NATO in the Age of Asymmetry

Yesterday, after we all took a challenging exam testing our extensive knowledge over the different institutions and important actors of the European Union, their functions, and their influence (or lack thereof) in Europe, we had the pleasure of hearing from a Special Advisor to the NATO Secretary General. With over 20 years of experience, he had certainly “been around the block” and it was amazing to note how almost everything that he had to say was insightful and gave us a better understanding of NATO and its potential future in the global context.

A major point that he made was that we are currently living in an Age of Asymmetry. Economically, security-wise, and even ideologically, there is much inequality and asymmetry which is leading to more and more instability, volatility, and overall transition. Viewing the world from a macroeconomic perspective, it is startling to see the lasting effects of the 2008 financial crisis, which exposed many troubling underlying problems like systemic government spending and the Baby Boomer Problem (with all the baby boomers reaching retirement and living longer and having less children, which causes there to be a shrinking working population and less money for retirement benefits and social security-type funds). Not only did the 2008 crisis stop much of the economic growth of developed nations, like the United States and the countries in the EU, it also created a trend in which even emerging economies, like China, which were once growing very quickly, began to experience slower and slower growth. Militarily speaking, due to these issues in growth, many of the NATO countries have begun to cut back on their defense budgets, all while China and Russia have spent the last five years increasing their spending on defense (and beginning to outspend Europe). Demographically, decreasing fertility has begun to lower recruitment pools for nations’ militaries while also creating a shortage of workers. As a result, this has started tensions over issues like immigration in which there is both a need for young immigrant workers but also a fear of them. Ultimately, in the face of all these growing asymmetries, our speaker emphasized the importance of NATO member states to increase their focus on investment, education, innovation, competition, and social resilience in order to effectively combat these global issues.

Once the questions started, that’s when the conversation really became interesting! When asked about whether it has become even harder for NATO to come to agreements in a post-Cold War world with such a variety of security dilemmas, the speaker made a really important point that I think we tend to forget. He emphasized that there is often a very superficial and romanticized view that during the Cold War, NATO was much more united because there was a common enemy. In fact, even though all the nations had similar objectives and views towards the USSR, there were always issues with coming to a consensus on what needed to be done, especially with matters like the Olympics, European Gas Pipeline, and the Berlin Wall. Therefore, while the current global context may have a larger selection of issues with varying priorities among the member states, it is not as big of a deal for NATO, because it has had a legacy of allowing states to cooperate for over 70 years, and it has experience in helping states work through their difficulties in order to come to a consensus.

Another insightful comment that the NATO official made was regarding Putin. He said that it is important to note that Putin’s main source of strength and source of legitimacy lies with his own people. Once you understand that fact, it puts into context the extreme speeches and comments that Putin has made as not simply an attempt to catch the attention of the world, but really as an attempt to try to rally the Russian people and gain their support. Unfortunately, what this has the potential to do is make Putin a hostage to his own game plan, in which he may realize that he has unintentionally cornered himself to follow through with actions which have global repercussions he didn’t quite anticipate.

In terms of the future of NATO, it seems clear that sovereignty continues to be a major obstacle when it comes to European politics. For example, when it comes to military cooperation within Europe and outside of NATO, there are several institutions and organizations that have been created outside of the EU, which makes it extremely difficult to achieve NATO’s goals of equipment interoperability and efficiency. It seems that sovereignty is still something many European nations cling on to, which is something that has the potential to hinder many of NATO’s objectives and its potential to grow stronger, but is also an unfortunate reality that has to be worked around.

Ultimately, there was so much we discussed and learned regarding NATO and the Age of Asymmetry that I can hardly fit it all in here! Even our discussion with our insightful speaker went well over the scheduled time, and would have likely continued for at least another hour, had our classroom in the Institute for European Studies at the Université libre de Bruxelles not have to close for the day.

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