoubtedly play an even more important role with the incoming US administration. The demand for a greater European share in transatlantic burden-sharing is not new, but with a dramatically changing security environment, it has become more urgent. At the NATO summit in Wales, allies undertook to turn around the downward trend in defense spending and to aim to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense by 2024 as well as increase their annual investments to 20 percent or more of total defense expenditures. Moreover, it was agreed to increase the overall turnout for NATO.

Allies reaffirmed this commitment at the Warsaw summit, where they were able to show that 24 allies had already turned around the downward trend and started to increase their defense budgets. This is also true for Germany, which in 2017 will increase its defense budget by 7.9 percent (to €37 billion) compared to 2016. In many allied countries there is a clear understanding that defense spending will have to be further increased in the future. This will be necessary in order to fill existing capability gaps, but also to ensure continued support among the US public for US engagement in and with NATO.

At the same time, one should not belittle current European defense efforts: on an annual basis (2015), European allies (apart from the US and Canada) spend around 250 billion US dollars on defense – almost matching the official Russian and Chinese defense budgets combined. And unlike the US, which commits a large portion of its defense spending to non-NATO defense (e.g. in Asia-Pacific), all European allies (with the exception of France and the UK) commit almost their entire defense spending and military capabilities to NATO. It should also not be forgotten that Europeans made and make major contributions to military operations in the Western Balkans (and continue to do so in Kosovo and Bosnia), in Afghanistan and North Africa. Insofar, the frequently heard view that the US provides approximately 70 percent of NATO’s defense spending is misleading.

Increasing European defense budgets, however, can only be one answer to the debate on transatlantic burden-sharing. Budget figures are certainly significant – but what ultimately count are capabilities within a truly comprehensive strategic approach. In that respect, Europeans have to do more – in particular when it comes to using resources more effectively. There are many reasons to doubt whether Europeans really need 19 types of infantry fighting vehicles or 29 types of naval frigates and helicopters. With rising security challenges on the one hand and limited defense budgets on the other, the current fragmentation of European defense industries does not seem to be sustainable. Europeans should get more “bang for the buck” by creating synergies and using their resources more effectively. Germany has brought 16 European nations together in the Framework Nations Concept in order to jointly develop capabilities in well-defined areas including larger formations needed for reinforcements. This NATO-endorsed concept provides a good opportunity to develop European capability clusters in line with the NATO Defense Planning Process. In the end, it could lead to European capabilities being used by either NATO or – if necessary – also by the EU.

Finally, 2017 will be a year in which NATO will have to continue to adapt to new challenges such as cybersecurity. 2016 showed that the cyber dimension of security is becoming more and more relevant and that nations will have to deliver on the Cyber Defense Pledge they adopted at the Warsaw summit – first and foremost by making sure that NATO’s networks are well protected and by making their own national cyber infrastructure more resilient against attacks.

In this age of uncertainties only one thing seems certain: There will be no lack of huge challenges in the years ahead – challenges which will affect both sides of the Atlantic. Neither the US nor Europe will be able to meet them successfully alone; in the end, the only successful answers will be joint answers. As in the past, this will require the political will of nations and their leaders to use the Alliance as a prime institutional framework to safeguard their common transatlantic security interests in a complex, volatile and dangerous world. If they manage to do so and to demonstrate unity – the source of strength of any alliance – NATO will remain highly relevant both for the US and Europe, as a cornerstone of stability and reliability. As the designated US Defense Secretary General James Mattis said: “Nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither.”

NB. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.