YPFP Decision Points: Is NATO’s “out of area” role out of business?

On 2 June members met to discuss this key question facing the Alliance in the run up to the Wales Summit at a Decision Points event generously supported by NATO. A debate was led by senior NATO official Jamie Shea and veteran journalist Brooks Tigner on the merits of NATO’s global security role vs. the obligations of territorial defence.

Key themes included: Russian actions in Ukraine; the difficulty and partial-failure of past interventions; the questions of cyber-threats; the types of action which truly make us safer; whether NATO has the capability and will to meet such challenges; and the reality of the financial crisis.

Some conclusions our members reached:

Prevention is better than cure for Alliance security
Defending Allies is NATO’s core duty. But threats within NATO’s geographic area often begin abroad. Russian aggression requires robust deterrence. But terrorism, cyber, maritime piracy or rogue states require action as well. Allies must invest in prevention out of area, to avoid high costs in their area.

Resources are thinly stretched - but this should not excuse inaction.
No-one can deny the financial crisis has impacted Allied capacity in defence. At home or abroad, Allies have to choose what types of action best ensure their security. Prioritisation between risks is the new political reality. But such constraints should not be used as an excuse for dangerous inaction.

Legitimacy is vital if NATO is to justify out of area action to its publics
NATO citizens are undoubtedly war-weary. With the apparent appearance of new threats on NATO’s borders, justifying action abroad becomes even more difficult. Legitimacy comes from proving NATO is a responsible actor with a valid security objective. It is also about working with partners to ensure action is locally supported. Public opinion is the litmus test for NATO’s foreign interventions.

New challenges require new responses - but this still includes out of area
Un-attributable cyber-attacks, global terror networks and ambiguous intervention are new frontiers for NATO. Whether these constitute a threat to territorial integrity is largely a question of scale. But all are complex and network based. It takes a network - often global - to defeat a network. NATO’s global security networks are unrivalled, and this suggests it should continue to tackle this task.

If you are going to do out of area, do it well.
Local/regional knowledge, diplomatic connections, influence and resources are as important as military power in an intervention. If NATO is to stay in the business of interventions, it must invest in doing it well. This includes working with partners and international organisations. But it is also about being more strategic and targeted than NATO Allies have sometimes done in the past. If you go out of area - succeed.


Members concluded that NATO’s out of area role is not out of business - the world is too unstable, and threats too global to mean otherwise. Nevertheless, NATO has a responsibility to execute this role well.

Please note: The views expressed in this report are a summary of a Chatham House-Rule-governed discussion. They are not verbatim and may not represent all opinions expressed. All views expressed are that of the event attendees, and not YPFP. YPFP is non-partisan, and takes no positions on any of the Decision Point discussion conclusions.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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