What to Expect From NATO’s New Strategic Concept

Adm. James Stavridis, dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

As the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations prepare to meet this week in Madrid, I’m reminded of a call I received shortly after I became supreme allied commander at the alliance in 2009. It was from Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and with the directness for which he was famous, he said: “Jim, I want you to work with Madeleine Albright on our new NATO Strategic Concept. We are on a short timeline, and it must be done right. Get in touch with her and give her all your support.” 

I didn’t know Albright, who had been US secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, well. But, like pretty much everyone who did, I was in awe of her energy, good humor and drive. We contacted her team and set up an introductory call, and for the next year I was privileged to be part of her team creating a long-term strategy for the alliance, the first of the 21st century.

The result, “Active Engagement, Modern Defense,” was adopted at NATO’s 2010 summit in Lisbon. I still treasure my small, blue, battered pocket copy, signed by Albright. I literally carried it with me throughout the four years I led the alliance’s military operations.

As you would expect, the strategic concept reflected the times: It was full of references to counterterrorism, Afghanistan, the Balkans, counterpiracy and the other missions of the day. There are brief mentions of climate change and cyberwarfare, and China does not appear. 

Perhaps the most ironic part of the 2010 strategy are the words: “NATO poses no threat to Russia. On the contrary: we want to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia.”

While it is certainly true that NATO does not pose a threat to Russia, then or now, unfortunately, Russia under President Vladimir Putin certainly poses a threat to the alliance. Wars against Ukraine in 2014 and 2022 are testament to his ambition to dominate the Western approaches to his nation. 

This week, for the first time since 2010, NATO will adopt and release a new strategic concept. Appropriately, this will occur again on the Iberian Peninsula, which juts into the broad ocean bridging the 30 members of the transatlantic alliance. What will the new strategic concept discuss, and what does its adoption portend for the venerable organization?

Russia will clearly be at the top of everyone’s mind. After invasions of democratic nations and NATO partners Georgia and Ukraine (and a “soft invasion” of Moldova), the alliance has adopted an appropriately hard line toward the Russian Federation. 

Look for strong words that will codify significant defense increases, exemplified by Germany’s extraordinary near-doubling of its military budget for this year. Many more nations will hit the alliance goal of 2% of GDP devoted to defense. The strategic concept will also likely outline an increase in NATO’s standing response forces. (Until now, NATO has limited itself to rotating forces in and out of its Eastern European members.)

There will also likely be an underscoring of NATO’s commitment to the Arctic. As global warming opens vast resources and shipping routes, the geopolitical tension between Russia on one side of the “Arctic Porch” and NATO on the other (the US, Canada, Denmark, Iceland and Norway) will increase. Surveillance, training and joint exercises will likewise be stepped up. And the likely addition of two Nordic nations, Finland and Sweden, adds to the importance of the “high north” and to the alliance’s strength in its waters.

Cyberwarfare will feature far more prominently than in the 2010 document. The number of devices connected to the “internet of things” has increased from around 7 billion in 2010 to well above 50 billion today. This represents both convenience (I can open my garage door from 2,000 miles away!) but also a vast threat area that can be penetrated by enemy nations and non-state actors. Recent experience blunting Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine will help inform NATO’s new approach.

Unlike in 2010, this long-term plan will describe China as a strategic competitor. NATO is not looking for conflict with Beijing, but must be capable of addressing concerns in cyberspace, human rights and territorial claims in the South China Sea — including consideration of NATO undertaking freedom of navigation patrols. The updated document will also likely emphasize cooperation globally with non-NATO democracies including Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Finally, the concept will emphasize that applications for expansion will be welcome, subject to the requirements for entry laid out in the NATO treaty. Finland and Sweden are at the front of the line, but Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia are still hoping for a path to membership, and so of course is Ukraine.

All these initiatives are sensible and necessary. It is worth remembering, however, how wrong our 2010 document was in the case of Russia. Dwight D. Eisenhower, NATO’s first supreme allied commander, supposedly said that “the plan is nothing, but planning is everything.” He meant, correctly, that the alliance will get some things wrong and overlook others. 

We may be headed toward a more constructive relationship with China than expected. Or there may be unexpected but significant out-of-area challenges — perhaps in sub-Saharan Africa, stemming from piracy or mass migration headed toward Europe. Who, back in 2000, would have predicted a NATO mission in Afghanistan with 150,000 troops? 

But the process of thinking through the potential challenges, crafting a document that lays out a broad course of action, and working together to implement it, will inherently make the alliance more prepared for whatever the next decade brings. This 2022 strategic concept will emphasize the core strengths of NATO — a shared belief in democracy, liberty, rule of law and the other values we cherish. I just wish Madeleine Albright was here to see it.

This piece is republished from The Washington Post.

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