NATO Engages: A Bird’s Eye View

– by Clodagh Quain

On 3 December, the NATO Engages Consortium took place in central London ahead of a gathering of Heads of State and Government to mark NATO’s 70th anniversary. Clodagh Quain attended the events and brings us this behind the scenes look. 


The six members of global WIIS Chapters who were chosen to attend the NATO Engages Summit.


On 3 December, the NATO Engages Consortium took place in central London ahead of a gathering of Heads of State and Government to mark NATO’s 70th anniversary. I attended the town hall-style event for a discussion on the future role for NATO in the digital age with five other female experts in security and defence from the US and across Europe. Our programme was followed by two days of focused briefings, the first of its kind, organised by WIIS Brussels, WIIS-DC, WIIS France and WIIS UK. 

Discussions on innovation at NATO Engages this year were initially eclipsed by recent remarks made by French President Macron in his Economist interview, which raised doubts about both Allies’ strategic decision-making and mutual defence in the Alliance. At the live event in Central Hall Westminster, Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, offered reassurance that this political dimension had become a strengthening exercise for the organisation. In an earlier effort to assuage any related concerns, states also agreed on a NATO expert group proposed by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to discuss internal issues. 

Internal dynamics aside, participants debated how NATO might offer greater security, beyond the traditional approach to increased defence expenditure. CEO of Improbable Worlds, Herman Narula, outlined the value of software simulations in a military context, signalling an untapped potential in the gaming industry. Narula’s spotlight presentation promoted virtual worlds as a useful framework for decision-making and in providing further online training as a cost-saving measure. The emerging tech panel that followed examined the enabling factors of artificial intelligence and the scope for collaboration with the private sector, acknowledging current barriers. 

In an effort to address the more unconventional threats, the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, outlined the impact of climate security on the Alliance, presenting a sobering overview of the thawing Arctic ice cap and the arising civilian search and rescue needs. Solberg also warned of the economic disruption for shipping routes and trade. Her Dutch and Canadian counterparts, Mark Rutte and Justin Trudeau, led a values-based conversation on NATO and called for greater public buy-in to leaders’ decision making. 

The consortium concluded with a review of future threats and a spotlight address on space, now recognised as an operational domain for NATO. Questions arose on coordinating and integrating space capabilities as the challenge of attribution. The final panel on cyber defence, offence and hybrid warfare emphasised the future unknowns. Despite the formal cyberspace as a domain of operations by NATO and the agreed Vision and Strategy on Cyberspace, there still remain many ‘grey spaces’. How could Article 5 be used to tackle hybrid threats? While the Cyberspace Operations Centre (CyOC) will become operational in 2023, how might NATO effectively respond in the cyber domain?

Later that week, we were hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) for interactive sessions. Representatives from the UK House of Commons briefed our group on crafting long-term strategies amidst changing technologies, followed by a presentation on the UK’s priorities in NATO by a Senior Policy Planner in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We later reviewed the UK’s cybersecurity strategy with a senior official of the National Cyber Security Centre which launched late 2016 as a bridge between industry and government. Additional briefings were offered by the UK Ministry of Defence and Improbable on the scope for innovation and application of technology in the security field. 

Our group’s podcast and co-authored articles will next be published early 2020 with a London-based think tank to provide you with further analysis of the week and outcome of our own consultations. The generous support and collective effort of WIIS members demonstrated the value of the Women in International Security network in educating and mentoring individuals in this field and the potential for similar programmes in future. 


Clodagh Quain is a policy researcher for the Institute of International and European Affairs. Before moving to Ireland in 2018, she was the Attachée at the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the OSCE in Vienna and instrumental in relaunching the WIIS Austria Chapter. 

Clodagh was among the six members of global WIIS Chapters who were chosen to attend the NATO Engages Summit in London in early December 2019. 

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