NATO’s Non-Military Responses to Hybrid Threats

Teija Tiilikainen

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Hybrid threats refer to political power being exerted in a very specific form in international politics. As exertion of power in general, hybrid actions aim at affecting the target state’s decision-making to the benefit of the acting state or non-state actor. Hybrid action is characterized by the use of unconventional means trying to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the target state or collective actor such as the EU or NATO. Disinformation and interference in political debate or elections, critical infrastructure disturbances or attacks, cyber operations, different forms of criminal activities and, finally, an asymmetric use of military means and warfare, belong to typical forms of hybrid action.
By using a set of aforementioned unconventional means in concert, hybrid actors screen their action in vagueness and ambiguity, complicating attribution and response. The use of different intermediaries – or proxy actors – supports the achievement of these goals. Hybrid action is cost-effective as it turns the vulnerabilities of the target into a direct strength of the hybrid actor. To reach this essential ambiguity, hybrid actors blur the usual borderlines of international politics and operate in the interstices between external and internal, legal and illegal and peace and war (interestingly enough, reinterpreting Sun Tzu). This makes hybrid action more difficult to prevent or respond to.
From NATO’s point of view the challenges of hybrid action are manifold. Due to the specific character of hybrid threats it is very difficult to create a coherent policy to prevent or respond to them. Concerning the scope and gravity of threat they pose to the target states – including NATO’s ability to carry out its core functions – a solid policy to counter them, however, is essential. Here NATO’s possibilities to deter hybrid threats form the starting point.
If the tools of deterrence are divided into those of punishment and denial, NATO’s challenges can be considered to differ depending on the task in question. The most powerful instrument for punishment is NATO’s collective defence with its fifth article of the Washington Treaty as a major deterrent. Hybrid actors scale their operations to stay under the threshold of Article five to avoid a collective response from NATO. Inability to respond collectively to hybrid threats remaining below this threshold – or a clear lack of a joint understanding of the place of the threshold vis-á-vis hybrid threats – create a serious vulnerability for NATO and its allies. NATO should thus try to safeguard a sufficient internal awareness and consensus about how to respond collectively to hybrid threats taking place under the Article Five threshold in order to prevent the adversaries from taking advantage of this vulnerability. This requires careful coordination among the allies and close cooperation with the EU as the capabilities to address many forms of hybrid threats taking place in these frameworks. This requires also a good preparedness for a joint attribution of hybrid action that increases the effectiveness of making the threats visible.
Enhancing resilience forms the other part of effective deterrence and here the broad involvement of various branches of government as well as the private sector is the key. NATO must first of all ensure the resilience of its own political and military machinery and take the lead in mapping the vulnerabilities that might constrain its action in a hybrid threat situation. This work has already been launched by strengthening NATO’s role in support of its allies for instance in critical infrastructure protection, cyber defence or situational awareness and intelligence sharing. Joint exercises play an important role in testing common decision-making capacity and an enlarged engagement of governmental and private actors has gradually begun.
In this context consolidating NATO’s legal resilience is another important goal as an incoherent legislative framework might seriously hamper collective action against hybrid threats. The ambitious goal of NATO’s non-military capacity-building against hybrid threats must be to abolish both political and legal hurdles from an efficient common action and also in this way signal its cohesion in facing new threats.
Teija Tiilikainen

Teija Tiilikainen

She is the Director of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. She was the Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and has also served as Secretary of State at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. She is part-time professor at the European University Institute (Florence) and vice-chair of the executive board of the University of Helsinki.