European Affairs

NATO Must Prepare for "Unthinkable" Challenges     Print Email
George Robertson

When terrorists crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11, they killed several thousand innocent people and brutally exposed the vulnerability of open societies to such attacks. In the process, they also challenged the civilized world to come up with new ways to combat this and other threats to security. It is crucial, therefore, that the democracies work together to develop new ways to protect their populations.

NATO's collective reaction to the horrific events of September 11 is proof that North America and Europe are united as a security community. In invoking Article 5 of NATO's founding charter, all Alliance members have agreed that the attack on the United States, if directed from abroad, shall be considered as an attack against them all. Nothing could demonstrate more clearly the solidarity between Europe and North America to face common challenges together.

Indeed, in the post-Cold War world, the transatlantic community has had to adjust and face together a whole range of challenges, which did not exist in NATO's first 40 years. Moreover, the Alliance has achieved just that, leaving behind the passive, reactive approach of the Cold War and proactively seeking solutions to the new challenges of the new security environment. For example, in the former Yugoslavia, NATO has played the key role in bringing an end to brutal, regional wars and heading off further con§ict. NATO troops are today helping to rebuild stability throughout the region and thus gradually bringing southeastern Europe back into the European mainstream.

NATO has also opened its doors to new members from the former Eastern bloc, thus helping to heal the wounds of Europe's erstwhile division. The Alliance has developed political and military partnerships with dozens of countries throughout the Euro-Atlantic area, to help create a common security culture. It has developed special, bilateral relations with Russia and Ukraine, to help these two pivotal countries find their own distinct paths into Europe.

The Alliance has engaged with its neighbors along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, to dispel lingering misconceptions and to explore new venues of cooperation. In spite of predictions of its imminent demise in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the Alliance is busier today than at any point in its history. In short, NATO has moved from simply being into doing.

"Doing" is often both more difficult and controversial. But NATO has been successful because it has been §exible enough to adjust to deal with its immediate challenges. This §exibility comes in part from the Washington Treaty, NATO's founding charter. A truly remarkable document, it contains only 14 articles, but established the North Atlantic Council, the Alliance's supreme decision-making body on which every member state is represented, with the authority to set up subsidiary bodies to deal with other aspects of preserving and ensuring peace. However, building security does not just mean managing crises. It also means looking forward, and preparing to face the challenges of an unpredictable future.

The concept of security and the nature of the threats faced by Western society have been constantly changing in the years since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the challenge posed by terrorism is only one of an ever-growing panoply of security threats, which today, in conjunction with other organizations, NATO attempts to deal with. While it is critical to maintain efforts addressing existing security challenges, it is as important fundamentally to re-think how to deal with the emerging security challenges of the future.

As technology becomes more sophisticated, most people assume that it will benefit all humanity. Indeed, largely because of the changes of the past few decades - revolutions in information technology, communication, health care and global politics - individuals and private companies have unprecedented opportunities. Moreover, as they exploit these new opportunities, they also amass much greater power - particularly in comparison with the traditional power of states and national governments.

Global financial markets dwarf the capabilities of national treasuries to in§uence currency and trade markets. E-mail and the Internet have nearly eliminated the ability of national governments to control information. The communications and organizational potential of the Internet has made grassroots political association a serious force to be reckoned with, as seen in the anti-globalization protests and the successful campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines.

It is important to recognize, however, that the same technologies that make us feel better and more secure, and that empower individuals and small organizations, can work against us just as easily as they can work for us. Instead of reserving our deepest levels of concern for old threats that may never again materialize, we must recognize that new threats, of very different kinds, have already crossed a threshold that should make them the focus of the most serious concern.

So, for example, terrorists are able to communicate with each other with unprecedented communications security - both because of the availability of sophisticated encryption technology and the fact that their messages are buried in the overwhelming volume of electronic communication in the world today. The Internet provides all the information required to build nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Criminals of all sorts can use the Internet to share information and arrange actions anywhere in the world.

Indeed, it is not inconceivable that with the spread of technology, we could be facing mass destruction threats not just from so-called "rogue" states, but from other sources as well. Given this changing strategic backdrop, it is no wonder that the U.S. administration is thinking about the future role of the remaining nuclear weapons stockpiles in the United States and Russia. And whether they can be effective in deterring the kind of asymmetric threats that technology has now made possible.

In the wake of September 11, we must begin to think the unthinkable - not to spread alarm through our societies but to prepare responses to these newly emerging threats. If a crazed dictator or a terrorist group launched a nuclear or biological attack, how would we respond? What if there was an attack - say a bomb in a suitcase - and we simply did not know who was behind it? And what is the appropriate response if civilian aircraft are again used as weapons of mass destruction?

Thankfully, we are not starting completely from a blank piece of paper. Well before last month's outrage, NATO has been quietly engaged in a number of related activities. The Allies have already been cooperating for many years to deal with the effects of proliferation and fostering a vigorous and structured debate to strengthen their common understanding of the risks posed by weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, at the same time, the Alliance is improving the quality and quantity of intelligence and information-sharing among member states.

NATO is also working to ensure that deployed soldiers have protection against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons - so they will not be deterred by an aggressor who might use such weapons against them. The Alliance is developing missile-defense systems to protect our troops in action from the kind of missile attacks Iraq launched at Israel and coalition forces during the Gulf War. This will raise the threshold for any potential aggressor, who will know his weapons have less chance of getting through.

But the truth is that even with these efforts, the Alliance is still just playing catch-up. We must think further ahead about the world of tomorrow. To address the many, different kinds of challenges, it is crucially important to think again about defensive measures. Moreover, we need to raise the penalties, raise the threshold, against this kind of attack on our societies, from whatever source. Raising the threshold does not mean reliance solely on a military response - whether offensive or defensive. Instead, it is critical to develop a multifaceted approach, encompassing political, economic, law-enforcement and military measures. Let me suggest some possible examples.

First, we should renew efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile technologies. Prevention remains our preferred approach. But it will be necessary to increase the incentives for states that possess such technology to behave responsibly, and the penalties for those that do not.

Second, we need to look at the economic dimension. This applies particularly to non-state actors, such as terrorist groups, whose activities are more limited; where we can trace the §ow of money; and where we can disrupt their profitable activities. But we must also think in economic terms when raising the costs and reducing the benefits of proliferation for states as well.

Third, there must be greater coordination among international organizations that can bring pressure to bear on this issue. This includes the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations, as well as NATO. Moreover, increasingly, there is a law-enforcement dimension, and we need to do better at linking our international law enforcement efforts with our broader international security efforts.

Fourth, and tied to law enforcement, is the issue of raising the penalties to proliferators and terrorists on an individual basis. In response to the wars of Yugoslav dissolution, the international community established a war crimes tribunal to prosecute individuals responsible for atrocities. This is now enjoying growing success. The same was done in response to the genocide in Rwanda. However, these efforts came on stream only after the con§icts were under way, so their deterrent effect was inevitably limited. Can we get ahead of the game in respect of terrorists and their backers?

Finally, it is necessary to think about military responses as well. Missile defense is and should be the subject of deep re§ection and consultation in NATO. We have an obligation to protect our societies. And we must ensure that our own military capabilities remain relatively less vulnerable, so that they remain effective in all situations.

These proposals stray beyond currently agreed NATO policy. But the magnitude of the challenges faced by democratic societies now and in the future is so great that it is imperative to think broadly about how to respond to them. Above all, it is critical that democratic societies work together and help one another to develop the appropriate strategies. Security is a precious commodity, which no one should take for granted.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2001.

 
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