Abstract deterrence is no substitute for real preparedness. Concrete measures must be in place for countering aggression.
For Estonia, the most important takeaway from 10 years of NATO membership is this: don’t assume that advances on the political, economic and communication front have led us to a point where military conflict is impossible.
At least that’s how Jüri Luik, the current Estonian ambassador to Russia, puts it. Luik has served as his country’s foreign minister and (twice) as defense minister, while also having represented Estonia as ambassador to NATO and the US.
In what way is today’s NATO different from the defensive alliance Estonia joined in 2004? Which of the changes have been positive, which have been negative?
We became a NATO member at a time when memories of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center were still fresh, the active phase of the war in Afghanistan had ended, and an extensive stabilization operation had begun. In this connection, the alliance acknowledged two principal threats: large terror organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the need to stabilize faraway countries where instability could be fertile ground for terrorist organizations. Since NATO had assumed responsibility for stabilization, the alliance was shaped to serve those needs. Of course, we knew this, but we couldn’t help but be surprised by how low awareness of Eastern European problems rated. All of our intellectual and military efforts had been focused on Afghanistan. As an organization, NATO is not big, it’s more of a framework for cooperation, and that’s why the alliance is generally indistinguishable in appearance from its ongoing military operations.
Today the organization has in many ways returned to its roots – the principles that were the main motive for our own efforts to join the alliance – i.e., organizing the defense of its member states. The worsening security situation in Europe has done much more than our own explanations to contributing to an understanding of the threats. Undoubtedly the catalyst for these changes was President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Munich security conference in 2007 and, to an even greater degree, the Georgia war. The current Ukraine conflict is downright begging for even greater attention to be given to defense for NATO’s current members.
Which of Estonia’s expectations from NATO and the alliance have not been realized or have proved false?
What didn’t we imagine? For one thing, we believed international officials had a greater role in NATO. Our other key bulwark, the European Union, has delegated many topics to the European Commission, especially on foreign trade issues. NATO doesn’t delegate anything; it doesn’t have a large number of public servants, and all of its topics are decided in discussions. Yet that’s only natural, because NATO decides on matters that are the gravest matters on which a nation can decide – matters of war and peace. You can’t delegate such issues.
The integration of the Baltics with NATO wasn’t complicated; we were technically prepared for it. But politically, many topics had to be talked about over and over again inside NATO. Yet there hasn’t been anything we failed to achieve. As key milestones, I would mention the establishment and continuing of the Baltic Air Policing Mission, the prioritization of military planning regarding to the Baltic countries, and the establishment of the Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence in Tallinn.
In its current form and current capability, is NATO an alliance that is able to adequately respond to the security threats that exist in 2014, if we’re talking about both broader international situation and narrower, regional, and more specific dangers in NATO’s near vicinity?
Yes, we’re able to respond adequately. I think the first and most important accomplishment today is the conceptual understanding of what the threats in 2014 are in the first place. In Estonia’s case, there’s no doubt that the security policy development that impacts us the most is the Ukraine crisis. It creates a situation where some of the founding principles of NATO are coming back to the forefront:
First, a conventional war in Europe is far from impossible; second, abstract deterrence is no substitute for real preparedness (instead, real measures must be in place for countering aggression);
Third, NATO solidarity must also be based on peacetime cooperation, including maintaining sufficient levels of defense spending.
Fourth, tensions in Europe are capable of leading to a global security crisis.
Looking ahead to the future: what will the primary features of the international security environment and factors contributing to that environment in 2024?
If we go back in time to 2004 and look at how the world has changed since then, the most important lesson will always be this: don’t assume that world events, be they developments on the political, economic, or communication front, will preclude the possibility of military conflict.
Just as politicians back in the day said about the Treaty of Versailles – in all seriousness – that it would be the peace to end all wars, every other analogous sentiment has proved fallacious. Thus there’s no point in twiddling our thumbs and holding out for new power relationships to take shape, as geopolitical configurations aren’t some law of nature. It’s now clear that the preservation of peace and the growth of stability and well-being in the world will depend on all Western democracies working together as a united force. This has to be done with conscious purpose, with political and economic capital invested into it. If so, then 2024 will hopefully be more peaceful than 2014.
What could be the most negative development scenario for NATO as an organization in the next 10 years?
It would of course be negative for NATO if its deterrence doesn`t work and it is forced to enter an armed conflict. In all likelihood, something about NATO’s actions and behavior has left the aggressor the impression that the Allianceis not a serious factor to contend with in a conflict. Yet if such a crisis should arise, I have no doubt that NATO’s armed forces will do their duty. There is still no power in the world that is capable of matching itin terms of military might. But it’s of course better to head off such a situation in advance – no reasonable person would ever want war.
But the most positive scenario – also looking ahead ten years?
NATO’s main goal is deterrence – keeping the peace, demonstrating readiness to use military force, but not actually using military force. It would be positive if this deterrence worked. But deterrence does not automatically emerge from the North Atlantic Treaty and the existence of nuclear weapons. NATO must respond to real threats, be taken seriously, and deter those who are already hatching plans for invasion at a given moment.
The most important thing is political solidarity among NATO states, especially on the transatlantic scale. It would be great if a transatlantic common economic space were in place in addition to the political frameworks. Thus it’s natural that we’re hoping for TTIP, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – a potential free trade agreement between the European Union and the US. The more common interests we have with America, the more mutual understanding.
It is very important to understand that credible deterrence is still mainly based on conventional forces. The probability of a conflict that escalates to the use of nuclear weapons is fortunately still exceedingly low. But nor is nuclear deterrence a safe means of preventing smaller types of regional conflicts. The results of conflicts are decided in the regional theatre and largely depend on the ability to hold on to clearly defined territory. The futuristic assumption that warfare in the future will take place only in cyberspace, or that we need only antiterrorism units, has fortunately become more tempered by recent events. Yet many European countries have already cut too close to the bone in downsizing their capabilities, especially their armored land forces.
Being a small country, what are Estonia’s opportunities for influencing development of NATO? What can we do in this context, what could we do, what do we have to do? And what should we definitely avoid – what shouldn’t we do?
We are a full member of the alliance. Since every NATO member can theoretically exercise veto power on any decision, we actually we have great opportunities to determine the direction of the alliance. An important job for us is to persuade allies of the need to increase defense spending. Otherwise the alliance will lose its credibility and nothing is worse for a defensive alliance than a disconnect between big words and actual capabilities.
Thanks to our own level of defense spending, we have the moral and political capital to encourage fellow members. At the same time, considering the current crisis in Europe, we might do well to consider whether our own defense spending could be more than 2 percent of the GDP. That would ensure the necessary capabilities for primary, independent military defense.
Our role is to be the ambassadors of our region in the alliance and to account for our concerns calmly, resolutely and consistently. Yet we always have to remember that the alliance is spread out across Europe and different countries have different security concerns. If we want to be understood, we have to understand others. Let’s ask what’s a concern for Italy, or Portugal, or Croatia? How much do we even know about their concerns? Can we display solidarity during peacetime? And the most important: are there scenarios that would force them to invoke Article Five?
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.