Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

Overhauling transatlantic security thinking: A conference presented by the Security & Defence Agenda

by Jared Brow

The Security and Defence Agenda hosted its annual conference “Overhauling transatlantic security thinking” last week at the Palais d’Egmont, which provided an opportunity for debate in the realm of transatlantic security and defense. The conference brought together representatives from rich backgrounds in European institutions, governments, NATO, NGOs, the private sector, academia, and the media to discuss the future of transatlantic security. The conference consisted of three one-hour debates, chaired by former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, entitled “Afghanistan and Iraq: Signposts to the Future?”, “Dealing with Russia: Can NATO and the EU Speak as One?”, and “The Changing Nature of Global Security.”

Afghanistan and Iraq: Signposts to the future?

The first topic asked panelists to focus on the security and political outlooks for Afghanistan and Iraq and the efforts NATO and the EU must take to ensure greater stability for the region in the future. The debate included panelists Dawood Azami, Senior Broadcast Journalist for BBC World Service, Abdul Suboh Faizy, Director of the Afghanistan Programme for the Centre for International and Strategic Analysis, Joost Hiltermann, Chief Operating Officer for the International Crisis Group, and Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London.

The victor of the upcoming presidential election in Afghanistan on June 14 has his work cut out for him. The country is emerging from three decades of a civil war that has left the majority of its population without an education. Insurgency remains rampant and the Taliban continue to pose a serious threat to the stability of the country. After such a long period of disruption, there is no “quick fix” to provide Afghanistan with greater stability and a higher quality of life. While Western powers have helped improve education, health, and communication in the country, Afghanistan is not yet ready to self govern.

Geopolitically, Afghanistan remains dependent upon its neighbors; to overcome the consequences of fighting for the past thirty years, international economic aid and security assistance is needed. A military transition, in which US and NATO forces oversee their gradual withdrawal and train the Afghan military, is expected within five years, and eventually, the world must accept complete Afghan ownership of its government. Until then, it remains a test of NATO’s ability to hand over security responsibilities to the country and prepare Afghan leaders to handle them well. However, without international financial support, Afghanistan could very likely slip back into a period of war highlighted with Taliban insurgency.

There are two “don’ts” to handling crises in the Middle East. First, don’t use military intervention to solve political problems and if you do, don’t fail. Second, do no harm. The forceful American invasion and eventual abrupt abandonment of Iraq ignored these suggestions and resulted in chaos, with the US leaving behind a security and political vacuum that still exists today. To avoid this in Afghanistan, it is imperative that Western forces, and especially America, do not abandon the country during such a crucial turning point like they did with Iraq.

Continued assistance to Afghanistan is crucial to secure greater stability in the region. There has been a resurgence of conflict, marked by Jihadist movements attempting to institute Islamic states in the Middle East that did not exist ten years ago, and the West does not have the option of being a mere spectator in this conflict. Following the rushed and poorly planned exit by American forces from Iraq, the country was vulnerable to outside forces and is now subject to Iranian influence. And, with tensions escalating between Iran and Saudi Arabia as they compete for regional dominance, and Iran starting to see itself as the winner in their conflict, the West cannot be consumed by the sectarianism in the Middle East. Instead, its policies must treat states equally to avoid ‘playing favorites.’ In the post-Arab spring in the Middle East, Europe has the potential to not only influence state behavior but also to bring them together. To achieve this, it is important for the EU to work with NATO on inclusive policies that take into account the various cultural values of each state and do not use for nor compromise on principles of justice and equality.

Dealing with Russia: Can NATO and the EU speak as one?

This second debate discussed the current crisis in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the implications of the situation for current and future crisis that will require closer cooperation between NATO and the EU. The debate included panelists Evelyn Farkas, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia from the U.S. Department of Defense, Oleksandr Lytvynenko, Deputy Secretary for the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, Alexander Vershbow, Deputy Secretary General for NATO, and Pierre Vimont, Executive Secretary General for European External Action Services.

The Ukraine crisis is one in a series of conflicts that Ukraine has had with Russia since the Orange Revolution in 2004 and can trace its roots back to November 2013, when former President Yanukovych abandoned an agreement with the EU to build closer trade ties in favor of strengthening cooperation with Russia, thus sparking street protests, sit-ins, and eventually clashes and intensified violence in the capital. In early March, Russia began using force in Ukraine to protect Russian interests, and on March 16, the results from the referendum on succession show an overwhelming majority of support for succession from a very small percentage of the population. Russia has altered its borders and those of the Ukraine through hybrid warfare, using methods including military intimidation, diplomatic duplicity, blackmail, and the spreading of misinformation. While Russian military forces along the eastern Ukrainian border have been mostly withdrawn, aggressive Russian behavior continues to destabilize the Ukraine in different ways. Despite these aggressions, Ukraine is prepared to start a dialogue with Russia on the basis of restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity and returning Crimea.

Facing warfare involving military intimidation and force, diplomatic duplicity, blackmail, and the spreading of misinformation, the crisis has demonstrated the need for stronger cooperation and updated security doctrines between NATO and the EU to address not only the Ukraine, but conflicts in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and Africa and relations with Russia. Questions and comments from the audience suggested that the current situation is reminiscent of the Cold War era with high tensions between the East and the West, but Secretary General Vimont made a significant distinction: we are living during a time with a new world order much different than the one that permeated international interactions during the Cold War. Relations between states are completely different and rather than finding an analogy for the current situation, we must adapt to the current reality. Especially now, it is important to maintain unity between and inside these organizations. Future discourse on the crisis will rely on close cooperation between NATO and the EU, and current efforts show that coordination on the crisis has been positive and the division of labor between both institutions has been mostly successful.,

But what does speaking as one voice mean? The Ukraine crisis is placing pressure on both institutions for greater cooperation and policy consensus. The EU and NATO must take a stronger position to counteract Russia’s aggressive posture and work together to demonstrate their resolve against the Kremlin. The interests of the EU are not contradictory to those of NATO, and maintaining close coordination between both organizations and defining long-term visions and goals in addressing the Ukraine crisis will help build an underlying structure for future interactions as well.

The changing nature of global security

The final session focused on the future of security and the impact technology has had on changing the face of warfare, ranging from issues of cyber security and piracy to disruption in the Middle East. Panelists included Sorin Ducaru, Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges for NATO, Jason Healey, Director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative for the Atlantic Council, Souad Mekhennet, Journalist for the Washington Post and for ZDF Television, and Lt. Gen. Wolfgang Wosolsobe, Director General of the EU Military Staff.

International security is evolving and unpredictable risks of hybrid warfare require new and adaptable methods of response, and this increased effort does not come cheaply. The cyber realm is a largely unexplored frontier of security, partially because until now, cyber attacks have yet to result in death. For attacks to be effective, they must restrike their target over extended periods of time, and even then, they only corrupt the silicon chips in computers. Thus, it has been relatively easy to recover from such attacks. What is more worrisome is connecting such silicon to structures made of steel and concrete – then, a cyber attack can and will cause casualties. When this occurs and when cyber conflicts become more significant, they will become more similar to conflicts in the air, on land, and in the sea. Because of this, conventions and framework within the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions already exist that can be applied to the cyber realm.

For bolstering security on the African continent, European strategies to combat piracy, bringing together civilian and military personal and institutions including the UN and NATO, have been largely successful. As a result of this cooperation, threats of piracy have largely subsided but are not extinct, and new models of piracy can and will likely re-emerge in the future. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the regional distinctions in the nature of piracy and adapt strategies to address these differences.

Ms. Mekhennet largely focused on current issues in the Middle East and especially the catalysts of radicalization for terrorist groups. While she acknowledged the undeniable threat these groups pose (especially in Syria), she asked the audience to consider the mistakes decision-makers have made and the effects these mistakes have on the radicalization of an individual. Mekhennet posited that radicalism arises when individuals no longer feel connected to society and thus become susceptible to joining radical factions like Al-Qaeda. Especially when discussing increasing sectarian tensions in the Middle East, she suggested that the West tends to view disruptions through a very simple black and white narrative and often assumes that Middle Eastern countries strive for the same democracy that Europe has cultivated over centuries. Yet, they overlook the fact that this model may not be appropriate for all states and their cultures, and this simplistic view risks isolating individuals and countries. As a result, they risk isolating important allies in the Middle East. In order to understand the threats that countries like Syria pose to security, Western democracies must be careful in evaluating the causes for such radicalism and consider different values and applications of democracy that best suit these countries. There will come times when states must work with rulers whom may not favor Western-style democracy, and states must accept that.

Despite the broad topics of discussion, not only in the third debate but also during the conference, it was evident that the nature of global security is changing, and therefore, the way we think about security must also change. New technologies have caused the emergence of hybrid warfare, referring to multi-dimensional attacks that require different technologies and adaptive strategies in response. Whether enhancing cyber security or responding to regional conflicts in the Middle East or in the current Ukraine crisis, cultural-specific responses adjusting to this ambiguous warfare are necessary to ensure security. Ultimately, these new challenges are going to require greater cooperation and coordinated strategies between the EU and NATO to construct effective responses that reflect this new security status-quo.

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