Friday 17. September 2021
#202 - March 2017

Europe and NATO in a changing security situation

Over the past few months, the role of NATO has come under the spotlight. Assessing the changing security context in which Europe finds itself, NATO official Stephan Miller examines NATO’s capacity for promoting stability.

The challenge of static and dynamic instability

In recent times, the “arc of instability” has become a popular descriptor for the security situation confronting Europe. This metaphor captures the transition from the period of relative stability following the Balkan Conflicts in the 1990s until just before the Arab Spring. In this context, instability is a very broad term, which encompasses the span of security challenges from the East, where the Transatlantic Alliance is facing Russia as single opponent or competitor, to the South, where there is a plethora of radical challenges.


Strategically the situation in the East has not changed significantly since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but it remains far from stable. It is a situation of static instability.


The South, however, the region stretching from Morocco to Turkey’s borders suffers in various degrees from dynamic instability since the Arab Spring. Iran’s sphere of influence continues to grow into Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. The Assad regime, on the verge of collapse in 2015, has resurrected. Turkey tries to reach out into her southern neighbours and into the whole of the Arabic world. Russia has become again an important player in the region. The Israel – Palestine issue has diminished in relation to the Sunni – Shia conflict, although it certainly has not disappeared. The Sunni – Shia divide itself is underlying nearly all of the struggles and fights in the region, it is the central theme of the region. This potent mix of state and non-state actors, interwoven with migration, organized crime, traditional rivalries and the combination of an explosive demography with an insufficient economic growth, have created a series of dynamic security challenges on Europe’s southern borders and this dynamic seems to be enduring.


NATO’s core tasks

In this situation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization still has to fulfil its three core tasks: collective defence, crisis response and cooperative security.


In the East, NATO’s role is deterrence. Allies leverage all instruments of state power, with NATO’s security blanket being just one, albeit critical component. This military component bases predominantly on flexible, responsive and mobile forces at high readiness and in addition on rotational forward presence on the soil of those Allies, which border Russia. This deterrence has a solid value in reassuring nations geographically close to Russia. However, it does not deny the effects below the threshold of open aggression, which promote the interests of a Russia as competing nation. Russia leverages hybrid actions, strategic communication, cyber warfare and other means, to impact on our open societies.


The relationship between states is no longer binary. Russia, for example, concurrently can be a competitor, adversary and partner, often with partially compatible foreign policy interests with the EU or NATO, depending on the theatre. Deterring, competing, and engaging do therefore not exclude each other – indeed, they can simultaneously address the same nation. This demands a flexible, adaptable political approach and military posture, in a way reminiscent of Prince Bismarck’s concept of keeping five balls in the air when dealing with the complexity of the late 19-century security system. Avoiding miscalculation and achieving conflict prevention regardless of the on-going competition remains crucial. Understanding the effects modern state actors use to shape the ground for expanding their influence through non-conventional means is vital for any modern state actor. The thin line between competition – often very aggressive competition – and confrontation needs to be understood by all parties involved.


The challenges in the south are fundamentally different. They originate from weak states, which cannot prevent transnational terrorism from organising and executing terrorist activities, both in the region and beyond. All this is fed by the constant and dramatic mismatch between demography and economic growth, a generational and strategic challenge to which is currently only punctually and tactically responded. To address the causes requires all the instruments of power and influence to be utilised in a coordinated manner over a long period. This helps creating long-term political stability based on societies in which the individual is empowered to contribute to the nation’s wellbeing.


Achieving long term stability

To achieve this long term stability, NATO, EU and other players should work closely together using a broad variety of political, diplomatic, economic, judiciary, law enforcement and military tools, while respecting principles of local ownership, local solutions and maximising the use of local capacities. From a Christian perspective, the inherent option to use force (or counter force) in support of this long term stability, is unsatisfying. However, this approach just acknowledges the realities of a world, which remains full of contradictions.


Lt Col Stephan Miller

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization


The opinions expressed in this article are of those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policy of member governments, or of NATO.


EN The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.