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  • Writer's pictureBJIL


Updated: May 23, 2019

Article by Francesco Arreaga

Flickr // NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Democratic governments must strive for peace and the preservation of freedom but must also be ready to counter provocations by nation states with an expansionist foreign policy. The strategy of appeasement did not work with expansionist authoritarian regimes prior to WWII and it will not work today. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an imperative transnational military alliance that must adapt to the emerging threats of the 21st century.


NATO was “created in 1949 by the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations to provide collective security against the Soviet Union.” Currently, NATO has 29 members and membership is open to any European State that can further the principles of the Treaty and assist with the security of the North Atlantic Area. Collective organizations can often be ineffective and unsustainable due to the differing interests and ambitions of their members. NATO, however, is unlikely to suffer from this problem because respect for the values of democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and security, binds all of its members together. As the Preamble to the Treaty asserts, the members are “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Although the 29 nations that compose NATO are shaped by different histories and cultures, all of them are connected through a deep respect for fundamental human values that promote peace and prosperity.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provides NATO its power to deter non-member states from militarily confronting any member of NATO by establishing that an attack on one is an attack on all. This makes foreign adversaries think twice about attacking a member of NATO because if they decide to engage in a military confrontation, they are simultaneously making a choice to start a military conflict with 28 other nations. The collective self-defense mechanism outlined in Article 5 has only been invoked once, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 against the United States. NATO has also taken other collective defense measures, including responding to conflicts in Syria and in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.


Cyber-security threats in the 21st century pose a challenge for all nations and threaten the effectiveness of NATO’s power to deter cyber-attacks. During the 2018 Cyber Defense Pledge Conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg remarked how in 2014, “NATO leaders agreed that a cyber-attack could trigger Article 5” of the founding treaty. The Secretary General also described how in 2016, “NATO leaders designated cyberspace as a ‘domain’, alongside land, sea and air;” while also agreeing to a Cyber Defense Pledge. These important steps show that this transatlantic military organization is committed to addressing cyber-security threats. The issue, however, is that NATO undermines its resolve to counter cyber-security threats as well as its deterrent capabilities by not invoking Article 5 when an adversary launches cyber-attacks against members of NATO.

In recent years, Russia has attacked the United States, Great Britain, and France via cyberspace, in an attempt to infringe upon the political sovereignty of these nations. By political sovereignty, I am referring to a nation’s fundamental right to independence in its internal affairs. In November 2017, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom accused “Moscow of meddling in elections and carrying out cyber espionage.” In addition, a report by Democrats on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee describes how Russia may have influenced the result of the UK’s Brexit referendum in order to advance an anti-EU agenda. A brief by the Center for Strategies & International Studies outlines how Russia unsuccessfully attempted to interfere in the 2017 French presidential election. Finally, an indictment filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in 2018 details how several Russian military officers interfered in the United States’ 2016 presidential election.

The infringement upon the political sovereignty of at least three of NATO’s member states by a foreign adversary should have been sufficient to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. These cyberattacks were not just a usurpation of national sovereignty but were also an attack on the very principles that members of NATO agreed to protect: democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. By not taking action under Article 5 to collectively counter these cyberattacks, NATO has undermined its power to deter future cyberattacks from any adversary. As such, any state actors may be more willing to initiate cyberattacks against NATO member states because they will no longer have to worry that an attack on one is an attack on all 29 members.

During these turbulent times in world affairs, NATO must stand strong and be willing to act to counter the emerging threats in cyberspace, or risk losing its power to serve as a deterrent to attacks in the 21st century.



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