By Mathieu Labrèche, Contributing Correspondent

At its Lisbon Summit in November of 2010, NATO member countries adopted a new Strategic Concept – a ten-year roadmap for the future to address and adapt to shifting global conditions, emerging security challenges and modern threats in a changing world. The new concept, the first in a decade and the Alliance’s third since its inception in 1949, not only reconfirms members’ commitment to the mutual security of the Euro-Atlantic area, but it also introduces unique strategies to tackle top-of-mind items such as missile defence, cyber security, relations with Russia, nuclear proliferation and the collapse of states.

While presenting the new Strategic Concept at the Lisbon summit, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated, “The world is changing. We face new threats and new challenges. And this Strategic Concept will ensure that NATO remains as effective as ever in defending our peace, our security and our prosperity.” He went on to say, “[the concept] is an action plan … which sets out clearly the concrete steps NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) will take, […] It will put in place an Alliance that is more effective, more engaged and more efficient than ever before.” In effect, Rasmussen’s “NATO 3.0”, as he refers to it, is transformed and ready for a new world.

Jamie Shea, newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary General for the Emerging Security Challenges Division at NATO, recently discussed the Alliance’s revival and other crucial geopolitical issues with The Toronto Review. During the turbulent 1990s, Jamie was NATO’s main spokesperson, and, until recently, served as Director of Policy Planning in the Private Office of the Secretary General. He also holds several external academic positions, including at the College of Europe, the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies, American University and the University of London’s Royal Holloway College. (His full biography can be viewed here.)

Q. It’s been a difficult decade for NATO – an intractable war in Afghanistan, some member countries fighting and others not, talk of the Pacific Century and so on. Secretary General Rasmussen has described the Alliance’s efforts to modernize and readjust as “cutting the fat and leaving the muscle.” How threadbare is NATO and how is it still useful in a changing global security landscape?

A. It is true that Afghanistan has put NATO under pressure as it is the most demanding operation that it has ever conducted. This said, NATO has been able to deploy 140,000 troops and sustain them in Afghanistan for a considerable period of time. Indeed, many of them will stay until the projected end date for combat operations in 2014. Although many of these troops are from the United States, fewer than 40,000 are from the European Allies and that is the largest deployment of European forces since the Korean War.

NATO has also been able to join up with 21 partner countries in Afghanistan that would certainly not commit their forces if they did not find NATO to be an efficient, reliable institution. It is difficult to think of any other organization that could resource and organize the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation in Afghanistan. Certainly, the Alliance has had to learn some hard lessons along the way. For NATO, this has meant focusing more on expeditionary forces and new capabilities such as Counter Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), Special Forces, drones and the training of the local Afghan Army and Police. Many Allies have removed caveats and accepted the need to take on at least some of the combat missions. So, NATO today is a different, and a much more capable organization for dealing with reconstruction and counter-insurgency than the one that first went into Afghanistan in 2003.

NATO’s new Strategic Concept is honest in identifying NATO’s vulnerabilities as well as its strengths, and in committing the Allies to transform the Alliance to be better equipped to handle 21st century security challenges. For instance, the Alliance will now take new threats such as ballistic missile proliferation and cyber attacks much more seriously and develop the operational capabilities to respond to these threats. NATO will also integrate the lessons from Afghanistan in terms of a much closer civilian-military interface in its planning for future operations. Moreover, NATO will develop its partnerships with countries across the globe as well as with other international organizations, such as the United Nations or the European Union, as security today is about activating and integrating networks more than about self-standing institutions. Of course, the credibility of the new Strategic Concept will be in its implementation and it’s true that as the result of the current financial crisis resources will be very scarce. This said, every defence specialist knows that a large part of defence budgets has been wasted for several years because of duplication and too much spending on legacy systems. So the financial crisis is not only a risk, but also an opportunity to get better value for money through greater pooling of resources, role specialization and multinational programs.

The value of security organizations like NATO is in the speed and effectiveness with which we can learn lessons and readjust to changing circumstances. Thus far, the Alliance’s record is as good as any other major institution. We tend to focus too much on the difficult and sometimes painful debates that precede transformation when we should focus instead on the quality of the outcomes.

The new Strategic Concept could be a step in the right direction. However, the question on many people’s mind is: will it be properly resourced? Could you please explain what resources are in place to support the concept during a global economic downturn and shrinking confidence in the European economy?

In times of austerity no mission can ever be ideally resourced. Defence budgets are not going to go up and so we have to do a better job in prioritizing and in using our resources more wisely. For instance, if Afghanistan had been more of a priority in 2003 and we had started then the civil-military approach and the training programs that we have now, that country would be more advanced. So it is not a question of spending more money but spending it at the right time, and as early as possible while circumstances are still running in our favour.

At the same time, the responses to some of the new threats do not have to be that expensive. NATO has calculated, for instance, that the costs of integrating various national missile defence components into a single NATO command and control system to ensure the defence of NATO territory would be under €200 million ($264 million). This may seem a lot of money but think of the billions that a standard weapon system costs these days. Cyber defence is an area where training, intellectual brain power, education and exercises are as important to withstanding cyber attacks as expensive investments in new equipment and capabilities.

This said, the impact of the financial crisis will certainly put more focus on crisis prevention. The US is unlikely to be in the position to spend three billion dollars a week on Afghanistan and Iraq as it has been doing in recent times. NATO will have to be more agile and political in exchanging intelligence and consulting to anticipate crises and take action to prevent conflicts breaking out. Helping others to provide for their own security, such as training Afghans or Iraqis or helping emerging security institutions like African Union to stand up their own capabilities will be increasingly important for the Alliance.

The fact is, notwithstanding the financial crisis, the US currently spends $700 billion annually on its defence budget, and the Europeans just over half of that. This still makes Europe and US by far the larger global spenders. So we have to ask ourselves if we are really getting the best value for this money, especially when you consider that Europe currently has 86 different weapons programs compared to just over 30 in the US and 14 military shipyards compared to six.

A 2014 departure date has been set for foreign combat troops involved in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. However, it includes a series of ‘ifs’, ‘ands’ and ‘buts’. How steadfast is this pledge, and what might NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan look like after 2014?

As NATO made clear at the Lisbon Summit recently, the 2014 deadline is both desirable and feasible; but, it is subject to certain conditions. One is that NATO countries and partners provide enough trainers so that the Afghan security forces are able to assume responsibility for internal security and border controls by 2014. It also means that NATO will need to continue with a training mission in Kabul beyond 2014 for the further development of the Afghan forces, particularly in areas such as leadership, doctrine, procurement and budget management. Finally, NATO will not abandon Afghanistan and in Lisbon signed a declaration with President Karzai to develop a long-term NATO-Afghanistan security co-operation program.

The 2014 objective will hopefully energize NATO, the rest of the international community, the Afghan authorities and Afghanistan’s neighbours to create the conditions for lasting stability. President Karzai will also need to develop a vision of where he wants Afghanistan to be in 2014. In short, the more we do now, the easier it will be to have 2014 as a realistic date for transition to full Afghan authority. As General Petraeus likes to put it, “trainers are the ticket to transition.”

The recent cyber attack on nuclear facilities in Iran reveals how new computer- and Internet-related technologies can provide potent deterrence and destabilization capabilities. Is NATO considering an increased role for new technologies and other modern tools to deal with belligerent actors in cyberspace? If so, how is this juxtaposed with your plans for cyber security?

Cyber attacks have rapidly progressed from being a major inconvenience caused by organized criminal networks or individual hackers to a national security threat. The Stuxnet virus is new in that it is not designed only to steal information or to paralyse an information system but actually to physically destroy vital equipment by provoking a chronic malfunction. In being targeted at the Siemens operating system in a nuclear plant, it also reveals a remarkable degree of sophistication. NATO faces multiple changes in rapidly stepping up its response to the cyber threat.

First, we have to make sure that our own military and civilian communications systems are protected against the dozens of attempts to hack into them that we experience every day. Our computer incident response capability should be fully operational in the course of next year. Beyond this, we need to be able to assist all Allies and Partners to identify their vulnerabilities, and to take remedial actions based on the best practices and skills of those who have invested most heavily in cyber defence, such as the US or the UK. We can do this through training and education and demanding state-of-the-art cyber defence exercise, like the Cyber Coalition exercise that we recently held at NATO HQ. If an ally is attacked, as was the case in Estonia in 2007, we must be able to come to its assistance by sending rapid response teams that can assess the damage, help to build firewalls, and help the victim to re-establish its communications as quickly as possible by rerouting websites on alternative servers. NATO’s aim is not only to stop attacks but also to deny attackers the benefits through better cyber security and better early warning that a cyber attack is being launched.

Cyberspace is still a relatively unregulated area in terms of arms control or codes of conduct that would oblige states to co-operate with each other and take action in the event of an attack. NATO needs to work with its partners and the broader international community to identify which regimes, norms and regulations would be the most effective and, at the same time, most realistic given that any private individual with a computer can inflict damage on even the most advanced information networks. Cyber attacks are here to stay. The recent WikiLeaks incident shows just how easy it is to avenge any perceived slight or criticism by attacking someone else’s website, especially when you enjoy a high degree of anonymity. The attacks can go on almost indefinitely with the result that it is difficult to know when a cyber attack begins and when it ends. So NATO will have to work hard to stay up-to-date with a threat that is evolving faster than any other.

At the recent summit in Lisbon, NATO signaled its willingness to build a “strategic partnership” with Russia to deal with common threats such as terrorism, the collapse of states and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. How does the Alliance plan to co-operate with Russia on issues of common concern, and could that include a joint declaration or reform of the NATO-Russia Council?

NATO is seeking three things in its co-operation with Russia. First, a number of practical things to do together, such as co-operation on missile defence or the training of the Afghan helicopter pilots. Doing projects together is more likely to build long-term trust and confidence between NATO and Russia than abstract discussions about future European security architectures. The second innovation would be to focus on common interests, such as the fight against terrorism or piracy, rather than spend most of our time arguing over our differences. The third improvement would be to construct a mature relationship in which we can disagree in some areas without those disagreements poisoning the atmosphere and holding up progress in other areas.

Before the Lisbon Summit, NATO and Russia conducted a joint analysis of 21st century security challenges and we discovered almost total agreement in the way we perceive the threats, with just some differences emerging in our appreciation of missile proliferation. We do not need to reform the NATO–Russia Council but simply to agree to use it for real consultations and to direct practical work rather than serve mainly as a forum where we question each other’s motives and emphasize different approaches.

Although both Russia and NATO have frozen the relationship at different times in the past, the lesson has been that we are too important to ignore each other. Inevitably, we realize we have to talk to each other and to co-operate sooner or later. If NATO and Russia can build a framework for co-operation on missile defence, the experience gained will certainly help both of us to deal with issues like cyber, terrorism, piracy and other challenges as well.

The WikiLeaks release of U.S. embassy cables reveals that NATO and the US have thought about protecting Baltic States from potential Russian aggression. Could this kind of information jeopardize a nascent partnership, and in particular, what does that mean for co-operation with Russia on missile defence?

In Lisbon, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to collective defence as the Alliance’s core purpose. That commitment obviously has to be backed up by the requisite military arrangements but these are purely defensive in NATO and represent no threat to anyone. Russia too holds exercises and makes arrangements to be able to defend its territory.

Nothing in NATO’s commitment to Article 5 should prevent a high degree of co-operation with Russia. Indeed, the fact that all Allies feel reassured about their security can only help in making them more open to engaging Russia. Security is always the basis of self-confidence. Missile defence co-operation will not be affected as long as it is understood that NATO territory will be protected by NATO systems under a NATO command and control arrangement.