NATO's new strategic concept must reflect today's strategic reality
By Dan Fata
More than a decade has passed since NATO last updated its Strategic Concept, an official document intended to reinforce the founding treaty by updating the military alliance’s key priorities. A new initiative is underway, led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a group of “wise men,” to assess the strategic environment NATO finds itself in and propose recommendations for what the Alliance should focus its energies and resources on going forward. The new Strategic Concept is expected to be unveiled in November in Lisbon, at the next NATO summit.
Efforts by the wise men to undertake such a review should be applauded. However, the review should address one critical, overarching question that will determine whether NATO remains relevant among the Alliance’s citizenry but also militarily capable of defending the transatlantic space: Are the Allies truly up to the task of developing a new strategic vision that not only reflects the realities of today’s security situation but also requires Allies to do whatever is necessary -- in terms of money, deed, and burden-sharing -- to ensure that NATO, the most successful military alliance in world history, is not an organization that exists in concept only in the 21st century?
Since the 1999 Strategic Concept update, a good deal of change has taken place at NATO and in the broader transatlantic relationship. NATO membership has expanded by 25 percent (bringing in nine new member states), and the Alliance has become more operational than ever, with Kosovo, Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean, and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) as some of its most complicated, sustained, and high risk missions. NATO also invoked for the first time in its history the Article 5 mutual defense guarantee following the events of September 11, 2001.
Despite these changes and efforts early in the decade to modernize allied armed forces, overall defense spending by the majority of Allies has declined since 1999 to dangerously low levels (all the more exacerbated by the current global financial crisis). At the same time, new security threats by both state and non-state actors have emerged to challenge NATO’s member states. Political will has proven difficult to muster for not only reaching consensus on decisions but also for agreeing to have discussions at the North Atlantic Council, the decision-making body of NATO, on issues of strategic importance. And it is not yet clear that, post-Afghanistan, Allies will have the stomach or treasure to undertake another expeditionary operation at great distances in which expensive military capabilities will be required and the risk of casualties could be significant.
During the past decade, NATO has developed robust relations with countries outside the traditional North Atlantic territory (including Australia, Japan, and countries in the Middle East and Asia), which some Allies view it as a welcome development while others see it as NATO going beyond its original writ. NATO also has had an on-and-off relationship with Russia that has generated real internal tension among the newest of Allies and those who are not as geographically proximate to Moscow. Allies have not reached consensus among themselves as to what kind of relationship they want to have with Russia, particularly with a Russia that has declared NATO as a danger to its national security.
While these issues are significant and should be resolved before Allies put their signatures on the final document, the Strategic Concept drafting process will not stop; there is too much political risk to do so. The final document, though, must reflect today’s reality or risk losing legitimacy. It should not be overly ambitious; it should identify no more than three key priorities, and it should be seen as an interim document until the greater issues of Afghanistan, Russia, and the financial crisis are resolved.
In the six months before acceptance of the final document, Allied governments and NATO officials should consider some of the following questions:
• How important is the Strategic Concept to today’s NATO?
• Is the overall concept of a strategic document outdated? Should there be something akin to a “National Security Strategy” rather than a “Strategic Concept”?
• Should there be a mechanism to force Allies to adhere to the commitments made in the Strategic Concept? If not, is this exercise really worth doing? If so, what should the mechanism be?
• Should NATO abolish the consensus rule for decision-making?
• What is the capacity of the Alliance to identify, manage, and resolve the full range of modern crises that could challenge a nation, a region, or the Alliance as a whole?
• What will happen to the Alliance’s strategic deterrent capabilities if there are no longer nuclear weapons in Europe?
An Alliance as successful as NATO deserves thoughtful discussion and debate about where it needs to go in the future, and that needs to be grounded in today’s reality, not in some conceptual mindset. For those that believe NATO’s best days are ahead of it, such debate must begin now.
Daniel P. Fata is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington. He served as the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO from September 2005-September 2008. He is also a vice president at The Cohen Group.