Is NATO still relevant? Only if it comes into the 21st century

NATO is still relevant, but only if it redefines itself for 21st century warfighting, against both state, and non-state actors alike

The organisation needs some form of vision in order to navigate the complexities of a 21st century security environment, whereas it currently appears to remain geared towards fighting the wars of the last century
The organisation needs some form of vision in order to navigate the complexities of a 21st century security environment, whereas it currently appears to remain geared towards fighting the wars of the last century

In order to face the challenges of the 21st century, its members need to figure out what NATO stands for in a changed security environment.

Over the past week, Western leaders gathered for the 70th anniversary from the inception of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which should have been cause for much pomp and circumstance. A celebration of common values and ideals as Western democracies, which had fought to uphold the cause of freedom since the end of the Second World War.

These days though, nothing is so simple. The West is going through a period of soul searching and internal squabbling, for various reasons. NATO’s general direction is generally set by the sitting US President, and it can be argued that although Donald Trump has regarded the alliance with mild irritation at best, and disdain at worst, it has been going through a period of aimless drift since at least the Obama administration. The organisation needs some form of vision in order to navigate the complexities of a 21st century security environment, whereas it currently appears to remain geared towards fighting the wars of the last century.

What are these complexities, you might ask. Since the turn of the millennium, there have been various events which have altered the way we perceive security at all levels. In the early years following the year 2000, several terrorist attacks changed the dynamic of how governments are expected to provide safety and security for their citizens.

In order to combat this threat, a number of governments sought to expand their surveillance of citizens, whilst carrying out morally and legally dubious actions such as renditions, detentions without trial and in some cases, instances of prisoner abuse. It was apparent that Western democracies were not prepared to fight counterterrorist operations at home on such a scale. The implications were considerable. Activists vehemently opposed the loss of privacy due to widespread surveillance, and the often questionable governance that allows the State to monitor its citizens.

Cyber warfare has also emerged as a key battleground in the 21st century. Through access to enemy networks, hackers can steal vast sums from global banks and investment firms, as North Korea has been accused of doing for the past decade or so. There is also the potential for hackers to shut down power grids, infrastructure, and infiltrate secure government databases containing highly classified information.

The implications here are enough to give anyone pause for thought. In a worst case scenario, a hacker can shut down the electrical grid for an entire city for several days at a time, which could potentially lead to a complete breakdown in the rule of law, with people looting and acting in self defense against aggressors, leading to complete anarchy.

On the other hand, information warfare is also an area in which Western democracies have proven to be susceptible to attack in recent years. Through the spread of misinformation, countries have been able to skew the media environment, and cause people to doubt the veracity of the information that reaches them from the mainstream media.

Many, in fact, have turned to newer outlets which spew news reports that are either intentionally altered to feed the news outlet’s narrative, or outright false news. This has been seen to varying degrees in elections in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany. Whilst this is nothing new, given that Western democracies have often sought to influence elections abroad in a covert manner, these more targeted attacks seek to undermine faith in the democratic process, while also exacerbating social divisions amongst race, ethnicities and religions. In short, a targeted campaign to sow division amongst culturally and racially diverse democracies undermines the very delicate experiment that democracy represents.

China is also emerging as a strategic competitor to NATO members, on both the economic and military levels. Beijing was mentioned, for the first time, as a strategic challenge last week during the NATO summit, which highlights that whilst the Brussels-based organisation is correct in assessing China as a growing power, it is also more comfortable and experienced in dealing with conventional, state-based risks rather than those which have emerged over the past two decades.

 

If NATO is going to look to counter China’s rise, this opens up a number of problems. By definition, NATO is an organisation which seeks to ensure the security of its members in Europe and North America. Its remit does not, technically speaking, reach the Asian continent. Will NATO seek to invite countries such as South Korea, Japan and Australia to join it in order to have a plausible presence in the region? Will it then need to call itself something completely different in order to cater for its global reach?

Can NATO seek to balance Russia and China simultaneously, and in doing so, would they be pushing the Moscow and Beijing closer together by design? It is a complicated situation, and the answers to these questions will help steer NATO in the years to come.

In order for NATO to remain relevant in the 21st century, it needs to have a common purpose and vision. The war in Afghanistan was a rare opportunity for Western partners to work closely together on such a scale, and have a single vision and purpose. But that glossed over the fact that NATO is not meant as a rapid reaction force in third world countries, but rather the defense of its members.

The threats brought about by technology are numerous, and given our dependence on that same technology, Western democracies and economies are incredibly vulnerable to attack. It is time to turn a page on the old way of thinking. NATO is still relevant, but only if it redefines itself for 21st century warfighting, against both state, and non-state actors alike. Anything short of that will see it become nothing more than a talking shop of squabbling leaders, who dread the thought of meeting in one room. Leadership is needed, or irrelevance is inevitable.

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