NATO is about to launch a formal strategic review. Here’s what that means

After rocky relations with the Trump administration, NATO will be keen to project unity at its summit beginning Monday. Media reporting will pay close attention to how other leaders welcome Joe Biden to his first NATO summit as president — and whether he can start to deliver on a pledge to “repair our alliances.”

Here’s some equally significant news: NATO is likely to formally launch the update of its Strategic Concept for the first time since 2009. The Strategic Concept, which articulates how NATO implements the principles of its 1949 founding treaty, has gone through seven iterations. During the Cold War, the alliance produced four classified versions, plus there have been three public ones since the fall of the Berlin Wall (1991, 1999 and 2010).

This is a core text that spells out NATO’s “enduring purpose and nature, and its fundamental security tasks” — but there’s no road map to determine when the alliance should update its Strategic Concept. Our research, though, identifies the three major conditions that need to be present before NATO initiates this key review exercise.

1. Changes in the international security landscape

The Strategic Concept operationalizes the alliance’s goals and tasks. As such, one would expect that major changes in the international security environment would prompt a revision of the document. The relationship between such shifts and the review, however, is more nuanced.

Changes in the security environment can contribute to a “widespread feeling ... it is time to take stock” among NATO allies, but they don’t necessarily immediately result in a new Strategic Concept. The lag is not unexpected. After all, an alliance with 30 members needs time to digest these changes and their implications.

Moreover, member countries often have divergent threat perceptions. A major security shock can cause conflicting interpretations — that’s what happened in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. NATO had to overcome disagreements about the nature and causes of terrorism, and it issued a new Strategic Concept nine years later.

2. Consensus on NATO’s current responsibilities

Although a new Strategic Concept is “useful but not essential” when it comes to NATO’s day-to-day operations, the document does play a formal codifying role. NATO is a versatile organization, able over time to organically take on new tasks. And, once the alliance has taken on sufficient new responsibilities since the previous strategic review, it becomes easier to justify starting a new process; what one senior official called “akin to doing the vacuum cleaning.”

At the same time, launching the revision process requires NATO to navigate delicate internal and external hurdles. Strategic Concepts are acts of public diplomacy and a key way to highlight NATO’s continued relevance. A high-level strategic review can exacerbate existing tensions among NATO members, running the risk of revealing a lack of unity about the future of the alliance as opposed to bolstering consensus around key security challenges.

For example, NATO faces perennial questions about its raison d’etre, be it at the end of the Cold War or in the late 2000s, with its struggles in Afghanistan. Debates in the mid-2000s about a “Global NATO,” and how this shift would affect the core task of defense of the transatlantic area, delayed the push toward a new Strategic Concept during the George W. Bush administration, despite the impact of 9/11.

3. Leaders who push for a strategic review

Summoning the will for a major review isn’t an easy feat for an alliance with 30 members — often it takes senior decision-makers to push for consensus to move forward. Revising the Strategic Concept implies disrupting the day-to-day work of the alliance and overcoming bureaucratic inertia. It is also a complex political process that diverts precious resources away from fulfilling NATO’s existing mandates.

Considering the political sensitivity of the Strategic Concept, only very senior officials can realistically take on the role of overcoming organizational reticence. Sometimes it takes a leader from a member country to push hard, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, representing a broader coalition, did in 2006 when she called for a new Strategic Concept.

But NATO secretary generals have also taken on ambitious and entrepreneurial roles. Thus, Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was a strong advocate for updating the Strategic Concept in the late 2000s, seeking a crowning achievement for when his term ended in 2009.

Here’s the outlook in 2021

All three conditions are present, which helps explain why NATO is about to begin the process to draft its eighth version of the Strategic Concept. The security landscape has changed significantly since 2010, and the alliance has already taken steps to adapt, be it bolstering its military readiness to deter Russia or acknowledging China as a new challenge.

Moreover, the new Biden administration is more pro-NATO than the Trump administration was, while French President Emmanuel Macron’s November 2019 criticism about NATO becoming “brain dead” put pressure on the alliance to demonstrate its continued relevance.

And global leaders, along with NATO, have openly pushed for a new Strategic Concept. Germany rapidly proposed, soon after Macron’s comments, the establishment of an expert group to rejuvenate NATO, an idea embraced by Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general since 2014. NATO members also endorsed this plan when they met in London in December 2019.

The eventual expert report, along with the wider consultations initiated by the secretary general as part of the NATO 2030 initiative, have helped to build consensus for the next Strategic Concept.

What happens now?

In a bid to show renewed unity, NATO members are widely expected to launch a revision process of the Strategic Concept at the summit Monday. But achieving consensus on a number of issues will be challenging. Defining NATO’s role toward China, and the alliance’s mandate on democratic resilience and climate change, are two areas in particular where alliance members will struggle to find agreement.

Garret Martin is a senior professorial lecturer at American University’s School of International Service and the co-director of the Transatlantic Policy Center.
Balazs Martonffy, who received his PhD from American University, is the director of the American Studies Research Institute at Ludovika and a nonresident fellow at the International Center for Security and Leadership.

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