NATO-Summit: Deterrence and Dialogue -1

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Deterrence is back in Europe. As NATO approaches its July summit in Warsaw, allies are adapting this concept to the new security settings in place in Europe since the 2014 crisis in Ukraine.

Yet, deterrence is intrinsically connected to dialogue: these are the two pillars of NATO’s strategy, as defined in the 1967 Harmel Report. Consequently, in a security environment in which Russia uses military force to coerce neighbors and violates international law by redrawing borders, NATO needs to find a new balance between deterrence and dialogue to safeguard security in Europe.

NATO rightly is strengthening its deterrence measures as an urgent priority for alliance security. These steps should be framed as part of a double-track strategy that, over time, will encourage Russia to abide by international norms—not through blandishments, but through transatlantic unity and strength.

This will require sustained political commitment, backed up by military and diplomatic resources. Germany and the United States should lead within NATO the development of a durable new balance of deterrence and dialogue that will sustain alliance cohesion and establish conditions for lasting peace in Europe.

Throughout its history, NATO has had two principal tools to achieve its goal of safeguarding the security of its allies: military means to assure deterrence and defense, and political means to pursue détente and dialogue. Since the crisis in Ukraine, the dialogue track with Russia has been largely frozen.

In April 2014, NATO stopped practical civilian and military cooperation in the NATO-Russia Council (NRC). Although an NRC meeting will take place soon, it is doubtful that this will reverse the situation.

Contacts outside NATO channels have focused mainly on pressing global issues where there is some commonality of interest, such as the Iran nuclear program or an overriding necessity for dialogue, as with the Syrian civil war.

As NATO implements the reassurance and adaptation measures decided at the 2014 Wales summit and prepares for the 2016 Warsaw summit, there are growing calls also to reactivate the dialogue dimension in order to redevelop the traditional twin approaches of deterrence and détente.

It is hence essential to understand how deterrence/defense and détente/dialogue reinforce each other, what lessons the past teaches, and what adaptations are appropriate for the current situation.

The Harmel Approach

Security is the result of both deterrence and dialogue. The most robust defense, without political contact between adversaries, would risk misunderstood signals, unintentional provocation and escalation, greater instability, and, as a result, greater insecurity.

Similarly, confronted with an adversary that is willing to move borders by force and that fundamentally rejects central elements of the post-Helsinki and post–Cold War acquis—especially the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the 1990 Charter of Paris—dialogue without defense would be dangerous folly.

The alliance has struck such balances since its creation. The foundational understandings for that were articulated nearly 50 years ago in the Harmel Report, named after its author, Foreign Minister Pierre Harmel of Belgium.

Harmel identifies two essential functions of the alliance.

The first is “to maintain adequate military strength and political solidarity to deter aggression […] and to defend the territory of member countries.” This necessitates “a suitable military capability to assure the balance of forces, thereby creating a climate of stability, security and confidence.”

The second follows from that: “In this climate the Alliance can carry out its second function, to pursue the search for progress towards a more stable relationship in which the underlying political issues can be solved.” Thus, deterrence/defense and détente/dialogue are complementary and intrinsically linked, but there is a clear sequence: dialogue can only be pursued if deterrence is assured.

Both key functions seek to avoid war, yet with different means. Deterrence is a military strategy: it refers to a military threat and uses military means. It consists in having a military capability, and the intent to use it, sufficient to convince a potential adversary that the risks of using force so clearly outweigh the potential gains that the other will choose peace over war.

Détente uses different means, such as tension reduction and partial cooperation, through things such as legal agreements, verbal de-escalation, dialogue, and routine diplomacy. The aim is to improve predictability, responsiveness, and stability, thereby helping to avoid war. Yet, détente is not an end in itself.

Harmel identified NATO’s “ultimate political purpose” as achieving “a just and lasting peaceful order […] accompanied by appropriate security guarantees.” It is thus essential for all allies to have a shared vision of how to achieve that goal. Otherwise, the dialogue to achieve it risks becoming a divisive issue and might even heighten some allies’ perceptions of insecurity.

Harmel Applied: The Cold War

The Harmel leitmotiv substantially marked NATO’s strategy during the Cold War. The December 1979 “dual-track” decision was grounded in the growing Soviet superiority in certain (nuclear) capabilities, whereas Western forces had remained static. This Soviet theater superiority, it was feared, could undermine NATO’s deterrence strategy.

The dual-track decision shifted the balance in favor of deterrence, building on the first pillar of Harmel (defense) by modernizing NATO forces, while simultaneously expressing the ultimate aim of achieving a stable balance through mutual limitations on those very same systems on the basis of political agreements (dialogue).

The result was the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which eliminated that entire category of nuclear weapons: the very outcome that was identified in the dual-track decision as the goal. There is thus a 20-year arc from Harmel through the dual-track decision to INF that achieved the West’s security goals—not through defense alone, but through deterrence and defense that enabled a dialogue, thereby producing greater security with fewer armaments

Dr. Claudia Major is a senior associate in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. Jeffrey Rathke is deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.


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  1. The 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw will take place in distressing period with multiple security crises in the European neighborhood as well as risks of political
    division within the Alliance.

  2. Dialogue plays an essential role in managing what has become an adversarial relationship. The West’s prospects for an acceptable outcome are greatest when NATO’s force presence and posture, signaling, dialogue, and declaratory policy are aligned into a coherent whole.

  3. Dialogue plays an essential role in managing what has become an adversarial relationship. The West’s prospects for an acceptable outcome are greatest when NATO’s force presence and posture, signaling, dialogue, and declaratory policy are aligned into a coherent whole.

  4. NATO is back on the centre stage of international affairs and the Warsaw summit will demonstrate whether it is capable of handling the challenges this brings.

  5. If NATO is “missing in action” in dealing with the threat from ISIS and from systemic state failures in the Middle East and North Africa, NATO can no longer claim a central role in Western security

  6. President Obama at his final NATO meeting will call on Allies to shoulder increased defence spending. Europeans should listen. The next President will have less patience with free riders.

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