Scowcroft Strategy Scorecard:
NATO’s Strategic Concept clear on threats, but will require sustained commitment from Alliance

Several of the Scowcroft Center’s strategy experts analyzed NATO’s new Strategic Concept, assessing the strategy based on five criteria. The reviewers generally agreed that the document was clear-sighted about threats facing the Alliance. However, implementing the ambitious strategy will require sustained commitment and high investment from Alliance members. Here are the full assessments.

Anca Agachi

Associate Director, Transatlantic Security Initiative

Delivering this Strategic Concept at this moment in history was a tall order, as this is one of the most difficult times facing the NATO Alliance since at least the end of the Cold War, if not World War II. Add to that consensus decision-making among 30 nations, and you have on your hands a difficult task that  the Allies were able to perform well. From a political perspective, the concept presented a unified front for the NATO Alliance, and is a signal to Moscow especially for how badly its gamble in Ukraine backfired, but delivering on the strength shown these past months for the future will be a demanding bureaucratic marathon.

Distinctiveness

Is there a clear theme, concept, or label that distinguishes this strategy from previous strategies?

The Strategic Concept provides a clear (and expected) departure from the previous iteration by referring to an environment of “strategic competition”, in which “The Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace” and shocks are recurring and pervasive. Yet, it maintains continuity by retaining the three NATO core tasks of collective defense and deterrence, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security, which are now also undergirded by a foundation of Allied resilience. My general impression is that while we have clarity on what the “West” is fighting against (see below), the vision for what it is fighting for needs shaping, especially the vision for what the Euro-Atlantic security and defense architecture should look like in the aftermath of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Sound strategic context

Does the strategy accurately portray the current strategic context and security environment facing NATO? Is the strategy predicated on any specious assumptions?

The enumeration of threats and challenges facing the Alliance is daunting and rightfully so, as the environment in which NATO is operating is arguably more complex than at any point in the past. Russia is identified at the top as “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area”, an appropriately hard line after its illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The first mention of China ever in a NATO Strategic Concept is nuanced and the challenge posed by Beijing to the “interests, security and values” of the Alliance is seen as multidimensional. The rest of the mentions are to be expected given the Alliance’s 360-degree approach to security. If I were nitpicky, the only missing element I’d point out is Allied democratic fragility, which may have faded from view in the last months but remains a structural vulnerability if not tackled properly.

Defined goals

Does the strategy define clear goals?

Given the function that the Strategic Concept is meant to perform, I think the document sets a reasonably good level of ambition, especially in clarifying NATO’s updated defense and deterrence posture and mainstreaming resilience across all allied core tasks. Where I think the concept misses an opportunity is in clarifying the ambition of its medium to longer-term goals relating to NATO modernization and adaptation: seizing the advantages of the ongoing technological revolution, clarifying NATO’s responsibilities in combatting (and adapting) to climate change, and suggesting a roadmap for engaging NATO partners, especially those in the Indo-Pacific, to mention a few glaring examples. These may not be the priority topics of today, but ambitious structural change is essential in ensuring the Alliance is prepared for them tomorrow.

Clear lines of effort

Does the strategy outline several major lines of effort for achieving its objectives? Will following those lines of effort attain the defined goals? Does the strategy establish a clear set of priorities, or does it present a laundry list of NATO activities?

With such a long “laundry list”, prioritization will remain an issue and will likely be decided by the art (and bureaucracy) of implementation. I would have loved to see more details on the “how” of achieving some of the objectives set, for instance more clarity on burden-sharing in the current environment or a roadmap for elevating the NATO-EU partnership to the next level to enable collaboration especially on sub-threshold challenges such as disinformation, resilience, or energy security.  

Realistic implementation guidelines

Is it feasible to implement this strategy? Are there resources available to sustain it?

The key objective of the Strategic Concept is to provide high-level political guidance, which it does well, so judging on implementation is somewhat beyond its scope. For what it’s worth, the key hurdles in implementation in my view stem from the economic context, specifically growing inflation and slowing gains which may hinder the ability to implement the force posture sought and maintain high troop readiness levels. Alternatively, an exogenous shock may also change the threat assessment within the Alliance, and split allied focus.  

Sir Christopher Harper

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Initiative

The new Strategic Concept is considerably better than I had anticipated or hoped. It is unambiguous and clear-sighted, which is impressive when one considers how tricky it must have been to get thirty nations (at head-of-state-or-government-level) on side with every word, comma, full stop and nuance. It is a vast improvement on its predecessor which has, for far too long, been woefully outdated and hence unable to fulfill its objective of being the Alliance’s top-level guide rail.  

I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the rapid development, deployment and utilization of innovative technology for, inter alia, strategic and operational decision support. I would also have welcomed a more decisive and, if necessary, radical drive to promote standardization and interoperability. It is not the availability of intellectual horsepower, disruptive thinking or world-leading technology that hampers either of these endeavors, but rather Alliance bureaucracy and risk-aversion.

Distinctiveness

Is there a clear theme, concept, or label that distinguishes this strategy from previous strategies?

This Strategic Concept is very clear and unambiguous about the threats, risks, issues, and challenges that confront the Alliance. It is refreshing to see adversaries clearly delineated. This is a considerable improvement on all previous versions.

Sound strategic context

Does the strategy accurately portray the current strategic context and security environment facing NATO? Is the strategy predicated on any specious assumptions?

The Strategic Concept offers a realistic and unvarnished perspective of the current strategic context and of the global security environment.

Defined goals

Does the strategy define clear goals?

Defined goals are arguably more the stuff of plans than strategies. That said, for a document of this nature, the target setting is adequate.

Clear lines of effort

Does the strategy outline several major lines of effort for achieving its objectives? Will following those lines of effort attain the defined goals? Does the strategy establish a clear set of priorities, or does it present a laundry list of NATO activities?

The Strategic Concept does not prioritize or articulate a program for the achievement of goals or objectives. In the face of the ever-shifting sands of the global defense and security environment, it is the role of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) and Military Committee (MC) to debate and decide these aspects. The document is more than adequate in offering the necessary guidance.

Realistic implementation guidelines

Is it feasible to implement this strategy? Are there resources available to sustain it?

Some might say that the Strategic Concept lacks clarity here. I would argue that it offers more than enough meat for the NAC and MC to chew on.

Barry Pavel

Senior Vice President and Director, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

The new Strategic Concept, which I believe should be updated more frequently going forward (but may have to endure through the rest of this decade as that appears to have been the recent practice), is a relatively solid document that accounts reasonably well for the new and ever-changing security context, while outlining an executable strategy for NATO. However, I would have liked to have seen a bit more clarity on prioritization of threats and on some of the core priorities for how the strategy can be executed most effectively (e.g., moving from deterrence-by-retaliation toward deterrence-by-denial).

Distinctiveness

Is there a clear theme, concept, or label that distinguishes this strategy from previous strategies?

The new Strategic Concept contains a bit more continuity in many of its elements with the 2010 version than had been expected. While accounting for the dramatically different security environment—and, for example, pointing to an enhanced force posture to address it—there was not really a clear theme, concept, or label.

Sound strategic context

Does the strategy accurately portray the current strategic context and security environment facing NATO? Is the strategy predicated on any specious assumptions?

The strategic context section is solid, capturing the Russian threat very well (“the Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace”) and the “systemic challenges” posed by China, for example. However, I was startled that the China section was so low on the priority list, coming after humanitarian and other challenges, and that the threat of terrorism was so high (coming immediately after Russia). It also would have been good to have seen a bit of foresight applied, with some projections of where the security environment might be headed.

Defined goals

Does the strategy define clear goals?

The Strategic Concept did a good job on goals, as it usually does, with great clarity around the top-level purpose, as well as the priority objectives of the document

Clear lines of effort

Does the strategy outline several major lines of effort for achieving its objectives? Will following those lines of effort attain the defined goals? Does the strategy establish a clear set of priorities, or does it present a laundry list of NATO activities?

Lines of effort are addressed well, but there does appear to be a “laundry list” feel to those activities that covers a bit too much ground. That certainly is to be expected for a document agreed on by 30 nations who share core values and interests but also bring distinct perspectives to the serious questions of Alliance strategy.

Realistic implementation guidelines

Is it feasible to implement this strategy? Are there resources available to sustain it?

Fortunately, defense budgets across most of the Alliance are increasing, which will help NATO members to more effectively execute this broad, ambitious strategy. However, the devil will be in the details because, as the Strategic Concept points out, the security environment is “contested and unpredictable.”

Leah Scheunemann

Deputy Director, Transatlantic Security Initiative

Overall, the Strategic Concept keeps the Alliance on its important trajectory to focus on the direct threat of Russia, recognizes NATO’s global role in preserving liberal democratic values, and adapts to growing transnational challenges and opportunities like climate change and technological innovation. Where the strategy is in danger is in implementation beyond the Madrid Summit and specifically sustaining such modernization and investments to focus on collective defense. Fingers crossed that the political leaders remain unified and that the bureaucracy prevails in implementation over the coming years.

Distinctiveness

Is there a clear theme, concept, or label that distinguishes this strategy from previous strategies?

This Strategic Concept is definitely distinct from the 2010 version, which is unsurprising given the many monumental shifts to the security environment in Europe and globally in the past twelve years. The key theme of the Strategic Concept is that Russia has shattered peace in Europe. The Alliance is clearly articulating the threats that NATO faces, including authoritarian actors, clearly delineating Russia as NATO’s primary threat, but also outlining the “challenges” posed by China for the first time in a NATO strategy, as well as focusing on climate change, technological innovation, and new agendas like human security and women, peace, and security. However, there are several key areas where NATO maintained continuity with the previous strategy, including focusing on terrorism and a so-called 360-degree approach against threats from all directions, even as the threat from NATO’s east looms larger than ever before

Sound strategic context

Does the strategy accurately portray the current strategic context and security environment facing NATO? Is the strategy predicated on any specious assumptions?

The Strategic Concept includes a fantastic list of challenges, including a clear outline of the threat posed by Russia and authoritarian aggressors in general and pitting NATO as a “a bulwark of the rules-based international order” in this global competition. There is a surprisingly stark list of challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China to NATO’s “interests, security and values,” however it comes after the mention of terrorism, which rings a bit hollow given the strategic reality of European NATO members being focused on the war on their doorstep in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, which receives no mention. I also think the assessment of the circumstances in which NATO may have to use nuclear weapons as “extremely remote” is inaccurate given the overt nuclear modernization, breach of international laws, and aggressive rhetoric from Russia just this year.

Defined goals

Does the strategy define clear goals?

The Strategic Concept has to be viewed as a top-level document that sets the stage for follow-on work at all levels of the Alliance and by member states and one would not demand a list of defined, attainable, or measurable goals from the document. The Strategic Concept strongly defines NATO’s goal as safeguarding its members and its values and reaffirmed NATO’s three core tasks, in order: deterrence and defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. I appreciate that the Strategic Concept did not confuse NATO’s purpose with a fourth core task of resilience and instead wove resilience throughout the strategy as a core tool and competency for achieving all of NATO’s goals, and that the strategy highlight’s NATO’s global role, but continues to bite off a lot to chew in the years to come.

Clear lines of effort

Does the strategy outline several major lines of effort for achieving its objectives? Will following those lines of effort attain the defined goals? Does the strategy establish a clear set of priorities, or does it present a laundry list of NATO activities?

Again, one has to view the Strategic Concept as a top-level strategy that paves the way for continued adaptation at all levels of the Alliance. I do think the Strategic Concept will provide the top cover needed for leaders in key areas to advance necessary adaptations, specifically on deterrence and defense, where there is a need for NATO to accelerate its good steps taken since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The devil will really be in the details of implementation, only some of which we have seen so far with the vague announcements of the new force model and new regional plans discussed at the summit that would require thousands of more ready troops assigned to NATO without an articulation of how readiness will be bolstered especially without all countries meeting a defense spending minimum, let alone going above and beyond the notorious 2 percent metric.

Realistic implementation guidelines

Is it feasible to implement this strategy? Are there resources available to sustain it?

NATO has agreed to a historic new strategy at a time of war on the European continent at a scale not seen since World War II. I have great confidence in the many leaders at NATO and throughout the Alliance’s member states to continue to advance and accelerate the changes the Alliance has made since 2014 to address the renewed threat of a revisionist Russia, while also tackling new challenges that exacerbate global insecurity with greater vigor. What I am more pessimistic about is NATO’s ability to sustain upward pressure on defense budgets to implement this very expensive vision and continue to safeguard collective security.

Paul R.S. Gebhard

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Initiative

NATO has issued a strong, clear statement that reaffirms the core principles and purposes of the Alliance, to deter and defend its security and values in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and direct threat to the security of Europe. In a direct rebuke to President Vladimir Putin, NATO reiterated the Alliance’s commitment to membership for Ukraine. The Alliance has made clear that the threats it faces are global and directly connected to the security of Europe, and that China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge NATO’s interests, security, and values. NATO heads of state reaffirmed their commitment to provide the necessary resources to implement their decisions and to meet their commitments under the Defense Investment Pledge for 2 percent of GDP.

NATO strategic concept scorecard grade

Distinctiveness

Is there a clear theme, concept, or label that distinguishes this strategy from previous strategies?

The top-line message for the Strategic Concept is, “We are united.” The Strategic Concept is the clear articulation at a policy level of the operational unity that the Alliance has demonstrated since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including reaffirming the Alliance’s Bucharest decision on membership for Ukraine.

The Strategy reaffirms strongly several points that NATO in recent years has danced around, including the essential role of nuclear weapons to the Alliance’s security, now much more prominently featured in the text and clearly, and directly articulated, and the Alliance’s global perspective on threats to its security. On China, for the first time in a Strategic Concept, NATO includes a new, lengthy and detailed discussion of the challenged posed by the PRC to the Alliance. As they say, the Alliance works well in practice, but can it work in principle? The Strategic Concept offers a resounding “yes.”

Sound strategic context

Does the strategy accurately portray the current strategic context and security environment facing NATO? Is the strategy predicated on any specious assumptions?

The Strategic Concept does a good job of portraying the current, present strategic context with robust and specific language on Russia and the threat it poses to the Alliance. However, the cursory treatment of terrorism in two stand-alone paragraphs belies the continued threat posed by transnational terrorism to the Alliance, and certainly seems odd after the Alliance’s 20 years of focus on terrorism as one of its primary concerns.

Defined goals

Does the strategy define clear goals?

Unfortunately, the Strategic Concept, like its predecessor documents, is strong on top-line statements as to purpose and principles of the Alliance, and much less detailed as to specific goals. This is not particularly surprising for a heads-of-state-and-government document but where the Alliance could have been more specific, in particular, on defense investment, the Strategic Concept remains vague. The Strategic Concept treats defense investment, aka defense spending, in the final three paragraphs of a forty-nine paragraph document, and only obliquely references the specific targets for Alliance defense spending of 2 percent of GDP and 20 percent of total budget on procurement, by mention of the Defense Investment Pledge. Again, there is not mention of defense investment in the preface to the document.

Clear lines of effort

Does the strategy outline several major lines of effort for achieving its objectives? Will following those lines of effort attain the defined goals? Does the strategy establish a clear set of priorities, or does it present a laundry list of NATO activities?

Not surprisingly for a consensus document among thirty countries at the head-of-state level, the Strategic Concept presents a laundry list of NATO activities ranging from nuclear readiness to climate change and attacks on cultural property. Without demeaning the existential global threat of climate change or the importance of protecting our shared cultural heritage, it seems that NATO, in taking on these objectives, is stretching itself well beyond its core missions of deter and defend, crisis management, and cooperative security and is not particularly well equipped to do so.

Realistic implementation guidelines

Is it feasible to implement this strategy? Are there resources available to sustain it?

The Strategic Concept does not include guidelines as such given the high level at which it is, appropriately, pitched. In terms of resources, NATO will have the resources to implement the strategy provided that all of its members meet, quickly, the 2 percent and 20 percent targets agreed to in the Defense Investment Pledge. The track record of most NATO members, unfortunately, is not promising in this regard. Notably the United Kingdom Prime Minister appears to have rejected the appeals of his Minister of Defense for a substantial increase in spending, in part to offset the impact of inflation. The concern is that the UK’s actions will provide cover for other states that want to lag in their investments.

The Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security works to develop sustainable, nonpartisan strategies to address the most important security challenges facing the United States and its allies and partners. The Center’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative serves to directly advance this core mission and embody its namesake’s commitment to strategic thinking. Toward this end, the initiative releases report cards analyzing the key strategies developed by the United States, its allies and partners, and multilateral bodies such as NATO. Through this analysis, the initiative aims to help leaders, strategists, and other decision-makers hone their strategic thinking in pursuit of a rules-based international system that fosters peace, prosperity, and freedom for decades to come.

Further reading