“Boost our ability to counter hybrid threats, including by bolstering resilience, working together on analysis, prevention, and early detection, through timely information sharing and, to the extent possible, intelligence sharing between staffs; and cooperating on strategic communication and response. The development of coordinated procedures through our respective playbooks will substantially contribute to implementing our efforts”.
EU-NATO Joint Declaration, 8 July, 2016
Alphen, Netherlands. 18 November. On Wednesday, in my capacity as Vice-President of the Atlantic Treaty Association (ATA), I had the honour of chairing a meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels on NATO-EU co-operation on hybrid warfare. To be honest, as someone who knows a bit about hybrid warfare, my definition of it – the use of all state and many extra state means to exploit the seams and vulnerabilities of an opponent via disruption, destabilisation and disinformation – was also a pretty good description of NATO-EU relations up until recently. Anything changed?
In fact, the ATA pulled off something of a coup in having such a meeting take place in the august if somewhat labyrinthine bafflement that is the European Parliament. The fact that a NATO Assistant Secretary-General spoke at the meeting was also a sign that relations between the Alliance and the Union are improving.
Here’s the ‘but’. Many people think hybrid warfare is cyber warfare. And yes, in an age of ‘digitisation’, as outgoing President Obama yesterday called it in Berlin, cyber is a very important line of hybrid warfare operations. However, cyber warfare is only a part of hybrid warfare. The problem with the meeting was that I got the distinct impression that apart from me very few of the speakers knew what hybrid warfare actually is, and just how dangerous it can be if practised by an opponent that does know what it is – Russia. Consequently, what happened is what happens at all such meetings when those present do not really know what they are talking about. The meeting rapidly elevated into the upper atmosphere of strategic semantics, whilst at one and the same time retreating into the weeds of technical cybernetics.
One reason much of the meeting focused on what I rather disparagingly call ‘cybrid jawfare’ is precisely because ‘we’, be it the Western ‘we’, the NATO ‘we’, the European ‘we’, or the EU ‘we’, (and therein lies a very big problem) simply lack a counter-hybrid strategy worthy of the name. Yes, we have the EU-NATO Joint Declaration and it is a start, but there have been so many starts in EU-NATO relations. Speak in the margins of any such meeting and as ever the gap between rhetoric and reality is precisely one of those seams adversaries can exploit.
There was the usual talk about the need for accelerated decision-making, better sharing of information and intelligence, the enhancing of societal resiliency, and the reinforcing of national efforts. However, when I pushed it was clear to me that far from preparing both the Alliance and the Union for a new form of warfare, much of it is still simply jawfare. Why? Because the single most effective defence against hybrid warfare is still missing – political solidarity.
This is dangerous. The time for talking about doing needs to be rapidly replaced by simply doing. Yesterday, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linus Linkevicius said he was very worried that Russia would ‘test’ NATO before the Trump administration is sworn in on January 20th next. So am I. That ‘test’ could well come in the form of hybrid warfare and an attempt to destabilise the Baltic States via an aggressive strategic communications campaign, cyber-interference, and the use of military power to intimidate the three countries. This week the Estonian government fell giving Moscow a gold-plated opportunity to interfere in the coming elections.
The threat is profound. If ‘we’ cannot protect the home base, ‘we’ will be unable to project power. Hybrid warfare is not half warfare, or pretend warfare, it is part of full-on warfare. Quite simply, we Europeans are still unable to protect our frighteningly open societies from destabilising political and social penetration. As such we are also unable to safeguard the political and societal resilience which effective policy and strategy requires. Therefore, we are unlikely to be able to project the influence, power and effect vital to preserving a credible security and defence, let alone a credible defence and deterrence posture.
The good news was that such a meeting took place at all in the European Parliament. It simply would not have been possible even five years ago. For that reason I very much applaud the initiative and it was an honour to chair it. However, the dictates of institutionalism come well before the rigours of policy and the disciplines of action. That can only happen because those in power see inter-institutional games as more important than forging a real partnership. In other words, complacency still reigns precisely because power does not as yet take the threat seriously enough.
There can be no security in contemporary Europe without the creation of a new ‘iron triangle’ – the US, NATO and the EU. Right now, ‘reality’ looks more like a meringue triangle – the appearance of a hard crust on the outside, very soft in the middle. Until the hybrid threat is seen as the strategic threat it is NATO and the EU will continue to act like two wary bull elephants dancing around each other on the head of a shrinking pin. Real progress will only be seen when effective and real strategy is crafted and the agility and adaptability central to the conduct of effective hybrid warfare is realised.
In May 1935, Winston Churchill wrote: “There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the Sibylline Books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong, these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history”.
EU-NATO: cybrid jawfare?