Getting NATO ready for the rest of the 21st century: eight core ideas for 2030


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held his first meeting with his fellow NATO foreign ministers last week, the priority was to heal past transatlantic rifts and mark a new beginning. With Afghanistan and Turkey’s role in the eastern Mediterranean dominating the agenda, there was not much time for quiet reflection on the alliance’s future. This was a pity because NATO has done a lot of work over the past year to analyse the new global security environment and determine how the alliance needs to respond and adapt.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appointed a team of experts, chaired by Thomas de Maiziere of Germany and Wes Mitchell of the United States, to come up with ideas on how NATO could enhance its political role and better coordinate not just military tasks but also political strategies among its members. This group reported its findings late last year and Stoltenberg has followed up with his own outreach project, called NATO 2030, to think tanks and younger audiences to gather their ideas and inputs on the alliance’s future course.

Input from the young leaders group shows an interesting generational contrast with the more senior experts group in its focus on transnational security threats, such as climate change and pandemics, rather than on the more traditional great power competition from Russia and China, not to mention familiar military challenges such as nuclear deterrence. The senior group produced 138 recommendations, which is obviously far too many for NATOs foreign ministers to digest. The advantage of Stoltenberg’s NATO 2030 initiative is that it has allowed the alliance’s leadership to filter all these multiple ideas and proposals and boil them down to a more manageable set of eight recommendations to guide the revision of NATO’s Strategic Concept. This is expected to be launched by NATO’s heads of state and government when they meet in Brussels, probably in June.

Stoltenberg may have hoped that foreign ministers would have found more time and inclination to look at his proposals last week and give him some feedback. This task will now need to be performed by the NATO Summit.

A new Strategic Concept is urgently needed to ensure that the alliance can defend its norms

The alliance’s current Strategic Concept dates back to the Lisbon Summit in 2010. It is clearly out of date, having been conceived in the days when terrorism and energy cutoffs seemed to be the major threats and the alliance’s primary role seemed to be to cultivate partnerships with non-member states rather than to face up to aggressive great power rivals. Managing against inferior opponents and regional crises as they came along, such as in the Balkans or later Libya, seemed to be more likely tasks than defending democracy against a global authoritarian onslaught or preparing to fight major high-tech wars far from the alliance’s home base.

Yet the security environment has sharply deteriorated over the past decade, making crises the rule rather than the exception and giving NATO a much broader and tougher spectrum of threats to deal with, both internally and externally. A new Strategic Concept is urgently needed to ensure that the alliance can defend its norms, strengthen its instruments and deter adversaries with a new-found appetite for risk and confrontation. It will not provide solutions to every challenge, but it can clarify thinking, establish priorities and refocus the allies on collective goals and efforts rather than the usual national perspectives, hobby horses and talking points.

So how are Stoltenberg’s eight big ideas likely to go down with the 30 allied delegations at NATO HQ?

The first on enhancing political consultations among allies will probably receive a favourable reception. After all, the initial impetus for the NATO 2030 exercise was an interview that President Macron of France gave to The Economist in 2019. Macron declared that NATO was “brain dead”, a statement that shocked many allies at a time when the alliance was already facing attacks on its credibility from the Trump administration. As they rushed to defend NATO from Macron’s outburst, the allies gave the alliance a much needed public relations boost. Macron subsequently clarified that he felt that NATO was working fine as a military planning organisation but that it had failed to rein in Turkey over its interventions in Syria or Libya and that too many allies were acting unilaterally without prior notification in the North Atlantic Council. Yet those same allies were then coming to the Council and invoking Article 4 of the NATO treaty to request diplomatic backing for their unilateral and often surprise actions.

Some allies believe that this benchmarking by NATO would be too instrusive

Given the turbulent state of international relations, it makes sense for the allies to use NATO more to share their analyses and try to forge common approaches on regional conflicts and global challenges, but this has been tried in the past and has not worked. Some allies believe NATO should only discuss regional issues where it has a direct responsibility, such as troops on the ground. The Western Balkans comes to mind here. Others worry that if NATO discusses a regional crisis, it will be interpreted by others as the alliance preparing to take action which could be destabilising. Allies have also preferred to discuss sensitive issues bilaterally or in smaller groups like the Quad, Five Eyes or Contact Group. Many EU allies think that the EU is a better instrument for coordinating with the US in a major crisis than NATO because it links security, diplomacy, trade and humanitarian resources. So whereas most allies will support the calls for a more political NATO, putting it into practice in concrete cases will no doubt prove more difficult.

One area where the Secretary General may have more success is in broadening NATO consultations to more areas of government. Terrorism, attacks on critical infrastructure, disinformation campaigns, extreme weather events and pandemics are more likely to be handled by interior ministers, national security advisors, local mayors and police chiefs than by foreign or defence ministries. So NATO could invite these homeland defence authorities to meet with or in the North Atlantic Council to help allies share expertise and enhance their preparedness. A good example was set in 2019 when national security advisors met at NATO to discuss hybrid warfare and a playbook of diplomatic and economic countermeasures. When it comes to budgets, meetings of finance ministers could prove useful. Finance ministers actually met frequently at NATO in its early years in the 1950s when the alliance was trying to find the resources to fund its initial Lisbon package of military force goals.

The second area is resilience. The years since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 have seen NATO turn its attention to hybrid warfare and non-conventional threats, as well as more classical, conventional defence. The civil emergency planning structures that the alliance developed during the Cold War to handle things like sufficiency in foodstuffs, water, fuel, communications, air and surface transport and continuity of government have been revived. NATO planners have established seven baseline requirements to cover these areas and extended their scope to new forms of connectivity, such as cyber space, satellite availability and data integrity. Allies have received detailed questionnaires, asking them to report on their levels of investment, redundancy and preparedness, an exercise that helps NATO planners spot gaps and vulnerabilities.

The proposal now is to go beyond reporting and to the next step, which is to formulate concrete resilience goals that will be apportioned among allies in the same way as the defence planning capability targets. These resilience goals would then become highly visible national commitments which the allies would assess collectively every two years or so. They would come with obvious financial and investment implications. However, some allies believe that this benchmarking by NATO would be too instrusive in a domain of critical infrastructure protection which can be highly sensitive. They feel that this should remain a national responsibility and not something managed or decided by NATO. So whether the resilience goals will be adopted or watered down into something less specific or binding and subject to which level of NATO oversight is still to be determined.

The era of major interventions seems to be behind us

Third is climate change. As a former UN Special Envoy on climate change, it is not surprising that Stoltenberg has chosen to lead on this subject. Although NATO made a passing one line reference to the security implications of global warming in its 2010 Strategic Concept, it has not systematically addressed this challenge until now. Last week NATO foreign ministers approved the alliance’s first collective analysis on this topic. The Secretary General has now put some concrete ideas on the table. They have the merit of staying well within the alliance’s field of competence, which should help to achieve consensus.

For instance, Stoltenberg has suggested that NATO adopt common standards for military vehicles and equipment that use carbon reduction technologies and that NATO adapts and trains its forces to be able to operate in more extreme weather environments. Military bases and essential infrastructure, such as ports, need to be made more resilient to sea level rise and higher temperatures. Finally NATO, with its intelligence sharing and strategic forecasting capabilities, can serve as a hub for developing early warning and foresight among allies and partners regarding geopolitical shifts, engendered by climate change or more imminent political and social stresses, leading to possible crises and humanitarian disasters. These are all sensible and highly feasible proposals which should be adopted.

Another proposal is in the area of education and training. As NATO comes to the end of its time in Afghanistan and eventually in Kosovo too, the era of major interventions seems to be behind us. The focus is now moving to training and educating local forces to handle domestic stabilisation tasks largely by themselves, but with on the ground mentoring and support from international advisory teams. The EU is already going in this direction with its European Union Training Missions (EUTM) in the Sahel and its new European Peace Facility. NATO also has set up a number of advisory missions in places such as Ukraine, Georgia and Jordan, and NATO defence ministers back in February decided to expand the alliance’s training mission in Iraq across the country, with an extra 1,200 NATO trainers and a new Danish command. Stoltenberg is now proposing to put these activities on a more structured basis by setting up a new training command HQ as part of the alliance’s integrated military command system. Yet there are two questions here.

The first is: does NATO have enough training clients to justify such a large new structure? The EU is already doing many of the training missions in areas of strategic interest to NATO, such as the Sahel, and persuading non-EU allies, such as the US and the UK, to make a military contribution if not in the framework of the EUTMs then under the UN flag or bilaterally. If the alliance preserves a major training role in Afghanistan once its current Resolute Support mission there concludes, a new training HQ may make sense, although there is always the question whether individual HQs attached to each specific mission are closer to the action and work better. Yet the Taliban in Afghanistan want all foreign forces to leave by the agreed 1 May deadline. So the future demand for NATO’s training services, beyond the existing operations, is uncertain; and there is already a regional training centre in Kuwait which is under-utilised. So the second key question is whether the allies will be prepared to establish a new, expensive HQ with extra manpower requirements or decide that training should be carried out by the current and recently expanded NATO command structure.

Technology inevitably also has to be part of NATO 2030

Next is burden sharing. Unsurprisingly, Secretary Blinken reminded allies of their commitment to spend 2% of their GDP on defence when he visited Brussels last week. Yet he also helpfully suggested that the US would not solely look at this target in assessing equitable alliance burdensharing. Contributions to NATO operations and to meeting important capability targets for new equipment and greater readiness would also be taken into account. This will be music to the ears of many allies who have long been advocating these broader – and in their view, fairer – criteria. The Secretary General has now proposed a common NATO burdensharing fund which could be used to support or reimburse allies who deploy forces on NATO operations. More common funding could incentivise allies to volunteer contributions, especially when operations come out of the blue and have not been anticipated in constrained annual national defence budgets. The UN practices this type of reimbursement for its peacekeeping forces. Yet certain allies may well resist this idea. It would imply a considerable increase in NATO’s collective budgets and France, in particular, has long argued that “costs should lie where they fall”; in other words, that it is the national responsibility of each ally to provide adequate resources for its armed forces and to cover national operations, both planned and unplanned. Those allies meeting NATO’s 2% target do not want to have to pay twice; first for themselves and thereafter for less committed allies.

In sixth place comes Russia. The NATO-Russia Council has not met since 2019. Stoltenberg has suggested these meetings should now be revived, arguing persuasively that it is even more important to talk and understand each other during times of tension than during more cooperative moments. Yet here the allies face a dilemma. They insist – rightly in my view – that Ukraine and Russia’s destabilising hybrid warfare activities, such as cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and election interference, should be top of the agenda when the NATO-Council meets; but this makes Moscow reluctant to accept NATO’s invitations to meet as it knows it will be put on the defensive. Russia is more interested in resuming military contacts with NATO than in the political dialogue which it does not believe can be productive in current circumstances.

NATO and Russia do indeed need to talk about military stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, transparency, risk reduction and incident prevention. Russia has also made proposals regarding moving exercises away from borders and a moratorium on intermediate range missile deployments. These may not be acceptable to allies but there is undoubtedly an important arms control agenda to be discussed with Russia, which also includes the issue of what to do with lapsed treaties, such as Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, Open Skies or the OSCE-based Structured Dialogue and Vienna Document, which provide for data exchanges and discussions on threat assessments. Yet how best to engage in this discussion without the alliance compromising on Ukraine and Crimea and giving Russia the impression of a return to business as usual remains unclear.

Technology inevitably also has to be part of NATO 2030. The alliance has been working on understanding better the impact of disruptive technologies on modern warfare, particularly in the information and data management space. Some allies, such as the UK with its just published Defence Command paper, have embarked on a radical transformation of their armed forces to better protect them from the technology of adversaries and to better exploit their own advanced technologies on the battlefield. NATO can usefully learn from the UK experience as it goes forward and the alliance will certainly benefit from the additional capabilities in offensive cyber, space effects and AI exploitation that the UK defence reform is designed to promote. The UK armed forces of the future will look less like conventional infantry with tanks and armour and more like nimble and stealthy special operations forces.

Yet the exploitation of high-tech has to be paid for by reducing manpower – 10,000 in the UK case – and the numbers of tanks, ships and fighter aircraft. Soon France, with a defence budget similar to that of the UK, will have 60% more soldiers and 50% more tanks. This poses the question of the trade off between quality and quantity in modern warfare and between keeping a full spectrum force as opposed to focusing on niche capabilities. NATO depends on its larger and more powerful members to maintain a full spectrum of forces in order to act as framework nations to integrate the more specialised units of the medium-sized and smaller allies, thereby enhancing inter-operability. So as NATO works to better understand and use emerging technologies, the question is: how far should it come to rely on them? Will technology be 100% effective or should the alliance preserve a capacity to fight in technologically degraded environments?

Out-competing China is clearly a better policy than trying to out-confront China

Finally, in eighth place but certainly not in terms of importance, comes NATO’s future role in the Indo-Pacific. For the first time, NATO’s next Strategic Concept will have to state how the alliance can face up to two great powers and strategic rivals at the same time. This is complicated by the fact that Russia and China are not only very different in the way in which they challenge Western democracies but also that they are increasingly working together, especially in the military domain. Russia is bringing China closer to Europe, especially with their joint maritime exercises in the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean. So NATO needs to develop separate strategies for how it deals with Russia and China but also a joint approach for how it deals with them together. Putin at the recent Valdai conference did not exclude that they could conclude a formal military alliance in the future.

NATO has spent a lot of time trying to better analyse and understand China, which is no bad thing as China has spent several decades analysing the NATO countries, their strengths and vulnerabilities. This work has given China its newfound confidence in the way it deals with democracies today and pushes back hard against criticism and perceptions of interference. Yet the Strategic Concept must now go beyond studying China and set out a strategy for handling systemic competition with Beijing over the long run. Here, out-competing China is clearly a better policy than trying to out-confront China. This means that NATO’s future China strategy is likely to focus first and foremost on managing the challenge of China’s rise at home; this includes improving the resilience and autonomy of supply chains, watching investment patterns and improving the science, technology and defence industry base of allies. NATO will also keep watch on joint Chinese-Russian military exercises or operations in the Artic, the Baltic or Mediterranean, as well as in Russia’s western military district. The alliance will also track China’s use of soft power through influence campaigns and the media, plus any recourse to more overt hybrid warfare tactics.

This approach seems more realistic than a NATO military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, given its long-term and heavy military responsibilities in the European neighbourhood. The more the US leaves this task to the European allies, the more they will need to fully devote their limited military capabilities. This implies that deployments in the Indo-Pacific will be largely the affair of individual allies rather than NATO as a whole. In this respect, the UK has decided to send its new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, to the South China Sea in October, and France recently sent a submarine on a freedom of navigation mission to the same location. France, Germany and Belgium have also sent frigates on port visits to the Indo-Pacific and to join multinational exercises. This leaves two key questions that the new NATO Strategic Concept will need to resolve.

NATO’s Secretary General deserves credit for grabbing the bull by the horns and putting his ideas on the table

First, the alliance will have to identify a format for talks with Beijing. The more it concentrates on the challenge from China, the more it needs to open up a channel of dialogue with this country. Otherwise misunderstandings and mutual threat perceptions are bound to grow. NATO 2030 recommends this step although it stops short of advocating the creation of a NATO-China Council, with associated working groups and sub-structures, along the lines of the NATO-Russia Council. The two co-chairs of the Secretary General’s senior group of experts thought that such a Council would be premature until the allies have harmonised their assessments of China. So other interim channels will be required instead. For instance, a military dialogue and confidence building such as that between NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Chairman of the Military Committee with the Russian defence chief, Valery Gerasimov, annual strategic talks between the NATO International Staff and senior Chinese foreign and defence ministry officials, as well as a parliamentary track through the partnership outreach of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

The second question is what will be the future shape of the alliance’s relationship with its Asia-Pacific partners, such as Australia, Japan and South Korea? Only one – Australia – is currently part of NATO’s Enhanced Opportunity Partnership. How interested will they be in stepping up their cooperation with the alliance if NATO is not taking on military roles and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific? Will they be content with a more intellectual form of partnership which is limited to exchanges of assessments on Indo-Pacific security and emerging challenges such as terrorism, piracy, cyber or climate driven threats; or will NATO propose some more concrete activities such as an annual maritime exercise in the Indian Ocean to practice freedom of navigaton or anti-piracy procedures? If NATO is not ready to deploy ships or air assets in the region, will it at least consider establishing military liaison and diplomatic offices in the region to improve allies’ situational awareness and connectivity with Asia-Pacific partners? This could be of value at a time when countries like Australia have announced military modernisation programmes and increases in their naval deployments and regional training and engagement activities.

In conclusion, NATO 2030 has been a useful exercise in mapping out for the allies the key issues and choices that they will confront in adapting the alliance to today’s rapidly mutating and unfortunately deteriorating security environment. NATO’s Secretary General deserves credit for grabbing the bull by the horns and putting his ideas on the table. Having spent so much of his time and energy on managing crises, as much in relations among allies as between allies and their adversaries, he has now taken the lead in the debate on NATO’s long- term future. He has identified the right options; but it is now up to the alliance’s leaders at their summit later this year to provide the detailed guidance, clarity and coherence that alone can allow a new NATO Strategic Concept worth its salt to be successfully drafted.

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