Jim Stavridis Atlantic Council May 2010

Last week, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, came to Washington to testify before Congress and to make several public appearances discussing important issues such as Afghanistan and the future of the sixty-one year old military alliance. An avid user of Facebook and Twitter, during one of his presentations, Admiral Stavridis remarked of a “friending” he got from a young person in faraway Indonesia who welcomed the opportunity to correspond with NATO’s top European commander but asked, “What is NATO?”

The question is not an idle one.  Most people in NATO’s 28 member states are largely if not entirely unaware of NATO except in the most general terms or those who have lost loved ones or had friends killed in Afghanistan fighting under the NATO banner. The reason for this indifference or unawareness is easily understood.

The foundation for creating and maintaining NATO, its bête noires the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, have been gone for two decades.  No army threatens NATO or Western Europe.  With the current economic crises weighing heavily on Europe, the political focus is inwards.  And attention has shifted to other parts of the globe where China, India and Brazil are emerging as economic powerhouses and Iran, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan are sources of instability.

Yet, NATO is heavily engaged from the Balkans to Kabul and from the Arabian Gulf to the southern Mediterranean. Of course, it is the war in Afghanistan where nearly 100,000 NATO forces and thousands of its civilians are stationed that is the alliance’s major concern. And that war is unpopular with a majority of NATO’s publics.


At this moment, NATO is redefining the strategic concept that will set the alliance’s future direction.  The last strategic concept was approved in 1999, in one sense a century ago.  Over the eleven years since, the world has changed in ways unimaginable then.  Threats are no longer overwhelmingly military and putative such as an assault by the Soviet Union into Western Europe although the dangers are clear and present evidenced by terror attacks against New York and London and Madrid. And new challenges from issues pertaining to environment, cyber, energy, piracy and jihadist extremism must be part of the alliance’s agenda. All this comes at a time of economic volatility and crisis.

To aid in this process, a group of twelve experts was chosen by NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen last year to identify the critical issues, challenges and assessments that should be addressed or incorporated into the new strategic concept.  Led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the report was released last week.  It was titled “NATO 2020—Assured Security and Dynamic Engagement.”

The paper is competent, comprehensive and will be very helpful to the Secretary General as he writes the strategic concept this summer to be approved by NATO heads of state at the Lisbon summit late this fall.  For experts and students of NATO, “assured security” and “dynamic engagement” are inspired phrases that succinctly define the strategic, political and operational aspirations and intentions of the alliance.  The first broadens the meaning of threat beyond a direct military attack by using the word security instead of the more traditional and narrower term of defense while promising assurance for its newer and eastern European members who remain uncomfortable with Russia on or near their borders.  The second calls for NATO to act on the basis that assured security can be achieved if and only if threats and dangers well outside the NATO boundaries are not ignored and in some cases confronted.

The first problem regards communications in that these terms smack of jargon or nuance that most people may not understand and therefore are likely to dismiss.  The second and tougher problem is convincing people that NATO is relevant today and not a relic of the past and that it matters.  Unfortunately, most of these arguments often suffer from being circular —NATO is needed because it is needed— or require paragraphs and even pages to explain.

Hence, NATO needs a pithy and punchy slogan to get people’s attention and create a positive reaction.  In an earlier column, I updated British General Hastings Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, famous slogan for NATO (“keep America in, Germany down and Russia out”) for the 21st century to read: “keep Europe up, Russia with, America in and danger out.” However, Admiral Stavridis may have a better version.  He passionately calls NATO “a force for good around the world.”  And he is correct.

NATO has been the most effective military alliance in history.  But the original threat is gone and far more than military tools are needed for the 21st century.  Publics and politicians also need to be convinced of the need for the alliance.  Calling it “a force for good” is a good start.


Harlan Ullman is an Atlantic Council Senior Advisor and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business.  This column was syndicated by UPI