NATO needs an upgrade

Europe's World

Picture of Ine Eriksen Søreide
Ine Eriksen Søreide

Ine Eriksen Søreide is Defence Minister of Norway

Political polarisation in Europe could undermine our shared values and transatlantic unity. Part of the remedy for a Europe whole, free and at peace is to adapt NATO to the new security environment. I have become increasingly concerned about the health of European politics. Political unity in Europe is under pressure, and nationalism is on the rise. Trust in political and democratic institutions, including the EU and NATO, is diminishing, and radical movements – both left- and right-wing – are gaining momentum in several European countries. The more complex and multifaceted the world around us is, the more polarised and fragmented Europe seems to become, damaging and undermining transatlantic unity and our decision-making ability.

Recent events have shaken us. The Ukraine crisis has revealed a Russia both able and willing to use military power to reach political ends. The whole Middle East and North African region is destabilised, and terrorism has repeatedly hit European cities. On top of this, we are experiencing the largest refugee crisis since 1945. We are today facing unprecedented complexity in our surroundings, and NATO must adapt to provide a long-term strategy that meets these challenges. Political unity and the will to defend allies against any adversary applies to threats from any direction, and in different geographic areas. We refer to this as a 360-degree approach to deterrence and collective defence, the key to which is to be able to address the full spectrum of challenges and threats that could confront the alliance.

Political unity and the will to defend allies against any adversary applies to threats from any direction

Some say that NATO was in need of a new raison d’être before Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, but I disagree. NATO needs to constantly renew itself to remain relevant to new security landscapes. But this is something very different from searching for a new fundamental rationale. NATO has always promoted, and will continue to promote, stability and wellbeing in the North Atlantic area. As such, even prior to the Ukraine crisis, the NATO agenda was clear. After a decade in Afghanistan, a decade of ‘out-of-area’ operations, NATO was to ‘return home’. A key part of this was maintaining and strengthening political and military cohesion and further developing interoperability. NATO had set its agenda for revitalising collective defence. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine only made this even more important.

NATO’s ability to adapt to new challenges and threats is unique. At the summit in Wales in 2014, the allies recognised the fundamental changes in the security environment in and around Europe, and called for a renewed emphasis on the core task of collective defence. As a direct response to the new security situation, we approved the Readiness Action Plan (RAP), which provided a comprehensive package of measures. We are now implementing the RAP as well as working on NATO’s long-term political and military adaptation in response to the challenges posed by Russia, but also threats emanating from the Middle East and North Africa.

The situation along NATO’s southern flank concerns us directly. The lack of government control in the MENA region is part of the challenge, as terrorists carve out areas that become de facto safe havens. The civil war in Syria has created ground for Daesh’s rapid and brutal advance in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Volatility on the doorstep of NATO member states is a potential threat to the security of the whole Euro-Atlantic area. Terrorism is a global phenomenon that knows no borders, and geographic distance from conflict areas is no longer a guarantee of safety. Extremism and terrorism spread in new ways, and indeed terror has already hit the heart of Europe. The Syrian civil war has also created massive humanitarian suffering. How we handle the resulting refugee crisis will be a test for Europe. NATO’s decision to contribute to countering human trafficking in the Mediterranean is a positive development in this regard. Coordination and collaboration with the EU is critical.

The complexity of Europe’s security situation demands that we all do our part. Consequently, Norway must pay close attention to NATO’s northern flank. We are facing military-strategic changes with potentially far-reaching long-term consequences in the North. Russia has developed new high-end military capabilities, including new submarines and aircraft, and long-range high-precision missiles. Russia has also expanded its military infrastructure in the Arctic. NATO must also address Russia’s Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategic capabilities. While Norway does not consider Russia a military threat today, we cannot discount that these military capabilities may pose a challenge to transatlantic security in the future.

Continued US leadership in NATO is both desired and necessary

It is not just the Arctic, though. There is an increase in maritime activities across NATO’s area of responsibility, from the North Atlantic to the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean. We need to raise NATO’s profile in the maritime domain. This requires maritime power and presence. Regular training and exercises are also necessary to give us the knowledge and skills we need. NATO’s maritime forces need to be able to establish sea control in NATO’s area of responsibility to ensure freedom of navigation. They also need to ensure that sea lines of communication are open for supply and reinforcements in a crisis or war. To this end, we need high-end capabilities, situational awareness, updated contingency plans and collective contributions to NATO forces in the Atlantic.

NATO does need to make more fundamental and structural changes, beginning by taking a hard look at its current command structure and planning processes. We need to reintroduce the regional focus into our command and control structure, including close links to national headquarters. Full use of existing national capabilities to enhance synergies is paramount, including for enhanced situational awareness and regional understanding in the maritime domain.

We must assess the new security environment as it is, not as we wish it were. We must think strategically at the same time as we act immediately, and we must revitalise the transatlantic link in both political and military terms. In short, NATO needs a coherent and robust long-term strategy to deal with the new security environment. At a time when different forces and domestic developments are pulling us apart, we must not forget that unity and solidarity is NATO’s centre of gravity. Continued US leadership in NATO is both desired and necessary, but Europe must also take more responsibility for its own future. Our goal, a Europe whole, free and at peace, cannot be taken for granted and depends on robust international organisations such as NATO, UN and the EU. By acting together, we can counter radicalism, nationalism and other forces that threaten our core values of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.

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