NATO’s ongoing adaptation amid rising security challenges

NATO’s ongoing adaptation amid rising security challenges

Tacan Ildem*
NATO is the most successful alliance in history because it has been able to adapt to keep pace with an ever-changing security environment. For its first 40 years, the NATO Alliance focused mostly on issues related to collective defense. The Alliance, however, also increasingly sought to strengthen political, cultural, economic, and scientific cooperation between Allies in this period. The 1967 Harmel Report continued NATO’s adaptation by outlining a dual-track approach with a focus on defense and deterrence on the one hand, and coupled with détente and arms control on the other. 

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO began to widen its focus by including crises beyond NATO’s borders. NATO also continued to expand its membership, adding a dozen new members between 1999 and 2009. In addition, the Alliance coordinates with a network of more than 40 partner countries and has cooperated closely with other international organizations. 

Turning to NATO’s recent evolution, at no time since the end of the Cold War has the Alliance faced greater challenges. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of East Ukraine have challenged the post-World War II rules-based international order. 2014 also witnessed the alarming rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a major terrorist threat. NATO has made substantial progress in response to both of these challenges. Over the past three years, Allies have tripled the size of the NATO Response Force (NRF), created a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, and established eight small headquarters in the eastern part of our Alliance. In addition, NATO is deploying four multinational battle groups to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Allies are also increasing NATO’s presence in the southeast of the Alliance, and bolstering its naval and air policing efforts in the Baltic and Black Sea areas. The Alliance does not, nor will it ever, accept Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Nonetheless, Allies believe dialogue is necessary – The Alliance does not seek confrontation with Russia and its defensive measures are intended to prevent conflict, not provoke conflict.

To bolster its efforts to project stability in the Middle East and North Africa, NATO recently established a new regional hub for the South in Italy, and opened the NATO Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) Regional Centre in Kuwait. NATO has also established an Intelligence Division at its headquarters, and its new Operation Sea Guardian strives to cut the lines of illegal migration in the Aegean Sea.

Security is not only about what NATO Allies do at home. At this moment, troops from 39 NATO and partner countries are training Afghan security forces so they can stabilize their country. In addition, NATO has helped to keep the peace in the Western Balkans for over 20 years. NATO has learned from its experience in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and elsewhere that training local forces is one of the best weapons in the fight against terrorism. It is far better – and more sustainable – to help partner nations to stabilize their own countries. 

The Meeting of Heads of State and Government in Brussels on May 25 should be seen as part of a long-running continuum of adaptation. During the discussions, Allies made significant progress on two main themes: the fight against terrorism and fair defense burden-sharing. Regarding the first, the Alliance agreed to expand its support for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIL. NATO’s surveillance planes will help improve airspace management for the Coalition. NATO will also continue its training and support missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has decided to establish a terrorism intelligence cell within the new Intelligence Division. Regarding the latter issue, leaders discussed the pledge all Allies made in 2014 to stop cutting defense budgets and to gradually increase defense spending towards two percent of the GDP by 2024. To that end, leaders decided to develop annual national plans setting out how Allies intend to meet defense investment pledges.

As NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy, I am pleased that NATO recently launched an exciting communications effort called, “#WeAreNATO” that will highlight NATO’s role in protecting the safety and security of our nearly one billion citizens. 

Even as NATO has adapted over the years, some things must never change: The enduring bond between Europe and North America, the solidarity and resolve of all members to defend each other, and the uncompromising commitment to NATO’s values and the common peace and security of all member countries.

* Ambassador Tacan Ildem is the Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This is an abridged version of the original article published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Spring 2017 issue.