NATO’s success as a collective defense organization lies in its ability to rally twenty-nine member states in defense of any one of them. Cohesion is what makes the alliance strong and unique, but it is difficult to sustain day after day, under constant pressure from adversaries.
One useful way to measure cohesion is in financial terms. Despite a pledge to contribute the equivalent of at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product to defense by 2024, some member states seem likely to miss the target. While this does not prove that the allies disagree on the nature and gravity of the threats before them, it does strongly suggest that some have not fully bought into the agreed priorities.
Many factors are undermining cohesion in NATO. In an era with no single unifying threat, different members inevitably have different interests in diverse centers of power and influence. Allies also diverge on what constitute democratic standards and appropriate responses to competition with non-Western actors.1
It is up to individual countries to safeguard their freedom to respond to a call for help from an ally, address vulnerabilities and gaps in their national systems, and take proactive measures to reduce risks. But the alliance as an organization can help. This is especially true when it comes to understanding and responding to new threats to cohesion. None is more relevant than the hybrid war for hearts and minds that NATO’s adversaries are waging through political interference and disinformation.
Issues at Stake
While not a new phenomenon, hybrid warfare has been widely mentioned in international discourse since at least 2014. The Russian military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea showed that NATO and its member states lacked ready-made responses to the emergence of a threat aimed directly at solidarity and cohesion. The experience has prompted allies to rethink, act, and adapt quickly, especially with regard to instruments for protection beyond triggering Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, which declares that an attack on one ally is an attack on all.
Hybrid warfare includes a variety of activities and covers the use of different instruments to destabilize a society by influencing its decisionmaking. Frequent instruments include:
- Interference in electoral processes: An adversary can use techniques from campaigning through the media and social networks to securing financial resources for a political group to influence the outcome of an election in a direction that favors the adversary’s political interests.
- Disinformation and false news: An adversary can create a parallel reality and use falsehoods to fuel social fragmentation. The idea is to disorient the public and make it difficult for a government to seek public approval for a given NATO policy or operation.
- Cyber attacks: An adversary can pressure NATO governments into not coming to each other’s aid in times of crisis by threatening devastating cyber attacks aimed at the civilian population. Examples include attacks on networks governing hospitals or electricity and water supplies.2
- Drone attacks: These are similar to cyber attacks but on a more limited scale. An adversary can use remotely piloted platforms to inflict misery on civilians by crippling the operations of airports, air ambulances, and police helicopters. Such attacks can also hamper military airspace operations in early phases of a conflict.3
- Financial influence: An adversary can make investments, conclude unfavorable energy-supply deals, or offer loans that make a country vulnerable in the long run to political pressure.
Russia is the most frequently cited source of hybrid attacks, particularly disinformation, interference in elections, and cyber attacks.4 It and other states often act via third, nonstate entities such as nationalist, criminal, or terrorist groups. This leaves the attacking state room for deniability, confuses the attacked country, and can prevent a timely and adequate response. Most hybrid operations to date have featured a mixture of mechanisms used by state and nonstate actors, and a clear line between them is difficult to draw.
NATO’s efforts to address hybrid threats have been conducted at two levels: defining strategy at the supranational level and assisting the target countries at the national level. The latter effort will receive a boost when the new counterhybrid support teams on which members agreed in July 2018 fully come into effect. NATO’s Joint Intelligence and Security Division is in charge of hybrid-related research and analysis, while the Public Diplomacy Division tracks disinformation through online instruments. The Emerging Security Challenges Working Group, established in 2012, has a goal to identify and prioritize nontraditional threats.
Because hybrid attacks are a threat to the West as a whole, not just NATO, and because they mostly rely on nonmilitary tools, the alliance has been strengthening its cooperation with the European Union (EU). One useful tool available to both organizations is the joint European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, established in Helsinki in April 2017.
NATO can and should do more to counter hybrid threats, following the proven strategy of prepare, deter, and defend.5
Build Resilience by Fostering Democracy
The first, self-evident recommendation is to deny adversaries the opportunities they exploit for hybrid attacks. The more stable the political systems and economies of NATO countries are, the less suitable ground they represent for hybrid threats. A government that is credible, popular, and trusted will have an easier time winning support for its chosen course of action in NATO than other governments and will be better able to resist disinformation and other forms of interference and blackmail.6
Western Balkan countries seem particularly vulnerable, as their citizens tend to have low trust in the authorities and do not believe that their judiciaries are truly independent. In opinion polls, as many as 70 percent of respondents said that the law did not equally apply to all.7 Democracy and trust have declined in most Western Balkan countries over the last ten years, a trend that overlaps with the crisis of democracy throughout Europe.8
Steps that strengthen democracy and economies are the most effective way of building resilience against hybrid attacks. Corruption deserves particular attention. Not all authoritarian and illiberal governments are corrupt, but most abuse access to public and European funds to give themselves a competitive advantage over political rivals.9 Once on a corrupt path, authoritarians are, in essence, condemned to always seek to remain in power, lest they be prosecuted. It is a vicious circle, and this dynamic between authoritarianism and corruption is not always understood—including by the U.S. and EU leaderships, which does not serve the alliance well.
NATO has few tools to defend democracy and combat corruption among its member states, but allies can do more even within this limited framework. Perhaps an annual report on the rule of law in member states, modeled on the one proposed in the EU, could help.10 NATO could also highlight good and bad practices in member states on an annual basis and could link serious violations of the law to the suspension of certain political rights.11 The pressure to comply with democratic standards must exist both before and after a state joins the organization. Naturally, the alliance should continue to help foster democracy in countries that aspire to EU and NATO membership.
Share Best Practices
NATO provides a platform from which allies can work when coping with individual problems and vulnerabilities. The alliance can also help identify particular challenges, sometimes before the governments concerned do, and can play a role in early warning. This matters because rapid decisionmaking is sometimes the key to success in hybrid warfare.
Think and Speak Coherently
NATO is meeting the hybrid challenge with twenty-nine member states experiencing very different sociopolitical realities and often using different concepts. A unified vocabulary and strategy would limit the misunderstanding of threats, improve collaboration, and make the sharing of lessons learned more effective—so would an agreement on the prioritization of tasks and responsibilities and a shared understanding of NATO’s role.
This would greatly help individual countries to build compatible and comparable national strategies. Many of these strategies, including that of the youngest member Montenegro, are in early stages of preparation, but divergences are already becoming evident. Those that have been completed—such as Slovenia’s 2018 regulation on cyber and information security or Croatia’s 2017 National Security Strategy, which partly deals with hybrid challenges—have largely opted for different approaches.
NATO member states must send a unified message inside and out. As strategic communication is a mind-set, it has to be built together carefully and fundamentally.12 NATO’s communication strategy should be a result of joint efforts and hence a common instrument against all threats, not just hybrid ones, at all levels.
Hybrid threats work across military and civilian domains and therefore require intersectoral, regional, and international cooperation. For NATO, cooperation with the EU is essential given the overlap in the two organizations’ memberships and their distinct and complementary responsibilities.
This is understood in theory and reflected in joint declarations, but the practice lags behind. The EU and NATO should adopt a common hybrid strategy. They should also build joint response teams, improve day-to-day coordination, and expand the geographic scope of myth-busting websites such as EUvsDisinfo.eu.
Include Civil Society
The capabilities of think tanks or media groups to detect and defend against hybrid threats often surpass those of governments. Specialized private websites such as Stopfake.org do a better job at recognizing disinformation than many public agencies and often relieve governments of the need to build their own capacities. However, few private initiatives exist.
It is in NATO countries’ interest to systematically build private capacity by providing grants through the alliance and other international entities dealing with security issues. Financial support should also cover analysis, not just public diplomacy. The more NATO and individual allies succeed in building a network of experts, the more they strengthen their resistance to hybrid challenges.
Invest in Journalism to Raise Media Literacy
Social networks, as currently managed and regulated, lend themselves too easily to the dissemination of disinformation. Regulation falls outside NATO’s competence, but the alliance should make known its preference for sensible legislation that makes social networks more impervious to abuse by improving recognition of false profiles and strengthening penalties for hate speech.
Ultimately, the best tool for fighting disinformation is professional journalism. In particular, both NATO and its member states should invest more in investigative journalism to offer high-quality alternatives to false news.
Research shows that 70 percent of uses of the term “hybrid threats” by the media are inaccurate.13 NATO would benefit from helping strengthen journalists’ capacity to properly cover and monitor this issue. Well-educated media are an indispensable partner in building social awareness and educating citizens on how to cope with various forms of hybrid pressures. NATO can help by providing training and leading campaigns that improve awareness of hybrid challenges and thus boost local media capabilities in this area.
1 Nicholas Burns, Douglas Lute, and Seth Johnston, “NATO at Seventy: An Alliance in Crisis,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 2019, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/nato-seventy-alliance-crisis.
2 Frank Bekkers, Rick Meessen, and Deborah Lasche, “Hybrid Conflicts: The New Normal,” TNO Innovation for Life, December 2018.
3 Luigi Del Bene, “Hybrid Impact on the Air Domain,” in “Joint Air & Space Conference: The Role of Joint Air Power in NATO Deterrence,” Joint Air Power Conference Center, October 2017, https://www.japcc.org/hybrid-impact-on-the-air-domain/.
4 Moscow’s intention to use hybrid methods is articulated in several documents—the most recent being the 2014 Military Doctrine, the 2015 National Security Strategy, and the 2015 Information Security Doctrine.
5 “NATO’s Response to Hybrid Threats,” NATO, July 17, 2018, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_156338.htm.
6 Luke Coffey, “How to Defeat Hybrid Warfare Before It Starts,” Heritage Foundation, January 2019, https://www.heritage.org/defense/commentary/how-defeat-hybrid-warfare-it-starts.
7 “Balkan Barometer 2019: Public Opinion Survey,” Regional Cooperation Council, July 2019, https://www.rcc.int/pubs/89/balkan-barometer-2019-public-opinion-survey.
8 In this survey of 180 countries, Albania ranked 99, North Macedonia and Kosovo joint 93, Bosnia and Herzegovina 89, Serbia 87, and Montenegro 67. “Corruption Perception Index 2018,” Transparency International, 2019, https://www.transparency.org/cpi2018.
9 Selam Gebrekidan, Matt Apuzzo, and Benjamin Novak, “The Money Farmers: How Oligarchs and Populists Milk the E.U. for Millions,” New York Times, November 3, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/03/world/europe/eu-farm-subsidy-hungary.html.
10 Andrew Rettman, “EU Proposes Yearly Rule of Law ‘Reports,’” EUobserver, July 17, 2019, https://euobserver.com/justice/145487.
11 Burns et al., “NATO at Seventy.”
12 “Hybrid Threats: A Strategic Communications Perspective,” NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, April 2019, https://www.stratcomcoe.org/hybrid-threats-strategic-communications-perspective.
13 Murat Caliskan and Paul-Alexander Cramers, “What Do You Mean by ‘Hybrid Warfare’? A Content Analysis on the Media Coverage of Hybrid Warfare Concept,” December 2018, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329782285_What_Do_You_Mean_by_Hybrid_Warfare_A_Content_Analysis_on_the_Media_Coverage_of_Hybrid_Warfare_Concept/link/5c1a52d392851c22a336ce0a/download.