NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Imperative”

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By Stefano Santamato, Center for Transatlantic Security Studies

With NATO leadership focused on the current challenges of Libya, Afghanistan and resource constraints, the agenda for next years’ Chicago Summit (May 20-21, 2012) looks pretty full already. However, today’s burning issues cannot overshadow yesterday’s commitments and tomorrow’s challenges.

At Lisbon, NATO Heads of State and Government adopted the new Strategic Concept setting out NATO’s transformation from Cold War monolith to a flexible, multidimensional crisis management organization. The Strategic Concept vision of a 21st-century NATO matched modern challenges to the need for state-of-the art organization and response capabilities.

To give meaning to this mandate, a brand new Emerging Security Challenges (ESC) Division was created at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. The ESC Division deals with nuclear weapons proliferation, terrorism, cyber threats, energy security, and fundamental environmental problems. Far from implying that these challenges were somehow “new”, the establishment of the ESC Division not only reaffirmed NATO’s love affair with convoluted acronyms but, more substantially, it acknowledged that in a complex world of wicked security problems, no serious or effective security organization – national or international – can be static, un-dynamic, or less than vigilant.

The new ESC Division has achieved a few early successes. In what amounted to a shift in NATO culture, the Strategic Analysis Capability jettisoned the traditional “reactive” approaches for approaches emphasizing crisis assessment and anticipation. In June 2011, a new NATO policy on cyber defense was approved by the defense ministers of the North Atlantic Council. Thanks partly to the leadership of the United States – and to the personal involvement of then Deputy Secretary of Defense, William Lynn – and thanks partly to the diplomatic skills of the newly appointed Assistant Secretary General for ESC, Ambassador Gábor Iklódy, the NATO Allies defined a new NATO role in cyber defense based on coordination, prevention and resilience. (1)

However, all is not well. Kurt Volker – the former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and committed Atlanticist – argued in Foreign Policy (2) how NATO’s operation in Libya exposed four sets of “deep-rooted” challenges for the Alliance: 1) defining the mission; 2) providing leadership; 3) ensuring execution; and 4) maintaining solidarity.

His analysis is both accurate and timely and applies not only to the Libya response but to NATO’s ESC approach as well. Here, I would like to build on Volker’s four categories and advocate for a number of actions NATO should undertake in the arena of Emerging Security Challenges.

Defining the mission. In spite of its promising launch, a coherent vision of NATO’s mission in countering ESC remains unclear. NATO needs to formulate a Mission Statement, one that translates the vision of the new Strategic Concept into an operational mandate that ensures a cohesive approach to ESC based on four principles: anticipation, cooperation, prevention, and resilience.

The ESC’s Mission Statement is the glue that holds together the various strands of NATO’s activities dealing with emerging challenges. It is the blueprint for responding to them and for identifying the “must have” capabilities to counter them. NATO needs one. And in doing so, NATO should identify when and where its role will be as leader, supporting, or simply filling a heavily-specialized capability gap.

Providing leadership. To ensure mission success, NATO must provide two kinds of leadership: internal and external.

Within NATO, the ESC Division should lead on all aspects of policy and implementation. While this may appear obvious, it is of particular importance given that there is no common threat perception among NATO Allies as to the nature, importance, and immediacy of individual emerging challenges.

Externally, NATO should encourage national ESC “champions,” e.g., Poland on energy security; Norway on climate change. Where the United States has led in the development of the NATO cyber-defense policy, other NATO countries should play a similar lead role for NATO’s counter-terrorism, environmental security, and non-proliferation policies.

Internal leadership and national ownership are not contradicting concepts. They ensure policy coherence and national “buy into” NATO’s role in countering emerging challenges.

Ensuring execution. Ultimately, the success of NATO in dealing with ESC resides in its ability to contribute to successful Alliance responses. In this respect, the new ESC Division should focus on partner outreach and operational capabilities.

Concerning outreach, the ESC Division is the point of contact – the primary area of engagement and cooperation – with NATO’s partners and with other international organizations, first and foremost the European Union. NATO may not lead in all cases, however, and should adapt accordingly.

Given the non-military nature of many of the emerging challenges, NATO’s ESC Division is also well suited to serve as the operational interface between the Alliance members and their individual national and international partners, e.g., the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, law enforcement agencies, and private industry.

As a multi-agency interface, NATO is increasingly perceived, and appreciated, as an enabler of Alliance operations. The ability of the ESC Division, in particular, to access to capabilities of 28 nations – be that information and expertise, command and control, or hardware – is invaluable and success here will be a litmus test of NATO’s enduring contribution to the Alliance response to emerging challenges.

Concerning capabilities, the ESC Division should take full advantage of the opportunities and structures of NATO’s only non-military discipline, Civil Emergency Planning (CEP). Through CEP structures, ESC can reach out to multiple civil disciplines and specialties, such as transports, telecommunications or emergency management and first responders. By integrating NATO’s CEP with ESC, NATO could have a potent and wide-ranging set of capabilities.

In addition, working closely with NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (Norfolk, VA), the ESC Division can, I believe, effectively integrate policy into NATO’s Defense Planning Process and translate policy into capability requirements for ESC.

Maintaining solidarity. The final – and possibly most difficult challenge – for the new ESC Division is to preserve Alliance solidarity. There is no easy or straight forward solution to this problem.

Very early in the debate on NATO’s new Strategic Concept, Ally positions differed – in some cases dramatically – on what emerging threat or challenge would constitute “Article 5 material.” (3)  Some advocated unconditional Alliance solidarity, while others cautioned against engaging even in “consultations” under NATO’s Article 4. (4)  This is not to imply, however, that these divergences represent a lack of Alliance cohesion. Rather they denote – and reemphasize – the self-evident and undeniable difficulty NATO Allies have in defining the nature, impact and traceability of emerging challenges.

Once again, NATO’s approach to cyber defense is illustrative. It provides a useful model of de facto adoption of a “flexible response” approach, one that is not overly burdened by specific thresholds or threat lists. Alliance solidarity is a qualitative concept, not a quantitative one. NATO knows – as do its adversaries – when and how NATO will respond to threats and attacks and that it will respond at flexible, adaptable, and appropriate levels.

While individual Allies perceive challenges differently – and appreciate this diversity – they recognize that they – and the emerging challenges they face – are interrelated. Each Ally, therefore, is compelled to support – politically and operationally – NATO’s “visible assurance” in this area of emerging challenges as a contribution to its own and to collective security.

Conclusion. Given the nature of uncertainty, the ever emerging, ever changing, international security challenges can never accurately be foreseen or predicted. To passively submit, however, to this dynamic – to rely solely on ad-hoc contingencies if and as needed – is sheer folly.

The true measure of NATO’s success is its tested framework and adaptability – as represented by the ESC Division – to respond to the new and multiple ESCs. Most of these ESCs are either non-military and/or national in nature. NATO, however, recognizes that, given its experience, capabilities and constituency, it has a role to play in addressing them. The question is what role? We have the form, we need the substance. Vision, action and leadership are required and discussion of these critical elements should be, at minimum, on the informal Chicago agenda.

1.  NATO and Cyber Defense – NATO Website – 

2. Kurt Volker: “Don’t Call It a Comeback – Four reasons why Libya doesn’t equal success for NATO” – in Foreign Policy – August 23, 2011.

3.  Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”- Source NATO Official texts –

4. Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty states: “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened – Ibid.

Stefano Santamato is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow for the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies (CTSS) at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies (NDU-INSS). Mr. Santamato may be contacted at

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.


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