The West needs to redevelop the tools and mindset of strategic competition
by Octavian Manea
Interview with Dr. A. Wess Mitchell, co-chair of the NATO 2030 Reflection Process. He is co-founder and principal at The Marathon Initiative, a policy initiative focused on developing strategies to prepare the United States for an era of sustained great power competition. Previously, he served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs from 2017 to 2019. Prior to joining the State Department, Mitchell cofounded and served as President and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
Let’s describe the strategic environment of the 2020s and the structural drivers that push for the NATO strategic adaptation over the next decade. Essentially what sets aside the 2020s compared with the 1990s and the post 9/11 eras? What are the key operational problems of NATO going into 2020s?
I think the defining characteristic of the international environment of the 2020s is the return of great power competition. Specifically: the rise of China and the persistence of Russia as a militarily capable large state.
China’s significance lies in the fact that it is the first rival in America’s modern history with the potential to surpass the US in the major categories of national power; its economy is already larger than America’s and its military has ambitious plans to surpass the US quantitatively and qualitatively within the coming decade.
Russia is of course not a full-spectrum competitor like China, but it nevertheless possesses substantial conventional power projection capabilities and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Russia stands out because it also possesses motivation: this is a country that was the main loser of the last systemic rivalry so it sees itself as having the most to gain from reversing the verdict of the previous contest, so to speak.
I think that China and Russia represent a tandem problem set for the West. Irrespective of whether they formally ally with one another, their actions create a dynamic of strategic simultaneity — of having to deal with concurrent pressures from different directions.
This is a very different problem-set for the US and for NATO than we has known in the recent past. Since the Cold War, the West has existed in a kind of greenhouse environment, where we could reasonably assume the absence of a peer competitor and the availability of more or less infinite financial resources. The challenges that NATO faced in that permissive era – the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, the terrorist threat after 9/11 – were real, but they were the kinds of challenges that are surmountable on the basis of willpower. There was never any doubt about the material ability of the West to overcome them.
In that genial environment, I think NATO basically got out of the business of serious strategy – because it didn’t need it. Enlargement in a way came to substitute for strategy. NATO’s preoccupation was with exploiting the opportunities of its environment. Operationally, it was focused on enlargement and later on out-of-area operations against non-peer foes. Crisis-management rather than strategic anticipation came to dominate the culture and processes of NATO.
A central message of our report is that that permissive era is over. The West faces serious peer competitors and cannot assume a continuation of its own material and military dominance. It needs to set strategic priorities and redevelop the tools and mindset of strategic competition. It needs to focus its attention on strategic and political consolidation within the alliance itself – using NATO as a platform for strengthening the cohesion of the strategic and political West in conditions of protracted competition with determined big-power rivals.
NATO has to develop the tools to protect its members’ equities at home
In an October 1995 White House meeting Vaclav Havel emphasized that “there is no danger of a Soviet-era type of military occupation of Central Europe. But the danger does exist of political and economic pressures on Central Europe that would seek to perpetuate a dependency.” Vaclav Havel understood very well the danger that in time would become the new normal – that certain objectives could be achieved through other means, short of traditional war, by employing political, economical, psychological warfares. How should NATO see the China rise? Is the Havel lense relevant also in understanding the Chinese threat to Europe? Is the China issue going to be a make or break point for the transatlantic relationship relevance in the 2020s?
China’s rise affects NATO in two ways. First, indirectly, it tilts the international balance of power in ways that require the US to devote more resources and attention to the Indo-Pacific. And because these resources are finite, those tilts inevitably means less US resources and attention for Europe, which ceases to be the primary theater in the world for the US for the first time. That is a very unfamiliar place for Europeans to be.
Second, China’s rise affects NATO directly, through its activities in and around Europe. The commercial and technological dimensions of China’s penetration are most familiar to us: China is acquiring critical infrastructure in Europe (ports, bridges, airports, telecommunications equipment) and it is also spreading its political influence through the BRI and 17+1 formats. But China’s presence in Europe and in areas around Europe is also increasingly military in nature. China siphons talent and know-how from Europe as part of its Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) Strategy and it has a growing naval presence in the Arctic, Atlantic, and Mediterranean. I think over the next decade that presence will grow larger as China’s power and ambition grows.
For NATO, there should be no doubt at this point that China poses a threat that needs to be dealt with. That does not mean that NATO needs to operate in the Indo-Pacific. Rather I think it means, in the near term, that NATO has to develop the tools to protect its members’ equities at home, in the Euro-Atlantic area. It needs a sound China strategy. It needs tools – safeguards against MCF, procurement and technology transfer filters, investment screening, criteria for avoiding excessive Chinese influence and control of critical equipment and infrastructure. Basically, anything in Chinese investment behavior that could impede readiness, interoperability or the ability to communicate securely in SACEUR’s AOR (Area of Responsibility) should be fair-game for attention and action at NATO. And I think we are playing catch-up on that.
Longer term, NATO needs to be part of the solution for handling the problem of strategic simultaneity in the event of a major war. To my mind, the ultimate goal should be something approaching a global division of labor between the US and European NATO that allows US to devote more attention to the Indo-Pacific without endangering stability in European theater. At present NATO’s members do not share burdens and risks at anything close to the levels that will be demanded by the new strategic environment. Needless to say, this would not be the moment to define downward the Wales metric. But in my view meeting Wales commitment is at this point a receding de minimis requirement.
We will eventually need to move toward something like a European Level of Ambition inside NATO that encourages pooling/economies of scale among European militaries tied explicitly to NATO capability targets. I would view this as a favorable alternative, both to the current, fragmented and anemic European military spending landscape and to the concept of EU Strategic Autonomy in the defense sphere.
Does this gradual division of labor mean ultimately more of the Old Europe invested in securing the Eastern Flank of NATO especially in a time when US is forced to adapt to a “China first, Russia second” kind of environment? However this will also require a new mindset and a return to a role assumed during the Cold War. The problem remains that some in the Old Europe are predominantly focused on 9/11 threats, like France. Others are not really ready to come to terms with a security ecosystem shaped by the return of great power competition, like Germany.
It is indispensable from a strategic standpoint that the large Western European states and in particular Germany bear a share of the burden for the defense of the continental Europe that is proportionate with Germany’s enormous economic power and population. It is true that Germany has stepped up defense spending in recent years, and I think the credit for that should go to the Trump administration. But a state of Germany’s size and wealth should be able to handle far more of the responsibility for defending Europe than it currently does.
The key focus must continue to be on the Eastern flank – especially the Baltic and Black Sea areas. The EFP (Enhanced Forward Presence) was an important first step towards strengthening NATO’s defense capabilities there. But 7 years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine it is time for us to evolve beyond those very light structures and have the ability to bring greater NATO capabilities to bear for securing the Eastern Flank.
As outlined in the NDS we need a strong “blunt-layer” (where the central idea is the imperative of preventing Russia from achieving a fait accompli) whereby the US military in the region is intertwined with European militaries, who ultimately have to carry more responsibility for local defense. The goal should be to shift the escalatory burden back onto the Russians in the advent of a crisis. But ultimately you have to have large European members of NATO that are putting in the field the capabilities to be able to handle Russia in a conventional crisis. Until you have that the US will find it hard to shift attention to the Indo-Pacific in the way that is envisioned in the NDS without exposing the secondary theater - the European theater - to significant risk of instability.
The resurgence of the continental powers
Should our thinking about how we understand and frame deterrence, defence and war change and evolve in the 2020s? The expeditionary war fighting model becomes increasingly complicated in access-denial environments. It seems that we enter in the age of protracted defence. At the same time, the revisionist powers increasingly adopt disruptive insurgent methodologies.
The organizing problem I see for deterrence in the 2020s is that Russia and China are both in their own ways creating facts on the ground that negate accustomed US military advantages and create the potential for deterrence failure. Both of these powers absorbed lessons from America’s wars in the 1990s and in particular the wide conventional superiority that the US enjoyed as a result of stand-off precision weapons and other technological byproducts of the Second Offset.
If you fast-forward to the 2020s what you see is that both of these powers have invested in capabilities aimed at allowing them to control space and deny access in strategically important places.
You see this pattern in the Formosa Strait, in the Black Sea, and in the Baltic. Basically you have large land powers attempting to ‘seal off’ portions at each end of Eurasia – the idea is to create environments where the US would draw the conclusion that it could not prevail without enormous effort and cost but also, on the basis, where it would likely decide that it lacked the political will to wage such a strenuous contest. These investments are made all the more credible in Russia’s case by an ambitious nuclear modernization program and warfighting concepts that envision nuclear escalation on the battlefield as an offset to what they see US conventional superiority.
In geopolitical terms you can think of all of this as the resurgence of the continental powers, regaining an edge over maritime power. It’s the latest installment in a long contest stretching back centuries of sea power developing the tools (expeditionary forces, onshore alliances) to project power inland and land powers developing tools to resist and restrict those incursions. At least on paper it does look like Russia and China are gaining an edge.
The reason that this is strategically significant is that the US has assumed at least since the end of the Second World War that its security would be met best by a forward presence, both militarily and politically, well beyond America’s shores, in the rimlands of Eurasia. The object of Russian and Chinese strategy, in a sense, is to make that a more militarily tenuous and therefore also politically fraught proposition - in effect, to convince America that the game is not worth the candle.
The report emphasizes also the role of the emerging disruptive technologies. In other words it is an invitation to reflect to and observe the changing character of warfare. What lessons are relevant for NATO from the historical periods in which major transitions between regimes of warfare took place? What could be the costs for the alliance of failing in keeping pace with the military technical revolution of its times? Going back 100 years the character of warfare changed dramatically between WWI and WWII as the radio, the radar and the tank prepared the emergence of new operational concepts and organizational constructs including the blitzkrieg. Today it seems that we are in another transition period away from a rough parity in precision guided munitions battle networks towards a new military regime – the algorithmic warfare – built around harnessing AI, machine learning, big data and autonomy.
The clear lesson from history is that states which lose the commanding heights of technology lose not only the ability to win at war in a tactical sense but also lose the ability to shape the political order that follows.
China clearly didn’t limit its study of America’s military-technological lessons to the wars of the 1990s; it also learned lessons from the earlier US victory – in the Cold War – that allowed America to be the shaping power after the USSR collapsed.
We are accustomed in the West to thinking of our victory in the Cold War to ideological factors but we overlook the technological dimension.
America’s superior system of representative government and financial powers enabled it to undertake technological leaps that dramatically altered the course of the conflict and placed the Soviets on the horns of a dilemma — to either yield any presumption of dominance in the scenarios that counted most; or to launch ambitious military-industrial catch-ups that were well beyond the financial abilities of the Soviet system to sustain.
A major difference I think today is the method of stimulating major innovation. The byproducts of those earlier US leaps – precision-guided munitions, stealth, GPS, even the Internet – were made possible by US government-directed research and spending in places like DARPA.
By contrast, the technologies that will give states an edge in algorithmic warfare – derivatives of quantum computing, AI, etc – come overwhelmingly from smaller and more highly diffuse centers of innovation in the private sector that are by definition hard to steer or control. The more you try to manage or centralize their efforts from above, the less likely they are to produce the kinds of innovations that you need.
That’s not to say that state-directed efforts and R&D do not have a role – clearly they do, but as outlined in the NSCAI report, it is more of a cloud-seeding role that embraces decentralization and either partners with or outsources to private sector innovators.
The Chinese wager, it seems to me, is that their system can be sufficiently hands-off in approach to enable private innovation to flourish and achieve breakthroughs but still have a higher degree of coordination, courtesy of the CCP power structure and things like the Military-Civil Fusion strategy, to ensure that the push for those breakthroughs is both more determined and focused and more likely to achieve military utility for the state rather than just for consumers. A key Chinese advantage in making this wager is the sheer size of the Chinese population and domestic market. The West would do well not to underestimate Chinese entrepreneurial spirit and scope for innovation. That’s true not just in areas of military technology we’ve been discussing but in Fintech and the digitalization of the renminbi too.
NATO will never be the main tool of choice for Western nations to respond to the entirety of the technological challenge from China. But it does have an important and in my view under-developed role to play in acting as a platform for allies to coordinate on security-related tech developments, pool R&D where possible, and most importantly, provide a pressure mechanism and interface with the EU to avoid a situation where that entity’s restrictive data regulations hobble the West in the technological competition with China.
The goal should be for the West and likeminded nations, including in Asia-Pacific, to have the lowest possible barriers to aggregative data access, funding and innovation to go toe to toe with a demographically massive China in those fields that will most determine success.
In a way, it seems to me to be about pooling and channelling efforts of the free world to set the stage/ground for a third offset strategy-ripe ecosystem.
I think that is right. It is a balancing act where you have to lower barriers wherever possible for innovation and technological cooperation while also being in commercial competition with one another within the Western world.
Why does the report plead for institutionalizing an Andy Marshall kind of capability? What would be the value of net assessment for the alliance in navigating the international ecosystem of the 2020s? Is this an attempt in relearning the lost art of the Cold War when Andy Marshall’s ONA focused on providing a long-term competition framework within which it highlighted key strategic asymmetries and strengths to build upon relative to the competition?
An organizing problem for NATO continues to be the divergences in threat assessment so we have to start here. The divergences are due in large part to geography and the fact that different allies feel greater exposure to different threats. But as the quantity of major threats increases we can expect that divergence of perceptions to also increase. NATO political cohesion is in a sense a derivative of how well it manages those divergences of threat assessment. So if your goal is to increase NATO cohesion you have to ask: how can we be more deliberate about achieving convergences of threat assessment?
A big part of that is something that you cannot control: it’s a byproduct of political will, which is rooted in geography, state interests, and other seemingly immutable factors. But the history of NATO is the history of attempting to mitigate those differentials in threat assessment. You can do that through political consultation – that’s why from the time of the Wise Men report, in the late 1950s, onward NATO has had structured habits of consultation to proactively foresee and manage those differentials in threat assessment.
But you can also do it by building better institutional tools for studying and assessing threats. The US found in the Cold War as you pointed out that there is strategic value to having a standing effort/office whose job is to put all of the pieces on the table – red team, blue team, etc but also all of the relevant tools at America’s disposal for managing competition. The premise is that doing this allows you to see aspects of the game, aspects of the competitive dynamic, that you might have missed or overlooked if just making decisions from a political or crisis management perspective. So the idea would be to give NATO a dedicated tool for helping to understand the entirety of its threat environment and, on that basis, do a better at proactively mitigating differentials in threat assessment.
NATO has already begun to move in this direction with the development of the Joint Intelligence and Security Division (JISD), Policy Planning Unit (PPU), and the informal practice of the senior staff policy board meeting for purposes of horizon scanning and strategic anticipation. The idea with the net assessment is to regularize these practices, give them a designated institutional home and staff inside the NATO HQ.
What’s important is not just the organizational piece or creating layers of bureaucracy for the sake of creating bureaucracy, but getting ways to get out of the reactive/crisis management mindset of the last two decades and reinject more disciplined, anticipatory strategic thinking into the NATO culture.
The Alliance needs to avoid paralysis when it matters
In an almost Clausewitzian fashion we often hear that preserving cohesion is the center of gravity for the transatlantic alliance. But in a time of increasingly different security optics we can end up with a situation where cohesion becomes a liability for military credibility and deterrence. How can such a scenario be avoided?
Cohesion in a multi-country alliance is of course the result of political will. But it is also the result of the members of that alliance possessing capabilities that in aggregate provide greater security than individual members could achieve on their own. The quest for cohesion becomes a liability when it is pursued artificially, as a kind of ‘higher good’ in itself that supersedes the purposes for which the alliance was created or in ways that prevent it from responding to clear risks or opportunities.
A good example is China. The threat from China is real and growing and all but a handful of allies appear to grasp that fact. But imagine if NATO were to prioritize the maintenance of a superficial unity over taking the difficult steps to deal with this problem. That would be an example of the idea of cohesion superseding security. It would be a case of lowest common denominator reasoning and allowing the concerns of the few to prevent the action of the majority.
Another example is the practice of some allies importing external, bilateral disputes into NATO, essentially withholding consensus on initiatives that all 29 of the other members agree on. This is the modern equivalent of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s liberum veto - a recipe for paralysis.
Our report recommends dealing head-on with both of these problems.
At the strategic level, we need to force the issue by updating the Strategic Concept to reflect the new strategic environment. That will require a lot of hard work diplomatically building consensus around the fact of the new and unfamiliar threats. There is no substitute for that hard work.
But in addition, our report argues that NATO would benefit from proactively reforming decision-making. In an alliance like NATO whose ultimate use is for deterrence and if necessary sending lives into combat, consensus must remain the metric on things that count and matters of life and death. On many other matters however we may not need consensus. The report recommends for example not requiring consensus on certain administrative and staffing matters. It recommends allowing sub groups of allies to move ahead on missions under the NATO chapeau without all members participating, as well as placing time limits on crisis decision making.
The key in all of this is to avoid paralysis when it matters, to make it harder for one or two allies to consistently use single country vetoes to import bilateral disputes into NAC that don’t belong there. So we recommend for example raising the threshold for those blockages to the Ministerial level. Ultimately, I believe NATO will need to develop a kind of constructive abstention model along the EU lines. The key though is to ensure that in the more contested and complicated strategic environment that I am describing, NATO has to be able to achieve collective action.
The ability to tend to the democratic foundations of the Alliance will be integral to NATO’s success
It seems that the 2020s have increasingly the contours of an inter-regnum, a time of an intensive ideological competition between democracies and authoritarianism. Has the time come for the allies to renew their vows to the founding principles – to the core NATO values? What role has resilience to play and how should resilience be understood in a NATO context?
It is important to acknowledge that there is an ideological character to the emerging era of great power competition. China and Russia are both large Eurasian land powers but also the world’s leading authoritarian regimes. They use not only military power but divisions inside our societies to undermine representative institutions, social cohesion and trust.
Our report argues that in strategic competition with these states the ability to tend to the democratic foundations of the Alliance will be integral to NATO’s success on two levels. First internally, in the political cohesion of the Alliance itself. NATO is an alliance built on the concept of intimate cooperation of democracies. Historically, it’s worth noting that since antiquity, democracies tend to form alliances and despotic regimes do not. The two concepts are deeply linked. In NATO’s case we can go further and say that any movement of members toward the authoritarian camp does weaken NATO and undermine support of publics for helping one another.
And second, it is integral to NATO’s success externally - in competition with Russia and China. The report highlights the fact that these are authoritarian states from which the West must deny them the opportunity of undermining Western societies from within, and on principled grounds, in positioning the West at the moral high grounds in the battle of ideas.
Those two dimensions should shape how we think about so-called ‘democratic resilience’. Resilience is a term that gets thrown around a lot so I think it’s worth defining clearly for NATO, what resilience means in the context of democracy. To my mind to speak of the resilience of a democracy is to speak first and foremost about ensuring the capacity for self-correction through frequent, peaceful transfer of power. Integral to that capacity for self-correction is what we in the Anglo-American and Madisonian tradition call the principle of the separation of powers—or for continental Europeans, the German concept of Rechtstaat and from Montesquieu the principal of political non-interference.
Secondly resilience must include due regard for anything that could undermine the political will of democracies to defend one another – specifically, anything that would degrade a member’s support for executing its commitment of Article Five.
The question in both cases is: what is NATO’s appropriate role? I think the key in a NATO context is to focus intently on the intersection of democracy and foreign influence or coercion. That is to say: we will succeed in proportion to how organically our efforts stem from the core function and raison d’etre of NATO. So for example our report recommends building a center of excellence at NATO to support allies in the quest for democratic resilience. This is an important evolution in my mind because it elevates threats to democracy to attention at the NATO level; NATO needs a way to defend democratic resilience the same way that it has a center of excellence for countering cyber or other types of threats.
But I think we also have to keep in mind the ultimate goal which is to strengthen the political cohesion of the Alliance. The quickest way to weaken the political cohesion of NATO would be to indulge in finger pointing that singles out allies for public rebuke. It would invite profound discord into the alliance and create an opening for Russia and China to eagerly exploit, which would be the opposite of the cohesion we need.
I also think we should abide by a mindset of ‘do no harm’ when it comes to the all-important function of deterrence. NATO is, in the final analysis, a military alliance to deter enemies and if necessary go to war for its members. This is its supreme function and all political changes have to be assessed by how they affect that core function. As our report argues, deterrence rests not only on military capabilities but in clearly-expressed and credible signals of political willingness to fight on behalf of members.
There has to be crystal clarity on this point; any lack of clarity on the political willingness to defend members weakens the deterrent function. This would preclude some of the more ambitious ideas I have heard – for example, the idea that NATO can strengthen democracy by making Article 5 cohesion contingent on members maintaining certain democratic benchmarks. That would be a departure from the 70 years practice and precedent of NATO playing the long game for strategic influence and continuing to engage with vulnerable allies so that they do not fall into rival spheres of influence. That danger today is very great. It would be a dangerous innovation because the minute you define the factors upon which Article 5 will be contingent, you are pinpointing where Russia should focus its efforts to undermine an ally and bring about a deterrence failure.
The key I think in all three principles is to look at democracy in the context of security – in the context of an environment where you now have alert external rivals as agitators for undermining us and opportunists for seizing the openings that come from those agitations. So the appropriate frame of reference for democratic resilience in a NATO context is to keep it at the intersection of democracy and security.
This interview is published simultaneously in both Small Wars Journal and Eastern Focus Quarterly.