- NATO is preparing for what leaders expect will be "a more competitive world."
- Alliance members are shifting away from counterterrorism toward more traditional security competition.
- NATO leaders see Russia and China as future challenges and a "technological edge" as vital for that competition.
At the end of October, defense ministers from NATO's 30 member-states met in person for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
The summit was a signpost for the alliance's future.
New and old challenges
NATO forces spent nearly 20 years in Afghanistan, training Afghan forces and fighting the Taliban in what was the largest mission in the history of the alliance.
All NATO militaries contributed to the war effort, and many shifted their focus from conventional to unconventional warfare to combat terrorism and asymmetrical threats in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The end of the war has firmly reshuffled the alliance's priorities.
"NATO is now prioritizing its core business of collective defense to deter and defend against threats such as those from an increasingly aggressive Russia," Rachel Ellehuus, the deputy director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, told Insider.
That Russian aggression can be felt across NATO's eastern flank.
NATO and Russia have increased their activities in the Black Sea. Russia has also massed troops on its border with Ukraine, putting Western countries on high alert. Many also see Moscow as permitting, if not facilitating, the weaponization of migrants on the Polish-Belarusian border.
Dialogue is also suffering. In October, Russia suspended its mission to NATO and closed the alliance's offices in Moscow in retaliation for the expulsion of Russian diplomats accused by NATO of spying.
Encapsulating the current state of affairs, at the press conference introducing the summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the media that "the relationship between NATO and Russia is at its lowest point since the end of the Cold War, and the reason for that is the Russian behavior."
But Russia is not NATO's only problem.
NATO members recognize that the threat of terrorism persists and that Afghanistan still has an important role to play. As Stoltenberg said, key to curtailing the threat is ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe-haven for international terrorism.
That will not be easy. Fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups is harder without boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Stoltenberg has said that the "allies have the capabilities to strike from far away against terrorist threats," but the effectiveness and accuracy of such capabilities diminish without assistance from in-country ground forces.
NATO has to also contend with limited resources. It may prove challenging to maintain the gains made against terrorism while also effectively deterring Russia.
For NATO to do that, "it will have to leverage the intelligence assets and military capabilities of its individual members," Ellehuus said.
Overcoming current threats and preparing for future ones requires keeping a "technological edge," Stoltenberg said.
"Future conflicts will be fought not just with bullets and bombs, but also with bytes and big data. We see authoritarian regimes racing to develop new technologies, from artificial intelligence to autonomous systems," Stoltenberg told the press.
For that purpose, the 30 defense ministers announced the establishment of the NATO Innovation Fund and the Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic.
The fund, which will be worth $1.2 billion, "will support the development of dual-use emerging and disruptive technologies, in key areas for Allied security," through investments in startups, according to Stoltenberg.
Although the fund's size will not make it a game-changer, its establishment signifies NATO's awareness of the fast-evolving technological landscape.
The accelerator, known as DIANA, aims to enhance interoperability and increase cooperation in critical technologies between sectors and member-states. The fund's offices and test centers will be hosted in a number of NATO countries.
At its October summit, NATO also adopted its first Artificial Intelligence Strategy, reflecting the potential its leaders see in AI.
Those efforts underscore the importance NATO puts in having a technological edge to better deter Russia, but the alliance is also looking beyond Moscow.
To the east
China's technological and military progress has NATO concerned.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin went into the October summit seeking to raise the issue of China, and it was the subject of considerable discussion even though no part of the summit was explicitly about China.
"What we have seen over the last years is significant modernization of China's military capabilities," Stoltenberg said when asked about China's recent hypersonic missile tests.
NATO tries to avoid painting China as an adversary, but the writing is on the wall.
"China is assertively using its might and technological advances to coerce other countries and control its own people. It is expanding its global economic and military footprint in Africa, in the Arctic and in cyber-space. And it's investing in our own critical infrastructure, from 5G networks to ports and airports," NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană said at the Future of Democracy Forum in November.
Not all NATO countries have the same concerns about China, which is a major trade and investment partner for many alliance members — 15 of them participate in the 17+1 Initiative, which is meant to foster investment and business relations between China and Central and Eastern European countries.
That means the alliance will have to tread carefully, focusing on "building resilience within the alliance rather than on confronting China militarily," Ellehuus said.
NATO's upcoming 2022 Strategic Concept will be a roadmap for the years ahead and is expected to feature China as a rising power with worldwide ambitions.
"Our transatlantic alliance remains the bedrock for our security. And Europe and North America will continue to stand strong together in NATO, as we face a more competitive world," Stoltenberg said at the end of the October summit.
Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master's degree on security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.