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NATO: A new need for some old ideas

NATO flag waving in the wind.
Photo: Shutterstock.

As NATO approaches its 75th anniversary, there is a widespread sense that the alliance has come full circle. Created to deter the Soviet adversary, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s first core task is once again to deter and defend. After years of focusing on peacekeeping and fighting terrorists elsewhere, the NATO allies are now back to thinking about deterrence postures and territorial defence in Europe. However, NATO has not yet come full circle intellectually.

NATO was founded at the dawn of the nuclear age and successfully navigated the cold war, at least if ‘success’ is defined as avoiding armed conflict between the adversaries of the time. Much of the theorizing and thinking about strategic affairs developed as the approaches and policies of the alliance and the United States evolved. There is consequently a rich tradition of thought about strategy that fuelled many debates within NATO and in its member states during the cold war, and among a broader community of scholars, analysts, opinion leaders and concerned citizens. Much of this tradition retains its value today. Returning to it is a core step towards being better prepared for NATO Europe’s difficult relationship with Russia in the coming decades.

The fundamentals of strategic thinking remain valid

Much has changed since the cold war ended. The international system is no longer bipolar. The fact that the United States considers China the ‘pacing threat’ and bases much of its thinking on the ‘Taiwan scenario’ also has implications for Europe. Other potentially antagonistic actors such as North Korea and Iran are significantly more capable than during the cold war. What is more, the technological context is fundamentally changed. During the cold war, there were no conventional weapons that directly affected strategic stability. Nor was there a cyberspace domain nor the challenges posed by artificial intelligence (AI). Incorporating these new factors into conceptual frameworks is, of course, necessary and a process that is now in its early stages.

While the writings of the past do not contain all the answers to today’s challenges, their fundamental concepts are far from obsolete—despite the changed circumstances. What does remain highly relevant is the more profound wisdom found in many of the older debates about deterrence and strategic affairs that seems much less en vogue today. The ideas that nothing is ever certain, that deterrence is not an exact science, that contingency is everywhere, and that the adversary’s perceptions are crucial—these are perhaps the most valuable and timeless lessons to be learned from that era. They add up to revealing that no government or alliance, however powerful, can control everything; deterrence, in short, cannot eliminate risk. Accordingly, a more humble approach should be the basis of all thinking about deterrence and defence.

This humility should, inter alia, frame how we think about nuclear deterrence and about whether and how it can be considered as the ultimate protection. Whether such a thing as nuclear strategy is really possible is itself highly debatable. Champion boxer Mike Tyson famously declared ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ The same likely applies to strategizing about questions in the field of security and defence where survival is at stake. Much of the writing on nuclear strategy and ‘escalation management’ is therefore best taken with a grain of salt—for the sake of our own survival.

The security dilemma: Perceptions matter

This humility and acute awareness of uncertainty is reflected in a number of notions that were at the heart of nuclear and strategic debates during the cold war. Perhaps most importantly, it underpins the idea of the security dilemma. Coined in 1951 by John H. Herz, the security dilemma is ‘a structural notion in which the self-help attempts of states to look after their security needs tend, regardless of intention, to lead to rising insecurity for others as each interprets its own measures as defensive and measures of others as potentially threatening’. What logically follows is the centrality of perceptions and an understanding that no strategy can ever be devised without at least an attempt to understand the adversary, its values and its ambitions. This also implies an acceptance that perceptions cannot be dictated and that one side’s declared intentions will never be automatically convincing to the other.

Translated into the contemporary context, this means being aware that measures NATO intends as defensive may still be perceived as offensive in Russia and, therefore, risk triggering developments that could get out of hand. The argument was made strongly by US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967, quite near the end of his long tenure of the post when he was quite possibly more than a little worn down by the pressures of the arms race and the war in Vietnam:

Whatever be their intentions, whatever be our intentions, actions—or even realistically potential actions—on either side relating to the build-up of nuclear forces, be they either offensive or defensive weapons, necessarily trigger reactions on the other side.

It is precisely this action–reaction phenomenon that fuels an arms race.

The risk of an uncontrollable action–reaction dynamic is just as present in relation to conventional weapons and is likewise to be found in capabilities in cyberspace, outer space and the realm of AI.

Whether a comparable awareness of the security dilemma exists across NATO today is doubtful. The NATO website states, under the headline ‘Setting the record straight‘, that ‘NATO does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia.’ Understanding the security dilemma means accepting that Russia does not see things that way and may actually perceive NATO as a threat. Even more importantly, it means understanding that Russia will act according to its own perceptions, not NATO’s. This is not a normative issue or a question of who is right or wrong. It is a matter of accepting the basic dynamics in international relations as a reality.

The international system: Stability as the goal

The other key element worth bringing back into modern debates is the idea that there is an international system, which is something more than the sum of various bilateral and multilateral relationships between states. A ‘systemic‘ approach to international politics and security affairs is a logical precondition for any analysis resting on a balance of power and (strategic) stability: such stability is achieved when no side has an incentive to attack the other first. A sytemic approach is also a precondition for thinking about arms control, deploying the notion of an international system in one of its original meanings: as an instrument that helps in managing the security dilemma, among other things by creating or restoring stability.

Managing the security dilemma in Europe—that is, generating stability despite the momentum of action–reaction—is the key task ahead.

However, instead of focusing on the dynamics outlined above, today’s wider European security debate is very much about Russia’s alleged true essence as an imperial or colonial power. There is no doubt that Russia’s actions, which include invading a sovereign country, and its regime’s rhetoric are deeply worrying and unacceptable. But solely focusing on Russian identity for explanations overlooks the dynamic nature of international relations. Russia’s perceptions of the West and its actions are rarely discussed. Nor is how the West’s actions affect strategic stability. While Russia’s intentions are clearly a crucial factor for European security, debating Russia’s nature tends to be highly speculative. It is of little help in determining how NATO can best protect itself while both avoiding the escalation of the war in Ukraine and laying the basis for stable strategic relations in the years ahead. Worse, locking oneself into the idea that Russia is simply driven by its imperialist nature neglects the importance of perceptions and, by extension, developments the West may trigger if it does not design its deterrence posture and manage its policies towards Russia with great care. Deterrence is unavoidable under the current circumstances, but escalation remains a real risk that can be reasonably well managed only by taking the other side’s perceptions into account.

When NATO reflects on surviving for 75 years, staying humble would thus be the most sincere way to show respect for the thinkers and leaders who helped it navigate through the cold war. Some will claim that deterrence ‘has worked‘—but maybe, it is also sheer luck that nuclear war has not yet broken out. Staying acutely aware of that possibility is the safest starting point for any attempt to plan NATO’s future.





Dr Barbara Kunz is a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI European Security Programme.
Dan Smith is the Director of SIPRI.