The future of Nato
Webinar jointly organized by Aspen Institute Italia and Istituto Affari Internazionali, in partnership with Real Istituto Elcano and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
The Webinar involved about 100 participants, including 12 speakers. It was divided in two sessions: the first devoted to the challenges for the Euro-Atlantic security, and the second one focused on the possible NATO response to these challenges.
The global security context needs to be interpreted and somehow modelled in order to better evaluate NATO’s trajectory and prospects: the international system seems to be caracterized by a form of “aggressive multipolarity”, as well as by a rather disorderly power competition across the spectrum. The US-China question has inevitably taken center stage, although the evolution of this bilateral relationship is far from clear at this stage. Russia is in many respects still a military superpower but a weak economic actor, a threat to European security but a partner in certain global challenges.
On this backdrop, the EU is responding to the Covid-19 crisis in a more effective manner that many expected – although major challenges remain – and rigthly aspires to what it now explicitly defines as “strategic autonomy”. There is indeed wide consensus across Europe on more strategic autonomy, which immediately brings the conversation to the EU-NATO relationship: this is a crucial requirement, but both the nature of the EU and resource constraints may stand in the way of a more constructive and balanced division of labour.
Looking specifically at NATO’s own evolution, in 2021 the Alliance’s internal work will accelerate toward a new Strategic Concept. A significant component of the undergoing reflections toward that goal is technological innovation, which straddle the civilian-military divide in a complex “hybrid” environment, from the cyber sector to space. Europe itself has become more aware of the importance of a cutting edge “bit tech” sector (currently dominated by US companies), wich in turn requires major common efforts and investments. Recent inroads made by China in this field are a wake up call for everybody. At the same time, a major challenge is to agree on a new framework for global cooperation and rule-making in emerging technologies: this cannot simply be transferred from the traditional arms control field but could try to emulate the methodology of landmark past agreements.
Resilience – and the “whole of society” approach, in light of the complex nature of XXI century risks and threats – is another area where progress needs to be made by NATO, including communications networks, critical infrastructure, energy etc. Especially in these areas a close partnership with the EU is again necessary to maximize policy impact and rationalize resource allocation.
An additional priority for the Alliance is a more effective approach to the MENA region and beyond toward the Sahel, which requires closer cooperation among NATO members, with a leading role for the Southern members but a full commitment by the entire Alliance. This is a fundamental component to address the fragility of the wider Middle East region, all the way to Afghanistan. It is a vast area that now directly connects, much more than in the recent past, Europe and Asia.
The traditional “Southern flank” is undergoing a genuine geopolitical transformation, as evidenced by the shifting alignments in the Eastern Mediterranean: in order to ensure NATO’s continued coherence, the Allies also have to tackle the internal problems that have arisen especially between Greece and Turkey, through deconflicting mechanisms that are now being activated.
Most participants’ assessment is that a China-Russia partnership – though not a full alliance – will probably endure and characterize the next few years, given the economic levers that Beijing can rely upon. In this context, it will be key to see how Washington perceives Europe’s position vis-a-vis the US-China growing competition. The Europeans can play a constructive role in keeping Moscow away from Beijing’s full embrace. Inevitably, China will continue to try and exploit any intra-European division for its own purposes. For all these reasons, it is imperative for NATO to facilitate a strong Transatlantic dialogue on how to deal with China, including a screening process of foreign investments in critical sectors.
In any case, it seems very likely that China will act as a systemic player in the longer term with a truly strategic approach, while Russia will behave mostly as an opportunistic power and will continue to be a regional challenger but also a partner in limited policy areas.
Given the new global strategic setup, NATO must look ahead rather than concentrate on how to replicate the past 70 years: a nostalgic attitude will not help very much in making strategic decisions, despite the persistent centrality of common democratic values as a foundation of the Alliance. In simplified terms, we face two likely scenarios: this first is a major broadening of NATO’s overall reach (political and to some extent military and operational) toward Asia, which would imply a fundamental rethinking of shared commitments; the second scenario envisages a more explicit regional division of labour whereby the European members would be directly responsible for the defense of Europe – although still being supported by US capabilities in certain key sectors.
The latter scenario – in which NATO would expand its thematic reach more than its geographic reach – seems more probable in the medium term, but it still presupposes a major change of pace. It was noted in this regard that the European members (and possibly the EU as such) will have to do more of the heavy lifting in terms of the defense and security of the continent, setting for themselves the goal of being able to autonomously defend Europe’s borders in case of a multipronged crisis while the US would be mostly engaged in a simultaneous East Asian scenario. A wide range of capabilities at a high readiness level is absolutely crucial to facilitate such a redistribution of commitments, but this a demanding proposition at a time of conflicting resource allocations when public opinion is largely focused on different economic and social priorities. It was noted, for instance, that currently – partly as a result of Brexit – around 80% of NATO defense expenditures comes from non-EU countries.
Looking at US politics and policy choices to come, some participants noted that a possible Biden administration may change its attitude toward NATO but could also make the same mistakes that previous administrations made toward complex security issues in NATO’s periphery and even in dealing some NATO allies. In any case, the Transatlantic relationship may well tend to remain “transactional”, due to the sheer pressures from global dynamics that will strain allied consensus and will often require specific arrangements for individual challenges. In any case, Washington’s approach to NATO issues will be a defening factor: the recent problems between Turkey and other members remind us that some form of US engagement and mediation remains important to help smooth some issues that the Europeans struggle with.
Focusing on the Alliance’s internal functioning, cultivating strong political cohesion through consultation and frequent exchanges at multiple levels is a central task, especially in facing a disorderly world in which at least two authoritarian powers have the proven ability to affect Transatlantic security, directly or indirectly. This is the best way to ensure that a common strategic culture continues to be adapted to changing circumstances. What can be called the “battle for narratives” on managing the pandemic, that has been mostly faught between Washington and Beijing, points to the future of competition on the future of the international order also in terms of basic democratic values and rules of behavior. More broadly, warning and intelligence are preconditions for the ability to anticipate events and in some case shape them, both in the face of acute crises and when looking at the medium and long term.