Summary of the breakout conversation “NATO’s Future and the New Strategic Concept” at the 2009 Annual Members’ Conference.


Hon. Alexander Vershbow, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security
GEN John Craddock, USA (Ret.),* Immediate Former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe
Dr. Hans Binnendijk, Vice President for Research, National Defense University; Member, Atlantic Council Strategic Advisors Group
Moderated by Mr. Damon Wilson, Vice President and Director, International Security Program, Atlantic Council


This session was held under Atlantic Council Rules, defined by President and CEO Frederick Kempe as “Chatham House Rules with military enforcement.”  Below is a general summary of the topics discussed.

Despite having just celebrated its 60th anniversary as the world’s most successful alliance, many question whether NATO is a relic of a bygone Cold War era.

For NATO to ensure its relevance for the years to come, it is essential that the Alliance produce a concise, clear Strategic Concept for the Lisbon summit in November 2010. A product of consensus, the Strategic Concept must properly define the Alliance’s missions, tasks, and ambitions. For the document to ensure NATO’s future success, member states must provide the proper resources and political backing for the Alliance’s missions and goals. As NATO debates its future strategic posture, its member states will have to decide whether the Alliance should do what is necessary or limit itself to what is possible. Which choice the member states make will be a reflection of the state of political will in Alliance capitals.

The question of political will in NATO is relevant not only to the debate over the Strategic Concept, but also concerning ISAF’s increasingly violent mission in Afghanistan. While many agreed that NATO’s post Cold War missions and accomplishments have demonstrated strong political will among member states, other pointed out that NATO has not always agreed to resource the commitments it has taken, particularly in Afghanistan.

To some degree the lack of resourcing is a reflection of a lack of capabilities in member states, particularly key European states. This lack of European capability is leading some to worry that the United States is losing interest the Alliance and that Central and East European member states no longer see NATO’s security guarantee as credible. Transformation of NATO capabilities will continue to be a major goal for the Alliance, but efforts will be constrained by stagnant or falling defense budgets and the high cost of current Alliance operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Stopping the freefall in defense spending to stem the decline in NATO capabilities will be essential. One suggestion made to help stem the decline in defense spending was to send Ministers of Finance to the Lisbon summit.

NATO’s capabilities will determine its credibility, both in the eyes of its members, as well as its potential adversaries. The Obama administration’s decision to pursue alternative missile defense architectures for Europe than those proposed by President Bush has caused some to debate whether or not the U.S. undermined key Central European allies while simultaneously strengthening missile defense coverage for Alliance member states. Others saw the administration’s decision as an opportunity to gain greater consensus on missile defense within NATO, as well as pursue possible cooperation with Russia.

Relations with Russia are perhaps the greatest source of tension and division within the Alliance. While some member states seek engagement with a potential Russian partner, other member states seek greater assurances against the perception of a growing Russian threat. NATO history demonstrates that the Alliance has had the most success in dealing with challenges posed by Russia through pursuit of a dual-track approach of combining reassurance with engagement.

To remain relevant in a shifting strategic landscape marked by the rise of emerging powers, NATO must both succeed in Afghanistan, while also properly resourcing itself to ensure capability in the face of new threats. The success or failure of NATO’s new strategic concept will have much to do with whether the Alliance will become a relic or not.

– Summary by Jeff Lightfoot, Assistant Director, International Security Program

Related Experts: Damon Wilson