NATO prepares for the 2030s and beyond
By Dr. Pál Dunay and Dr. Matthew Rhodes, Marshall Center professors
NATO is often called the most successful alliance in history. This is indicated by the Alliance’s continued cohesion and its members’ confidence that it enhances their security. That more than 70 years have passed since the Washington Treaty was signed by 12 states in 1949 speaks for itself. Maybe more important, the Alliance has never had to invoke collective defense in an interstate contingency; action under Article 5 of the treaty was taken only once, immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. This is perhaps the best evidence that deterrence has worked, even at the height of the Cold War. The fact that nuclear weapons formed part and parcel of deterrence, underwriting NATO’s security guarantee to its members, most probably contributed to a “long peace,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis put it.
NATO’s historical success can be attributed to its ability to adapt and find its role in international security, according to the needs of its members. As the 40 years of the Cold War have receded into historical perspective, we tend to see that period as a time of “simple” confrontation between Western democracy and communist dictatorship. However, that era required responses from the Western Alliance that were reflected in various doctrines, such as flexible response, that survived the Cold War. The need for collective defense was and remains clear. The end of the Cold War led to uncertainty regarding the main challenges facing the Alliance. Still, NATO’s necessity was rarely questioned. It remained the prime forum for political coordination in the West, even if that coordination was occasionally weakened. That decade of uncertainty abruptly ended with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. NATO reasserted itself as the prime forum, invoking Article 5 as the war on terror became the most important security objective. With this, NATO had to find a balance between new and old security threats.
It was the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept that kept such a balance between Article 5-based security guarantees and the global war on terror, as well as between a more global and regional security posture. This was extremely fortunate because it contributed to the Strategic Concept’s ability to hold both postures during the war on terror’s greatest prominence as well as when that gave way to the fast-emerging (or as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg put it, “emerged”) threat of aggressive Russian revanchism in 2014.
NATO began preparations for the future in November 2020 with the publication of “NATO 2030: United for a New Era.” It was like a travail préparatoire for the new Strategic Concept that will guide NATO for the next decade. A similar process preceded the passing of the 2010 Strategic Concept, with the work done by a group of experts led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. A strategic concept signals the position of the Alliance to multiple audiences. This makes the task of drafting such a concept extremely delicate. It must credibly demonstrate the determination of NATO, backed by the shared will of the 30 member states, without either overestimating its possibilities or underselling its message. The former may result in escalation by NATO’s self-declared adversaries, while the latter could be interpreted as indecision. NATO’s signaling must serve also as a compass to the members and NATO institutions that will use it as a basis for drafting additional documents in the public and nonpublic domains.
The single most important issue on NATO’s agenda for the next decade is the relationship between collective defense, cooperative security and crisis management, the three core tasks of the Alliance. Because of the NATO members’ shared perception that there are states, primarily Russia, that present a threat to the Alliance, the temptation to put primary emphasis on collective defense is significant. Moreover, this would lead NATO back to its roots of addressing interstate security contingencies. The Strategic Concept of 2022 somewhat changed the terminology used in 2010 and identifies the core tasks as “deterrence and defence; crisis prevention and management; and cooperative security.” This creates natural links in that collective defense and crisis management have to be applied, respectively, when deterrence and prevention fail. Still, the fundaments of NATO’s core tasks have remained largely unchanged.
It is a shared view that Moscow presents a military and perhaps hybrid threat but less of a challenge on nonmilitary matters. Russia would be extremely ill-advised to challenge a member directly and test the determination and cohesion of the Alliance. Moscow therefore works to create ambiguous situations from which there is no favorable way out for its opponent, an approach that aligns well with the professional intelligence backgrounds of much of Russia’s leadership. As seen most dramatically in the cases of Ukraine and Georgia, the Kremlin aims to deprive foreign-policy freedom to other states, especially with regard to joining NATO. Of course, the status of NATO member states differs from partner states, particularly regarding the applicability of Article 5. Short of an unexpected, fundamental change in Russian policy, NATO will have to cope with the threat Russia presents and the difficulties it causes. Rather than directly challenging NATO members, Moscow would probably seek to punish NATO partner states not included under the Article 5 collective defense umbrella. Furthermore, by provoking hostile relationships with countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, which face territorial integrity issues due to Russian occupation and de facto or de jure control over parts of their territories, Russia impedes the willingness of several NATO members to agree to Georgian or Ukrainian accession to the Alliance and thereby import a volatile collective security situation.
In the end, Russia dramatically escalated its war of aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Its aim was to further reduce Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence by occupying the country’s territory and installing a pro-Russian puppet government — both stringent violations of the fundamentals of the international system, including the basic principles of the United Nations Charter. To the surprise of many, Russia has apparently failed in this attempt. Nevertheless, a renewed large-scale war in Europe, bordering several NATO member-states, presented a challenge in finalizing the new Strategic Concept that had to reflect the circumstances under which it was adopted and also have long-term relevance for at least a decade. The Strategic Concept of 2022 reflected the former, unambiguously stating that “[t]he Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area” while also emphasizing that “NATO does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to the Russian Federation.” Resolve, coordination, unity and responsible reaction are the foundations of the strengthened Allied approach to Russia that historically echoes “flexible response.”
For various reasons, it is more difficult to identify the Alliance’s position on China, which has only recently emerged on NATO’s agenda. The Alliance does not have much experience with Beijing as a challenger. In addition, China is beyond the geographic area of application of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. However, China is now impossible to ignore in international politics and in the security arena. Here we arrive at a major formative question for future NATO policy: Should China be regarded as a security threat, or as a lasting, major, complex challenge that has security aspects? It is apparent that for the U.S., a global power, China is a security threat. This stems from Beijing’s behavior in the Asia-Pacific and to some extent in the Indian Ocean. On the one hand, the U.S. and the larger European members think strategically in global terms and are ready to act beyond the European continent while, on the other hand, most of the small- and medium-size members have a more regional focus or are laser-focused on their own security deficit vis-à-vis Russia. The new Strategic Concept maintains the terms used at the NATO summit in June 2021, continuing to regard China as a “challenge” (i.e., not a threat) to NATO’s “interests, security and values.” With this, the Alliance retains flexibility in its eventual response to China, which is dependent both on further evolution of China-Euro-Atlantic relations and whatever consensus can be achieved among the member states.
Both Russia and China present a nuclear challenge. They are modernizing — and in China’s case also enlarging — their nuclear arsenals. Moscow accompanies this with threats and rejection of Western missile-defense efforts. It insists on maintaining a nuclear capacity that cannot be defeated by defensive means. Russia most often thinks in terms of a symmetrical response to Western military developments. However, this may not be in its interest, bearing in mind the significantly smaller resources at its disposal. (U.S. gross domestic product is 12 times larger in nominal terms than Russia’s, and the total gross domestic product of the NATO allies is more than 20 times greater.) The Alliance has an interest in de-escalation with Russia in nuclear matters and eventually in returning to strategic arms control, even though the conditions for the latter are not currently favorable. This is clearly outlined in the NATO 2030 report.
Following U.S. demands that allies spend more on their own defense and thus be better able to contribute to NATO’s collective efforts, defense appropriations increased in every member state. Only three member states spent more than 2% of gross domestic product on defense in the early 2010s, while today there are nine that meet that standard, which was agreed to at the 2014 Wales summit. Seventeen members also meet the standard of spending more than 20% of their defense budgets for defense procurement and modernization of major weapon systems. Clearly, NATO has become more serious about its own defense capacity, as 29 of 30 member states increased the share of their defense expenditure in their GDP between 2014 and 2021, and in the face of Russia’s unfortunate further increase of hostility, this trend should continue.
Enlargement has been among NATO’s lasting successes. Since the end of the Cold War, 14 states — nearly half the membership — have joined NATO, as states found their security better guaranteed within the Alliance. Most of them modernized their defense sectors and contributed to the Alliance’s international deployments and other common endeavors. Accordingly, official NATO documents have regularly reiterated the commitment to an open-door policy, and no change is expected on that front. However, there are objections to enlargement, both inside and outside the Alliance. Russia, especially, vociferously protests and threatens to create a deteriorating security situation if enlargement continues, particularly if it includes any more former Soviet states. Russia’s latest war of aggression against Ukraine has prompted Finland and Sweden — feeling their security better served with NATO membership than with military nonalignment — to apply for membership and both are expected to join the Alliance, doubling its size from the 16 members at end of the Cold War. As of October 2022, 28 member states ratified the accession protocol of Finland and Sweden. Now, as Secretary-General Stoltenberg stated, Russia faces more, rather than less, NATO.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the instruction of President Vladimir Putin, outlined a set of red lines in a draft treaty about security guarantees between Russia and the U.S. and in a draft agreement between Russia and NATO in December 2021. The documents resembled an ultimatum, as they stipulated NATO not “deploy military forces and weaponry on the territory of any” state where they were not present as of May 27, 1997, (the day the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed). In practice, this would divide NATO into two classes, and some of the states most vulnerable to Russian threats would not be allowed to host military reinforcements from other NATO members. It also excluded “any further enlargement of NATO, including the accession of Ukraine as well as other states.” Accepting these demands would mean the end of NATO’s open-door policy. Understandably, the feverish diplomatic exchanges that followed did not result in an agreement on these two issues that Russia clearly found highly important.
Although the Strategic Concept primarily focuses on deterrence and defense against state-based threats and challenges, it addresses other threats. Terrorism is identified as the “most direct asymmetric threat to the security of our citizens and to international peace and prosperity.” At a time when some member-states are adjudicating terrorist attacks (e.g., Belgium, France) and others (e.g., Turkey) are directly concerned about it, fighting terrorism must not be overshadowed by more immediate concerns, challenges and threats.
Finally, the increased focus on resilience may help the Alliance and its members find balance among the three pillars of deterrence and defense, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security. Current challenges and the needs of several member states will drive NATO to continue focusing more on collective defense for now. Nonetheless, future security challenges, or as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it, both “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns,” will maintain the importance of cooperative security and crisis management, because the world has not become a less dangerous place.