international analysis and commentary

The new NATO Strategic Concept: just one step in the right direction


The November 2010 Lisbon Summit produced a number of important official documents. Among them are NATO declarations on Afghanistan and on cooperation with Russia, which have received most of the media coverage, and the new Strategic Concept (SC), which is most likely to have the greatest impact on NATO in the long term.

The previous Strategic Concept dates back to 1999, and the need to update the document, which provides political and strategic guidelines to NATO activities, was widely recognized. The elaboration of the SC is mostly about building consensus among allies on existing threats and related approaches, codification of recently developed practices, and public diplomacy towards third countries and domestic public opinion. Although it is not legally binding nor does it contain detailed budget provisions, the Strategic Concept is fundamental for NATO as it builds the common, agreed, political basis for the allies’ decisions and actions in the following years. This kind of document is inherently evolutionary rather than revolutionary; therefore there are obvious similarities with previous Strategic Concepts. In this context, it is worthy to look at some renewed elements of the 2010 SC as well as some reaffirmed old ones.

The first novelty of the 2010 Strategic Concept (SC) is that it is much shorter than the 1999 and 1991 versions. In fact, it has been decided to limit the scope of this SC only to fundamental and lasting guidelines, leaving all the implementing provisions to the Lisbon Summit declaration. The underpinning idea is that each of the next NATO summits will deliver a declaration to update the SC implementation, while the Strategic Concept itself will remain valid and untouched as long as possible. Another likely reason for this decision is the need to provide a clear headline on NATO’s strategy, not only to the relevant stakeholders, but also to the broader public opinion.

Regarding the SC content, it has to be read together with the Lisbon Summit declaration in order to understand if and how it concretely changes NATO’s overall posture. In that context, the most significant innovation is the renewal of NATO’s core tasks.

The alliance raison d’etre remains the collective defense of member states, in accordance to Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty. The novelty is that NATO will also defend and deter “against emerging security challenges where they threaten the security of individual allies or the alliance as a whole”. This formulation intentionally leaves NATO leaders with room to maneuver, allowing them to include, on a case-by-case basis, new security threats under the Article 5 umbrella. For example, the capability to defend the allies’ territories against ballistic missile attacks is already defined in the SC as a “core element of our collective defense”. At the same time, the Lisbon declaration defines how NATO will proceed in developing a missile defense system in the coming months and years, and explicitly names Iran and North Korea as sources of concern. Cyber attacks do represent another emerging security challenge included in the SC priorities. Although it is not explicitly stated that they represent an Article 5 attack, it is recognized that core NATO defense tasks do include the development of capabilities intended to defend member states and alliance structures against cyber attacks carried out by terrorists as well as foreign militaries. The declaration elaborates more on the capabilities necessary to assess, prevent, defend and recover in the case of a cyber attack.

The second NATO core task listed in the Strategic Concept is crisis management. This task is not present in the Washington Treaty, as it was introduced in the 1999 SC in the aftermath of NATO’s first out-of-area military intervention in the Balkans. Despite the dramatic experience in Afghanistan, where all Allies want to see a transition to Afghan leadership on security as soon as possible,  this core task is not only retained but also expanded. In fact, according to the new SC, crisis management through political and military means includes not only crisis management and prevention, but stabilization of post conflict situations and support reconstruction. The declaration translates this guideline into the decision to establish modest civilian capabilities within NATO, in order to both cooperate with other organizations better equipped in this field – such as the EU – and to employ the alliance’s own civilian crisis capabilities when and where other actors cannot act. In other words, NATO goes beyond the formal recognition of the need for a “comprehensive approach”, and building on the lessons learned from Afghanistan – including the difficulties in cooperating with civilian counterparts – does initiate the development of its own minimum civilian capabilities to be used in counter-insurgency as well as stabilization operations.

The third core task is cooperative security. In the new SC wording, NATO “will engage actively to enhance international security” by partnership with relevant countries and international organizations, through an “open door” policy regarding further enlargement and through efforts on arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament. Partnership was included in the 1999 SC as a core task, and in the following decade NATO developed a range of tailored partnership programs. The new SC lists strategic partnership with the UN, the EU, Russia and other countries in Europe’s neighborhood and beyond, calling for its further development in the future.

Alongside the renewed elements in the Strategic Concept, are old ones which are worthy to recall. First, the SC clearly and explicitly states that the deterrence mix will continue to include conventional and nuclear forces: “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance”. This assumption is coherent with the American nuclear posture as well as with the recent British Strategic Review. Considering that current nuclear powers outside NATO have no intention of abandoning their nuclear deterrent, and nuclear proliferation is a source of concern in Iran and North Korea, the vision of a world without nuclear weapons remains as utopian as ever. Regarding the deterrence mix, it should also be noted that the SC states that “the conventional threat cannot be ignored”, and that the necessary contingency planning and training exercises will be carry out in order to provide “visible assurance” for all allies. This old commitment has been mostly advocated by new NATO members close to Russian borders who are concerned about their traditional, territorial defense.

The second traditional element reaffirmed in the SC is the alliance’s “open door” policy. NATO’s history has been marked by progressive enlargement which has succeeded in making Europe whole, free and at peace, at least by avoiding new intra-European wars. The SC briefly includes this policy in the NATO core tasks, thus confirming and enhancing its position in the allies’ overall strategy, but leaving wide space for concrete decisions in the future. The Lisbon declaration takes stock of the current security environment, particularly with regards to Georgia and Ukraine, and realistically emphasizes forms of feasible partnership with both countries to be developed over the coming months. The declaration also calls on Russia to reverse its position regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and reaffirms the 2008 NATO commitment to Georgia’s future membership. More progress towards membership is envisaged with respect to Western Balkan countries.

Alongside those renewed and old elements, there is also a sort of “hidden” one in the SC. In the very last page there is a short sentence calling for NATO to “engage in a process of continual reform, to streamline structures, improve working methods and maximize efficiency”. Behind this vague formula, important negotiations are taking place on the reorganization of the NATO headquarters, commands, agencies, committees and structures, also to cope with cuts in the allies’ defense budget as well as the increasing costs of NATO operations. The Lisbon declaration states that the alliance will reduce its standing personnel in the headquarters by 35%, and NATO agencies will be reduced from 14 to 3. Further decisions have to be taken about cuts and the reorganization of commands, which means hard negotiations will take place on which countries will retain the few important assets left by the streamlining of NATO structures. This “hidden” element is crucial because it will affect the future capacity to deal with the ambitious core tasks established by the SC despite the limited resources available.

Overall, the 2010 Strategic Concept is quite innovative, even if it does not represent a revolutionary change in NATO history. It also seems to strike a reasonable balance among the different threat perceptions and the strategic goals of NATO member states. It is just one step, though in the right direction.