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Speech: NATO and unconventional threats

On 10 November, UK Permanent Representative to NATO, Sir Adam Thomson, spoke at a conference organised by the UK Atlantic Council.



I want to make clear at the outset that I disagree with every aspect of my title. · Geopolitics are alive and kicking; · unconventional threats won’t change that state of affairs - on the contrary, they are a significant driver in the apparent intensification of geopolitical frictions; · and, anyway, now deep into 2015, I’m unsure whether any of the threats that NATO addresses can any longer be described as “conventional”, making it hard to distinguish the “unconventional” ones.

But having got your attention with the title, I will use it to discuss two things: the positioning of NATO in response to geopolitics and to threats. My aim is to address a number of points currently at issue in NATO and to seek your wisdom on them. My views are my own: they may or may not be more widely British but they are not necessarily the British Government’s.

FIRST, Geopolitics.

I agree with this conference’s theme that ideology – broadly defined - is indeed resurgent. I don’t think it ever went away – or ever will. But the competition between different value systems and explanations of the way the world is now prominent. NATO and the defence and promotion of open societies. Putin and great power spheres of influence. ISIL and the establishment of its caliphate of the godly. Iran and its sectarian view of the world. To name but four. None of these are status quo visions. This is geopolitics, alive and kicking hard.

2014 started to wake NATO from its post-modern slumber on matters of collective defence and the exercise of power. Allies agree quite readily that NATO is a political and not just military alliance and that we are bound by a set of values. But the Alliance has some way to travel before being collectively comfortable about NATO proactively defending those values, let alone exerting its power in their behalf, let alone consciously competing with states or wannabe states that promote opposing visions.

To put it another way, the Kremlin is in no doubt that it is in strategic competition with NATO. ISIL is in no doubt that it is in strategic competition not just with other brands of Islam but with the West. NATO is in the middle of geopolitics but is uncertain whether to play.

I would welcome your views. Personally, I think it is a mistake not to acknowledge, embrace and act on two realities. First, that our societies, medias and parliaments expect our governments in loosely defined but very compelling ways to stand up for our values and extend their sway. And, second, that NATO is not only a tool for doing so but a tool that nowadays needs oiling with those values.

I am not saying that NATO is, or should be, or could ever be a ‘church militant’ for open societies. Nor even that, as an organisation, it is a primary vehicle for the political and values response to, for example, Russia or ISIL. And certainly not that the Alliance should lower an Iron Curtain or that Allies do not care about and defend their values.

But I do think explicit recognition that the Alliance is unavoidably in the geopolitics game - in direct, strategic competition with some other competing, hostile and quite threatening world views - would improve the quality of NATO policy making and strengthen the Alliance.

And I’d like to suggest that this is a rather profoundly geopolitical point. To take just the question of Europe’s security, setting aside for the moment the harder questions around the security of Europe’s periphery – what is NATO working for? The vision following the 1990 London summit of “Europe whole, free and at peace”? Or Harmel’s 1967 one Europe two systems, with the mere defence of the NATO space while waiting patiently for positive change in the East? At the moment we risk saying one and doing the other – not a healthy combination. And the delta over time between one approach and the other could matter a great deal geopolitically.

I don’t know whether these questions will feature at Warsaw: at the moment, our debates are proxy ones around partnerships, the open door policy, engagement southwards and strategic communications.

SECOND, threats, unconventional and less so.

It’s worth making a number of obvious points about threats:

  1. Few are existential. Equally importantly, none feel so, at any rate to our publics. This feeds directly back into my thoughts about NATO, ideology and geopolitics. Beset by so many challenges, how much leadership can – or indeed should - our governments give to one set of threats or another?

  2. There are a lot of possible threats. NATO discussions at least touch on all of them. None of these threats may be particularly new. But compared to, say, the 2010 Strategic Concept, NATO’s awareness of their extent possibly is new, stirred in particular by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in April 2014 subsequent depredations towards Ukraine more generally and now its adventure in Syria.

  3. They are simultaneous not sequential. Some are arguably intensifying. Some, such as cyber, are certainly fast evolving. They are mixing or mixable. The General National Congress on 3 November threatened to send more migrants Europe’s way if the international community did not recognise it as Libya’s legitimate government. Russia mixes and matches economic and energy levers with hybrid and nuclear ones.

In short, complicated. On the back of this far from profound insight, I’d like to offer one observation and three propositions.

The observation is that this multiplicity of threats does not presage a return to cold war. This needs saying about NATO. Many of the threats that trouble us most – cyber, other aspects of hybrid attack, arguably even elements of terrorism – are driven by the West’s, and within that NATO’s, military superiority. That’s a very different dynamic from NATO’s Cold War dependence on the threat of nuclear first use. And, God forbid, even under hypothetical scenarios of considerably heightened tension, we still need to collaborate with Russia or, say, Iran even as we also seek to compete with and constrain them. Again I would value your views. But my instinct is that, although fiendishly challenging diplomatically and politically, these dynamics may prove quite enduring and resilient. Geopolitics hasn’t died. But they need to be compartmentalised. I do not think NATO or the Alliance it serves will be in the Cold War game.

This bears on the first of my three propositions:

NATO needs to return, quite soon, to arms control and tough dialogue with its state competitors. One could say that the West, not NATO, has already done so with Iran. But I have Russia in mind in particular.

Russia’s willingness to lie about its activities, to game the Euro-Atlantic security rules and to conduct untransparent snap exercises is very destabilising for European security. In response, NATO’s Warsaw summit is bound to do quite a lot of hard defence. But that needs to be balanced with practical security engagement with Russia if Warsaw is not in some respects to be destabilising in its turn.

Ever since Russia walked out of the Adapted CFE Treaty in 2007 over its military occupation of Moldova, NATO has rather lost the habit of doing arms control. It now needs to return to this arena, presumably via the NATO caucus at the OSCE in Vienna, with some hard-headed propositions about security steps that would make Europe safer. Not in the expectation that these will be agreed but in the hope that their negotiation will help NATO and Russia better calibrate each other’s concerns.

Second, the threat environment is not merely complex but often not susceptible to solution by a single institution. This may be especially true of what are regarded as “unconventional threats” such as cyber or terrorism or ambiguous attack. They may implicate NATO but be unsoluble by NATO. And equally, some may not be soluble without NATO. So NATO needs to adapt itself to collaborate more effectively with other actors.

This is true for how NATO takes forward its relationships with key partners. It is also true for NATO’s relations with other key institutions of the Euro-Atlantic security order. It is above all true for NATO-EU relations.

The Ukraine crisis has vividly demonstrated why hybrid threats will almost always demand a multi-institution response. And thanks to having 22 members in common, NATO and the EU haven’t done too badly over Ukraine.

But no visitor from Mars would believe the existing lack of practical concertation and collaboration between NATO and the EU as institutions. The paucity of consultation, the amount of de facto duplication, the missed opportunities for synergy are, objectively, hard to justify. By the time of the June 2016 European Council and NATO’s July 2016 Warsaw summit. NATO and the EU may or may not have something to say about working together on the threat of hybrid attack. But what, then, about defence and security capacity building for partners, or about cyber defence or maritime operations or respective approaches to the local neighbourhood or Russia or the South?

We are where we are in NATO-EU relations. I would welcome views on the art of the possible. But I wonder whether, in the face of all the new challenges and threats that NATO and the EU now face and share, and given the pressures on nations’ resources, we should any longer be so tolerant of the gaps. My proposition is that it would be worth once again investing scarce diplomatic resource and political capital in trying to find ways forward.

Which brings me to my third and final proposition. The threats, both conventional and less so are evolving and will continue to do so. They are complex, so learning how to deal with them takes time and trial and error. NATO needs not only fresh approaches internally but also with partner nations and institutions. Uncertainty looks likely to be an enduring condition.

This all strongly suggests that NATO needs not simply long term adaptation but continuous adaptation. The organisation would be better able to deal with evolving threats and unpredictabilities if it worked to become more adaptable by design. If NATO 1.0 was the Cold War, 2.0 the Balkans and 3.0 Afghanistan, NATO 4.0 should not be about Russia. Or about threats from the South. Or continuation in Afghanistan. NATO 4.0 should be about adaptability, so that NATO can defend its members in continuously evolving mixes of collective defence, cooperative security and crisis management.

What might this look like at Warsaw? Progress certainly on things already underway: the Readiness Action Plan; the defence investment pledge; capability improvements. But also a fresh focus on cohesion (franker analysis and debate on the difficult issues, including Russia); on understanding (ISR; intelligence sharing; on measuring effects); on deterrence 360 degrees (hard, but NATO is already starting to address how to deter southwards); on resilience and Article 3 – “continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid”); on agile, well-informed decision making and the exercising of that; on engagement, dialogue and negotiation (as discussed above) and on organisational reform (transparency, accountability, flexibility, agility, efficiency).

To deal with the resurgence of ideology, with the attendant return of geopolitics, with the complexity of unconventional threats, NATO needs to continue to adapt. It should, in my view, adapt to compete as one tool in the West’s geopolitical competition. It should engage, with Russia and other competitors, with partners and aspirants strategically, and with Euro-Atlantic institutions, above all the EU. And it should focus on designing itself for adaptability.

That’s a full agenda. While the Wales summit was a first conscious step into a world where Europe’s security is more uncertain and contested, the Warsaw summit needs to take a further long stride.

Thank you for listening. I look forward to your comments and questions.


Published 11 November 2015