If you are familiar with NATO’s history, the statement “NATO is (and has always been) a defensive Alliance and that it will continue to strive for peace, security, and stability in the whole of the Euro-Atlantic area” seems an obvious point. Yet it also appears to be an unforgettable fundamental. You will find this mantra in the introductory paragraph of the communiqué from the most recent NATO Summit. It has been stated repeatedly in previous high-level meetings, and make no mistake, the NATOAllies will echo it in the future. So, if the above principle, as well as the declaration "an attack against one Ally shall be considered an attack against us all, as enshrined in Article 5" have been reiterated at everySummit, what was the significance of such statements at the meeting of the Heads of State and of Government this year? Is it true that 2021 Brussels’ Summit “opened a new chapter for NATO’s Alliance, whereAllies addressed key issues for our security and took far-reaching decisions,” as Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared at his press conference following the meeting? One may argue that security issues have always been and will always be on NATO’s agenda because this is clearly the main business for the Alliance as enshrined in the Washington Treaty of 1949.So really, what’s new?
To be fair, we must remember that the recurring argument that distinguishes the Alliance from many other organisations is its ability to rapidly transform itself, a harbinger of its Allies’ ability to adapt to the geopolitical and economic changes occurring within the North-Atlantic Area of Interest. Furthermore, anything that happens on the global scene affects the choices of the Allies, who do not want to risk a second-rate position compared to the giants Russia and China. This is not just competition. Russia persists in violating the values, principles, trust and commitments outlined in the international agreements that underpin NATO-Russia relations. China's use of disinformation and its lead in the hi-tech realm, together with its authoritarian attitude towards human rights, can only fuel concerns among Allies, even as the commercial opportunities it offers complicate the matter for many countries of the Alliance.
If we add to this the challenges on climate change, possible hidden coalitions in the world of terrorism and cyber activities, and other asymmetric threats, NATO has the duty to increase its capacity and enhance its tools to continue guaranteeing the security of its citizens. In that vein, the NATO agenda is hardly surprising, nor are the great expectations from the commitments of all Allied Nations at the recent Summit.
Jens Stoltenberg summed up the ambitious commitments of the Summit in eight points expressed in the NATO2030 program. Namely, these are (1) to deepen Political Consultation andCoordination; (2) to strengthen Deterrence andDefence; (3) to improveAlliance’s Resilience; (4) to preserve collective TechnologicalEdge; (5) to uphold the Rules-Based InternationalOrder; (6) to boost Training and CapacityBuilding; (7) to combat and adapt to Climate Change; and (8) to develop the Next Strategic Concept. In the end, one could say that this was a mix of “reiterating” well-established commitments(perhaps with different wording) while addressing uncertain security issues emerging from a new competitive world.
We should be made clear that the repercussions of the Summit will be both immediate and long-term. The immediate impact is highly political and declarative because it is linked to the risks that China poses to the rules-based international order. Other issues go more to the military side of the Alliance, including strengthening defense and deterrence against Russia and terrorism. In this, time is of the essence. An aspect that has never been dealt with seriously in the past, but which is now emerging in connection with the safety of allied populations is climate change. NATO's increased effort in this regard will certainly affect both the political arena and military technology.
So far, everything seems straightforward, though not easy to implement given the cuts and expenses following the recent pandemic that has afflicted all countries. Indeed, it is precisely by rethinking the economic adversity and consequent restrictions caused by the fight against the virus that the commitment #3 (i.e. “to strengthen the Allies’ individual and collective resilience against hybrid, cyber and other threats”) perplexes everybody a bit. Truly, the commitment of the Allied Nations to strengthen their national and collective resilience is already firmly anchored in the Washington Treaty, in particularArticle 3, which states that “Allies, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” This commitment is based on the indivisibility of Allies’ security and underpins their solidarity and commitment to defend one another.
To that end, at theSummit Allies have promised to take a broader and more coordinated approach to resilience, agreeing to develop common resilience goals in order to guide nationally tailored resilience targets and implementation plans, which are based on clearer and more resilient objectives, measurable across theAlliance. This should allow NATO, as an organisation, to better advise and evaluate national resilience efforts in support of NATO's collective defense and link the resulting collective resilience with the Alliance's posture and broader plans.
This is all good in principle. However, there is a need to reflect on the significance and challenges of the consensus pillar as a basis for NATO’s decision-making process. The essential distinction between NATO as an international organization and forum that allows cooperation and agreement between Allies versus theAlliance as a group of 30 individual sovereign members is very often misunderstood. This distinction is very important. The Atlantic Council, consisting of the Ambassadors of the30 countries, facilitates the collective decisions of the Alliance, but it does not make them. This prerogative belongs to sovereign nations. Their collective agreement resulting from the consensus constitutes a single voice of NATO, albeit with safeguarded sovereignty. This poses a challenge in connection with the famous 2% GDP defense budget commitment. Despite the Secretary General’s optimism about the increased investment in defence by many Allies in recent years, many still fall short of this target, even in internal political contexts with few challenges. What does this mean for planning and investing in national resilience, and furthermore linking them to NATO’s objectives? The coordination of the defence, private, industrial, academic, and emergency management stakeholders to this end might well be more politically challenging than the development of a pandemic plan! Collective solutions to such an important and fundamental topic will not come without conflict.