NATO broadens security concept, defines its interests vis-à-vis Russia and China and blurs threat to southern flank


30 | 06 | 2021


The Brussels Summit addresses to the Alliance's University Secretary the need for a new Security Strategy to replace the current one, which has been in force since 2010.

In the picture

Atlantic Alliance Summit in Brussels in June 2021 [NATO].

While the echoes of the recently concluded Brussels 2021 Summit of NATO Heads of State and Government have not yet died down, it may be appropriate to reflect, albeit hastily, on the conclusions reached at the summit, as set out in the long statement issued on 14 June, in which the highest authorities of the member states outlined the Alliance's fundamental features for the medium-term future deadline.

In the run-up to the summit, the summit had been surrounded by the aura of the special. Not only because it was to be NATO's first high-level face-to-face event of the Covid era but also, perhaps above all, because it was expected to stage a US return to multilateralism and a less acrimonious relationship than President Donald Trump had maintained with its transatlantic partners.

In terms of visibility and protocol, the summit lived up to expectations, showing a North America that is more sensitive and closer to the Europeans, with President Biden more in tune with his counterparts than his predecessor. On substantive issues, however, the content of the finalstatement made it clear that the differences in subject security between the two presidents were, in general, more in tone than in content. 

It is true that Trump had maintained a rude - sometimes even rude - and dismissive attitude towards his allies, from whom he tactlessly demanded greater co-responsibility in sharing the cost of European security. Moreover, Trump made statements about the Alliance that even raised fears for its continuity, and led President Emmanuel Macron to say - with French interests in mind, let us not forget - that NATO was "brain dead" at status . But it is no less true that, in parallel to this rhetoric and in spite of everything, the organisation continued to function without any loss of capacity attributable to the conduct of the occupant of the White House.

That the summit was intended to mark a distance from the Trump period is attested to by the fact that already in the first point of the statement, the allies explicitly refer to their awareness of opening 'a new chapter in transatlantic relations'. The change in the US attitude towards imposing sanctions on Russia in an attempt to halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project was sample of Biden's willingness to approach relations with Europe in a more positive light (this concession to Russia - and to Germany, the main beneficiary of the new direction - finds its mirror image in paragraph 59 of statement, which commits the allies to ensuring that none will be vulnerable to political or coercive manipulation of energy). This has not, however, prevented issues such as the US grievance over the low level of expense in defence of most NATO countries from occupying, and continuing to occupy, a prominent place in the US diary in a more diplomatic manner.

statement extensive

The Brussels statement is unusually extensive, even by the standards customary at this subject summit. This is because, in its eagerness to project the Alliance into a complex future, it gives a broad interpretation of the concept of "security" and describes an extensive and disparate catalogue of threats and risks to the transatlantic community. Thus, in addition to some risks linked to a classic and more reduced vision of security, such as competition posed by powers like Russia and China, terrorism, threats in space and cyberspace or nuclear proliferation, others such as irregular immigration, human security, energy security or global warming are now added. 

The recognition of the complexity and breadth of this security scenario has as a corollary the need to draft a new Security Strategy to replace the current one, in force since 2010. The mandate in this regard given in the final statement to the Alliance's University Secretary is perhaps the most important aspect of the Brussels Summit: A .

The statement states, without detailing how it will do so, that the Alliance intends to strengthen and modernise its NATO Force Structure to make it capable of responding to current and future defence needs under the command and control of a more robust, elastic and efficient NATO Command Structure. Naturally, this implies an increase of expense in security for each and every member state, to which statement continues to insist on the need to converge on the terms of the agreement reached in Wales in 2014 on increasing national defence budgets, and to which it requires a greater financial contribution to the budget NATO Common Funding.

The statement in Brussels insists on the omnidirectional and indivisible character of the security umbrella that NATO offers its members and that, as it repeatedly proclaims, it extends 360° around the Alliance's territory, meeting the varied needs of all NATO members at subject. While NATO has defined a clear threat from the East and has adopted concrete deterrent measures against it, such as the deployment of the Enhanced Forward Presence in Poland and the Baltic Republics, or the Tailored Forward Presence in Romania, the threat in the South is defined somewhat vaguely, and actions against it are for the moment limited to the launch of the Hub for the South, a centre designed to improve the Degree of knowledge of status on the Alliance's southern flank.

Russia and China

To realise this imbalance, one need only consider the different treatment of the two geographic spaces in statement . Russia, whose current relations with NATO are said by the Alliance's University Secretary said are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, is depicted in the text as the main threat facing NATO and is by far the most frequently named country in the text, a significant part of which refers, directly or indirectly, to Russia. Threats from the South, meanwhile, receive somewhat marginal attention, striking even if it is acknowledged that these threats are more diffuse and undefined, but no less real, particularly for neighbouring countries.

China is identified in the document as one of the Alliance's main security concerns. Its assertive and ambitious behaviour is denounced in the text as generating a major systemic challenge to the current rules-based international order - which, it must be said, China perceives as imposed by the West - and in contrast to the value system enshrined in the Washington Treaty. China's concerns are embodied in issues such as the expansion of its nuclear arsenal, its efforts to acquire a nuclear triad, and its particular strategy, which combines military and civilian elements.

The statement does not yet go so far as to engage NATO beyond calling on China to act and behave as a power manager within the international system, and to offer constructive strategic dialogue in areas relevant to the Alliance, and where possible to address common challenges such as climate change. There is no doubt, however, that if the current trend sample continues, China will become increasingly central to NATO's strategy.

Also in clear reference letter to China, which is striving to achieve a status of technological superiority over the West, especially in the highly technology-dependent domains of space and cyberspace, NATO stresses its intention not to lose degree program and to maintain its superiority in the field of the so-called Emerging and Disruptive Technologies (EDT), whose mastery is essential for this purpose. There is no doubt that this purpose will have a cost in addition to the one mentioned above.

Outer Space, Cyberspace and article 5

With regard precisely to outer space and cyberspace, statement recognises them as operational domains that could therefore trigger Allied invocation of article 5 of the Washington Treaty in the event of an attack. However, recognising the difficulty of attributing offensive actions in these domains, and even of characterising such actions as "attack", the Allies agree to consider this possibility on a case-by-case basis and after careful consideration.

Even taking this limitation into account, the possibility could lead to interesting paradoxes for Spain. For example, it would not be inconceivable that Spain would find itself in the position of having to provide support to an ally, by virtue of the application of article 5, if the latter were to suffer an attack in a remote and undefined place in outer space, while seeing how attacks on sovereign territories in North Africa, only tens of kilometres away from the Peninsula, are excluded from the protective umbrella of the NATO collective security clause that this article implies.

Although NATO has long since ceased to be a purely military alliance and has become more of a political organisation, statement now makes an important effort to define itself as such, as a society of democracies, and urges University Secretary to reflect on how to strengthen precisely this political dimension of the Alliance. In this context, it is somewhat contradictory that NATO, which presents itself on statement as a sort of club of democracies, overlooks Turkey's credentials in this area, while at the same time making an undisguised effort to keep Turkey anchored in the Alliance.

The statement, in fact, devotes several paragraphs to Turkey, whose strategic value is indisputable in a confrontation with Russia, to express its support for Turkey in the face of the negative consequences of the Syrian conflict, making a special accredited specialization to its role as a host country for numerous refugees, and committing the Alliance to remain vigilant to the possibility of Turkey receiving ballistic missile attacks from Syria. The attempt to open a new chapter in Turkey's relations with the West, and more particularly with the United States, damaged by Erdogan's authoritarian drift and his rapprochement with Russia - which cost Turkey the cancellation of the US contract to purchase the latest-generation F-35 fighter jet for the acquisition of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system - is evident. Its fruits are yet to be seen.

In conclusion, the statement of the last summit sample shows a NATO in the process of adapting to a changing and increasingly complex security horizon. status The Brussels summit cannot be described as revolutionary - many of the issues raised at statement were already present at the previous summit in 2018 - but it does introduce important changes to orient the Alliance towards the foreseeable future and put it on the best possible footing to continue to ensure the security of its members effectively. In this area, it would not be surprising to see an increasing shift of NATO's centre of gravity of strategic and security interest towards the Indo-Pacific region in the future.

The statement in Brussels has considerably broadened the palette of issues NATO needs to address because of the Allies' broad interpretation of the concept of "security". Russia, China and other "classic" threats are now joined by issues such as human security, energy security, migration and global warming, which greatly expand the demands placed on the Alliance. Whether or not the Alliance will provide an effective response will depend to a large extent on whether member states are able to pay a hefty invoice , given the number and nature of the risks it is being asked to address. To this end, it is essential that these risks are given an appropriate priority. Otherwise, there is a danger that the term "security" will become meaningless. When everything is defined as a security problem, nothing is, in the end, security.