NATO's generals must focus on Europe's real security threats

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

In contrast to Cold War-style military exercises by NATO and Russia, security experts will soon discuss online 21st-century threats ranging from radicalisation to cyber attacks to climate change and mass migration. Giles Merritt looks at the lessons to be learned.


The nuclear-tipped stand-off in the Korean peninsula isn’t the only looming security threat. Early autumn of this year offers an instructive overview of the competing concerns Europe must contend with.

Just to the east of the three Baltic republics, all members of both the EU and NATO, the Kremlin is holding a major military exercise called ‘Zapad 2017’ to test new weapons systems and involving more than 100,000 Russian soldiers. It follows hard on the heels of NATO’s ‘Sabre Guardian’ summer exercise in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania and its earlier troop deployments in Poland and the Baltic states.

These shows of strength recall the Cold War years, and are notable for their emphasis on conventional warfare. They contrast markedly with the security threats that will be discussed next week in a global online brainstorm being held by Friends of Europe, the Brussels think tank I head.

Debating Security Plus’ brings together several thousand security and defence analysts from a wide range of backgrounds

Called ‘Debating Security Plus’, this brings together several thousand security and defence analysts from a wide range of backgrounds – NGOs and development specialists as well as military, intelligence, police and diplomatic experts. Significantly, perhaps, the topics they will discuss have a very different focus to the conventional infantry, armour and air support tactics that were rehearsed in northern and central Europe.

The threats that increasingly preoccupy policymakers are those with the potential to massively destabilise society; terrorist outrages by members of radical Islamist organisations, cyber attacks that could freeze or even destroy critical infrastructures like power stations or water supplies, and migratory surges that would dwarf the 2015-16 refugee and migrant crisis.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the 26-28 September online discussions is their global character. We are conditioned by history and by more contemporary events to think of security and defence in terms of national alliances and antagonisms. The current spate of military exercises underlines this point, as does the confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington DC together with Seoul.

But searching for responses to developments in hybrid and asymmetric warfare and to the non-military threats mentioned above will demand a truly international debate. To avoid these concerns being viewed through a European, or even Western, prism, Friends of Europe has invited think tanks from around the world to moderate the discussions. Experts from India, Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates will be joining colleagues from leading European and North American think tanks to help define policies to tackle global challenges.

The return of the East-West tensions that plagued Europe for four decades after World War 2 can, and will, be handled by diplomacy

It is hoped that the upshot of ‘Debating Security Plus’ will be a set of practicable proposals for top policymakers, such as our previous online events have produced. And although there is much pressure on European governments to increase their spending on defence – which often means military hardware – that is something to be considered very carefully, and in most cases resisted.

The conclusion to be drawn from any review of these emerging threats, in rich and poor countries alike, is that tanks and combat aircraft are rarely the answer. As well as better intelligence-gathering and policy coordination, priority must be given to the economic development of under-privileged communities.

The return of the East-West tensions that plagued Europe for four decades after World War 2 can, and will, be handled by diplomacy. The much more fundamental problems to be examined during Friends of Europe’s online debate call for increased investment in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, early intervention and, above all, concerted action against the poverty that breeds violence.

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