PREMIUM TAG BLOG: NATO at a Strategic Inflection Point

By Heinrich Brauss

NATO faces a turn of strategic eras. In 2014, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea fundamentally altered the security environment in Europe. The Kremlin demonstrated that it was prepared to use military force to change national borders in Europe and attain geopolitical objectives. Consequently, after twenty years of focusing on international crisis management, the Alliance has reinvigorated its primary core task of deterrence and defence. It has since been implementing a long-term programme to significantly strengthen its posture. Today, only seven years later, the transatlantic community is yet again at an inflection point: The rise of China to world-power status is the most significant strategic development of our time. It profoundly changes the global balance of power. 

China poses a systemic challenge to the Western democracies as a whole, cutting across the domains of security and economics. It will soon have the largest economy globally. It has the second largest defence budget worldwide. It is heavily investing in conventional and nuclear capabilities as well as new technologies. Its “One Belt, One Road” strategy attempts strategic power projection through economics. Its investments in communications, energy, and transport infrastructure in Europe pose a risk to NATO’s unity and security. Also, the Alliance now faces two authoritarian rivals – Russia and China.

At their 14 June Brussels meeting, NATO’s political leaders agreed the “NATO 2030 agenda” to make the Alliance ready for an era of great-power competition. It is designed to strengthen Allies’ political consultation to enable convergence of political and strategic views; promote full and speedy implementation of its deterrence and defence posture; further enhance resilience; foster technological cooperation among Allies to ensure NATO’s technological edge; increase cooperation with likeminded partners across the globe, including in the Asia-Pacific; and tackle the impact of climate change on security.

NATO leaders also asked Secretary General Stoltenberg to lead the development of the next Strategic Concept. The 2010 Strategic Concept is outdated. It reflects the aims and hopes of bygone times. The new Strategic Concept must cover the period from 2014 up to 2030 – from renewing NATO’s deterrence and defence to addressing global challenges to its security. It will have to build on the NATO 2030 agenda as the latest top-level guidance for NATO’s development. It will be negotiated and agreed by the North Atlantic Council. But it must not become another communiqué reflecting the lowest political denominator. 

Instead, it must become NATO’s supreme policy document guiding NATO’s adaptation to the emerging era of great power competition. It must combine the required broader political approach to global security issues with credible deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area. It must be clear, consistent, and concise in defining NATO’s strategic purpose, core tasks, main fields of action and required forces and capabilities. To this end, it must:− Identify the central features of the evolving security environment in and around Europe and on a global scale, the key actors, challenges and threats relevant to NATO; − Confirm NATO’s three core tasks (collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security), but clearly prioritise deterrence and defence;− Integrate the principles, parameters and imperatives of NATO’s strengthened deterrence and defence acquis that has been established since 2014 – improving resilience, enhancing responsiveness, increasing readiness of Allied forces, enhancing forward military presence in the east, enabling rapid reinforcement, and reinvigorating nuclear deterrence;− Outline its policy for engaging China with a view to defending the Alliance’s security interests;− Delineate its approach to addressing both the implications of climate change and emerging and disruptive technologies relevant to NATO’s security;− Give guidance for further improving NATO’s posture in the Euro-Atlantic area, contingency planning for critical regions, and the required force posture;− Provide clear guidelines for developing Allies’ forces and capabilities required for the whole mission spectrum; and − Confirm Allies’ Defence Investment Pledge of 2014 and additional common funding up to 2030.  

The new Strategic Concept must also be the starting point for strategic burden sharing between America and Europe. The U.S. regards China as its primary strategic competitor. Itsstrategic focus is shifting to the Indo-Pacific. However, the growing Russo-Chinese cooperation causes the Western democracies to face the risk of two strategic challenges simultaneously – in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions. Therefore, NATO’s primary effort must remain ensuring stability of the Euro-Atlantic region, so that the US has full reign in the Far East, and the European Allies must do much more for transatlantic security. They should develop a coherent set of forces and capabilities across all domains, including strategic enablers, capable of covering the whole military mission spectrum – from high-end manoeuvre warfare to peacekeeping. Such a European Joint Force within NATO should act together with the U.S. forces in Europe to reinforce deterrence in Europe, provide for crisis response missions in Europe’s neighbourhood and assist the U.S. in protecting freedom of navigation.