NATO’s meeting of foreign ministers last week to discuss several security issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, may be most remembered for how it was held than what was settled. It was crisis decision-making done virtually. Foreign ministers remained hunkered down in their capitals and NATO ambassadors at the headquarters in Brussels kept separated at safe distances from one another, discussing the crisis, troops in Afghanistan, a Black Sea initiative, and more.
This is a major step for one simple reason: NATO needs to make quick decisions should Russia take aggressive military action again.
For NATO, as for many other organizations around the world, the coronavirus crisis is speeding innovation and streamlining communications. The virtual meeting of foreign ministers could lead to a process we might call the “Enhanced Crisis Decision Making Initiative” that can complement NATO’s other recent steps aimed at deterring adversaries and preventing war.
This high-level virtual meeting was a first for NATO, but there will be more, including next week’s defense ministers’ meeting. It worked well and will improve. We are all becoming more comfortable with virtual meetings. And once NATO officials stop to think about the ramifications, it may help to solve one of the most intractable problems NATO has faced: rapid political decision making in time of crisis.
The ability to assemble all of NATO’s 30 heads of government virtually on a moment’s notice is long overdue. Since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the so-called “nightmare scenario” that has animated NATO planning centers on Russia’s ability to delay NATO decisions and responses to a potential land grab. The scenario, based in part on the Crimean precedent, suggests either an irregular or conventional Russian attack on one or more of the Baltic States, quick defeat of local forces, occupation by invading forces, and a Russian call for a cease fire plus threats of escalation, all in an effort to divide NATO nations. While risky for Russia, the rewards for success would be great: the demise of NATO.
For the past half-decade NATO has taken multiple steps to raise the risk for Russia. In 2014, the alliance created a new spearhead force that could move quickly. In 2016, NATO deployed battalion-sized battle groups eastward to the Baltic States and Poland. In 2018, a readiness initiative assured that larger reinforcements would be ready to move to a troubled region, and a mobility initiative is streamlining movements across NATO territory to the front lines. Those are steps in the right direction, and with them NATO has stepped up its understanding of and capabilities for dealing with hybrid threats.
These initiatives mean little, however, if NATO leaders can’t agree on a quick response to a Russian incursion. That deadlock is exactly what Moscow would seek.
The current crisis decision-making process works like a hub-and-spoke system with each NATO ambassador in Brussels seeking guidance from his or her capital. Time is lost just in organizing national responses. National decisions are made in a partial vacuum, with heads of government not knowing exactly what their colleagues are planning to do. Very often then, leaders take a cautious path or, at the very least, waste precious time coordinating from capital to capital. When that happens, the United States loses its window to quickly influence national decisions, and the chance of achieving a quick consensus declines.
The United States has sought a new NATO decision making initiative that mirrors the progress on operational readiness. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis proposed an initiative based on setting a deadline for decisions. Other efforts have advocated delegating more authority to NATO’s military commanders in time of crisis, but civilian leaders have been unwilling to cede much.
Enter virtual decision making. Imagine if NATO heads of government could meet quickly online. Heads of members states could hear immediately and collectively from NATO’s leadership and the leadership of nations under attack. They could share intelligence assessments and perhaps see real time activity on the front lines. They could listen to allies, quickly exchange ideas, and hopefully design a consensus position. They remain in their capital so they can rapidly factor in the views of their advisors. Opportunities to delay lines of communications between ambassadors in Brussels and 30 separate countries would be obviated.
NATO members can’t just open up a Google hangout. Designing such a crisis decision making process would require important refinements. Networks would need to be hardened, very secure, and have assured reliability. Crisis decision making in this virtual environment would need to be exercised rigorously. Mechanisms to share vital intelligence and real-time front-line video coverage would need to be incorporated.
To be clear, turning on video screens would not guarantee quick consensus among 30 governments with 30 different political considerations. Russian threat assessments vary dramatically across the alliance. What matters to NATO’s northeast members matters less elsewhere. Nations in southern Europe are generally more concerned with instability in the Middle East and North Africa and do not see Russia as an immediate threat to their security. Many could be reluctant to respond should Russia become adventurous in NATO’s northeast. Other steps are needed, including augmented intelligence sharing, better strategies for countering Russian disinformation, and American leadership to be sure others will act. Nevertheless, if heads of government were subject to real-time evidence of Russian malfeasance and immediate pleas for help from besieged colleagues, the pressure to take decisive action would be substantial.
NATO should take advantage of the need to work from home, and design and test a new Enhanced Crisis Decision Making Initiative that can be put into effect after the Covid-19 pandemic subsides. This season’s ministers’ meetings should be the first of a new era.
Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and previously held several senior positions including special assistant to the president for defense policy. Christopher Skaluba is the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council and a former Pentagon policy executive.