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NATO Must Get Resilience Right to Withstand Russia and China

Henrik Larsen
Sunday, May 22, 2022, 10:01 AM

NATO's new Strategic Concept, to be released in June, will need to clearly define the alliance's mission.

Foreign ministers of NATO states meet in Brussels on April 7, 2022. Photo credit: NATO via Flickr; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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Editor’s Note: NATO faces many challenges in the years to come. Russia, of course, is at the top of the list of concerns, but the growing role of China will also shape NATO members’ thinking. Henrik Larsen of the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich assesses how NATO should plan for change in the years to come, focusing not only on how NATO should change but also on strategic temptations the alliance should avoid.

Daniel Byman


NATO’s main task in the foreseeable security environment is to adapt to the threat posed by Russia while also trying to reach a precise understanding of the challenge posed by China. At the planned Madrid Summit in June 2022, NATO will adopt a new Strategic Concept to guide the alliance’s future political and military development, which is the right starting point for a new strategy to manage renewed great power competition. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted NATO to eliminate any doubts about its ability and resolve to defend its eastern territory against a Russian attack.

NATO is at arguably the most important juncture in its post-Cold War history. NATO must adapt not only its military preparedness but also its approach to the nonmilitary—and specifically illiberal—challenges that Russia and China pose to its resilience and cohesion. To advance their geopolitical interests, Russia and China exploited the openness of society in NATO allies and the divisions between them over the past decade. NATO must always be wary of external challenges that could undermine its unity. This was true during the Cold War in the face of an ideological rival seeking to undermine confidence in Western democratic governments, and it remains true in the face of Russia and China today.

Conversely, NATO needs to navigate its adaptation to its illiberal challenge while avoiding functional over-extension. The alliance is at risk of maladaptation, whereby it extends its own activities unnecessarily into civilian areas of security in which it lacks necessary expertise and legacy. Strong voices in the expert community call for NATO to specify resilience as a core task in the forthcoming Strategic Concept, in principle elevating it to a task of equal importance to collective defense. An influential report commissioned by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to inspire the Strategic Concept recommends that NATO reinvent itself as a “liberal bulwark” against Russia and China and extend the alliance’s responsibilities into the realm of democratic resilience.

NATO must steer clear of the temptation to take on too many tasks and instead enhance resilience only in areas that can be reconciled with its mandate as a security and defense alliance. The encounter with illiberal powers strengthens NATO’s unity, but that does not necessarily mean that NATO is the right institution to meet the illiberal challenges that Russia and China pose. So far, the alliance’s record of responding to these threats has been uneven, and the perspectives about its role have diverged at times between the United States and its European partners. But there is a way forward, if NATO can clearly delineate what should and should not fall within its remit, be clear-eyed about its strategic environment, and prioritize international partners that share NATO’s interests and values.


Containing Russia, Watching China


NATO’s adaptation to Russia’s revisionist foreign policy has so far focused mostly on the military threat that the country poses. In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO enhanced its capacity for rapid reaction and placed multinational battlegroups in Poland and each of the Baltic states as a “tripwire” to remind Russia of NATO’s collective defense guarantee. In response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, NATO will likely aim to demonstrate its ability and resolve to repel an attack by Russia’s forces stationed near allied territory by improving its reinforcement capability to deter major Russian military buildups like the one around Ukraine. NATO already boosted its existing forward deployments, while the rise in European defense expenditure will enable the alliance to shoulder a broader deterrence effort.

Conversely, NATO has not fully found its foothold when it comes to Russia’s political warfare, by which it has attempted to diminish the alliance’s ability to act cohesively. The digital age has enhanced the opportunities for Russia to engage in information and psychological warfare, including hack-and-leak operations to influence and discredit elections. The polarization of the political landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic over the past decade has made countries more receptive to Russian disinformation and narratives seeking to discredit the democratic process. Moreover, Russian assassination and sabotage operations on NATO territory have contributed to a public sense of vulnerability to heavy-handed authoritarian methods and doubt about the coping power of democratic institutions.

China does not compare to the direct threat that Russia poses but has nevertheless appeared on NATO’s strategic radar as an economic great power with a high-tech edge that Russia is unlikely to ever match. Chinese 5G network provider Huawei remains a pertinent topic for NATO, as several European countries, including Germany, Austria, Spain, the Netherlands and Hungary, are still undecided about relying on its potentially compromised technology or de facto allowing their national operators to use Chinese providers. Moreover, Chinese investments in continental Europe without conditionalities attached and targeting critical infrastructure (railway stations, ports and airports) raise suspicions about Beijing’s underlying political and military motives. Moreover, China is pressing ahead with military applications of artificial intelligence (AI), and its space ambitions are growing.

Since 2014, NATO has become increasingly aware of the nonmilitary challenges to its unity and resilience but has adapted only in certain respects. It adopted the so-called baseline requirements in 2016, against which it can measure individual allies’ level of resilience regarding their provision of essential services to their domestic populations. These basics that would be necessary to withstand a crisis include access to food, water and energy supplies; maintenance of core functions of government; and resilient civil transportation systems. However, the baseline requirements are technical measurements that do not adequately grasp the political nature of the challenges that Russia and China pose to alliance unity. Moreover, their focus on civil preparedness, resource management and infrastructure does not seem to fit squarely within the competencies of a defense alliance. NATO may be on a slippery slope with the scope of its resilience concept drifting further away from its defense capabilities.

NATO, as an organization and as an alliance of states, is aware of the challenges to transatlantic resilience and cohesion that Russia and China pose, but the alliance has not been able to agree on the issues to which it can bring added value. The situation today stands in contrast to the situation during the Cold War when NATO successfully calibrated resilience to the ability to resist an armed attack by focusing on civil emergency planning. Russia and China are illiberal challengers that add new meaning to transatlantic security cooperation, but NATO’s adaptation will depend on the extent to which the United States and Europe can find agreement on investment in transatlantic security.


U.S. and European Perspectives


From the U.S. perspective, the rise of China compels a harsher foreign policy prioritization that delegates more responsibilities to European states. President Biden was elected on the promise of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” which was an effort to win back some of the Trump voters dissatisfied with the United States paying the bill for transatlantic defense. The refocus on the U.S. domestic base has so far manifested itself in the precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the clumsy diplomatic handling of the announcement of the security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. These two decisions give Europeans reason to question the durability of U.S. leadership beyond President Trump.

It took Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the Biden administration to play a major role in European security, which has been exercised in terms of economic sanctions against Russia and arms supplies to Ukraine. Biden’s declaration to his allies that “America is back” after assuming office had until then yielded little concrete results. Unlike its predecessor, the Biden administration is not obsessed with numerical defense spending and understands security more broadly in terms of the capacity to defend against illiberal threats. Washington expects the Europeans to be reliable allies in the competition with Russia and China, but it has not specified which functions it wishes NATO to perform.

From a European perspective, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a new reality of increased defense spending that will likely redress some of the military imbalance between the United States and European NATO allies since the end of the Cold War. It is positive that the United States seeks cooperation on a wider array of security issues, such as trade and technology, that are core to a resilient and united transatlantic alliance. At the same time, it is continental Europe, not North America and the United Kingdom, that risks emerging as a weak transatlantic link under growing Russian and Chinese influence and, therefore, must make the necessary adjustment.

The vagueness of U.S. expectations and the questionable durability of U.S. leadership seems to give European allies more leverage in defining the alliance’s strategic outlook on resilience. Restricting nontrusted technology and economic investments and fighting foreign subversion are mostly national decisions, but the European Union has exclusive powers with regard to trade and coordinates significant assets in other areas. The European allies can shape the U.S. push for NATO’s functional expansion by clarifying four areas in which the alliance can add value to transatlantic resilience.


Four Areas of Adaptation


First, NATO needs to make clear the aspects of resilience for which it is not placed to lead. As a rule, the more NATO engages the civilian aspects of security, the more it moves away from its mandate. The alliance seems to have no natural role in law enforcement—such as fighting foreign influence operations or weaponized corruption—because of the variety in allied legislative frameworks and the existence of other established channels for ordinary police cooperation. NATO may be able to play a bigger role in coordinating between intelligence services on counterterrorism (against Russia) and counterintelligence (both Russia and China). The challenges arising from disinformation are real, as seen during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but NATO has no role in countering foreign efforts to undermine public trust in the functioning of democratic institutions in its allies. The alliance should confine its anti-disinformation efforts to military affairs and Russian attempts to depict the alliance as an aggressor and a violator of the agreements that brought the Cold War to an end.

Second, NATO needs to identify which aspects of resilience it is positioned to lead. The most pertinent issue seems to be reducing Russian temptations to destabilize its eastern territory, notably Estonia and Latvia with significant Russian-speaking minorities, and the Lithuanian-Polish border toward the Kaliningrad exclave. Russia-instigated gray zone conflict on NATO territory seems more likely than a large-scale conventional war, especially given the poor performance of Russian forces in Ukraine.  Russia still prefers to rely on disinformation and subversion to stir ethnic and political discord and may also return to using special operations incursions as a destabilization strategy, as it did during its seizure of Crimea in 2014. NATO needs to deter Russia across multiple domains of warfare by structuring and training a part of its future forces for gray zone eventualities that may precede Russia’s application of large-scale kinetic force. Integrating preparations to combat gray zone tactics into NATO’s conventional planning would allow it to implement a stronger, more crisis-ready resilience concept. NATO’s cyber defense capabilities are obviously relevant against Russian attempts to disrupt allied or national functions that may precede a conventional attack. And NATO should also work to deny hostile powers the capacity to neutralize or jam NATO and reconnaissance satellites.

Third, NATO must position itself to counter the rise of China. Although official NATO rhetoric refers to the protection of the rules-based international order, its mandate centers geographically on the Euro-Atlantic area and not the Asia-Pacific. Other than reasserting the general differences between China’s autocratic approach to the use of personal data and public-private relationships and those of NATO allies, NATO has no role in regulating transatlantic trade. The alliance may recognize Chinese acquisitions of critical infrastructure in Europe as a vulnerability to force mobility in a crisis, as well as Chinese 5G technology as an obstacle to allied information-sharing, without pretense to its ability to influence the economic choices of allied governments. Conversely, NATO has a distinct role in ensuring interoperability and the development of common principles for the responsible use of AI and other so-called emerging and disruptive technologies. NATO allies consider AI valuable for logistics and intelligence but, unlike China, are opposed to lethal uses without human authorization. China’s technological advances create pressure on NATO to ensure that North America and Europe do not drift apart in terms of interoperability and regulatory approaches to future war technology. China’s growing capabilities in cyberspace and outer space offer NATO an additional role in military threat definition and integration into allied structures and operational procedures.

Fourth, NATO should revisit its partnership policy, which allows the alliance to delegate certain aspects of resilience to third countries and actors that are better placed. The partnership policy has not been reformed since 2011, when the alliance was experimenting with the idea of “going global.” NATO presently comprises 30 allied countries—soon 32, when Sweden and Finland expectedly join. However, it also has as many as 43 partners in Europe and around the world, from Columbia to Mauritania, with little idea of what their partnerships are supposed to add. NATO needs to better differentiate among its partners as it engages competition with illiberal contenders; given the fault lines of the conflict, technologically advanced and like-minded liberal partners should assume greater importance. This primarily concerns NATO’s partnership with the European Union and Switzerland due to their shared resilience across technologically advanced and highly integrated countries that share the same values. NATO partners in the Western Balkans, Georgia and obviously Ukraine need the resilience assistance that NATO can provide them to defend against Russian and Chinese subversion. Additionally, the Asia-Pacific partners—Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand—are gaining prominence due to the values they share with NATO and their advanced experience with technological and economic decoupling from China in sectors sensitive for national security.


Implications for NATO’s Strategic Concept


In the coming years, NATO needs to balance the impetus toward being a “liberal bulwark” with its traditional role as a defense alliance. To do so will require a thorough understanding of the strategic environment, particularly the threat posed by Russia and the challenges posed by China. NATO must adapt by better delineating what aspects of security planning it is best suited to and what would be better delegated to other institutions, while prioritizing partnerships that share NATO values. As the drafting of the Strategic Concept is being finalized and moving toward formal adoption by the NATO allies in Madrid in June, it is crucial to avoid the temptation to define “resilience” as a core task. The Strategic Concept from 2010 outlined the core tasks of “collective defense,” “crisis management” and “cooperative security,” but adding a fourth core task this time around would further confuse what is core to the alliance. NATO needs to prioritize and refocus on collective defense, its original and continued raison d’être. The digital age and the significance of political warfare is bringing about new challenges, but the transatlantic alliance is better off tying resilience to collective defense as an integral part of it rather than risking the inflation of core tasks.

Henrik Larsen, Ph.D., is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

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