The NATO 2030 Agenda

Making The Alliance Resilient For The Future

A crowd gathers in Warsaw, Poland, in September 2021 to demand leaders take stronger measures to curb climate change. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
By Fritz Rademacher, Marshall Center professor


In June 2021, a year after Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg launched the NATO 2030 initiative — and following intense consultations with allied governments, academia, and the public and private sectors — the Alliance’s leaders met in Brussels and agreed on an ambitious agenda for carrying out the initiative. The agenda is meant to ensure that the Alliance can face the challenges and threats of today and tomorrow. It comprises eight functional focus areas, including the development of the next Strategic Concept to be endorsed at NATO’s summit in Spain in June 2022. This article takes an in-depth look at the NATO 2030 agenda, analyzes the substance in the context of the prevalent strategic environment with its numerous challenges and systemic rivalries, and offers insights into how it could unfold over time. It addresses the requirement for a broadening of the concept of security, particularly in the areas of resilience.

Against the backdrop of an at times acrimonious discourse on the Alliance’s political condition, including French President Emmanuel Macron’s provocative interview in The Economist magazine in September 2019, the allies mandated at their London meeting in December 2019 to conduct “a forward-looking reflection process, under the auspices of the Secretary General, to further strengthen the political dimension of the Alliance including consultation.” From the outset, the secretary-general was determined to channel the debate and to ensure that the process would not get out of hand, an approach that led to his NATO 2030 initiative as the overarching framework. In a similar vein, many allies, while acknowledging the need for the Alliance’s continued political (and military) adaptation to an ever more demanding strategic environment, were adamant that the reflection process did not entail a redefinition of fundamental Alliance principles and policies.

What characterizes this strategic environment and what is NATO’s challenge over the next decade and perhaps beyond? As so aptly described in the report of the NATO Reflection Group, it is the consolidation of the trans-Atlantic community for an era of strategic simultaneity, in which the Alliance faces numerous interconnected threats and challenges at the same time. Those threats and challenges include two systemic rivals, the enduring threat of terrorism, instability along the southern periphery, a dramatically changing technological landscape (including rapid advances in the space domain), numerous vexing nonstate threats, and man-made as well as natural risks that include climate change or pandemics such as COVID-19. The strategic competition with Russia and China, both materially and ideologically, is at the top of the list. Russia remains the primary military threat to NATO for the foreseeable future, whereas the rise of China is probably the single most consequential change in NATO’s strategic environment. At the same time, the Alliance must be able to handle other urgent matters as well.

After a comprehensive consultation process with allies, civil society, parliamentarians, young leaders and the private sector, and after the results of the reflection group process, the secretary-general tabled a set of concrete proposals for future-proofing that is aimed, inter alia, at reinforcing unity and cohesion within the Alliance, broadening NATO’s approach to security and safeguarding the rules-based international order. At their 2021 summit in Brussels, members of the Alliance’s Heads of State and Heads of Government reached an agreement on a NATO 2030 trans-Atlantic agenda for the future, including the development of the next Strategic Concept in advance of the 2022 NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022.

As stated in the Brussels Summit Communiqué, the NATO 2030 agenda is meant to complement and build on the Alliance’s ongoing political and military adaptation; strengthen its ability to deliver on NATO’s three core tasks of collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security; and make it stronger and ready for the future. It consists of seven baskets plus the invitation to the NATO secretary-general to lead the process to develop the next Strategic Concept ahead of the Madrid summit. The seven areas comprise:

  • Deepening political consultations and coordination.
  • Strengthening deterrence and defence.
  • Preserving the Alliance’s technological edge.
  • Upholding the rules-based international order.
  • Boosting training and capacity building in NATO’s neighborhood.
  • Combating and adapting to climate change.
  • Enhancing resilience.

Deepening Political Consultations and Coordination

Political consultation and coordination — or the perceived lack thereof — were among the main issues triggering the reflection process. Recent events (the Afghanistan withdrawal and the nuclear-powered submarine deal involving the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia), have rekindled trans-Atlantic controversy. At the same time, allies continue to recognize that they are better off in NATO than trying to safeguard their freedom and security on their own. Neither Europe nor North America, for all their strength, are powerful enough to manage today’s and tomorrow’s threats and challenges on their own, while at the same time deal with the growing array of nontraditional issues affecting their societies. The Alliance remains the only trans-Atlantic framework that brings Europe and North America together on a daily basis to address vital issues of security and defense.

In this context, NATO’s consensus principle is an important factor. It ensures that the voice of every ally is heard and that any agreement reached is acceptable to all allies. This principle has helped foster habits of cooperation whereby allies are willing to go along with decisions that do not fully reflect their national positions because they know that there is a greater good at stake, which in turn meets their respective fundamental national security interests. Political consultation, coordination and cooperation must be demonstrated daily. Allied leaders should consider it a responsibility to ensure that NATO remains the most successful Alliance in history. It requires effective and efficient organizational and administrative mechanisms, sufficient resources and a mindset based on mutual trust and confidence.

Strengthening Deterrence and Defense

Strengthening the Alliance’s deterrence and defense has been at the forefront of NATO’s transformation and adaptation since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. A remarkable array of political decisions was taken, groundbreaking conceptual and planning work was done on the civilian and military fronts, and far-reaching changes to NATO’s posture were introduced at the operational level, including an overarching plan for the deterrence and defense of the Euro-Atlantic area endorsed by NATO defense ministers in October 2021. European allies and Canada have begun to invest more in their security and defense, a trend that should continue despite the significant effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their respective economies.

Undoubtedly, further efforts are needed and must be sustained for the Alliance to be equipped for the complex, interconnected and oftentimes concurrent threats and challenges of today’s and tomorrow’s strategic environment. This includes, but is not limited to, the perennial problem of burden sharing across the Alliance. To this end, it is important to find new ways to incentivize NATO members to contribute to security and defense. The secretary-general’s proposals to increase such resourcing in the future, including common funding as necessary across all NATO budgets (military, security and civil), is one possible, albeit thorny, way forward. Other and equally challenging ways could be to realize NATO-European Union synergies in capability development and infrastructure programming in such areas as strategic enablers, military mobility and enablement. Also, continued multinational efforts in capability development by groups of allies, and with other partners, to address specific regional or functional requirements are useful and increasingly important in building the capabilities needed to bolster deterrence and defense postures in support of other core functions. These multinational efforts can be beneficial to the nations, to NATO and to the EU.

Preserving the Alliance’s Technological Edge

We live in an era of far-reaching technological change that is affecting our societies profoundly and comprehensively. Seen through the prism of security and defense, this change is characterized by four mutually reinforcing developments: (1) national defense is now tied to civil developments and the preservation of the civil sector; (2) the reliability and availability of technology is increasing while costs are decreasing; (3) the effects of technology can be exponential; and (4) innovation and development timescales have been drastically reduced.

Emerging and disruptive technologies are changing, or have already changed, the character and the nature of warfare and are enabling new forms of attacks — hypersonic weapons being a case in point. Critical areas include artificial intelligence, especially in combination with big data; quantum-based technology; autonomous systems; bio- and nanotechnology; and space. NATO’s superiority has always been fostered by the allies having the technological edge. There is a risk that, without concerted efforts, allied nations and like-minded partners are falling behind in certain key areas at a time when there is a clear “first adopter” advantage that malign actors — state and nonstate — are attempting to exploit while challenging international norms and standards in the process. NATO must redouble its efforts to help the allies maintain their edge.

Important steps have been taken by the Alliance in recent years (identification of key areas of interest; white papers covering disruptive technologies; and an implementation strategy to ensure NATO’s advantage in these areas). At the NATO defense ministers meeting in October 2021, the allies agreed on an artificial intelligence strategy that integrates that technology in areas such as data analytics, imagery and cyber defense, and sets out the principles and standards with respect to safe and responsible use in accordance with international law. Along those same lines, individual strategies are now being developed for all priority areas as part of an integrated and comprehensive response to the challenges and opportunities these technologies present to allied security and defense. To this end, the allies are committed to collaborating among themselves, and to working with international regulatory and standard-setting institutions.

Other technology initiatives agreed upon at NATO’s June 2021 summit include the launch of a Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), a mechanism meant to energize trans-Atlantic cooperation on critical technologies, promote interoperability, and harness innovation in the civilian sector by engaging with academia and the private sector, including small and medium enterprises and startups. Under this scheme, it is foreseen that two headquarters, one each in Europe and North America, be opened and test centers and accelerator sites be established across the Alliance. Several allies have offered to host such entities, with some expected to be in place as early as 2022. Moreover, a database of trusted sources of investment will be created and managed. A second major step was the decision to set up the NATO Innovation Fund, which is open to multinational funding by allies on an opt-in basis to invest in promising ventures pursuing dual-use and/or emerging and disruptive technologies in areas critical to Alliance security. To this end, the ministers of 17 allied countries (Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the U.K.) signed a declaration of intent for the Innovation Fund at the NATO Defence Ministerial meeting in October 2021. At the signing ceremony, the secretary-general stated that the fund was expected to invest 1 billion euros to support innovators and help bring in other sources of public and private investment, promote investment opportunities and market access across the whole Alliance, and protect allied countries’ most innovative technologies and entrepreneurs from systemic rivals. He also noted Luxembourg’s offer to contribute to the costs of setting up the fund and to provide the legal framework.

NATO’s stated overarching aim is to enable the allies and the Alliance as a whole to adapt and adopt more quickly, strengthen and reestablish the existing industrial base in allied countries and bridge innovation gaps. This will require new partnerships, vertically and horizontally, additional resources, and a lot of creativity. Also, ensuring and enabling interoperability will become ever more important for the NATO allies and its partners in view of the pace of technological change.

Upholding the Rules-Based International Order

Members of the Alliance’s Heads of State and Heads of Government have recognized that the “systemic competition,” as they call it, from assertive, authoritarian or simply revisionist powers is posing a growing challenge to the rules-based international order. Increasingly, the actions undertaken at various levels and in different guises by those actors, state and nonstate, are aimed at undermining this order, and liberal and open societies.

The rise of China as a defining global issue with far-reaching implications in and for the Euro-Atlantic area shows the complexity of the challenge for the Alliance to formulate a coherent strategy and policy. China’s economy is second only to that of the U.S. Beijing is an important trade and investment partner to many allied countries and partners across the globe. As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China is playing an instrumental role in dealing with crucially important issues, including global governance, international trade and climate change. At the same time, China is matching its military power to its economic might, having now the second-largest defense budget in the world and continuing to invest heavily in the modernization of its military, including the expansion of a nuclear arsenal with sophisticated means of delivery. Beijing does not share the values on which liberal societies are founded, as evidenced by its actions against ethnic and religious minorities, developments in Hong Kong and the systematic surveillance of its own people.

China is challenging the international rules-based order by openly threatening Taiwan, coercing neighbors in the region and hampering freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. There is concern that unimpeded access to other parts of the global commons might also be increasingly jeopardized, space in particular. In the same vein, Beijing is creating dependencies by acquiring, building and managing critical infrastructure and strategic resources in Europe and around the world. And China is actively engaged in international organizations and bodies, with a view to attempting to shape norms, standards and regulatory frameworks to its liking.

All of this has implications for allied and Euro-Atlantic security. As Secretary-General Stoltenberg described it, China is getting closer to NATO. While NATO remains a regional Alliance for Europe and North America, it is also a — if not the— key platform to create convergence when responding to the security implications of China’s rise, in particular where and when it affects Euro-Atlantic security and stability. To this end, NATO will want to engage more with its partners across the globe because this is the best way to protect the rules-based international order and safeguard security. The Alliance can be expected to step up its dialogue and cooperation with like-minded countries beyond the partnerships that already exist with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. In the future, this could include countries such as India, perhaps in the framework of the strategic dialogue known as the Quad that includes India, Australia, Japan and the U.S., or with Sub-Saharan African countries such as Ghana.

Boosting Training and Capacity Building in NATO’s Neighborhood

NATO and its allies have long recognized that their security can be directly affected by instability and conflict in their neighborhood. Hence, the considerable political and material investment over the past decades in partnerships with neighboring countries in terms of political dialogue, practical cooperation and crisis management. As part of this overarching approach, the NATO 2030 agenda foresees a significantly strengthened effort to provide training and capacity-building support to those partners in NATO’s neighborhood. As in the past, challenges lie in the allocation of the required resources, the coordination and harmonization of the Alliance with other international and national efforts and the absorption capacity of the partners. Furthermore, such assistance must be an inherent part of NATO’s broader bilateral plans and regional strategies. As geopolitics and geoeconomics increasingly become factors, NATO must properly balance Alliance interests and partner demands.

Combating and Adapting to Climate Change

Climate change, apart from being a truly existential global threat, has already become a threat multiplier. The Alliance does not have the luxury to ignore the issue. For NATO, there are at least three dimensions to consider. NATO and the allies must understand the security implications of climate change and what they mean for Alliance security. Secondly, it is clear that climate change will have an impact on how NATO does business. From infrastructure to equipment, training, exercises and logistics, NATO must consider how to adapt to these challenges. And lastly, as a responsible international actor, NATO will endeavor to make its contribution to the goal of reducing emissions. While this is primarily the responsibility of each Ally, NATO can identify best practices and should set standards.

At their June 2021 Brussels summit, NATO’s Heads of State and Heads of Government stated their aim for NATO to become the leading international organization for understanding and adapting to climate change. They agreed to significantly reduce emissions from military activities and installations — without impairing personnel safety, operational effectiveness and the deterrence and defense posture — and invited the secretary-general to assess the feasibility of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

To this end, allied leaders agreed on an ambitious action plan on climate change and security. NATO recognizes that while it is not — nor can it be — the first responder to challenges related to climate change, it does have a role to play in a comprehensive response and that it must take into account the impact of climate change on Alliance security in order to fulfill its core tasks.

The action plan consists of four strands: (1) increasing allied awareness, inter alia, by producing annual climate change impact assessments on NATO’s strategic environment and its assets, installations, operations and missions, by including climate considerations in its security risk and resilience assessments, and by leveraging more comprehensively its science and technology base; (2) adapting to climate change by incorporating the outcome of its assessments across its entire spectrum of activities on resilience, civil preparedness, defense planning, capability delivery, standardization, innovation, training, education and exercises, and disaster response; by reflecting the new requirements for its capabilities in its procurement practices and its partnership with industry; and by assessing how climate change might impact the Alliance’s deterrence and defense posture in such areas as readiness, enablement, reinforcement and military mobility; (3) contributing to the mitigation of climate change by developing mapping and analytical methodologies on emissions from military activities and installations in order to help formulate voluntary goals for their reduction, inform investment decisions and operational planning, and define the role of innovative technologies; and (4) enhancing outreach by strengthening exchanges with partner countries and organizations and by increasing dialogue with civil society, academia and industry. A first report to track the progress, review the level of ambition and inform the way ahead is expected at the Madrid summit in 2022.

Enhancing Resilience

As the secretary-general and other senior officials have consistently pointed out, the Alliance’s core priorities in the coming years are to reinforce trans-Atlantic security, broaden the concept of security, and preserve and shape the rules-based international order. Such an approach to Alliance security requires a stronger focus on resilience in a comprehensive sense, including in areas such as infrastructure, supply chains, communications, technology, the cyber domain, malign grey-zone activities below the Article 5 threshold, unimpeded access to the global commons and the strength of our open societies.

Consequently, enhancing resilience was a major theme in the deliberations of the NATO Heads of State and Heads of Government at the 2021 Brussels summit and is an important — if not pivotal — part of the NATO 2030 agenda adopted on that occasion. It needs to be based on a whole-of-society approach in which all actors, civilian and military, public and private, academia, and civil society work in synergy in order to anticipate and preempt disruptive challenges to critical functions and to absorb, respond to and recover effectively from shocks of every nature across the full spectrum of potential crises.

As part of their Strengthened Resilience Commitment, adopted at the 2021 summit,  NATO’s Heads of State and Heads of Government underscored that national and collective resilience are essential for credible deterrence and defense, for the effective fulfillment of the Alliance’s core tasks, and for safeguarding allied societies, populations and shared values. Resilience is key to countering the use of military, political, economic and other instruments of power by potential adversaries and malign actors to undermine the security of allies. While resilience is and remains primarily a national responsibility, it is also a collective commitment.

NATO has a long history when it comes to building resilience through civil preparedness. In fact, the obligation under Article 3 of the Washington Treaty to develop and maintain the capacity to resist armed attacks commits allies to building national resilience, which is understood by NATO as the combination of civil preparedness and military capacity. The allies recognized that resilience in this sense depends on the Alliance’s military capacity, on the state of the civil preparedness of each ally, and on the coordination and integration of the two.

The sophisticated resilience ecosystem that the Alliance built and maintained during the Cold War, however, withered away after the epochal paradigm shift of 1989-90 — one of the Alliance’s first peace dividends, as an astute observer remarked. With the events of 2014 and NATO’s subsequent — and ongoing — efforts to adapt to the new security environment by strengthening its deterrence and defense capabilities, this lacuna becomes painfully obvious.

Against that backdrop, NATO began to lay the groundwork for a systematic and ongoing effort to improve resilience across the Alliance. Civil preparedness was again recognized as being central to resilience and a critical enabler for the Alliance’s collective defense. In 2016, baseline requirements for allies were defined in key areas of continuity of government, continuity of essential services and civil support to military operations. These include: (1) assured continuity of government and critical government services; (2) resilient energy supplies; (3) the ability to deal effectively with uncontrolled movement of people; (4) resilient food and water resources; (5) the ability to deal with mass casualties; (6) resilient civil communications systems; and (7) resilient civil transportation systems. In subsequent years, the requirements for reliable telecommunications systems, including 5G, and related questions were updated to ensure continued functioning under crisis conditions.

Resilience has a deterrent effect by denying — or at least reducing — an adversary’s ability to achieve its objectives. Resilient societies have fewer vulnerabilities that can be leveraged or targeted. Furthermore, resilient societies can absorb strategic shocks, withstand disruptions and recover more quickly. Article 3 and Article 5 on collective defense are thus closely interrelated.

NATO recognizes that the Alliance’s military instrument of power now depends to a large extent on civil sector support, infrastructure and expertise, especially in times of crisis and conflict. Furthermore, today’s and tomorrow’s security threats and challenges are affecting every aspect of allied societies and require both military and civilian responses and options. Hence, the need for active cooperation across government, the private sector, academia and civil society.

According to the Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence at The Hague, roughly 90% of NATO’s military transport is conducted using civilian assets, over 50% of satellite communications used for purposes of defense are provided by the commercial sector, and 75% of host-nation support to NATO operations and missions is commercial in nature and sourced locally. In this context, it is worth noting that both civilian and military communications depend on reliable and secure satellite-based and fiber-optic cable networks, including the undersea infrastructure, which carries roughly 90% of the trans-Atlantic internet traffic.

At the 2021 Brussels summit, allies committed to adopting what they called a more integrated and better-coordinated approach to reduce vulnerabilities and ensure effective operations in peacetime, in crisis and in conflict. The ambition is to establish, assess, review and monitor resilience objectives to guide nationally developed resilience goals and implementation plans whereby individual allies determine how to establish and meet their goals and implement their plans in ways that are compatible with their respective national and domestic frameworks and, where applicable, with those of the EU.

This reflects the recognition that today’s societies are being challenged in very diverse ways by state and nonstate actors as well as by natural disasters and pandemics, such as COVID-19. This can include conventional, nonconventional and hybrid or grey-zone threats and activities; terrorist attacks; malicious cyber activities; hostile information activities, including disinformation aimed at destabilizing open societies and undermining their shared values; and attempts to interfere with democratic processes and good governance, to name just a few.

Consequently, NATO will step up its efforts to secure and diversify supply chains; ensure the resilience of critical infrastructure in all domains and key industries; address the impact of emerging technologies; secure next-generation communications; protect technology and intellectual property; meet challenges to energy security; deal with natural hazards and other effects exacerbated by climate change; and ensure its ability to consult, decide and act together.

All of this requires comprehensive approaches, vertically and horizontally. That includes cooperation and coordination among other international actors, government and society, the private sector, academia and other centers of expertise. It involves public communication strategies and other informational and educational efforts down to the level of the individual citizens, but also investment in resilience-building at respective local, national and international levels. And it requires the exchange of best practices, regular and continuous stress testing and an exercising of all of these mechanisms.

Most important, it must focus on strengthening the democratic resilience of the open society, for the foundation of resilience lies in the NATO allies’ shared commitment to the common values of democratic governance, individual liberty and rule of law. Protecting those democratic values and enhancing allied countries’ resilience are inextracably linked and civil society plays a pivotal role in this process. Disinformation campaigns, interference in electoral processes, or other efforts to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of democratic institutions and practices have a direct impact on the public, as the COVID-19 pandemic has so clearly illustrated. Societal resilience begins at the level of the individual citizens and their trust and confidence in democratic institutions. To this end, engaging, educating and empowering the public remains the key. That includes ensuring access to transparent, timely, accurate and verifiable information by recognizing the public’s role in support of national and collective defense and by making them a central part of national resilience and civil preparedness strategies. Allied and partner countries practicing whole-of-society and total defense concepts have shown the value of these initiatives and experiences.

NATO and EU resilience is highly desirable, particularly valuable and, indeed, necessary, given the comparative advantages both players can bring to the table, with NATO being a leader in standardization and the EU having the power of regulation. The signing of the Joint Declaration on NATO-EU Cooperation in 2016 and in 2018 by the NATO secretary-general and the EU European Council and European Commission presidents has brought closer cooperation and greater information sharing in a number of key areas, including cybersecurity and defense, countering disinformation and other malign grey-zone activities, counterterrorism, military mobility and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The future can be expected to bring increased cooperation in fields such as technology, climate change, space and the growing strategic competition among nations. Of growing importance are initiatives such as the Euro-Atlantic Centre for Resilience, which was established in Romania in May 2021 and is pursuing a business model similar to the Helsinki European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, and its joint NATO-EU focus. These initiatives help build strong and vibrant ecosystems and communities of interest that benefit its members and enhance NATO-EU interaction and cooperation more broadly.


It has rightly been said that NATO’s longevity and success are rooted in its remarkable ability to adapt to an ever-changing security environment while remaining wedded to its foundational values and preserving its unity, solidarity and cohesion despite the manifold national interests at play and the political differences among its members. This is and will remain the source of its strength and credibility. In this age of uncertainty, disruption and looming existential threats, these qualities will be severely tested and strain the Alliance. Yet, it is precisely this reality that leads NATO countries, in the sober analysis of their individual national security interests, to the conclusion that the Alliance frame continues to offer the best possible way of organizing their security and defense.

Editor’s note: This article was completed prior to Russia’s illegal escalation of aggression against Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

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