NATO’s Circle of Ice and Fire

The Western alliance may still sit on the Iron Throne, but the key to keeping power is bringing new friends into its orbit.


I can’t tell you for sure whether Jon Snow is actually dead or not, but I can say that the world in which NATO finds itself today increasingly looks like a plot line from the next season of Game of Thrones. As the venerable alliance looks around its periphery, it sees the hot flames of war to the south and east and an increasingly contentious frozen world in the Arctic north.

On the eastern edge of the alliance, Russia continues to destabilize Ukraine; over the past weeks, reports of more intense fighting continue to flare up — dozens killed in shelling and sniping, adding to the 6,900 deaths thus far in that crisis. The Minsk II cease-fire agreement is dead in the water, President Petro Poroshenko says the fighting will last for decades, and Russia continues to simply deny its involvement on the ground. Most observers expect heavier fighting to resume in the coming weeks.

To the southeast, the twin disasters of Syria and Iraq continue as the Islamic State appears to be frustrating coalition efforts to seriously contain it, let alone “degrade and ultimately destroy” it. With more than 250,000 deaths (nearly all attributable to the Assad regime, of course) and well over 6 million refugees, the Syrian civil war in particular appears worse than ever.

In the south, hundreds of thousands of refugees are crossing alliance borders, overwhelming the humanitarian capability of the entry states. NATO has a 1,000-mile land border with the chaotic near Middle East (between Turkey and Syria/Iraq), and a 3,000-mile sea border as well — that’s 4,000 miles under extreme duress. Germany alone is discussing the possible arrival of 800,000 refugees this year, many through the Balkans and others coming from across the Mediterranean

Meanwhile up north, a resurgent, revanchist Russia is adding Arctic brigades, stepping up air patrols, pushing territorial disputes, and conducting complex exercises on NATO’s frozen front porch. And Moscow is aggressively claiming another 1.2 million kilometers of the Arctic on the Lomonosov Ridge.

A circle of ice and fire indeed. So, what is NATO’s best strategy?

First, the good news. NATO is already sitting on the Iron Throne, and has real power and wealth. NATO is the richest alliance in history and has plenty of capacity to deal with the threats and challenges around its periphery. With nearly 52 percent of the world’s GDP represented among its 28 members, some 3 million men and women under arms (nearly all of them volunteers), 28,000 military aircraft, and 800 serious ocean-going ships, the raw security tools are largely available. But given the level of challenge — and the reluctance of many allies to spend even the minimal 2 percent of GDP on defense that alliance doctrine calls for — NATO needs to find additional resources to deal with the challenges.

NATO needs to expand and improve its Partnership for Peace program — which already has 22 partners around the edges of the alliance. Unfortunately, like some of the tenuous alliances in Game of Thrones, this doesn’t really bring a great deal of current operational strength. NATO officials also need to strengthen existing partnership and coalition relationships, especially with the Sunni Gulf states. Some of these Partnership for Peace nations did participate in the Afghanistan campaign, counter-piracy operations off the east coast of Africa, and during the Libyan operation.

The keys to successfully recruiting new partners are straightforward:

Select them carefully. There’s not much point in signing up nations who just want to hang a NATO status badge on their uniforms. NATO needs partners who will take engagement with the alliance seriously, commit to real-world operations, and thus be capable of eventually making real contributions to regional and global security. Candidates don’t have to be perfect but they should have low levels of corruption, reasonably capable armed forces with some ability to deploy, and above all the political will to engage with NATO.

Conduct meaningful exercises and training operations. NATO needs to move beyond “military tourism” — where the most important thing on the agenda is a boozy dinner party and a nice memorial plaque. Each new, outside partner should commit to at least two significant NATO exercises a year, demonstrating the ability to participate in operations at a reasonable level of competence. One of the exercises should be “local” and within the immediate region of the nation engaging with NATO; the other should demonstrate some level of deployment by air, sea, or land.

Quickly involve them in real-world ongoing NATO operations. This will be the most controversial aspect of an enhanced partnership program. There are distinct pros and cons for the participation of non-alliance nations in actual operations. But based on the experience of the alliance in Afghanistan, for example, it makes sense to bring as many as possible on board. In Afghanistan, there were 28 alliance nations but an additional 20+ nations making significant military contributions. Their efforts — especially from nations like Georgia, who on a per capita basis was among the largest troop contributors — were valued and meaningful. These operations don’t have to be high end combat forays; they can begin at a low-level with simple observers, intelligence analysts, logisticians, and other relatively less risky billets.

Answer the “what’s in it for us” question. In the case of each nation considered for an enhanced partnership role with NATO, there should be a set of identified incentives. In many cases, these will be obvious political benefits — a nation like Georgia comes to mind, which wants membership in NATO and also desires the means to enhance and professionalize their armed forces given their ongoing partial occupation by Russia. Likewise for Moldova. Jordan, a nation I visited several times as the supreme allied commander of NATO, wants professionalization and training, a stronger relationship with Europe, and a hedge against terrorism and Iranian adventurism in the region.

NATO has begun doing some of this with what is called the “Defense Capacity Building” initiative. Placing veteran U.S. diplomat and NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow in charge of building the DCB is a perfect first move. A former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Seoul, and to NATO itself, Vershbow is deeply experienced, knows where the fault lines lie, and has the gravitas to back up the concept in foreign capitals.

A fourth potential player, Libya, is more problematic at the moment, of course, given the chaotic environment and the difficulty finding the right governmental partners in a land with a seriously confused internal governance structure. Yet given the proximity of activity there by the so-called Islamic State, as well as continuing flickers of al Qaeda, Libya is a very logical place for NATO to operate. If Libya stabilizes, perhaps following a United Nations-brokered agreement, NATO could train the Libyan armed forces, share intelligence, and participate with Libyan forces against jihadist elements across the country. Egypt would likely be a willing partner in such an operation.

Another obvious place to build partner capacity in a real world scenario is Iraq. Already there are plenty of NATO nations with boots on the ground conducting training missions — the United States, Britain, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, France, and others collectively have over well over 4,000 troops there. This would be an ideal proving ground for further partner activity. Other nations are interested in participating, some from the Arab world. This could easily turn into another NATO Training Mission — Iraq, much like the one that was part of coalition efforts in Iraq until the NATO mission left in 2011 with U.S. forces.

Much as in Game of Thrones, the key lesson is that no one royal house can be safe in the midst of a fractious continent, no matter its wealth and power. Safety and security lie in finding the right set of partnerships around the periphery. Will Queen Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons, come flying to NATO’s rescue? Probably not. But the fundamental idea that has driven the great houses in Game of Thrones — find the right allies and partners — is the right strategy for NATO.

Oh, and my money is on Jon Snow’s return, by the way.

Photo credit: HBO

 Twitter: @stavridisj

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