NATO: Adapting to the Challenges of the 21st Century

A visit to NATO in a group led by CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs) is the perfect opportunity to review the state of the organization, its relevance today and the challenges it finds now and will encounter in the future.

What is NATO?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a political and military alliance of 28 countries from North America and Europe. It was born in 1949, after the World War II, in order to deter the Soviet expansionism, foster the European political integration and forbid the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe.

NATO’s 12 founder members were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. The rest of the 28 joined later: Greece and Turkey (1952), Germany (1955), Spain (1982), the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia (2004), and Albania and Croatia (2009).

NATO also cooperates with international organizations and countries:

  • Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC).
  • NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue.
  • Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI).
  • Partners across the globe (Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq, Japan, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Mongolia).
  • International organizations: UN, EU, OSCE.

In addition, NATO membership is open to “any other European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” Montenegro would be the next country to join the NATO after the Accession Protocol signature by NATO Foreign Ministers.

NATO has 3 essential core tasks:

  • Deterrence and collective defence,
  • Crisis management
  • Cooperative security.

As international organization, NATO has shown a unique ability to adapt to the paradigm shifts in order to deal with the challenges facing the member countries regarding defence, security and crisis management. It seeks an umbrella of security and economic integration in the areas close to its borders.

NATO main challenges: Russia, Daesh, Maritime Security, Cyber Defence

The main challenges that NATO currently finds, in addition to nuclear proliferation, are Russia in the East, Daesh in the South, maritime security and cyber defence.

The threats coming from Russia, Daesh and the cyberspace share some features such as asymmetry, difficulty to prevent, detect and neutralize the threats, and the need of a collective intelligence to counter the threats. The 3 of them try to break the cohesion of the Alliance.

Russia: instability from the East

Many experts claim that we are living the worst crisis in NATO-Russia relations since before the end of the Cold War. The illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 by Russian forces, against the principle of inviolability of borders and countries’ sovereignty within their borders, brought an important shift in the NATO-Russia relationship, which were cordial up to then since Obama’s reset with Russia.

Due to the Crimean crisis, after the Russian invasion, the NATO ended the civilian and military practical cooperation with Russia. This has never involved the end of the dialogue between NATO and Russia; in fact, the NATO-Russian Council was never suspended.

Russia’s international behavior has created a structural systemic change where asymmetry, hybrid warfare and projection of global instability are gaining more relevance in international relations. NATO would like to promote higher predictability and a transparent behavior from Russia. It would also like to promote risk reduction through measures to avoid misunderstandings causing military conflicts.

Daesh/ISIL: terrorism expanding from the South

The threat posed by Daesh or the so-called ISIL is other main source of instability close to Europe. Its quasi-state structure, potential to expand radicalism through the cyberspace and terror attacks make the organization a serious danger for NATO members and the Alliance.

NATO’s Counter-Terrorism Policy Guidelines are focused on 3 main areas: awareness, capabilities and engagement. The Alliance develops new capabilities and technology to tackle terrorism, and cooperates with partner countries and international organizations to achieve the higher effectiveness in their missions.

NATO supports the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL through the provision of NATO AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System, NATO’s ‘Eye in the Sky’) in order to increase situational awareness.

Maritime Security

NATO has at present two maritime operations:

  • A maritime security operation in the Mediterranean: NATO leaders decided at the Warsaw Summit in July 2016 to transition Operation Active Endeavour to Operation Sea Guardian, which has a broader variety of tasks. Operation Sea Guardian is especially flexible regarding the tasks within its scope as long as the NAC (North Atlantic Council) approves the changes.
  • A counter-piracy operation in the Indian Ocean: Operation Ocean Shield helps to deter and disrupt pirate attacks, protects vessels and increases security in the region since 2008.

NATO is also assisting the EU’s Operation Sophia to help deal with the refugee and migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea. It has also announced it is ready to provide further support in maritime security in the Central Mediterranean following Operation Sophia.

NATO’s maritime forces work to foster the Alliance security in 4 areas:

  • Deterrence and collective defence
  • Crisis management
  • Cooperative security
  • Maritime security

In order to work in these 4 areas, NATO has 7 maritime security tasks:

  • Support Maritime Situational Awareness
  • Uphold freedom of navigation for all
  • Conduct maritime interdiction
  • Combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
  • Protect critical infrastructure
  • Support counter-terrorism efforts
  • Contribute to maritime security capacity-building

The maritime security action in NATO is moving from deployed forces to network-based operations.

Cyber defence

Cyberattacks have increased in number, complexity and damage and are part of hybrid warfare. For this reason, NATO includes cyber defence within its collective defence, affirming that international law applies in cyberspace.

In July 2016, Allies recognized cyberspace as a domain of operations where NATO must defend itself. For this purpose, NATO is enhancing its capabilities for cyber education, training, exercises, and information sharing.

NATO’s main cyber defence activities are:

  • NATO Policy on Cyber Defence: endorsed by the Allies at the Wales Summit in September 2014. Through the policy, NATO establishes cyber defence as part of collective defence, confirms that international law applies in cyberspace and fosters NATO’s cooperation with industry. This policy sets the basis for cyber defence governance, includes the integration of cyber defence into operational planning and defines ways to improve cyber capabilities. NATO’s priority in cyber defence enhancement is national networks and infrastructures.
  • Development of NATO cyber defence capability: through the NATO Computer Incident Response Capability (NCIRC), which protects NATO’s networks and adapts to the changing nature of cyber threats. Cyber defence is included within NATO’s Smart Defence initiatives.
  • Increment of NATO cyber defence capacity with education, training, exercises (such as the Cyber Coalition Exercise or the Crisis Management Exercise) and evaluation. NATO has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the national cyber defence authorities of the 28 Allies. Regarding training and education, the main centers are: the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, the NATO Communications and Information Systems School, the NATO School and the NATO Defense College.
  • Cooperation with partners such as the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
  • Cooperation with industry, due to the key role of the private sector in innovation and its expertise in cyberspace.

Defence Capacity Building

The Defence Capacity Building (DCB), or the Defence and Related Security Capacity Building Initiative is structured in demand-driven and tailor-made programs according to the recipient nation needs. The recipient nation requests the assistance to receive the support in certain areas and it agrees with NATO the priorities where the NATO can provide better assistance.

The DCB was launched in September 2014 at the NATO Summit in Wales, when the concerns about the Ukrainian crisis and the Middle East crisis made the NATO develop precautionary instruments such as stability alliances with non-member states. The principle is acting only enough to avoid deploying forces on territories later on.

The Partnership activity started in the early 90s to develop capabilities, reform structures and institutions.

Major points about the DCB initiative:

  • It provides advice, assistance, support, training, education and mentoring building local defence capacities. This implies reforms and institutional building.
  • The recipients are partner nations, international organizations, or non-partner countries, but they should request help.
  • Its main goal is contributing to international security and conflict prevention.
  • It uses tailored assistance.
  • When and where many organizations are conducting similar activities, NATO studies the situation, finds the existing gaps and establishes the program to be complementary to them.

The key principles under which the DCB is conducted are:

  • Strategic guidance and political control by NAC.
  • Complementary to and coordination with other international organizations.
  • Contribution of Allies and partner nations.
  • Local ownership: the request should come from the nation at the highest political level.
  • Gender perspective.
  • Review and assistance. The review is usually performed every 2 years to see the progress and effectiveness of the program and study the need for changes.

The implementation is performed with a Special coordinator designed by the Deputy Secretary General, a network in allied capitals, NATO staff, experts from the Allies and partners and a DCB Trust Fund.

There are currently 4 recipient nations:

  • Georgia (since the Wales Summit in 2014)
  • Jordan (since the Wales Summit in 2014)
  • Moldova (since the Wales Summit in 2014)
  • Iraq (after the Wales Summit, later in 2014)

NATO and the European Union

Given the fact that the EU and NATO share the majority of their members (22), they share strategic interests and are essential partners. The 2002 NATO-EU Declaration on a European Security and Defence Policy defined the NATO-EU relationship as strategic partnership and the 2003 Berlin Plus arrangements are the basis for NATO-EU cooperation in crisis management (development of international comprehensive approach by the application of military and civilian means).

Some examples of cooperation in the field are:

  • Crisis management and operations, particularly in the Western Balkans and Afghanistan
  • Maritime Security in the Aegean Sea.
  • EU-led Operation Concordia followed the NATO-led Operation Allied Harmony in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
  • EU Operation EUFOR Althea followed NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • NATO peacekeeping force KFOR works closely with the EU’s Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX).
  • NATO-led Resolute Support Mission and the predecessor International Security Alliance (ISAF) have worked together with the EU’s Rule of Law Mission (EUPOL).
  • Both NATO and the EU have supported the African Union’s mission in Darfur, Sudan.
  • In maritime security, both have deployed forces together in Ocean Shield (NATO) and EUNAVFOR Atlanta (EU) off the Somalian coast to fight piracy.
  • NATO has supported the Greek and Turkish authorities and the EU’s Frontex authority in the Aegean Sea with the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe.
  • Other areas of cooperation are capability development, combat terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and hybrid threats, as well as energy security and cyber defence.

From Wales to Warsaw, and beyond

NATO Wales Summit 2014 meant the return to collective defence, affirming that deterrence “remains a core element of our overall strategy”. It involved the approval of NATO Readiness Action Plan to respond to the changes in security on NATO’s borders, especially due to the challenges from Russia and the MENA region. It enhanced the NATO Response Force (NRF) and established the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which is able to deploy within a few days. It also confirmed a minimum of 2% of the Allies’ GDP to spend on defence, committing more than the 20% of their defence budgets on major equipment.

NATO Warsaw Summit 2016 implied the enhanced forward presence in the eastern part of the Alliance and the southeast. It meant training and capacity building in Iraq, support for the Counter-ISIL Coalition, the launch of a new maritime operation in the Mediterranean (Operation Sea Guardian), established the cyberspace as an operational domain. It also meant the commitment to enhance NATO’s resilience and its commitment to support Afghanistan and Ukraine, declared the Initial Operational Capability of the NATO ballistic missile defence system and underlined its relationship with the European Union, which defined as taken to the next level.


After 2014, the NATO’s relevance is out of question. NATO, adapting to the challenges of the 21st century, is still an alliance of 28 for 28, seeking 360-degree responses to the most urgent challenges facing the allies. Nevertheless, in order to deal with this threats and shifts, NATO Allies have to be committed, on paper and with means. Allied national leaders need to explain that defence and security are social issues; they have a clear impact on citizens’ quality of life, guarantee the welfare society, and help to protect human rights.

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