By Stefano Stefanini, former Permanent Representative of Italy to NATO

On the occasion of the participation at GLOBSEC 2017 Bratislava Forum

The Atlantic Alliance has a lot to adapt to. It confronts a profoundly different security landscape than in 2010, when it adopted its last Strategic Concept. The change in the international context goes deeper than in security only. NATO is a community of values and democracies. No doubt the debate on its adaptation will have to tackle also the long-term trends in contemporary societies, such as economic insecurity, the rise of non-State actors and the threats from within to liberal political systems and to market economy. In a global world security cannot be but global beyond geographical boundaries. European security depends on freedom of navigation in the South China sea. In cyberspace, it is next to impossible to draw the line between civilian and military, between strategic and non-strategic infrastructures.

GLOBSEC 2017 and the NATO Adaptation Project endeavour to cover the full range of issues the Alliance has deal with to remain the main security provider to its members. It is quite clear that NATO will not be or act alone; that it might sometimes take a back seat; that in many areas international cooperation and shared responsibilities will be required.  But NATO cannot ignore threats or cannot be absent when Allies’ security is at stake.  Therefore, the adaptation scope is enormous and wide-ranging. While keeping the broad picture on the Alliance’s screen, which are the first “adaptation steps” NATO should take?

First, adaptation does not in any way mean changing course about the existing approach to defence and deterrence as set out in the Wales and Warsaw summit. NATO Russian policy of deterrence and dialogue remains in place; so, it does the 360° Alliance. The need for further adaption rises in confronting the new and evolving challenges that either were absent until recently or had not been considered or have not been sufficiently confronted. Among the many it must confront, NATO needs to prioritize. In the short term three challenges should be singled out. Two are threat related: homeland security and cyber space; a third one is the new geopolitical alignment in the Euro-Atlantic space following the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. Brexit has a potential to undermine Western cohesion; to the very least it adds a layer of complexity to the transatlantic relations. So far Brexit’s political and security fallout has been dealt with unjustified complacency; NATO, and the United States in particular, would continue to ignore it at their own peril.

Why is Brexit an issue for “NATO adaption”? Simply because it did not exist before; it is still in the making. But when it happens, it involves a major change of political scenario in Europe. The UK will cease to participate to, and influence, the EU decision-making process. Period.  To be crystal clear: British exit from the EU is a threat to no one; its consequences jeopardize the texture of European security; such weakening would a threat to all. Transatlantic solidarity and European security cooperation need to be sheltered from Brexit cooperation. Only NATO, with US engagement, can do it. Let to themselves the Europeans may or may not be able to compartmentalize Brexit and security. London and Brussels say they will. What if they do not? Former spouses cannot be trusted in divorce; NATO and the US should provide an insurance against train wreck.  The post-Brexit challenge to NATO will be three-fold: to replace the British lynchpin between the EU and NATO; to encourage continuing military and security cooperation between London and UK-less EU (let to themselves both would be security dwarfs); to avoid that any transfer of Brexit animosity in the Atlantic Council.

As for the two real “threats” NATO needs adapt to – quickly – two recent events should have brought it home. The “ransomware” cyber-attack that struck worldwide on May 12 has highlighted the vulnerability of our societies, in the West and elsewhere. When your system is down it makes no difference whether the attacker is a State, a terrorist organization or a criminal gang – or, maybe, some combination of the above. Nor it makes much difference if the target is a hospital, a civilian airport or a military base. NATO has correctly identified cyberspace a warfare domain. It has also identified in the EU as its cyber security partner. It is time to move fast forward toward assuring a NATO-EU continuum in protecting the military and the civilian components of cyberspace.  It is, to be sure, a gigantic task and an extremely complex challenge of sharing responsibilities between the two organizations and between international and national level. But there is no other option than cooperation NATO-EU-nations.

The horrific Manchester attack is only the latest of a terrorist string that crisscrossed Europe and has struck also the United States from coast to coast. NATO has been traditionally hesitant to take on counterterrorism; likewise, many Allies have been reluctant to allow NATO on what was considered a law-and-order-intelligence turf. Two factors have radically changed the equation. The first is the Islamic State that has raised terror to a tool of its international relations; attacks in Nice or Brussels are responses to military action against Mosul and Raqqa. Second, and even more important, today people’s perception of security is inextricably linked to the terrorist threat.  For NATO tackling homeland security would be no minor adaptation. It can choose to do it or not to do it; to remain relevant in people’s hearts and minds it has little choice but to do it. Again: not alone and in an internationally cooperative context. But either the Alliance commits itself also to counterterrorism and homeland security or, for many Allies, it becomes obsolete.


Brussels, May 23, 2017