News article

"The power of NATO is as much political as military"

Interview with Sir Adam Thomson, UK Ambassador to NATO, in Defense News

On 10 May 2016, Defense News published an interview with Sir Adam Thomson, UK Permanent Representative to NATO.

Below is a reprint of the original article in Defense News.


Adam Thomson was named the United Kingdom’s permanent representative to NATO in 2014, taking office as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dramatically changed the face of European security. During a May 2 visit to Washington, he spoke with Aaron Mehta about the upcoming Warsaw summit, the so-called “southern flank” of the alliance, and how the alliance can deter future Russian aggression without bringing back the Cold War.

Q. NATO is set for a big meeting in July in Warsaw, which is being set up as a first step in the future of NATO. What are you hoping to see come out of that event?

A. Well, I’m hoping to get out of it a big step forward in NATO’s thinking about the threats it faces, and in the development of tools with which to respond. So in the south, NATO at least has to be coherent and credible about what it could contribute. It doesn’t necessarily have to plunge in to the counter-ISIL coalition, or migration or whatever. [But] it needs to be really clear that it is capable of meeting its treaty requirement to defend all its allies, and that requires Warsaw to set out both a model for modern deterrence and clear commitment to doing it. And I think NATO will do that at Warsaw.

Q. That phrase, “modern deterrence,” gets thrown around a lot. What does it mean in real terms?

A. I think modern deterrence is referred to in order to emphasize this is not a return to the Cold War. Basic concepts of deterrence haven’t changed, but the way we choose to implement it in order to dissuade potential adversaries from doing bad things, persuade them that the costs outweigh the benefits, are going to be, and you’ll see this at Warsaw, really quite innovative — light, mobile, responsive, heavy emphasis on situational awareness, a recognition of the enduring importance of clear messaging. But not heavy divisions standing toe to toe as they did in the Cold War.

Q. OK, but so far, Russia hasn’t been deterred from its ongoing actions in Ukraine, particularly with the “little green men” strategy. So how do you make a real effective deterrent?

A. You need to make a sharp distinction between NATO’s treaty obligation to defend its own members — and Ukraine is not a member of NATO — and to deter aggression against NATO allies, and a NATO role in contributing to stability on the European continent more widely. NATO would obviously very much like to see the rules of the road on European security respected, which they are not being in Ukraine. But from the outset, the response to Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine has been quite consciously not to make NATO the first responder. We’re not interested in drawing new lines in Europe. We can compete strategically with Russia in more sophisticated ways, and so the first response to Russia’s violations, Helsinki Final Acts and all other rules of European security, have been through sanctions led by the European Union.

Q. So should we expect more sanctions? Or is the modern deterrence footprint we see come out of Warsaw going to be more about ISR and cyber defense?

A. Warsaw will do more than just model deterrence, but in this respect Warsaw will be demonstrating that the alliance can credibly defend all allies and deter aggression against allies. So in that sense, it won’t be addressing the Ukraine situation directly. It will be drawing lessons for NATO from Russia’s behavior in Ukraine. And you’re absolutely right — it will be ISR, it will be cyber defense, it will be mobility. It will be multinationality — something very important NATO brings, it’s not just the United States or the United Kingdom defending Poland or the Baltic republics or other Eastern allies. It is many allies present, and therefore invested in that deterrence messaging.

Q.There has been talk that NATO needs to change its structure to become more relevant, and that’s expected to be part of the Warsaw discussions. Where do you come down on that?

A. I do not think NATO’s structure needs to be changed; I do think NATO needs to adapt, and now more than ever, because the world of Euro-Atlantic security is changing very fast. So NATO is in the process of quite rapid evolution. We as an alliance are having to think very hard about how we contribute to stability on the alliance’s southern periphery, where we’ve seen a mixture of ISIL and migration present challenges that develop extremely rapidly. So the debate in NATO about modern deterrence is how you do that 360 degrees. It’s not just designing something that is eastward-facing, for example.

NATO feels as relevant as at any time since 1947 when it was formed. The power of NATO is as much political as military. You physically couldn’t put 28 allies into the Eastern Aegean, but the value of having all 28 defense ministers decide in February that they were going to do this operation is tremendous. And the same goes for the other decision they took in February, which was the principles and key tenants of modern deterrence. That is the whole of the European continent that belongs to NATO coming together to say “here is how we are going to maintain stability in Europe in the 21st century.”

Q. How do you get countries on the eastern flank to devote resources to the southern flank, when Russia is almost literally breathing down their necks?

A. It’s easier than you would think. Because every ally understands that the most important value of NATO is unity. If we don’t hang together, we will hang separately and so while Eastern allies are very understandably heavily focused on Russia they absolutely get it — that the alliance including they, themselves, have to contribute to concerns southern allies have. And the same is true the other way around, southern allies are absolutely engaged on challenges to NATO [from the east.]

Q. Are you open to new nations joining the alliance?

A. Yes, absolutely. In fact, you will see at Warsaw a 29th ally [Montenegro] at the table. They won’t yet be more than observers, but they will be present. I think NATO is and should remain an organization that is open to new members, because the alliance vision is of a Europe where nations are free to join the clubs they want to join. It’s a rather different view from Mr. Putin’s.

Q. The alliance has some NATO-branded fleets of equipment. Would you expect to see more NATO-bought equipment in the future?

A. In principle; yes. I point to NATO’s really quite successful joint-ISR program, which has been developing well, and will bring much more ISR capability on stream from late 2016/early 2017, as one example. But the bulk of capabilities is always going to be provided by individual allies rather than collectively.

Q. There’s some talk about a training mission for Libya; is that going to be a NATO mission?

A. It could be. NATO has said that it stands ready to provide defense capacity building for Libya. But there are the possible models that you can apply. You don’t have to use the NATO model for every single situation. Libya is a fantastically difficult and fragile set of problems. So it’s premature to say it will be a NATO operation. But it’s a live debate, in the alliance and in the European Union at the other end of Brussels, about what tools we need to bring for stability in the central Mediterranean, where we’ve got both the migration challenge and the ISIL challenge coming together. So the thinking on this is evolving week by week.

Q. Could you see the UK step up its participation in anti-human trafficking operations in the Mediterranean?

A. Yeah, I certainly can imagine that; we’re already contributing to the Eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean operation. The British government is actively concerned of both the terrorism and the challenges in the Central Mediterranean, so we’re playing a very active role in thinking through how to respond. We do contribute through the EU, as well.