Security in a Shared Threat Environment

October 06, 2020
Transatlantic Task Force
7 min read
The transatlantic security relationship was forged in wars, both hot and cold, expanded its geographic scope after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and tested in the 1990s and early 2000s by conflicts

The transatlantic security relationship was forged in wars, both hot and cold, expanded its geographic scope after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and tested in the 1990s and early 2000s by conflicts in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has kept the peace and ensured stability on a continent that had experienced major wars in the previous century. For seven decades the United States has been resolute in defense of Europe’s security and Europe has proven to be the United States’ indispensable ally. 

The alliance is once again challenged externally. A re-assertive Russia occupied Georgian territory in 2008, illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, effectively occupies the Donbas region of Ukraine in violation of international law, uses disinformation campaigns to disrupt democratic processes and destabilize political systems on both sides of the Atlantic, and is developing new weaponry that threatens Europe. China has dramatically boosted its military spending in the last decade, while extending effective control over the South China Sea, a key passageway for global commerce. Iran has attempted to develop nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them. Terrorist organizations are actively destabilizing countries in the Sahel. The Libyan civil war threatens new refugee flows to Europe as does the ongoing unrest in Syria. Cyberattacks have become a growing threat to European and U.S. information-based infrastructure. 

In the face of these challenges, the security alliance has responded. After a half century of focusing on deterring Soviet aggression in Europe, in 2001, after the September 11 attacks on the United States, NATO members invoked Article 5 commitments for the first time, committing tens of thousands of allied forces to suppress terrorism in Afghanistan. More recently, individual European nations and the United States have joined in anti-terrorism efforts in Africa. And there has been meaningful progress on burden sharing. Defense spending by European nations and Canada increased in real terms in 2019, marking the fifth consecutive year of growth.

But NATO also faces internal challenges. Tensions have escalated in the Eastern Mediterranean between NATO members Greece and Turkey. Turkey and France are supporting different sides in the Libyan civil war.

"American demands that Europeans spend more on defense are not supported by many Europeans." 

Favorable views of NATO in France and Germany have dropped significantly in the last decade.46 Majorities in France, Spain, Germany, and Italy do not support coming to the defense of a NATO ally if they are attacked by Russia, rejecting a founding principle of the alliance.47 President Donald Trump has voiced unwillingness to come to Europe’s defense and announced a reduction in U.S. troop strength in Germany. The United States has imposed unilateral economic sanctions on commerce with Russia and Iran, harming European companies. American demands that Europeans spend more on defense are not supported by many Europeans.48 And more military spending may prove difficult as government revenue shrinks thanks to the coronavirus recession. In the wake of the 2009-2010 financial crisis, the last major economic downturn, overall European defense spending fell by 11 percent.49 

In addition, the transatlantic security alliance faces a new, insidious challenge: cyber espionage and sabotage. In the first half of 2020, Chinese and Russian government-backed hackers attempted to steal U.S. and European research related to COVID-19 vaccine development.50 Russian hackers exploited a software bug that could allow them to take remote control of U.S. servers. A hacking group associated with the Russian Federal Security Service compromised the networks of energy, water, and power companies in Germany. And Russia has employed online disinformation to further alternative interpretations of its aggression in Crimea and Donbas, in an effort to paralyze Western responses.

"NATO’s European members, as well as the EU, need to assume greater responsibility for the security of Europe and its neighborhood."

Europe also faces security concerns on its periphery, threats that are not directly shared by the United States. These challenges shape policy preferences and interests among European leaders and publics. Armed conflict, terrorism, and political instability in the Middle East and North Africa have destabilizing consequences for Europe, as seen after 2015, when large numbers of refugees arriving in the EU fueled public support for far-right populist parties and leaders. An unstable Europe has never been in the U.S. interest. 

The United States is unlikely to continue to provide the same degree of support as it has in the past against threats facing Europe. The relative economic strength of the United States is waning, and U.S. security and economic interests in Asia demand increasing attention. NATO’s European members, as well as the EU, need to assume greater responsibility for the security of Europe and its neighborhood. 

After the end of the Cold War the transatlantic alliance had to redefine its mission and role. It now needs to do so again. 

The Task Force recommends: 

Emphasize Defense Modernization: The United States and its NATO allies should invest in the capabilities, forces, readiness levels, modernization, infrastructure, and command structures required for meeting all threats to their future security. These investments will ensure NATO provides deterrence and defense against Russia and crisis response and capacity building in NATO’s South. In this context, the United States should commit to allies and acknowledge the importance of maintaining a robust and credible U.S. military presence in Europe. NATO allies should also coordinate defense expenditures, particularly in light of forthcoming pressures on defense budgets, to ensure priority is given to major new equipment, including related research and development, which will determine the scale and pace of modernization.

Integrate Defense Procurement: The United States, the European Union, and non-EU NATO members should agree on greater access for European defense companies to the U.S. arms market and reciprocal participation by NATO members that are not EU members in the EU-sponsored military capability programs: Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund.

Relaunch Arms Control: The United States and its NATO partners should work with Russia to extend the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty until 2026. The United States should also rejoin the Open Skies Agreement. And the United States and its transatlantic partners should engage Russia in talks about non-strategic nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable missiles.

Develop a Joint Approach to Russia: The United States and its NATO partners should establish the parameters, goals, and timing of any mutual reengagement with Russia and articulate clearly the preconditions needed from Moscow to justify that effort.  A mechanism for achieving this goal could be an annual joint assessment of Russia policy by the NATO secretary general and the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

Reengage with Iran: The United States should rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action if Iran comes into full compliance with the original agreement. In doing so, the United States should work with France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union, Russia, and China to reinforce the architecture of the deal and to then use it as a foundation for further work to address all areas of concern. Simultaneously, talks should begin with Tehran on missiles, counterterrorism, deconfliction, human rights, and a prisoner swap.

Jointly Combat Cyberattacks: The United States and its NATO allies should develop new doctrines and technologies to combat the rising number of cyberattacks, with specific emphasis on cyber defensive and offensive operations, and cooperate in countering malign foreign interference in their democracies to build resilience based on the work of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Estonia.

Stabilize Europe’s Neighborhood: The United States should support European governments as they take the lead in security and humanitarian efforts to stabilize North Africa and the Sahel and to increase Europe’s role in the Middle East to end conflicts, and they should begin allied strategic planning on how to manage destabilizing immigrant flows from Africa and the Middle East.

Download the PDF »

Photo Credit: AlejandroCarnicero / Shutterstock

46 Moira Fagan and Jacob Poushter, “NATO Seen Favorably Across Member States,” Pew Research Center, February 9, 2020.

47 Ibid.

48 Jacob Poushter and Mara Mordecai, “Americans and Germans Differ in Their Views of Each Other and the World,” Pew Research Center, March 9, 2020.

49 Dr. Christian Mölling, Torben Schütz, and Sophia Becker, “Deterrence and Defense in Times of COVID-19,” German Council on Foreign Relations, April 9, 2020.

50 “Significant Cyber Incidents,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2020.