NATO’s Two-front War

November 17, 2015

To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of NATO’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Last week’s deadly terrorist attacks in Paris underscore the changing security threats confronting the alliance. Just two years ago, the biggest issues facing the six-decades-old organization were defending NATO’s European members from Iran’s nascent ballistic missile program and reestablishing domestic support in the aftermath of its deeply divisive operation in Afghanistan.

Yet today, NATO is facing a two-front war that is very much close to home. To the south, NATO faces new threats driven by Islamist extremism across the breadth of the Middle East and North Africa. The Paris attacks painfully demonstrate the increasing danger of overseas extremism brought home. Further, the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from these and other conflicts and crossing Europe’s borders affect nearly every NATO member. These new threats from the south are joined by a revitalized older one from the east: Vladimir Putin has re-asserted Russia’s long-standing threat to the alliance and his European neighbors after a period of hopeful but uneasy détente. NATO must now confront two very different — and difficult — types of threats at the same time.

NATO’s southern front has developed rapidly and unexpectedly. NATO played a central role in bringing down Libya’s Qaddafi regime in 2011, but the resulting political vacuum led to instability and violence. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) since 2013 has spread even more dangerous chaos in the south. The stunning advances of ISIL have shocked governments throughout the Middle East and the West. The reach of its deadly affiliates now extends far beyond the region across North Africa, the African Horn, and even to South and Central Asia. The Paris attacks show how international terrorists, including those who are either a part of or inspired by the Islamic State, can now reach deep inside European territory, posing a deadly direct threat to NATO states at home. Moreover, refugees fleeing chaos in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere now have surged into NATO member states, contributing to the humanitarian and political crisis across the continent.

NATO must address three issues on its southern front. First, the alliance must figure out how to help member states deal with the imminent terrorist threat posed by ISIL. NATO should begin urgent discussions now on this threat, and determine the best ways to contribute to the homeland defense of its members. And at some juncture, the alliance must decide when and how to respond collectively to large-scale terrorist attacks on one or more of its members — up to and including invoking Article V, the collective defense bedrock of the alliance which states that an attack on any one member will be considered an attack on all.

Second, NATO must re-visit its role in helping resolve the ongoing crisis within Libya. If the recently negotiated Libyan Political Agreement takes effect, NATO may be called upon to lead or to contribute forces to a stabilization mission that would support the new national unity government. More importantly, if ISIL continues to make gains throughout Libya, NATO may have to consider taking steps to halt or even roll back its progress to prevent Libya from becoming an even stronger base of operations for the terror group.

Third, NATO must help address the consequences of the refugee crisis. This ongoing humanitarian disaster — which shows few signs of abating — may destabilize governments across the continent and undermine the principle of solidarity that forms the core of the alliance. While the military requirements from this crisis may be limited, NATO may be able to help its members with missions such as constructing refugee camps and helping control borders, which would further demonstrate the utility of the alliance in homeland security roles.

NATO’s eastern flank presents a different threat. Russia’s military buildup and aggressive behavior have particularly worried alliance members within close reach of Russian military forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the world when he invaded and annexed Crimea in March 2014, and then began a campaign of subversion to undermine Ukraine’s eastern provinces (which are largely populated by ethnic Russians). The alliance responded by suspending exercises and military-to-military contacts with Russia, while adding air patrols and naval exercises around the Russian periphery. Russia has declared a new assertive military doctrine, stepped up its military activity in the Arctic, and even flown its long-range bombers along the edge of NATO members’ territory in the Baltic and North Atlantic. Putin’s recent deployment of the Russian military outside of Europe into combat operations in Syria suggests he remains wholly undeterred by the international reaction to his aggression in Eastern Europe.

NATO now faces three challenges from its east. First, NATO must reinforce that Article V’s collective defense provisions apply for NATO members facing unconventional threats from Russia, as well as more overt military aggression. The Baltic states and Poland also need to be reassured that all other members still unequivocally subscribe to that pact, and that the alliance will respond with military force if any of its members are besieged. Doing so will require more forward stationing of NATO forces and equipment, continuing Article V exercises (such as the just-completed Trident Juncture, among others), and high-level visits and exchanges to reinforce alliance member confidence.

Second, NATO must craft a coherent strategy to respond to any Russian threats against member states from the “gray zone” — those that fall below the level of conventional attack. Russia has used subversion, cyber attacks, and little green men very effectively in its recent incursions in Eastern Europe. NATO must determine how to respond to similar provocations if and when they are directed against a member state, even if they may not be sufficient to trigger Article V. Thinking about the scope of these challenges now can far better equip the alliance to deal effectively with the next unconventional crisis when it occurs.

Third, NATO must consider how it should respond to further encroachments against non-NATO members in Eastern Europe. The alliance’s responses to Russian forays in Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine were uneven at best. It is likely that Russia will continue to pressure and coerce non-NATO states in its “near abroad,” and NATO must consider its prospective responses to such nearly inevitable future aggression. There may be no alliance-wide answer — and responses might best be handled by individual member states. But each time NATO appears uncertain in the face of Russian aggression in Europe, Moscow is encouraged to be even more assertive.

NATO arguably now faces a more diverse and complex set of challenges than at the height of the Cold War. One front would be more than enough of a test of NATO will and capability, but addressing two very different problem sets in an era of flagging public support and declining budgets will be extremely difficult. Nevertheless, the alliance must figure out how best to do so, in order to protect the citizens of its member states from the very direct threats that they now face. The longest and most successful alliance in the world needs to re-orient itself to these two new fronts that lie at the center of this new struggle for its future. Failing to adapt to this new reality — and failing to protect the populations of NATO member states from both of these threats — might well mean that NATO will have no future at all.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.