Is NATO obsolete? This is a question, at times an affirmation, which one hears or often repeats in these times, particularly after President Trump, then the presidential candidate pronounced it. It is true that once elected, on several occasions, both the President and his cabinet have repeatedly reaffirmed the continuing importance of NATO and yet in European and national circles whenever NATO is discussed, someone inevitably raises the question: “Is NATO obsolete?”
Personally this question has tired me, both because it reflects the superficiality and the prejudice of the relevance of the Alliance in the current context but also because the problem is not so much the obsolescence of this or that International Organization, but that the difficulty of all the major International Organizations, the UN, the EU and NATO to adapt effectively to the new international and geopolitical security framework and provide adequate responses to new scenarios and new security challenges.
Keynes reminds us that “the overwhelming majority of us resist the idea that the present and the future are different from the past but what is worse is that even when we accept the idea of the new, we do not abandon old ideas”.
Hence, obsolescence is not so much in international organization per se, obsolescence is in us in our old way of thinking, in our “old” answers to the new challenges of security.
For NATO then, the alleged issue is even more paradoxical when the security scenarios in Eastern European neighbourhood show us an increasing activism and also, at times, an aggressive assertiveness from Russia with the natural consequence of restoring importance and centrality to the Collective Defense, since always the cornerstone of the Alliance.
Considering NATO as obsolete when it comes to re-evaluating the centrality of deterrence and dissuasion against certain attitudes and behaviour of Russia in the Eastern neighbourhood (Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine), of the Russian military strengthening in the Kaliningrad enclave, including the deployment of missiles with nuclear capacity in violation of the agreements over INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) and in the western frontier districts, it seems to me frankly paradoxical.
Also in the southern neighbourhood the growing and dangerous instability and explosiveness of the enlarged Mediterranean area, from the near and middle-east, to the Persian Gulf to the North-Africa and sub-Saharan Africa has witnessed the emergence of the Syrian, Libyan and Iraqi crisis, the Sunni-Shiite rivalry in the Gulf, centered on the Saudi-Iranian confrontation, the advent of the ISIS phenomenon, the failure of governance in so many African states with the consequent explosion of the migratory phenomenon from Africa to Europe and in particular towards Italy.
If we don’t want to be short-sighted, we must also understand that the globalization of security scenarios also reverberates long distances, and that therefore the North Korean crisis in the North Pacific and the tensions with China in South-East Asia concern not only the USA, that are the most important member of NATO, but even us more generally, these are also our problems both as NATO allies and as actors of international security.
Hence, it would be, in my opinion, a macroscopic and strategic error, to create an optics of obsolescence of NATO and weakening of the transatlantic bond, the right focus is how to strengthen them to defend, protect and affirm our liberal-democratic values. How to strengthen NATO and the transatlantic link? The starting point must be conceptual, that is realizing the complexity and the nature of the new challenges to security require an innovative approach, not a repetition of old answers, easy because known.
50 years ago, the Harmel report became the cornerstone for the Alliance’s adaptation in that historic moment. Today there is the need for a new Harmel report to launch an initiative to adapt the Alliance in order to make it “responsive” to the new strategic scenario.
50 years ago, the Harmel report summarized the idea of transforming the Alliance into a “Deterrence and Detent” concept. Today if I had to summarize the adaptation concept of NATO, I would speak of “Deterrence and Projection of Stability through Cooperation and Partnership”.
It is in this context that on the initiative of GLOBSEC, a Slovakian Think Tank, a report was prepared entitled “NATO ADAPTATION INITIATIVE” drawn up by a small group of experts (including who’s writing) under the presidency of US General John R. Allen and presented to the Alliance last December with the ambition to stimulate an Alliance adaptation through a strategic review in the spirit of the Harmel report.
NATO has come to a crucial decision-making point and risks falling behind the pace of political changes and technological developments that are changing the structure of international relations, the character of warfare and the very role of the Alliance.
According to the report, the key elements of this new strategic approach of the Alliance can be summarized as follows:
-Understanding the new strategic and transatlantic realities, including the need for deterrence against a military revisionist Russia, to protect stability to the South and to manage new threats including that posed by North Korea, as well as re-establishing a fairer and more balanced burden-sharing between the USA and the European allies.
-Strengthen NATO’s defense and deterrence posture to prevent conflicts and deter aggressive postures from other States. Therefore increasing the readiness and responsiveness of NATO’s conventional forces is a priority. Even nuclear posture will have to be revisited and modernized.
-Establish a high level of military ambition. All aspects of NATO conventional forces must be radically improved, including better integration of cyber and new technologies.
– Strengthen NATO’s role in counter-terrorism.
-Engage Russia and address the Ukraine issue based on international principles.
-to promote a broader security agenda so that the security of the Alliance and its members does not stop at its geographical boundaries.
-Building a “smarter” NATO through a better integration of the existing network of expertise and centres of excellence and creating new centres to face the new challenges including the entry into the military warfare of Artificial Intelligence and Quantum computing.
– Creating a new, more ambitious and comprehensive NATO-EU strategic partnership, also in light of the emerging and more ambitious European Union Defense Initiative.
-Promote wider strategic partnerships in addition to those already in place of the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (which must be improved and deepened) thus aiming at creating a global network of political, civil and military partnerships through the creation of advisory councils with countries such as China, India, Japan, Australia and South Korea.
-To better equip NATO in a sustainable manner, innovating the way to acquire skills faster and more economically, in particular by introducing new technologies and capabilities.
-Deepen the relations with the world of defense industries, those consolidated but also emerging with new capacitive solutions that exploit emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
-Prepare NATO for future operations, also known as Hyperwarfare operations.
In conclusion, NATO is not obsolete, in contrast, the transatlantic bond is more necessary than ever to protect our values but it must be adapted to the new strategic realities and new challenges. In this context, European Allies must acquire the full awareness of the need to assume more ambitious roles, responsibilities and burdens in the management of collective security.
If the new and more ambitious European security and defensive initiative will move from the will phase to the implementation phase, we will enter a new adapted NATO dimension, not only militarily strengthened but also more “comprehensive” and political in which the European voice will have a weight and a much greater and decisive influence in defining the policies of the Alliance in the context of an indispensable and irreplaceable continuity of the transatlantic relationship.
Giampaolo di Paola – former Italian Minister of Defense