NATO: an alliance that is crucial for our security

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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo

On 4 February 2021, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo met NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg for the first time since he became Prime Minister. © NATO

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) is a political-military alliance responsible for the security and defence of its allies. Its headquarters is located in Brussels (Evere). One of the organisation's two strategic headquarters – SHAPE or Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe – is also located in our country, namely in Casteau, near Mons. SHAPE coordinates NATO military operations. NATO's joint second strategic headquarter is located in Norfolk, Virginia in the United States of America.

NATO therefore has firm roots here in Belgium. Still, a recent poll shows that only 35% of Belgians can say anything about NATO and only 7% is well informed about what NATO does. However, almost 8 out of 10 Belgians know that Belgium is a member of NATO.

High time therefore to brush up on our knowledge and to put some questions to Pascal Heyman, the Belgian Permanent Representative to NATO. Because even in the current context – long after the Cold War came to an end – NATO continues to play a crucial role in our security.

When exactly was NATO founded? And what was the reason for its creation?

NATO was created in 1949, at the start of the Cold War. The Western European countries and the US were confronted with the increasing expansionism of the then Soviet Union (USSR) under Stalin. They therefore needed an alliance that was capable of defending their members.

And that was the organisation's core task from that point onwards?

NATO must first and foremost safeguard its own territory. Within the Washington Treaty, which is the foundation on which NATO is built, Article 5, which contains provisions relating to ‘collective defence’, is of crucial importance. It states that ‘an armed attack against one or more member countries shall be considered an attack against them all.’ If such an armed attack occurs, each member country will assist the party or parties attacked.

But times change. In 1989, after the Cold War, a core task was added. It proved necessary to carry out crisis management outside the territory as well. Yugoslavia was in the process of disintegrating and this gave rise to conflicts that had an impact on the security of the NATO countries. Only NATO could address the problem.

In 2010, a third core task was then added: partnerships or ‘cooperative security’. It is important to cooperate with other countries and regions to maintain and expand stability and security. This includes countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, Afghanistan and Colombia, and also regions such as North Africa and the Gulf Region...

Has NATO succeeded in doing what was expected of it?

Yes, because there have been no more conflicts on the scale of the past world wars. Nevertheless, vigilance is still required. Russia's annexation of the Crimea (Ukraine) in 2014 shows that threats to territorial integrity remain.

Permanent Representative Pascal Heyman and Minister Sophie Wilmès

Permanent Representative Pascal Heyman briefs Minister of Foreign Affairs Sophie Wilmès at a NATO inter-ministerial meeting in March 2021. © NATO

Which countries are members? And is NATO still thinking about expansion?

Today, NATO is made up of 30 allies. Originally, the alliance began with only 12 members. Belgium was a member from the beginning. Until the end of the Cold War in 1990, we had 16 member states, including the countries of Western Europe, the USA, Canada and Turkey. Later on, these were joined by the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the most recent addition being North Macedonia.

And yes, the door remains open to new members. Subject to certain conditions, however! For example, the country must be located in the region covered by the Washington Treaty. Colombia, NATO's partner country, is therefore not eligible. Aspiring members Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine are eligible due to their location, but whether or not they will be admitted to NATO remains a decision to be taken on the basis of each country's own merits. Countries like Finland and Sweden are also eligible, but they have not so far expressed a desire to join.

What contribution are member countries required to pay?

Each member contributes what it can, based on its gross domestic product (GDP). Contributions are therefore based on the principle of ‘equitable burden sharing’. The target is for the defence effort of each country to move towards 2% of GDP. In particular, this translates into capabilities – the contribution of military resources such as armoured vehicles and fighter, taking into account what is feasible for each country.

The sum total of the capabilities of all member countries constitutes NATO's total capability, which then enables it to deal with threats on the basis of a kind of risk analysis. Countries are also expected to deploy their resources in operations. Belgium obviously has a unique responsibility as the host country of NATO's headquarters.

What is NATO's role in the current international context? And what is its added value compared to the UN and the EU?

As an entity, the United Nations is completely different, as it is an organisation on a global scale, whereas NATO is a regional organisation, just like the EU. But once again, there is a considerable difference between the two. The EU is a supranational body that takes far-reaching decisions for its Member States in a wide range of areas that directly affect citizens. NATO, on the other hand, is an intergovernmental defence organisation. Members are expected to live up to the commitments, but NATO cannot impose sanctions if they do not. The EU can impose sanctions, however.

What is more, the EU has its own defence and foreign policy which is complementary to NATO. Indeed, the EU's Treaty of Lisbon explicitly states that EU Member States that are members of NATO – and there are 21 of them – must rely on NATO for their collective defence.

At the present time, the EU does not have the necessary resources to ensure its defence in its own right. Did you know that, following the United Kingdom's exit from the EU, 80% of defence capabilities within NATO do not belong to EU Member States? In practice, there is therefore no real competition between the EU and NATO with regard to defence.

That said, the EU is taking steps that will allow it to act more autonomously when it comes to defence. For example, it has set up a Defence Fund and has installed a ‘permanent structured cooperation’. Belgium is constantly advocating more effective cooperation between NATO and the EU and the development of a strategic partnership.

For many things, the EU genuinely needs the US and the UK, and in that case, it's more effective to act within a NATO context. Incidentally, there are other non-EU countries in NATO that are important, such as Norway and Turkey.

Let's say that NATO is excellently equipped when it comes to defence or acting as a deterrent. For its part, the EU has far more resources for the post-conflict phase, once the role of the military has been played out. The Union can then focus on activities such as economic development and development cooperation that bring greater stability.

But that doesn't mean that the EU should not develop military resources as a means of fulfilling ambitions of its own. It does however need to be done in a way that is complementary to NATO, with as little duplication as possible Countries have only one set of armed forces that they deploy as needed in one context or another.

What are NATO's strengths and weaknesses today?

A major strength is obviously its military apparatus and the capacity to act together in an operation, which is called ‘interoperability’. There are few players in the world who can match that, so that in itself constitutes a major deterrent.

I also regard NATO's consensus rule as a strength. This means that no voting takes place within NATO. The members have to agree and find a consensus. This isn't easy, but it usually goes smoothly. And once you have found the consensus, the decision is widely supported and can be implemented immediately. Since 1949, that process enabled us to prevent a conflict between Greece and Turkey, which is a fine achievement.

Of course, that consensus rule can also be a weakness at times. Particularly if a member country puts forward considerations which have nothing to do with NATO.

But overall, the member countries manage to pull together. How do they do that?

NATO is an alliance in which collective defence is central. The member states of NATO have shared values. There is no North-South or East-West opposition within NATO. In contrast, international organisations such as the UN and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are much more diverse in terms of membership, which makes achieving a consensus more complicated, of course.

What role does Turkey play?

Turkey is a difficult player, but I plead for understanding. After all, the world looks much more hostile when viewed from Ankara than it does from Brussels. Turkey has numerous non-evident players around it: Russia, the Caucasus region, Iran, Syria... So if Turkey comes to arrangements with Russia, that doesn't mean it's turning its back on NATO. Turkey simply has to make agreements with Russia, purely for reasons of self-interest. It is much better to have Turkey inside NATO than outside. Just like Norway, for example, the puzzle piece that is Turkey forms an indispensable part of NATO.

Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder at army base in Lithuania

Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder recently visited the Belgian soldiers in Lithuania who are part of the NATO battle groups there. © NATO

What are the main threats at the moment?

Russia – formerly the USSR - has historically been the biggest threat and still is. Its occupation of Crimea in Ukraine in 2014, following the war in Georgia in 2008, made this particularly clear. Until that's resolved, we can't act is if nothing's going on. That is why technical cooperation was brought to an end.  It's no longer a question of ‘business as usual’.

We operate a twin-track policy towards Russia. On the one hand, we are building up our ‘deterrence and defence’, while on the other hand remaining open to dialogue. But we are doing that from a position of strength, not inferiority. The relationship is still a very difficult one, though.

Terrorism is the second biggest threat. We need to address such an invisible enemy more through partnerships. For example, by building capacity in a partner country like Tunisia. Even Belgium's defence institutions have delivered a lot of training there. We must ensure that the countries on the periphery can intervene themselves before terrorism reaches us.

Mind you, NATO is not the first player when it comes to combating terrorism. This role is played by the countries themselves, in the form of the police, the intelligence services and the judiciary. But defence can certainly help, such as in the fight against the terror group ISIS. Belgium also played a major part in this. With NATO set to withdraw from Afghanistan by 9 September 2021, more attention will be directed towards Iraq. There, the security forces will be supported in the fight against terrorism.

Finally, we must not forget about China, a country with rapidly increasing resources whose intentions still remain unclear. China is becoming a global player and a challenge at the same time. Many dossiers nowadays have a China dimension, not so much because we ourselves want that to be the case, but because China is coming our way.

What exactly does the NATO2030 reform initiative entail?

By means of NATO2030, we want to prepare NATO for the challenges it will face during the period up to 2030. The immediate cause was a statement by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, in The Economist in late 2019: 'NATO is brain dead.' He was referring to the lack of political consultation and the unilateral decisions being taken by certain allies, but which have an impact on the security of others. For example, around Christmas 2018, the US President at the time, Donald Trump, decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, and did so without consulting his country's allies! Turkey also had not consulted on its operations in Syria.

The key elements of NATO2030 will be: (1) NATO should remain a strong military apparatus; (2) the political dimension must be strengthened; (3) NATO must be more responsive to the global threats affecting our security. These include cybercrime, climate change and disruptive technologies. There are also new players and phenomena coming in our direction that may affect our security.

To what extent will Joe Biden's presidency make a difference compared to Donald Trump's?

We will hear what President Biden has to say at the NATO summit on 14 June, which will be the first time he has come to Europe as President. He has brought about a marked stylistic break from his predecessor. The message that this conveys is ‘The US is back’, it says. The days of ‘America first’ are over. The US wants to be a world player again and is rediscovering the importance of alliances such as NATO.

What does the NATO summit in June want to achieve?

The summit aims to send an important signal that the transatlantic link between Europe and the US is essential. The collective security guarantee offered by NATO to its members, based on Article 5, will be reaffirmed.

In addition, the NATO2030 agenda will form the main outcome of the summit, with proposals that will demonstrate the alliance's adaptability to the challenges of the future. A mandate will be given to update the Strategic Concept, the basic political document of 2010. In 2010, for example, Russia was still considered a partner. It seems obvious, however, that the reality today is more nuanced.

Resilience is also high on the agenda. NATO countries must be sufficiently resilient and able to guarantee their defence before calling on the assistance of others. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that we have lost sight of the importance of critical infrastructure – communication and transport networks, strategic supplies, a functioning government apparatus, and so on. We have become all too dependent, even for critical materials, on suppliers from outside the region such as China.

That is why we need to remind ourselves of Article 3. Article 3 states that member countries must ‘maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack by means of continuous and effective self-help’. We must increase our focus on this in the coming years.

Belgium as a NATO member

Belgium – a founding member – is very dependent on NATO for its security. Whereas during the Cold War it was mainly about Russia, threats now exist a full 360 degrees around us. In many cases, they are also different and less tangible than they used to be. In terms of vision, Belgium often occupies a central position within NATO, together with like-minded countries such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and Germany.

At the same time, Belgium is important to NATO. Not only is it the host country of two headquarters (NATO and SHAPE), but it also contributes to the nuclear burden-sharing within NATO.

In addition, our country actively supports efforts within NATO in the area of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, in line with what it does in other international forums.

Belgium is also very active in the field of humanitarian security. For example, it supports the UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace & Security. ‘Children and armed conflict’ also forms a priority for Belgium. These are themes that our country also raises in other organisations such as the UN Security Council, the OSCE and the Disarmament Conference in Geneva.

As far as equitable burden-sharing among allies is concerned, Belgium makes a sufficient contribution to operations. For example, Belgium was closely involved in the mission in Afghanistan and in the Global Coalition against ISIS.  Our country also regularly takes part in the air surveillance of the Baltic States and the battle groups deployed there.

However, in terms of defence effort, our country today achieves only 1.1% of GDP, whereas all allied countries had committed themselves to move towards 2% by 2024. This is also reflected in terms of capabilities. While major efforts have been made in recent years to invest in renewed military equipment, Belgium is expected to make additional efforts.