June 24, 2019

Can NATO deal with today`s threats?

By Barend ter Haar.

During almost half a century NATO has been extremely successful. It helped to prevent a Third World War, kept the Soviet Union out of Western Europe and created a stable basis for the development of the European Union. It accomplished this by maintaining a credible common defence and by keeping the members of the Alliance together. Both would have been impossible without the leadership of the United States.

But now that the danger of large-scale military attack has vanished, has NATO become obsolete? And if not, is it able “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law”, as stated in the preamble of the North Atlantic Treaty?

Let us start with the first question: The best way to make sure that a large-scale military attack against NATO remains very unlikely is to maintain a credible common defence. It would, therefore, be unwise to abolish the Alliance.

But how well-equipped is NATO to address other threats? Let us look at five types of threats: the unintended consequences of our own success, failing states, terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and Russia.

The unintended consequences of our own success are threats of a non-military nature, but they are by far the most urgent problems: lifestyle diseases on the personal level, growing inequality at the national level and environmental degradation, climate change and migration at the global level. What all these threats have in common, is that they cannot be blamed on an outside power and cannot be solved by closing and defending borders. Most of them can only be solved by closer global cooperation.

Another new threat is caused by the changing character of war. In the past armed conflicts were caused by the expansion of strong powers, nowadays they are caused by the implosion of weak governments. NATO is well equipped to defeat strong governments, but, as the situation in Afghanistan proves, military power is almost powerless in a failing state.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons is a threat of, at least potentially, enormous dimensions. However, it is improbable that the use of NATO arms can solve the problem.

Attacks against territorial powers that promote terrorism, like Islamic State, can be useful, but, apart from that, large-scale military action against terrorism tends to be counterproductive.

Russia is an essential partner in the fight against global threats, but its erratic behaviour, e.g. in Ukraine and on the internet, complicates close cooperation. NATO `s military capabilities can deter Russia from attacking the Baltic states, but cannot turn Russia into a reliable partner.

Conclusion: NATO is well suited to deal with military threats from the outside, but it is less suited for addressing threats that require an inclusive, global approach. NATO`s military force is very effective as a deterrent but is of limited use against the new threats.

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