A 21st-Century Reality Is Dawning on NATO

In today’s security environment, non-kinetic threats pose as grave a danger as kinetic ones.

Last week, Jens Stoltenberg delivered a remarkable speech in Bratislava. It could have been one of the speeches one so often hears from officials at security conferences, one about how the West should buy more tankers and fighter jets so as to better deter Russia. Instead, NATO’s Secretary-General spoke about ports, electricity grids, and telecommunications. 

“Our militaries cannot be strong if our societies are weak, so our first line of defence must be strong societies,” he told the Globsec audience. 

Yes! NATO has realized that national security threats come in many guises. The realization is to be saluted. It will make the lives of the hundreds of millions of people who live on NATO territory more secure – and it will make the alliance more relevant.

Stoltenberg is, forgive the pun, a warhorse. Perhaps one has to be if one’s job is to hold together a military alliance as diverse as NATO. Stoltenberg meets lots of leaders of member states, NATO partner countries, and countries wishing they were members. He travels around the world to soothe certain leaders’ egos. He meets with leaders of the West’s rivals. And he speaks at countless conferences. The subject is often Russian aggression, potential WMD use by Iran and North Korea, or arms control. But in Bratislava, Stoltenberg told the audience that “our first line of defense must be strong societies able to prevent, endure, adapt and bounce back from whatever happens.” 

That’s because national security threats have changed. Until very recently, most Western countries thought their most significant national security challenge was a Russian invasion. Now they’re realizing, not least courtesy of COVID-19, that their countries can be brought to their knees by intruders who wear no uniforms and in fact don’t even need to cross borders to do harm. To date, the pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans, nearly four times as many as lost their lives in the Vietnam War. It has killed tens of thousands in European countries that have lived in peace since World War II. Three years ago, a computer virus subsequently attributed to Russian government hackers  brought down Ukrainian government agencies, electric utilities, banks, and much else – but then it travelled on and laid low a string of multinationals including the pharmaceutical giant Merck, snack conglomerate Mondelez (think Oreo cookies and Nabisco ships), and A.P. Moller Maersk, the world’s largest container-shipping company. 

Maersk is also Denmark’s largest company. When an attack renders a country’s top company unable to operate, it’s a national security issue. And when that company is a logistics giant on whose services businesses and governments – and ultimately consumers – around the world depend, it’s a real crisis. Indeed, when daily life is disrupted, whether by hostile states and their proxies or by Mother Nature, it has a direct effect on NATO and its ability to defend member states’ territory. As Stoltenberg pointed out at Globsec, some 90 percent of NATO members’ military transport relies on civilian ships, railways, and aircraft. If an adversary sabotaged those services, NATO’s military power would be rendered unusable. Like COVID, climate change could bring devastation to countries far more damaging than that caused by armed conflicts. It was a sign of the changing times at NATO that last month the Italian and UK delegations hosted an event on “NATO and Nature: A Changing Climate.” And if disinformation convinced citizens of a NATO member states that, say, the outcome of their election was invalid, their country would be perilously weakened without a single enemy soldier even approaching it. 

The reality is this: in today’s security environment, non-kinetic threats pose as grave a danger as kinetic ones. If NATO is going to be successful, its military capabilities have to be backed up by societal resilience in the member states. Without societal resilience, military excellence is useless. Stoltenberg’s steering the alliance towards resilience makes perfect sense. 

NATO already knew that societal resilience is vital. Resilience is included in the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 3, and at their summit in 2016 NATO leaders agreed on seven baseline requirements that include assured continuity of government, resilient energy supplies, resilient food and water, and resilient civil transportation systems. But, said Ewan Lawson, an associate fellow at RUSI who was previously an RAF officer, “NATO’s resilience benchmarks seem to have been primarily driven by a concern for the ability of NATO to operate in central Europe in the event of major conflict. The availability of critical infrastructure such as communications, food, water and functioning governance are essential if NATO was to deploy troops and equipment quickly to places of crisis or tension.” Since 2016, however, not very much has happened, and for the past almost-four years President Donald Trump’s outbursts of hostility towards NATO and certain member states have taken center stage.

But with so-called gray-zone aggression – hostile acts that exploit the gap between war and peace – now a reality in most member states, it’s in everyone’s interest to act. “Boosting resilience is a key task for the future. We need robust infrastructure and systems. Power grids, ports, airports, roads, and railways. Our deterrence and defence depend on it,” Stoltenberg said. 

Successful resilience, of course, involves not just infrastructure but people too. “Both the states and NATO need to consider how they ensure that societies are also more resilient in the face of potential shocks,” Lawson told me. Some are already acting. NATO partners Sweden, and Finland both have versions of so-called total defense as do NATO member states Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. All feature considerable societal involvement in national security. Think volunteering opportunities for ordinary citizens to care for animals in contingency situations or assist the armed forces’ radio communications. Latvia’s total defense also includes a pioneering national security curriculum for all teenagers. If the internet went down, Latvian teenagers would be able to find their way without Google Maps, which certainly sets them apart from most teenagers AD 2020. Sweden is in the final state of its Total Defense Exercise 2020, its first total defense exercise since 1987; it involves more than 400 government entities, businesses, and volunteer organizations. 

Madeleine Moon, a British parliamentarian who highlighted resilience during her term as president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, told me that “while I was delighted to see Secretary General Stoltenberg highlighting the vital nature of national resilience, I would have liked to have seen recognition of the excellent examples of resilience building in many of the Baltic and Nordic nations right down to classroom teaching, community stockpiling and planning, and youth engagement.”

Classroom teaching, youth engagement: some NATO member states have long had a rather lukewarm attitude towards societal resilience. Why focus on youth engagement when one has mighty military machine? But as COVID, cyber attacks, and Russian election interference demonstrate, the military can’t protect their countries from every calamity. 

“A pivot toward resilience is the right direction for the alliance to take,” Gerhard Wheeler, a retired British Army brigadier general most recently led the UK Reserve Forces program. “Ideally, I would like to see NATO act as a strategic sentry, able to detect the gray-zone threats that hide in the folds and gaps between national warning systems.”

Public opinion plays a role too. In most NATO member states, a majority supports the alliance, but the support isn’t particularly high and in many cases it’s falling. For Generation Greta Thunberg, NATO is a relic, an organization preparing for battles that are extremely unlikely to happen. To be sure, NATO and its member states should focus on resilience because it’s an urgent issue – but a side benefit would be that young people in particular begin seeing the alliance as relevant to their lives. Indeed, this spring the alliance improved its image by coordinating PPE-laden flights between allies (with Turkey as a star performer). The concept of a Russian kinetic attack may seem alien to most ordinary citizens – but the concept of a power outage, an internet cut, or a pandemic certainly does not.

No, resilience isn’t NATO’s core responsibility – territorial defense is – but if it can steer its member states into action half the battle is won. March on, NATO.

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