NATO’s challenges amidst the coronavirus crisis: In need for a strategic turn or readjustment?

This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.

Maria (Mary) Papageorgiou
PhD Candidate in International Relations, University of Minho, Portugal
Integrated Member of the Research Centre for Political Science (CICP)

Synopsis: This blog post identifies five challenges facing NATO and explores their future implications. Leadership, funding, disinformation campaigns, biosecurity threats and the relationship between the allies will determine the alliance’s direction in the emerging geostrategic environment.

Keywords: NATO, COVID-19, disinformation, defense, security, alliances

The coronavirus outbreak affected every facet of everyday life, causing significant changes in the world economy, healthcare, and social activities. NATO has identified for years now the threat of potential health risks, and their impacts on planning and operations. However, health risks fall under the broader context of “environmental hazards” in NATO’s Strategic Concept. Even though crisis management is one of NATO’s core tasks and the organization has established various emergency response mechanisms such as the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) to assist its members UN retains the primary role in coordinating international disaster relief.

The coronavirus crisis showed that the alliance is not immune to the disease in its political, economic and operational functions. Human security has arisen as the main concern during the pandemic not only for civilians but also for military personnel that have seen an increasing number of infections. Under new security considerations, states have drafted in their national forces to assist local authorities to tackle the crisis, thus limiting their deployment on overseas duties. On top of that, Norway called off the “Cold Defender” exercise due to coronavirus concerns while another major exercise “European Defender” was modified in size and scope. In the meantime, the US European Command has announced that other long-planned exercises will be postponed or cancelled. Moreover, UK, Germany and Netherlands have withdrawn part of their forces from NATO’s training mission in Iraq which has been halted, and the Pentagon ordered all US forces abroad to stay put for 60 days as of March 26. All in all, the nature, capacity and planning of NATO military operations is also contingent on states’ weighing their national priorities on how to use their military forces in the near future.

The challenges facing the Euro-Atlantic alliance today are centered primarily on five areas: US leadership, funding, security risks from the use of bioweapons by terrorists, the disinformation campaigns of China and Russia, and the growing frictions among NATO allies that could pose wider security implications.

US leadership and organizational coordination

The unilateral approach adopted by the US leadership in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is one of NATO’s concurrent challenges. The American president announced on April 14, 2020, that the World Health Organization (WHO) was “severely mismanaging and covering up” the coronavirus crisis, deciding to halt the American funding to the organization; a decision denounced by the European allies. NATO has been working closely with the WHO in countering the pandemic and safeguarding the health of its personnel. However, the apparent US decline as a leading global power and some of its unpredictable, erratic decisions threaten coordinated action for fighting the pandemic, and they could affect unity and cohesion of the alliance during and after this crisis.


Funding has long been a point of contention among NATO members, since not all states meet the 2% target from the national GDP for the alliance’s defense spending. The Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg on March 19, 2020, stressed the issue: “I expect Allies to stay committed to investing more in our security”. However, the impact of the coronavirus on the economic prosperity of states will pose further challenges on government spending and resource allocation since economic growth is expected to decrease for most countries. Therefore, reaching the 2% target might be more difficult in the years to follow, thus reigniting the debate about burden-sharing and testing the willingness of the United States to keep its forces in Europe. Hence, the need for reintroducing smart defense mechanisms (introduced in 2012 and accounting for pooling and sharing capabilities, setting priorities, and improved coordination) and a collective approach to security would become more prominent than ever.

Russia and China’s disinformation campaign

China and Russia’s disinformation campaigns amidst the coronavirus crisis have been high on NATO’s agenda of emerging challenges. The US, EU and a number of other countries have accused China and Russia of  spreading fake news and false claims of non-solidarity within the EU and the abandonment of European allies by the USA. This is seen as an attempt to create mistrust and discord in international norms and institutions. By offering medical aid and with the use of social media, the two countries have used the pandemic to promote their “health diplomacy” seeking to reinforce their geopolitical ambitions. European countries are important to China for its “Belt and Road” economic and political project and as a market for Huawei’s 5G network. At the same time, Russia, after its international isolation due to the annexation of Crimea, seeks to position itself as a “responsible power” exposing the weakness and double standards of democratic regimes. Stoltenberg has openly accused China and Russia of spreading disinformation. Thus, NATO needs to invest further in its research task groups and enhance its counterstrategies to combat disinformation effectively.

Biosecurity threats

The coronavirus pandemic raised questions on the preparedness of states to deal with biological threats and the prevention measures in place to avert terrorist groups from acquiring or developing bioweapons. Biosecurity threats amidst the pandemic can take different forms, such as extremist groups using infected individuals for the purposeful exposure and infection of others. Given also the resurgence of ISIS and its several claimed ambushes in April, the prospect of capitalizing on bioweapons is a source of major concern for peace and security. After 9/11, NATO had already started examining the threat of biological attacks, establishing in 2003 a CBRN Defense Task Force trained to advert bio-terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, the operations and capability requirements of the task force require further reinforcement as necessary to continue security assurances.

Relationship among allies

Tense relationships between allies have further challenged intra-alliance cohesion. The ongoing friction between Greece and Turkey about the refugee crisis creates in the coronavirus context  a significantly aggravated situation on the alliance’s southern borders. Greece’s Minister of Foreign Affairs has sought the support of NATO to head off irregular migration flows and there have been concerns expressed by Greece on infected refugees seeking to cross from Turkey. A scenario of infected refugees crossing from the Middle East and North Africa could severely impact not only on the management of refugee flows and combatting organized crime but on fueling far-right extremism and populist rhetoric from certain member states, thus endangering the values and norms of the alliance.


NATO’s new challenges call for deeper engagement between allies, coordination with a wider array of other organizations, rethinking of its dependence of imports for essential products (equipment and medicines) from countries outside the alliance, and reevaluating some of its partnerships with other countries, including Russia. The members of the alliance have shown recently their willingness to face this challenge collectively through the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) with NATO having completed more than 100 mission airlifts to deliver medical supplies from one ally to another. Still, the post-coronavirus era will require a new strategic turn of a broader and deepened view of security with emphasis on environment and health and effective crisis-management mechanisms to address these non-traditional threats.

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