Political science – and science – help guide NATO

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The polarizing debate over the role of climate change in melting polar ice is a dynamic of US domestic policy, not its defense partnerships.

“There is a very respectable body of scientific evidence for climate change and its link to human activity,” said Bryan Wells, chief scientist of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “The Arctic is undergoing climate change at a faster rate and on a larger scale than the global average.”

Speaking from NATO headquarters in Brussels ahead of a virtual global Minnesota event on Thursday, Wells said in an interview that climate change “is directly affecting our own military and operations, and second, the types of areas where l NATO may be called upon to provide assistance in humanitarian areas in the future.

NATO, said Wells, “can anticipate greater humanitarian impacts from the increase in extreme weather events that we are already seeing, which we can predict will increase in frequency and magnitude.

“We can already see a migration of peoples caused by water shortages and other climatic incidents; all of this affects security. And if it affects security, it matters to NATO.”

And so what matters to NATO is that global warming can trigger hot wars in parts of the developing world or heat up the cold war between Russia and the United States in places like the Arctic, the topic of the dialogue on major decisions this month. As a result, NATO relies on real science, not unreal rhetoric, to assess how climate change affects threat assessment and military readiness.

The risk of conflict in the Arctic, for example, increases with temperatures, potentially affecting NATO countries that are part of the eight-country Arctic Council, which bills itself as “the main intergovernmental advocacy forum. cooperation in the Arctic ”. On Thursday, the rotating council chairmanship went to Russia, which, according to an Associated Press report, “has sought to assert its influence over large areas of the Arctic in competition with the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway to reduce polar ice from warming The planet offers new opportunities for resources and sea routes. China has also shown growing interest in the region, which is believed to contain up to a quarter of Earth’s undiscovered oil and gas.

This concerns the other nations of the Council, as well as the indigenous citizens of the Arctic.

“We are concerned about some of the recent military activity in the Arctic,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday when he arrived for foreign minister-level discussions on the Arctic. “This increases the dangers of accidents and miscalculations and undermines the common goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region. We must therefore be vigilant about this.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently in response to such calls for vigilance, was vicious in his comments on Thursday. “Everyone wants to bite us or bite us something, but those who would like to do so must know that we will break their teeth so that they cannot bite,” Putin said.

Whether this is a toothless threat or a more serious sign of arctic conflict is unclear. But Wells said that “many countries will see their defensive security affected by changes in the Arctic; we see the opening of new sea routes, including those of the allies – it will be a contested environment.

“My role here is to provide the best possible science to inform NATO and its allies of the changes that are taking place, of their impact on NATO military operations so that politically NATO and the Allies are in a good position to bear their political judgments. “

These political judgments on security issues are becoming more and more complex, as is the technology.

Citing advancements in “fast jets, the next generation of submarines, precision guided munitions,” Wells said the 6,000 scientists affiliated with the alliance are currently working on weapons systems and others. “emerging and disruptive technologies” like artificial intelligence which are also crucial. .

And sometimes the concerns include artificial information – or disinformation – deployed asymmetrically against military and civilian targets, which makes the application of the social sciences as important to NATO as the physical sciences.

“The impact of disinformation on our public is something we’ve been well aware of in the defense and security arena for quite some time,” Wells said. “We’ve done a lot of work specifically on COVID-19 disinformation to help allies, to help NATO itself, refute the kinds of claims that would come up. But that’s only part of what we do. could call it cognitive warfare, making sure that we can defend ourselves against the types of information that will be received by our audiences, that may be received by members of the armed forces. To do this, we need a good understanding of the latest social media, a good understanding of the use of different sectors of public opinion on different types of social media, as well as a good understanding of the types of techniques used. “

Speaking perhaps with a typical British understatement, Wells, a former British defense official, said: “When we look at new technologies, the pace of change is difficult, but also the breadth of new sciences that are now available ”.

Including Zoom, that’s how the interview went. When asked if a similar conversation had taken place in person when NATO was created, or in recent years, Wells said:, land and sea. And over the past 10 years, NATO has added cyber and space to these areas. The scope of science has also changed.

“I would add two more things that when we were talking about a beer 70 years ago, we could take it for granted that this is no longer the case: we maintain cutting edge science, but we have to work and make an effort. extra to make sure we’re doing it. The top 18 universities in the world are on NATO allied soil, so they’re at the forefront on that, but we can’t smooth the pace. “

The pace of change, from climate models to a climate of disinformation, weapon development and social science trends, will continue to be rapid.

But Wells reassuredly concluded what would not change.

“The Secretary General made it clear when he launched his NATO 2030 initiative that when it comes to new technologies, he wants to keep the technological lead, but in line with the standards and values ​​of the alliance,” said Wells. “We need to be aware that there is unease in some of the potential trends that science can bring us. But NATO is clearly under political leadership. And that political leadership is clear that the use of new technologies will reflect the standards. and the values ​​of its societies. “

John Rash is a Star Tribune columnist and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 am Fridays on WCCO Radio at 8:30 am On Twitter: @rashreport. Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the Big Decisions Dialogue on Foreign Policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.

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