Conclusion of the panel discussions, NATO-EU Roundtable 2017

Basics of NATO-EU Cooperation

NATO-EU Cooperation has recurrently suffered from a lack of concrete achievements and materialization. The panelists reminded that the EU was never designed as a crisis management organization and that the asymmetric membership structures made unanimity difficult to reach. The July 2016 NATO-EU Joint Declaration is marking a potentially decisive precedent in the cooperation between the two. On December 6, 2016, the European Commission presented 42 concrete proposals covering 7 areas of cooperation with NATO. Together with the Joint Declaration, this is an important impetus for greater common achievements. Long standing issues are however weighing on this renewed vibe such as the contention between Turkey and Cyprus.


A sharp contrast in worldviews between the 2003 EU Security Strategy and the 2016 EU Global Strategy can be identified. 14 years ago the EUSS presented an optimistic worldview and expected to collect the dividends of peace in a prosperous world. The recent Global Strategy by contrast considers the world as more dangerous and uncertain. It also insists on an appropriate level of strategic autonomy from NATO. Hindrances to a proper role for the EU in defense and security remain considerable. First and foremost, the European Commission has very limited devolved competences in the field of defense and security as states are unwilling to give up larger share of their sovereignty to the EU. The EU budget process is also lacking flexibility to allow larger credits for defense-oriented actions


The panelists further addressed the question of defense spending and burden-sharing. A long-standing issue in the relations between the US and its NATO allies is the so-called “2% debate”, whereby the US and NATO Secretariat are pushing for a greater burden-sharing between Allies, namely that each NATO ally would dedicate at least 2% of its GDP to defense spending. This can be considered as an artificial objective however. A narrow focus on proper defense – military – spending can prove disconnected from today’s multidimensional security crises and conflicts. This is why a distinction should be made between defense spending and security spending in order to adopt a more nuanced approach that would take into account evolving imperatives proper to the concept of “human security” with a greater nexus between traditional military action and the EU’s comprehensive approach preventing and managing conflicts.


Military cooperation between NATO and the EU

NATO and the EU are not autonomous entities. Both are merely the sum of their parts, which implies that their attitude reflects the unanimity of their members. From a practical perspective, NATO – EU cooperation is therefore rather inter-national than inter-institutional. While NATO and EU forces are largely interoperable with similar concepts and doctrines of action, the main problem for further collaboration and integration mainly concerns the political level.


NATO and the EU differ primarily in terms of the rapidity and fluidity of decision-making. While national representatives to NATO are empowered to take binding decisions for their countries in a restrained amount of time, the decision-process within the EU remains slow and multi-layered. NATO is militarily more responsive than the EU, which is natural considering the essence of both organizations. While the EU’s comprehensive approach to security gives it a broader array of tools in crisis management, NATO’s collective territorial defense competence makes the organization a bulwark in the use of conventional military force. The smartest cooperation should then be a continuum or a sequenced cooperation. In a given crisis, NATO would intervene first in order to create a safe and secure environment while the EU would take over resilience, human security and stability building in a second sequence of intervention. The examples of operation Concordia and Althea, smoothly handed over by NATO to the EU illustrate this virtuous pattern of cooperation.


Against this backdrop, the panelists identified key challenges to NATO-EU cooperation. The long standing hindrance to further collaboration and integration lies in diverging foreign policy conceptions among members. Military force being the backbone of any foreign policy posture, Member States have a reluctance to “pool and share” their capabilities, which would inevitably lead to selective specialization and the abandonment of whole sets of capabilities – and therefore diplomatic ambitions – by some members. The panelists finally addressed the challenges posed by Russia’s assertiveness and aggressiveness at NATO’s margins. Despite Russian official statements and military doctrines suggesting nuclear “ambiguity”, the panelists argued that the use of nuclear weapons by Russia was fundamentally unlikely. Taking on a realist viewpoint, in order to counter Russia’s threatening attitude, the participants underlined that the Alliance needed to create and make acknowledge to Moscow a credible conventional balance of forces.


Countering hybrid threats together

The notion of hybrid threat remains a loosely defined and divisive concept among the security and defense community. Hybrid threats do not refer in their essence to a fundamentally new nature of warfare. It is an essential dimension of war to encompass a broad array of domains in undermining the adversary’s will. The panelists debated over the meaning of hybrid threats and proposed to designate them as “measures short of war”, even “Russian measures short of war”, in a paraphrase to US Cold War diplomat George Kennan.


The cyberspace as well as unrestricted information technologies give “hybrid threats” or “measures short of war”, a renewed salience. Challenges linked to the cyberspace are not only technological but also cognitive. Information has become borderless and essentially unsupervised. NATO’s StratCom center of excellence was founded in order to fight Russian propaganda and fake news and build a proactive strategic communications posture. Its action is based on four main axes: raising societal awareness about the stakes and forms of information warfare; enhancing education on disinformation, media and computer literacy; taking back the initiative and avoiding being stuck in a mere reactive posture; building credibility with doctrines and capabilities. A strong challenge in fighting such measures short of war is the difficult assessment of Russian propaganda and offensive communication. Establishing the connection between online “trolls” and governments is a task for intelligence services. In the cyber domain, NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of excellence is elaborating a comprehensive cyber operations doctrine after the Wales Summit considered a cyberattack could potentially trigger article 5; and the Warsaw Summit recognized that the cyberspace evolved as a full domain of operations.


Hybrid threats are on top of the EU-NATO cooperation agenda. Here again, the asymmetric and different membership structures of the two is an obstacle to effectively grasping the bigger picture concerning hybrid threats. Within the EU, and among the eastern members of the Alliance, Russia remains a divisive issue. The political correctness of a group of EU member states concerning hybrid threats, by refusing to name Russia as main instigator of aggressive information and cyber campaigns, undermines strategic awareness on measures short of war. At the same time, the structural heaviness and complexity of the EU makes member states rather reluctant to share information at EU level. EU general preparedness to crisis management is further hindered by the lack of institutional competence in security and defense. Special attention should be paid in the near future to hybrid threats since they are particularly appealing as they avoid civilian loss of life. Perhaps the salience of hybrid threats or measures short of war is created by the fact that they are a perfect way to avoid collateral damage and advance one’s interests in a “softer” manner.


Written by Maxime Lebrun