The Southern Strategy NATO Needs

ISTANBUL – For almost seven decades, NATO has amply demonstrated its ability to fulfill its core mission of deterring a conventional attack against its member countries. But the threat landscape on NATO’s southern flank is changing, pushing the Alliance toward uncharted waters. This week’s NATO summit in Warsaw will amount to a litmus test of the Alliance’s ability to adapt to the new more complex security challenges that it faces.

Since the Cold War, when it was positioned as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism, NATO has proved adept at developing responses to conventional threats posed by state actors. When the threat of ballistic missiles from Iran became potent, it built a missile-defense architecture to deter provocation. When a resurgent Russia began to generate concerns among the Alliance’s eastern members, it revised its forward posture to reassure them.

NATO’s approach to non-state actors, however, is less well developed. Indeed, no such approach really existed until the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, when the notion that terrorist groups could pose a real threat to the West’s security penetrated official thinking for the first time. That moment became a turning point for NATO, not only because it spurred the first invocation of the collective-defense clause, Article 5, but also because the clause was invoked against an amorphous non-state entity in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Since 2001, NATO has been moving to create a more robust framework to defend its members against non-state actors and asymmetric threats. Soon after the September 11 attacks, NATO established a “terrorism threat intelligence unit” to bolster its intelligence pooling and analysis efforts. In 2002, it launched its first-ever “partnership action plan against terrorism,” which was re-branded in 2015 as “counter-terrorism policy guidelines.” These efforts will culminate at the Warsaw Summit, where NATO should establish a new strategic outlook that accounts for the complex and diffuse security challenges affecting its southern flank.