Why NATO needs a new Strategic Concept

“Where the Washington Treaty leaves open the balance between global and regional tasks, the Strategic Concept must specifically interpret geopolitical circumstances. What are the threats and what are the military implications? These are the two basic and essential questions the Strategic Concept must answer”

Jens Ringsmose and Sten Rynning

By no later than 2030 NATO must be demonstrably able to fight and thus deter a high-end world war AND support front-line Allies to Europe’s south dealing with the consequences of potentially catastrophic collapse across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

In spite of significant but modest progress on integrated air and missile defence and enhancements to the Alliance’s conventional deterrent at last week’s NATO defence ministerial the Alliance is at a tipping point between political credibility and military incapability. The cause of the crisis, for that is what it is fast becoming, is twofold: increasing pressure on US forces the world over and a refusal of Europeans to take on the bulk of the burden for their own defence.  A Strategic Concept would thus reset the what, the why, the where, the when and the how of Alliance action at a critical juncture.  The core message of the next Strategic Concept would also need to be clear: NATO is essentially a European organisation for Europeans supported by Americans and Canadians, not an American organisation for Europeans occasionally supported by Europeans. The reason why there is no new Strategic Concept is because there is no consensus in the Alliance over a new Strategic Concept. That is both telling and dangerous for it reveals a lack of cohesion that is the single biggest threat to the Alliance and why NATO so desperately needs a new Strategic Concept.

In making such a call I am in no way dismissing the inherent and implicit complexity in drafting such a Concept. The Alliance is not simply a vehicle for amassing sufficient military power to keep those who it does not want ‘in’, ‘out’; it is also a vehicle for keeping those who are ‘in’ ‘in’, and to ensure those ‘in’ do not fight others who are also ‘in’. As such NATO’s purpose is fourfold: the defence, deterrence, security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.  Its method is dual track: to generate sufficient capability, capacity and cohesion to deliver all four, whilst constantly seeking to engage adversaries and partners in dialogue. In the wake of the Cold War the centre of Alliance gravity shifted towards dialogue, now it must shift back towards military defence. The world is changing rapidly and adversely and the very lack of a new Strategic Concept is reinforcing the perception of adversaries and partners that the Allies are simply too divided, too weak and too often subverted by the idea that values alone can substitute for power.

A very act of a Strategic Concept would be an act of deterrence. First, it would re-establish a new 'contract' between Allied leaders and those in NATO charged with fulfilling the mission set them. Second, it would help establish the new political and military centre of gravity the Alliance desperately needs to credibly and simultaneously support strategic directions east, south and north. Third, it would reinforce deterrence by also demonstrating that the Alliance collectively understands the scope, pace and strategic direction of change, and the threat it is generating. Fourth, it would communicate resolve and clarity of purpose (unity of mission) to NATO citizens. Fifth, and perhaps most pressing of all, it would reassure the Americans that Europeans are serious about their own defence, understand the burdens it places on an increasingly over-stretched US, and are now willing to match strategic autonomy with strategic responsibility. Above all, a new Strategic Concept would demonstrate a shared level of shared strategic ambition vital to re-establishing a balance of relative power between the security environment and thus the roles and tasks of the Alliance to 2030.

Ostriches, heads and sand?

Why is a Strategic Concept so difficult for the Alliance? Too many of the West’s political leaders seem curiously unable to grip the scale of emerging threat and its implications for the Euro-Atlantic area. Worse, the high political tendency in many Allied countries is to keep defence off the political agenda. The rise of military China, the dangerous mix of economic instability and over-securitisation in Russia, the advance of a new era of military technologies, the erosion of the rules-based system, the toxic combination of demographic change, fundamentalism and fragile states across MENA, and a US under increasing pressure domestically from debt and external commitments suggest NATO needs not so much to adapt as reset. Then there is COVID-19. The 2019 NAT Military Strategy has been critically undermined by the crisis, or at least it will be. Therefore, the Alliance desperately needs to grip and demonstrably so the impact of COVID-19 on the ends, ways and means of Alliance defence, deterrence and outreach.

NATO faces existential choices.  The Alliance (or rather its nations) can continue to recognise only as much threat as it can politically afford and avoid all the fundamental challenges implicit in preparing a new Strategic Concept, or it can face them. The Alliance can continue to maintain the illusion of cohesion, organising nice leader photo-ops and well-drafted eloquent communiques, or it can confront all challenges square on, including cohesion-corrupting Chinese debt. The Alliance can continue to choose the short-term and the politically easy but such a course of inaction will quickly confirm that NATO is simply too politically fragile to meet both high-end and wide-angle strategic threats, its essential purpose.

Such contention-avoidance will see Europe locked into a virtual Ten Year Rule colluding in its own future shock. If that is the case then the future defence of Europe will soon become little more than a Potemkian village. Some would like to build such a ‘village’ around a coalition of worthy German-led continental European powers (the Eurosphere), whilst the Americans and British (the Anglosphere) quietly sail away from the Continent in their nuclear-powered vessels taking their German-offending nuclear weapons with them. That would be a profound mistake because it is the North American and European pillars together that is the real bedrock of credible Alliance defence and deterrence. Too harsh?  Last year Britain withdrew all but a tiny portion of its Army from the Continent, whilst the Americans are now threatening to withdraw some 28% of its already small force. The very process of embarking on a new Strategic Concept would help arrest this strategic drift into distant and barely engaged pillars. 

The new NATO and a shadow Strategic Concept

Power is relative. A transformed NATO is thus needed, not some ‘adapted’ paper tiger. Today's NATO is still far too analogue, and insufficiently digital. The new NATO would be constructed around a hybrid, cyber, hyper defence European pillar (with the Brits included). The hard core of the Alliance would be a twenty-first century multi-domain European Future Force able to respond to and deter high-end threats to the east and north of the Alliance, AND support front-line to the south in multiple and simultaneous emergences. The new NATO would be sufficiently Europe capable to enable the Americans to be strong wherever and when they are needed, and able to move fast anywhere in and around Europe. The act of this ‘Strategic Concept’ would help establish the necessary vision and ambition needed for such an Alliance to be realised. It would also finally set NATO on the road to resolving the politically toxic issue of transatlantic burden-sharing and give Europeans far more 'sovereign' control over their own defence within the framework of a re-vitalised transatlantic strategic relationship/partnership.

Next steps? In 2009, I chaired part of a Washington meeting about the then 2010 NATO Strategic Concept. At that meeting I made an historic offer to the then NATO Secretary-General and assembled leaders: Europeans would improve their military capabilities, if the Pentagon improved its coffee. Now is the time to be similarly ambitious, although I hold out little hope for Pentagon coffee. Sometimes the world of ideas must offer solutions and courses of action to the world of policy. This is one such moment. With each passing day the 2010 Strategic Concept looks ever more like a work of the ancients, eloquent and almost quaint in the world it describes, and NATO's role therein. Therefore, I call for the drafting of a shadow Strategic Concept produced by a group of the most experienced strategists and practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic and which capitalises on the findings of the NATO Reflection Group. We have work to do! Let’s get on with it!

NATO is a warfighting, security-enhancing defensive alliance. It is NOT a military EU! It is time to remember that. NATO needs a new Strategic Concept and fast!

Julian Lindley-French