It Matters What Others Think: Calibrating NATO’s Deterrence Posture in the Age of Complexity

Opening session
There is no ‘end of history’ as was once thought. Today’s environment is characterised by many conflicts, but we are often uncertain how to address them since these conflicts are extremely varied in nature. In this day and age, the world is not divided by ideology, but by culture and religion. Moreover, new security issues are emerging and old ones are re-appearing – we are faced with piracy, cyber attacks and energy supply disruptions. It is a complicated question whether, and how, these asymmetric threats could be deterred. We must now grapple with such dilemmas as when, and under what circumstances, to threaten to use or actually use military force and, if threatened by non-military forms of coercion, in combination with which other means of persuasion this should be done. For instance, is it right to respond to cyber attacks by using ‘kinetic force’? There are no easy and straightforward answers to these questions.

Collective defence was, is and always will be the core task of NATO. Certainly, NATO must act above and beyond its call of duty in order to deter asymmetric threats. It must not become a global policeman, but it must not miss any opportunities to provide a viable deterrent in various circumstances. At the same time, its overall strategy should still include the maintaining of credibility as a deterrent against resurgent hostile powers and the use of military force by them. In order to function as an appropriate deterrent, NATO needs to foster its credibility and to show its willingness to act. This is especially pertinent to the Baltic states. NATO must demonstrate through contingency planning and Article 5 exercises that it is willing to defend them, if necessary.
In order to be credible, NATO must widen the political debate within the Alliance and speak about more issues that just Afghanistan. The Alliance must establish strong links with other international organisations, primarily the EU. If we want NATO to be taken seriously by others, its member states must take it seriously by maintaining appropriate defence budgets, by solving funding issues for the NATO Response Force and by educating their domestic public about the importance of defence spending. In a changing world where new centres of power are emerging, small states should pay special attention to international forums, such as NATO, because their voices can be heard more easily there.

Finally, the cornerstone of NATO is the transatlantic link which must be fostered every day. There are some worrying signs today: the USA is focusing more on the Pacific and less on Atlantic relations, while Europe attempts to be post-modern and neutral. This situation cannot go on. A strong and confident EU is necessary to maintain a fruitful transatlantic relationship and thus to bolster the deterrent effect of NATO’s overall power.

Session 1. Deterrence today and tomorrow: can it still deliver security and stability?

Deterrence is still relevant in many fields: economy, diplomacy, law enforcement. Communication lies at the core of the concept because the only thing that matters is the target’s perceptions or thoughts. In order to be successful, deterrence has to fulfil several criteria:
1. Credibility (capability, plus a will to act);
2. Communication between the parties;
3. Targeted against something of value to the opponent;
4. Political utility.

In general, classical deterrence against state actors is rather simple and it often functions effectively between major powers. However, there is a fundamental problem: it has been so successful up to now that it has created an unprecedented feeling of security, which in turn has lead to blindness to threats. In this sense, deterrence is self-destructive. Nuclear deterrence makes major powers more prudent, but it is not effective against small powers. Conventional deterrence does not always work because the deterrent potential is low when the power distance is high. The asymmetry of will and power renders conventional deterrence mostly ineffective.

Moreover, the second and third criteria are very difficult to fulfil in a counter-insurgency environment. Deterrence against non-state actors is more complex because in order to function properly, it must go against the principle of proportionality – the response must usually be disproportionately large to deter the enemy. Furthermore, non-state insurgents are often willing to die. However, it is still possible to use this type of deterrence in some circumstances, as even non-state actors are rational in their own way – they can be damaged as well. In order to deploy deterrence against them, it is necessary to find out how they can be damaged the most. As a rule, successful strategies involve the targeting of their leaders or their supporters. But when this type of deterrence is used, we can talk about only limited success because the lower the intensity of the conflict, the smaller the possibility that the enemy is deterred. It takes more than purely military means to deter non-state actors – they must be dealt with more comprehensively. Intelligence has to be one of the vital elements in such a comprehensive approach.

Session 2. The dilemmas of credibility: can NATO reconcile them?

Deterrence is the best tool for providing security in today’s world, but it must be adapted to deal with current circumstances – for example, nuclear deterrence alone is inappropriate for dealing with countries like North Korea and Iran that are not concerned about retaliation, which is why their ideology must be targeted instead. Due to ethical and moral considerations, the current focus in deterrence thinking tends to be more on the denial of benefits, rather than on retaliation. Nonetheless, deterrence is fundamentally a policy that involves the making of threats and that requires us to think and act in ways that come into conflict with some of our values and principles, such as proportionality. For this reason, policymakers need to have clear red lines, but they also have to bear in mind that in addition to military elements, deterrence might include political and economic ones as well.

The credibility of NATO’s deterrence posture rests on capability; on a clearly communicated message that finds a balance between antagonism and weakness; and, above all, on solidarity. The presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe is a significant component on the capability side of the equation. Together with the physical presence of US troops in Europe, they provide a key contribution to NATO’s deterrent message. Ground troops who are able to react rapidly are also important. The Allies should be honest with themselves about their capabilities in these and other areas. Deterrence would also be enhanced by a missile defence system in Europe and an effective crisis management system able to react quickly to emerging threats.

Solidarity is the cornerstone of NATO’s deterrence. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty also provides a powerful deterrent. Its simplicity and clarity make consensus and unity within the Alliance easier and deterrence more credible – in fact, it is the best vehicle for achieving unity within the Alliance. For this reason, it should not be reshaped to deal with, for example, cyber threats. However, solidarity is not as strong as it could be and needs some attention, especially as some Allies feel exposed. It is important that all NATO member states, not just the three nuclear states, should discuss deterrence issues. Moreover, NATO should not be afraid to be more explicit in naming the threats it faces. It is unlikely that NATO will have to fight a conventional war in the near future, but the Russian-Georgian war should be seen as a wake-up call to all the Allies.

Russia’s fears should not be misinterpreted: Russia is not afraid of having a border with NATO, but it does fear that NATO will take on the role of a global policeman. In response to US and Chinese moves, Russia’s armed forces are undergoing a major military reform, modelled on the structure of the US Army and aimed at developing their out-of-area and network-centric capabilities. At present, it is unclear whether Russia would be interested in a genuine partnership with NATO.

Session 3. Assurance for small Allies: how can it succeed or fail?

Deterrence is an integral part of any security strategy and a vital tool for influencing other actors. However, motivation is important: deterrence must be pro-active and dynamic, not re-active and static. Target audiences must be chosen carefully. It also requires a coordinated approach, which is why NATO does not perform well in all areas of deterrence. Its main shortcoming is its present narrow mandate. NATO’s deterrent capabilities could be improved especially by intensified cooperation with the EU. In fact, deterrence is credible only when provided in cooperation with other countries because credible deterrence must be maintained by corresponding actions (centres of excellence, exercises, contingency planning) and its image constantly nurtured. Therefore the cohesion of the Alliance must be upheld in order to project the resolve required to deter.

The problem often is that in peacetime it is impossible to know whether deterrence works, although so far deterrence has proven to be the best defence option. However, the West’s credibility must be reinforced through solidarity. A show of solidarity in other matters (e.g. energy security) would help to foster a credible image for NATO. At the moment, the biggest challenge to NATO’s credibility is the different threat perceptions within the Alliance.

The Alliance must also reassure small states that they will not become bargaining chips in the hands of greater powers once again. This assurance should be given by the Alliance through communication and image-building measures, in which Article 5 exercises and contingency planning have a crucial role to play. Both the domestic audience and the adversary must believe in deterrence for it to function properly. Still, smaller states also have to contribute to the upholding of the Alliance. This can be achieved by ensuring sufficient military funding, financing deeper integration within NATO (i.e. buying only hardware that is suitable for both territorial defence and out-of-area operations) and establishing strong working partnerships with neighbouring countries.