NATO Looks Forward

By Kevin Blachford

At London’s prestigious think tank, Chatham House, former Danish Prime Minister and current Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen outlined his vision for NATO’s future in the twenty-first century.  In an age of austerity, when military budgets are being cut, Rasmussen offered his optimistic view of the future of the transatlantic alliance. With many security issues likely to arise in the decades ahead there could be a “perfect storm” of interconnected problems. The twenty-first century is likely to face resource scarcity, instability of energy supplies, a population boom, and the resurgence of great power rivalries and nationalism. Despite all this, Rasmussen’s position was surprisingly upbeat and in order to face these challenges he called for NATO to take on a more global outlook.

Admitting that “it’s not easy to be an optimist,” Rasmussen recognized that, “undoubtedly we live in a time of momentous shifts, in a world that is increasingly unpredictable, complex and interlinked.” But he argued his case for optimism by declaring, “Europe and North America still have tremendous resources, resolve, and ideas. And when we work together, there is no greater force for positive change.” Since the end of the Cold War NATO’s primary rationale—to protect the transatlantic alliance in the face of the Soviet threat—has been obviated. However, despite the end of the Cold War, NATO has been surprisingly resilient and has proven its ability to adapt to new challenges. The ability of NATO forces to deploy during emergencies such as the recent Libya campaign also shows the continuing relevance of the need for Western nations to work together in facing security challenges.

It was the prospect of cooperation, which Rasmussen continually stressed, which would be the way forward for the Atlantic alliance in the twenty-first century. Making the case for cooperation he argued that, “in almost all areas, we need effective partnerships to be successful— to manage crises, defend against emerging security challenges, and promote stability.” But the Secretary General also made the case for cooperation and dialogue with India, Russia, and China. In the case of China he stated, “NATO needs to better understand China and define areas where we can work together to guarantee peace and stability.” The difficulty for NATO however, will be maintaining a united front as it continues the dialogue. It will be incredibly easy for European and American allies to squabble amongst themselves if presented with a pressing security challenge, particularly if that challenge is dealing with is China-related. The hard task for NATO will be trying to strengthen the alliance while continuing to talk with one voice when addressing new security challenges. NATO must also continue to be ready for future challenges when diplomacy breaks down. With nations cutting their military budgets it is more important than ever that NATO members continue to maintain the interoperability of their forces.

While the Secretary General continued to stress the importance of the Atlantic alliance and the need for NATO to build its ability to offer stability in Europe, the key part of his speech was his argument for NATO’s role in addressing global issues. Downplaying the recent American pivot to Asia, he instead made the case for NATO’s ability to forge new strategic partnerships and opportunities for cooperation on a global scale. In particular he noted how NATO can work with countries like Australia and other nations that share similar goals and values.

But there are also other security challenges, which NATO may be hard pressed to address. Cybersecurity will undoubtedly be an increasingly pressing security issue in the twenty-first century. The rise of cybersecurity and the role of non-state actors involved in cybercrime and espionage makes it difficult for a nation state alliance to solve this challenge. Both state and non-state actors dominate the security challenges of the cyberdomain and yet, there is no clear consensus on how cybersecurity can be tackled without infringing on personal freedoms and increasing intrusive surveillance. If NATO is to continue to show its relevance in this century, it will have to vastly increase its ability to defend cyberspace while also cooperating with other powers to ensure a free and fair internet for all.

There are many security challenges that are likely to arise in the twenty-first century. While NATO may not be able to address all of these challenges, it is still the most effective and enduring alliance for Western nations. As long as NATO can speak with one voice and encourage cooperation in order to reduce suspicion and mistrust then it will continue to be relevant for the foreseeable future. It is NATO’s successful history and its proven ability to provide stability that gives Anders Rasmussen every right to be optimistic.


Kevin Blachford is a PhD student at the University of Winchester specializing in global politics and security studies.

[Picture courtesy of the European Parliament]

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