NATO Strategic Concept Drivers

David Petraeus and Afghan baker

Since its creation in 1949, NATO has been at one crucial crossroads or another in which the future of the alliance seemed at stake. Today, as NATO is working on a new Strategic Concept to replace the current one approved eleven years ago in 1999, the alliance must come to grips with the challenges and uncertainties of the 21st century and, of course, differing perceptions among its 28 members over threats and responses. The two major forcing functions currently are geostrategic and economic: how to balance the traditional alliance mission of defense with 21st century threats that extend well beyond conventional military forces and NATO’s boundaries and how to cope with (large) defense cuts arising from the debt and deficit crises that likely have no immediate resolution. Meanwhile, the Afghan war casts a long shadow over the alliance and its future cohesion.

The Strategic Concept must also be crafted to handle these and other tough issues— frontally, subtly or not at all. Hence, careful political judgment about how hard or softly to push the nations and the alliance is essential to the success, failure and effectiveness of this Strategic Concept.

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For the first forty years of its existence, the Soviet Union was the reason for and preoccupation of what has turned out to be the world’s most successful military alliance. Defense and deterrence dominated strategic thinking including the balance between nuclear and conventional weaponry.

But the Soviet Union has been gone for over two decades. In charting its future since then, NATO has wrestled with the contradiction of maintaining a military alliance when the threat for which it was created has disappeared even though neuralgia over Russia and its influence in Europe is part of the psyche of its newest members.

In drafting the new Strategic Concept, on becoming NATO’s new Secretary General last year, former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen put in place  a carefully thought out process to support this effort.  A Group of Experts, originally numbering twelve was established under the leadership of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.  The Experts’ Group was charged with writing a document for the Secretary General that identified the critical issues and provided ideas and recommendations that could guide the content of the Strategic Concept Rasmussen will be writing this summer.  The concept will be presented to and approved by NATO heads of state at the Lisbon Conference in November.

The document produced by the Group of Experts is competent, comprehensive and provides excellent recommendations. Indeed, this report should be the blueprint for the Strategic Concept. The report defines NATO’s future in terms of “assured security” and “dynamic engagement,” two well crafted phrases that capture the geostrategic quandary. 

NATO was originally and remains a defensive military alliance.  After the Prague summit in 2002 when heads of state endorsed “expeditionary” operations, the traditional notion of defensive was obviously expanded as NATO forces soon deployed to Afghanistan. And the nations also understood that more than military tasks were critical in keeping the alliance safe from new dangers and threats.

Since Prague, discussion of terrorism, cyber, energy, consequence management in the event of disaster, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, theater nuclear weapons, missile defense and radical Islam has broadened debate.  The implication was clear. The alliance had to address the wider security agenda beyond traditional military tasks.  At the same time, given the absence of direct military threats, the glue of the alliance—Article V of the Washington Treaty that declared that “an attack against one is an attack against all”—needed reaffirmation given concerns over Russia. Article IV, the agreement to consult in time of crisis also required further definition as it is on the basis of this article that NATO is fighting in Afghanistan.

“Assured security” accommodates to these realities.  It strengthens Article V.  And defense is broadened to include security.  To deal with Article IV, “dynamic engagement” means that NATO recognizes many threats are beyond its borders and that it will act when it must to deal with these dangers including expanding the group of partners and partnerships to key regions around the globe.

In reacting to the financial crises, the report came out strongly for “reform” of the organization—NATO has over 400 committees and subcommittees and redundant commands all of which add expense at a time of fiscal hardship.  However, the Strategic Concept must expand on the impact of reduced defense spending and how the alliance should respond.

Finally, because the alliance operates on the basis of consensus, i.e. unanimous consent, the Experts’ Group chose not to tackle Afghanistan head on relying instead to evaluate the lessons learned and the long view that NATO has a life well after Afghanistan is settled. 

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How should the Strategic Concept take on these geostrategic and financial as well other issues? First, history is insightful.  In the 1960’s, as Soviet conventional military capacity strengthened, the Kennedy administration pursued a strategy of flexible response intended to deter or defeat the Soviet Union at the conventional, theater nuclear and strategic nuclear levels.  Europeans were comfortable with strategic nuclear deterrence as the alliance’s bedrock wishing to save the continent from a cataclysmic ground war.  Americans were not happy about exchanging Bonn for Boston under nuclear clouds and argued for conventional capability to halt a Soviet onslaught at the inner-German border.

The Harmel Commission was established to reconcile the strategic contradiction posed by the stark differences over nuclear and conventional defense.  The result was “flexible response.” In this doctrine, Europeans acknowledged the need for improved conventional defenses yielding to the U.S.  At the same time, strategic nuclear deterrence was reconfirmed in deference to Europeans who also did not want the added burdens of greater defense spending. In other words, the political brilliance of flexible response was that it allowed both the U.S. and Europeans to emphasize their strategic preferences without shattering alliance cohesion.

To endure, as with the Harmel Report, the new Strategic Concept must politically accommodate the different geostrategic interests and threat perceptions evident throughout the alliance using this flexible response model. Assured security and dynamic engagement provide the means to resolve the major geostrategic dilemmas.  These smart phrases provide sufficient elasticity to maintain alliance cohesion as nations can emphasize particular aspects that play to their interests as did the earlier flexible response doctrine and the nuclear and conventional divides.

But to endure, the Strategic Concept must also recognize the financial and economic crises’ impact on defense budgets that may prove long term, reinforced by the rise in importance and priority of security over defense concerns owing to the ascension of non-military threats and challenges.  Meanwhile, NATO leaders are pleading for nations to commit a minimum of 2% of GDP for defense.  That will not happen.  Therefore, reform is vital and must be central to the new concept in forcing efficiencies, cutting costs and generating savings.  And there is a second equally important component—transformation to deal with both the geostrategic and financial challenges.

At Prague, NATO made transformation a principal alliance mission.  Allied Command Atlantic, headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia was restructured to become Allied Command Transformation and tasked with embedding transformation throughout NATO (and Allied Command Europe became Allied Command Operations charged with operations).  At first, getting the definition of transformation accepted was more difficult than envisaged.  Definitional problems still persist.  Yet, only through transformation can the alliance deal with the quandaries and uncertainties of the 21st century.

In that regard, the Strategic Concept must embrace reform and transformation as existential to NATO’s future.  In the first instance, reform must apply throughout the entire organization.  And transformation must focus on carrying out a potentially broader array of missions with fewer resources.

In pursuing reform, NATO should consider using the U.S. model of the base closing commission for reducing redundancies by a simple up or down vote.  Given that NATO requires consensus, for reform to succeed, on a one time basis, unanimity may have to be set aside if there is to be real reform and real savings.

Regarding transformation, ACT’s role must be revitalized and “out of the box” thinking mandated along both geostrategic and budgetary lines. Far greater emphasis on “specialization” must be given to make best use of funding, meaning that the capability of the various national militaries will likely narrow to more specific missions.  There are risks of course.  But the issue is whether nations can carry out a large number of missions marginally or a few with great competence and then closely coordinating this specialization throughout the alliance.

A further area where the Strategic Concept must play a crucial role is making the case for NATO.  Supreme Allied Commander Europe, a Facebook and Twitter enthusiast, received a message from a young Indonesian flattered to be in electronic contact with a four star admiral that ended, “But what is NATO?” To many of NATO’s public, the alliance is hardly recognized.  Making the public case for NATO is critical to its future.

Finally and regardless of the outcome of the war in Afghanistan, given the uncertainties and instabilities of the 21st century, ironically NATO may be needed more today than at any time over the last few decades.  This is not a self-evident argument.  And NATO must continue to transform even more dramatically than in the past.  If the Strategic Concept can achieve these aims, it will have succeeded as brilliantly as the Harmel Commission did forty plus years ago.  That is the challenge for NATO even more so than the war in Afghanistan. Assured security, dynamic engagement, reform and transformation are the means.

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. Photo credit: AP Photo.

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