As an old adage says, nothing under communism was more uncertain than the past. In a normal world, predicting the future is a risky exercise, where formulating diagnoses comes easier than making recommendations, especially in respect of such dynamic developments as security, with its array of external and internal variables: threats, the international environment, budgets, strategies, political culture, and decision-making. The question asked by the editors of Polski Przegląd Dyplomatyczny (Polish Diplomatic Review) rightly links three issues: 1) the security of Poland and of its key external guarantor, the North Atlantic Alliance; 2) the construction of shared security (which, even if capable of being separated in general, is inseparable in strategic terms), where the political and military credibility and the reciprocity of Allied services constitute a lasting source of NATO’s strength; and 3) the two-pronged nature of actions needed to bolster collective defence, both internally, in Poland, and across the whole organisation.
The decisions by NATO heads of state and government adopted in Newport (2014) and Warsaw (2016) did much to renew the Alliance’s military credibility. They were the correct reaction, even if viewed by many as too weak, to the threats arising from Russia. Following two decades of transformations that effectively reduced the organisation’s potential in respect of the most demanding military capabilities, these decisions also represented the reversal of a misguided trend and discontinuation of its logic, based on an optimistic projection of how the international environment would evolve. And finally, they restored the correct hierarchy of NATO priorities, starting with reassurance, deterrence and collective defence.1
Thus, in the short term, the goal of enhancing the security of Poland and NATO should mean the effective implementation of the decisions made at the two summits, and the development of a coherent strategy to continue the process previously described. In terms of quality of response, this strategy should be proactive rather than reactive in the face of threats. The shape of this process and its detailed arrangements should be targeted at modern, effective deterrence, seeking not only stronger credibility for NATO as a political and military force, but also greater reliability that reflects an understanding of the nature of the threats and the correct choice of remedies. Save for the seriousness of the situation, nothing here is a simple repetition of events of the Cold War era.
Inevitably, the process of strengthening security in an uncertain world will be taking place in a complex decision-making environment, in confrontation with evolving threats and against political and military constraints. It will also reflect the very nature of the adaptation process of the Alliance, a multi-lateral structure uniting sovereign democracies where disputes, while representing real differences of opinion, also come as part of its strategic culture. Thus, the frank and sometimes public debates over the shape of common policy, its costs, priorities and requirements, are but a means of reaching such an agreement that could be embraced by all members. Consequently, the Alliance’s problem lies not in how serious a dispute may appear to be, but in perfecting the decision-making mechanisms to ensure that decisions come sooner and are better suited to the challenges of the time.
A glimpse of the difficulties involved is provided by the seven-decade experience of Allied collaboration. Only rarely in that period were important long-term military decisions, carrying high political and financial costs (but lower than the cost of hypothetical neglect), followed by simple, collision-free implementation. Actually, there is a case for arguing (paradoxically) that none of these decisions, no matter the time and the seriousness of threats, were ever implemented in full, starting with the 1952 force goals of the North Atlantic Council in Lisbon. Little wonder, as such is simply the nature of multi-year planning, where goals and responses are bound to be revised in accordance with changing circumstances. Sticking rigidly to decisions regardless of changing circumstances would mean that, when one reaches the capacity to meet challenges, they turn out to be the challenges of yesteryear. Consequently, all Allied decisions should be seen as a frame of reference for the development and dynamics of Allied strategy. But this strategy must be commensurate with the evolution of threats, and fleshed out with adequate, detailed military, budgetary and political solutions.2
Given the enormity of present-day threats, a real strengthening of Poland and NATO’s security will not be provided by a single act, and may only come as a result of painstaking implementation of the Newport and Warsaw decisions. It must be a continuous process, where the expectations that the Allies and the whole organisation will do more towards collective defence should be built on the firm foundations of Poland’s own budgetary and defence effort (including armed forces modernisation and readiness to support other allies).
The entirety of Polish activities within the Alliance must be backed by a solid diplomatic effort, drawing on good policy and strategy, and bearing in mind the Polish state’s requirements and capabilities. It is the first time since the 1989 accession to NATO that this strategy calls for such special competences and experiences. Here, no diplomatic manoeuvre, grandstanding or public diplomacy can substitute systematic work and a sense of strategic intent and purpose, combining thought with action and means with ends. In addition to the condition of the security environment, these needs are further escalated by the internal element of uncertainty, arising from political changes within Alliance members (or elections to be held soon in NATO’s largest members). This is especially true of the new president of the United States, whose foreign policy and security programme will be of key importance for the future of transatlantic relations.3
Ten major factors are going to determine Poland’s security within the Alliance in near future. While certainly not exhaustive, the following list clearly indicates the areas of key importance.
First, there must be a shared understanding within NATO of the threats and of their hierarchy, as a point of departure in allocating the organisation’s defence assets and operational priorities, and in building Allied solidarity around them. The challenges here reflect the wide differences between problems in the East (the Russian threat) and the South (political and religious extremism), and also the different perceptions of these problems’ weight among Allies coming from different parts of the North Atlantic area. There can be no doubt that this split in NATO members’ strategic attention foreshadows disputes over a strategy that would adequately match the threat, and over the resources necessary for its implementation. In this context, questions arise about the pressure which the challenges and problems, both global (Iran, China, and North Korea) and sectoral (security of maritime areas, economic security, and combating cyberthreats), exert on members’ national policies, and about the Alliance’s role in responding to the challenges and resolving the problems.
Second, in today’s conditions, and given the growth of military technologies and the evolution of conflict management, NATO must see the problem of aggression more broadly than just the threat of a conventional land, air or maritime offensive, with nuclear weapons in the backdrop. The notion now also includes threats linked to cyberaggression, cross-border activities, transit of commodities of key importance for the economy (where disturbances in the flow could weaken the defence systems of members or the operational capabilities of Allied forces), and the complex set of hybrid-war instruments, diluting the sharpness of Article 5 criteria.
Third, NATO strategy must continue to be flexible, in terms of its geographical directions and forms, and commensurate with the specific threats arising from these directions. Russian aggression against Ukraine does not detract from the need for prevention and crisis-management measures in the more complex context of collective defence (for example, the Middle East, North Africa or Afghanistan). The attention, though, must be constantly shifting towards the strategic component of collective defence, reflecting the threat of complex aggression against Alliance members.
Fourth, the credibility of NATO strategy must rest on the foundation of members’ political solidarity, not only in terms of strategy declaration, but also readiness to follow the strategy in practice. The complexity of threat scenarios now comes as a real challenge to the military processes, their material support, maintenance of Allied unanimity, and the effectiveness of decision-making mechanisms based on adequate reconnaissance. This is all the more important in a situation where the lucid assessments made by members on NATO’s Eastern Flank do not necessarily have to be perceived as such in the South, the West, or on the other side of the Atlantic. Just as the translation of threats into forward planning scenarios is vital, joint action is a sine qua non of collective defence.
Fifth, collective defence4 remains the priority, as the organisation’s only inalienable mission. This main instrument of NATO’s defence policy, both in terms of deterrence and readiness for active defence, provides the only indisputable platform for Allied cooperation and the coordination of national defence policies. Discussion of the Alliance’s other cooperative defence missions begin at a point defined by the collective defence imperative and related military capabilities. In its other functions, such as peace-keeping operations, stabilisation and training missions, support for democracy or providing relief from natural disasters, NATO can be replaced by other international organisations or coalitions of the willing.
Sixth, the military power and political determination of NATO members provide the foundation of credible deterrence. Allied deficits were correctly diagnosed during the Warsaw summit, and the decisions then taken are moving things in the right direction. This is especially true in areas such as the presence of Allied forces on the Eastern Flank and the capability to reinforce them when needed, the preparedness of command structures and the capability to collect and process data on developments in NATO’s neighbourhood, and the increased effectiveness of the defence planning process (notably, an increased degree of implementation by Allies of their own commitments in respect of the most important and most advanced defence systems). In the last-mentioned field, members’ national defence efforts must be combined with their activities in the NATO forum, aimed at improving jointly financed military capabilities (such as, in their broad sense, command systems and missile defence).
Seventh, nuclear policy is returning to the foreground of NATO’s deterrence, in response to the modernisation of the Russian arsenal and its being written by Moscow into the doctrinal context of measures capable of controlling the nature and intensity of a hypothetical conflict. On the declaration level, the Alliance does maintain the awareness of its strategic environment and readiness for an adequate response to threats. But the organisation has yet to make key decisions on the nuclear component of its deterrence policy, regarding infrastructure and delivery systems, processes of Allied planning and consultation, and more closely aligned NATO nuclear policies of individual members. In the first instance, though, it is the United States that has to make decisions on the future of its nuclear arsenal and guarantees to European Allies.
Eighth, effective defence preparations require material resources. Keeping the U.S. commitments (including financial) to NATO remains a challenge, as does Washington’s growing pressure for an increased budgetary effort by the European Allies. The target of 2% of GDP for defence spending, adopted at Newport and reiterated in Warsaw, is still far from being reached. More than two-thirds of NATO members underperform in this respect, although one should not ignore the efforts made, especially on the Eastern Flank.5 Success, however, is contingent on the performance of the largest European members. Not inconceivably, a stricter planning framework may have to be imposed on this process.
Ninth, while the Alliance members face the gravest external threats in a quarter of a century, major challenges are emerging to transatlantic relations. Along with the previously mentioned expectations for a crystallisation of the new U.S. administration’s position on NATO (and, more broadly, the pattern of its European strategy and other regional strategies), it can be safely assumed that this administration will be a tough partner for its own Allies. President Donald Trump will doubtlessly raise the bar, demanding that Europe exert itself more in military and budgetary terms so as to balance the U.S. contribution to collective defence. In transatlantic relations, therefore, a time for strategists and diplomats is approaching, in respect of activities within NATO (including members’ behaviour) and the institutionalised relations within the triangle of NATO, the European Union and the United States.
And, tenth, national decisions on the development of defence potentials may be seen as strategic measures to bolster NATO capabilities. The current threats from the East and the South remind us that NATO’s collective defence and Allies’ security guarantees, mandated in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, have their beginning in Article 3 of the same document, devoted to national defence efforts as guarantees of self-defence and aid to others. The contemporary role of national measures in this field, along with their net defence value, also includes preventing the “free riding problem” (a historic plague of Alliances), and leading by example, thus reducing the space for other Allies to ignore or diminish their own commitments.
1 Essentially, this process also erases the consequences of the constraints that NATO unilaterally imposed on itself in 1996–1997. There was then no will, no plan and no intention to deploy nuclear weapons to the territory of the new members, but the Alliance went even further, declaring the will to “carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces”. The declaration, extended to cover the military infrastructure as well, was later written into the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation. As a result of this obligation, for nearly two decades an important asymmetry handicapping the new members was built into the mechanism of NATO collective defence, affecting the capability to permanently deploy allied military infrastructure (bases, command structure, etc.) and forces. Leaving aside the military logic of removing such capabilities from the line of contact with a potential enemy, no sufficient effort was taken to properly prepare for the collective defence of the area, relegating this task to the reinforcement forces that would be deployed in the event of a threat. For many years, the number of military exercises was drastically reduced.
2 At a party following the ceremony of signing the Washington Treaty, on 4 April 1949, musicians played pieces from George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, including the two best known standards: “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. That could be jokingly described as the “Gershwin curse”, presaging doubts that continuously underlay Allied decision-making dilemmas and forced members to work hard towards enhancing the Alliance’s credibility.
3 Donald Trump, president-elect, made remarks critical of NATO during his recent election campaign, which further ups the ante.
4 Collective defence has been defining NATO’s credibility since 1949. There would be no North Atlantic Alliance without it, even though its context changed after 1989, when it was freed from an unambiguously perceived threat and is now faced by multi-dimensional challenges. It was within the framework of collective defence, rephrased after the Cold War as a “broader approach to security”, that the Alliance cited Article 5 of the Washington Treaty for the first time in its history (following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001). And it was in this spirit that we should view the Alliance’s military operations in Afghanistan (where NATO forces suffered bigger losses than in all other military operations in the organisation’s history), Iraq and the Mediterranean, and also during its Balkan missions and anti-terrorist air and maritime operations. As part of Allied operations, the territorial constraints of which were broadened, military cooperation with non-members was tightened up, thus generating pressure to let those non-members into the Alliance’s decision-making and planning mechanisms. In several cases (during the Balkan operations), military commitments were actually broadened to include partner states contributing to a coalition led by the Alliance. And, finally, energy security, cyberthreats and hybrid conflicts were identified in the new contexts of collective defence.
5 Poland is a good case in point here, having set a statutory target defence spending target of 2% of GDP, and reporting rapidly increasing military spending over the past several years.