international analysis and commentary

Toward the new NATO Strategic Concept: a pragmatic platform


On May 17 the North Atlantic Council received the report “NATO 2020: assured security, dynamic engagement”. The document was  prepared by the appointed Group of Experts in order to provide a basis for Secretary General Rasmussen’s own drafting of the new NATO Strategic Concept, which will be presented at the Lisbon Summit in November. The procedure followed for the creation of the 21st century NATO Strategic Concept is thus different from those used for previous versions of the main policy document of the Alliance. Firstly, the level of transparency and publicity given to the consultations of the group has been high. Secondly, the Secretary General has taken the lead in the process, rather than negotiating through committees, in order to strengthen consensus and meet time constraints.

The report provides a carefully worded synthesis of the inputs collected during a series of seminars and consultations, both within and outside the Alliance, and identifies issues that will be reflected in the final policy document. Moreover, its contribution to grand strategic thinking appears to be timely, particularly in a moment of critical operational engagements, new partnerships and recent membership expansion. Overall, the report results in achieving a fine balance between the members’ different perceptions of the security environment and policy preferences – which stem from the respective geopolitical and economic conditions as well as defense capabilities.

Firstly, the security environment depicted by the report deserves close consideration as it is underpinned by a catalogue of security threats, challenges and risks that reflect many of the current concerns of policy-makers: from traditional military threats, to functional security issues, from nuclear proliferation and terrorism, to cyber defense and energy security. By outlining these challenges, the report acknowledges the widening of the security agenda, as well as the role of non-state actors and unconventional warfare. Such security horizon in turn underpins the imperative for the adaptation of NATO’s core tasks and role to respond effectively to the new threat dynamics, that simultaneously blur the very notion of “attack” and require comprehensive responses beyond force.

Secondly, planning and operational guidelines for out-of-area missions are consequently identified as a further domain of reform for the Alliance.

Thirdly, the question of matching capabilities to commitments is stressed particularly in terms of expeditionary capacity, resilience and sustainability.

Fourthly, in an increasingly global and interdependent security environment, the role of regional players is strongly recognized. Partnerships, comprehensive approach and synergies with other multilateral organizations, along with the NATO’s “open door” policy, constitute an important corollary of the policy options to meet future challenges.

Finally, the issues of a more positive dialogue with Russia in the framework of Euro-Atlantic security – including the pursuit of arms control, both conventional and nuclear – and of the realization of ballistic missile defense are underlined as a priority within the wider scope of NATO’s engagement. 
As far as the policy recommendations are concerned, despite a fairly remote conventional threat against the political independence and territorial integrity of NATO members, the document confirms the unwavering provision of an unmatched deterrence capability as the enduring priority for the Alliance. Moreover, such collective defense function has to adapt to threats that are mobile, transnational and asymmetric in nature, including nuclear, terrorist and cyber attacks, otherwise it would face out-of-area dynamics that could reverberate on the Alliance’s societies. The report enumerates climate change, environmental degradation, demographic trends, state failure and mass violations of human rights in this category.

Therefore, at the policy level, NATO’s core task results in being re-shaped by threats transcending both territoriality and a clear-cut notion of an armed attack: a solution is thus found in the effective sequencing of policies linked to Article IV’s consultations and Article V’s enactment of allied solidarity.

As the Allies face such a plurality of geographically dispersed security threats of unconventional nature, the global role of NATO implies the strengthening of its operational engagements and of its multivectorial partnerships.

This latter point leads to the consideration of an underlying problematic aspect of the report: the credibility of the balance between the reassurance of NATO’s traditional role and the vision for  innovative functions. In fact, while stating the regional nature of the Alliance, the report characterizes NATO along the lines of an exclusive collective security organization facing global and unconventional challenges. Therefore, the functional and geographical scope of NATO’s role seems to strive to be consistent with the notion of a regional organization and a leading security provider in the Euro-Atlantic theater. Such a compromise may be quite effective for Allies, pending an effective burden sharing and the endurance of shared values and objectives. However, the risk for such a strategic outlook to be perceived as hegemonic in nature by other major players, remains a distinct possibility and would contribute to shaping a less benign security environment. The recent Russian military doctrine, in fact, points precisely in this direction.

Other somehow problematic aspects of NATO’s global role are the network of partnerships and the “open door” policy, which are identified as clear areas of interest for the Alliance’s effectiveness and future. However, the extension of this web increasingly implies the adoption of a principle of diversification, given the specific political nature of partners, that might ultimately weaken the coherence of the values projected by NATO with detrimental effects on its legitimacy.

Finally, the report left outstanding the issue of NATO’s relations with European defense, not much from a supply-side viewpoint of capabilities, but from the demand side of the possible divergence in the objectives for which an autonomous EU force might be used. However, it is fair to recall that the level of ambition for an independent EU role in international security affairs is modest. The character of EU-NATO relations sketched in the report seems therefore to be in line with current trends and is more likely to change as a result of a bold evolution of European integration, than as a consequence of NATO’s policy.

Ultimately, the report strives nevertheless to provide a coherent vision for NATO’s enhanced collective defense and deterrence tasks, as well as for an ambitious forward protection function against a plurality of threats across a flexible geographical scope.

In conclusion, the document seems to successfully achieve its conceptual balance, defining NATO’s evolutionary role as diverse and dynamic: from a direct engagement in defense and security affairs, to various degrees of operational action or support, to wide political involvement. The second drafting phase is now ready to be started in order to allow nations to consider the final version of the Strategic Concept at the November summit. The next steps in the process will surely attract the increasing interest of key players: Allies, partners and major powers alike. 

The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect official policy.