The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit, held in Madrid between 28 and 30 June 2022, represents an important turning point in the history, tasks and future strategies of the most prominent military alliance in the world today.
After years of debate about the feasibility of continuing the alliance after the main threat that caused its establishment ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fading of the communist threat, the recent Russian-Ukrainian came to restore the alliance’s momentum once again, and justify its perseverance as well as the development of its military capabilities, increasing its internal cohesion, and modernizing its defence strategy to respond to current and future developments.
Therefore, the Madrid summit adopted of a new strategic concept for the alliance, which outlines the changes in its guiding principles and priorities from 2022 to 2030.
In this context, this study will discuss the changes proposed by the new document, including the alliance’s strategic concept and priorities during the next stage, in addition to the tools that the alliance seeks to possess to enhance its ability to confront the new threats identified by the document, and the future of the alliance in light of these changes.
Developments in the alliance’s military strategy
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in April 1949, as a collective security alliance that aims to provide mutual collective defence for its members through military and political means, if any member state was threatened or attacked by any external power.
Therefore, NATO was established primarily to confront the threat of the former Soviet Union or the “communist threat” that was sweeping across Eastern Europe at the time.
It began with 12 countries that signed its founding treaty (the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal), before Turkey and Greece joined it in 1952, followed by West Germany in 1955, then Spain in 1982.
The alliance then began its journey of eastward expansion to eventually include 14 countries from the eastern bloc following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, raising the total number of NATO members to 30 by the time the Russian-Ukrainian war started at the beginning of the year 2022.
These members include countries involved in the Warsaw Pact, which was established by the Soviet Union in 1955 as an anti-NATO alliance, as well as countries located on Russia’s borders or in its influence sphere, which Moscow considers a serious threat to its national security.
- The following map demonstrates the different stages of NATO’s expansion and the dates of its membership.
In addition, the alliance’s military strategies underwent various changes and developments, according to the nature of the stage that the alliance went through and its perception of the source of the threat it had to face.
Following the establishment of the alliance and up until the end of the Cold War in 1990, its strategy mainly focused on adopting an effective deterrence policy in the face of the Soviet threat, including its nuclear threat.
This deterrence policy was based on Article 5 of the treaty signed in Washington, which established the alliance and its core principle of collective defence, as it states that “the parties agree that any armed attack on one or more NATO member states in Europe and North America is considered an attack on all members, and each member will take the measures it deems necessary, including the use of armed forces to re-establish and guarantee security in the North Atlantic region.
Despite the change in the strategic concepts on which the alliance’s military strategy was built throughout the Cold War, it remained rooted in the concept of collective deterrence and defence.
Furthermore, this was confirmed in the first Strategic Concept adopted and announced by the Alliance in December 1949, which served as the first framework document defining the strategic directions of the organization, and in 1952 and 1957, the Alliance adopted its second and third strategic concepts, respectively, which focused in particular on the management of nuclear deterrence, as the two documents emphasized the need to respond to any aggression against member states with a war in which all means are used, including nuclear weapons, so that the response is greater than the force used in the attack to deter the aggressor and convince him that he will suffer greater losses if he attacks, in what was known as the “Mass revenge strategy”.
However, this strategy underwent credibility tests that proved that it is difficult to implement, which prompted the alliance to consider an alternative strategy called the “Flexible response strategy”, in 1967, which focuses on the gradual response by giving the alliance flexibility to respond in the event of a threat to the sovereignty and independence of the member states of the alliance and the gradual response according to the nature of the threat, with the nuclear response being the last means of deterrence.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, questions began to revolve around the future of NATO and the feasibility of its continuation after the threat that originally prompted its establishment faded, therefore, the alliance began to change its strategic concepts, especially given that the collapse of the Soviet Union was accompanied by a variety of global transformations that emerged at the beginning of the 1990s, presenting new threats, such as the war in Yugoslavia and Kosovo, as well as the growing phenomenon of extremism, terrorism and other issues which posed challenges that forced NATO to intervene and try to change the global strategic environment in which it operates.
Thus, NATO sought to adopt new strategies and concepts that respond to the changing global security environment, and at the same time try to solve the dilemma of how to reconcile its charter, which does not allow it to intervene outside its territory, with the need to confront emerging security threats outside its territory, which threaten the interests of its members.
In this context, the Alliance adopted its Fifth Strategic Concept in 1991, which encourages the establishment of partnerships with old adversaries after the collapse of the USSR, issuing an important document in 1997 declaring that the alliance “does not intend or plan to deploy or store nuclear weapons in the territories of its new members”.
In 1999, the Alliance issued its Sixth Strategic Concept, adding a new mandate to NATO, which is “crisis management”, and stressed the need to take into account the global framework “as the security interests of the Alliance and its countries can be affected by threats that go beyond mere aggression on the territory of one of its members”, including terrorist acts, organized crime, and obstructing the flow of vital resources to member states.
This concept expanded the scope of NATO’s military intervention to include humanitarian causes, peacekeeping operations, and nuclear non-proliferation, both inside and outside Europe.
Although the term terrorism was mentioned once in this sixth strategic concept, this phenomenon soon imposed itself as one of the most dangerous threats two years later, specifically in 2001, when the September 11 attacks shocked the United States, the leading country of NATO.
Therefore, the alliance found itself obligated to intervene militarily in Afghanistan with the US, making this the only time that Article 5 (the collective defence clause) was activated since the establishment of NATO in 1949.
In response to this and other changes in the international security environment during the 2000s, NATO issued its Seventh Strategic Concept in 2010, which focused on missile defence systems as one of the central elements of collective defence, as well as on the issue of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and around the world.
The alliance also vowed to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, however, it opted to keep the nuclear deterrent as long as such weapons existed in the world, and the document stated that resorting to nuclear weapons is highly unlikely, but the nuclear strategic arsenals remain the ultimate guarantee for the security of the alliance countries.
The document reaffirmed the task indicated by the Sixth Strategic Concept on crisis management, noting that crises and conflicts taking place outside NATO’s territory may directly threaten its interests, and therefore NATO must intervene wherever possible and when the need arises to prevent or manage crises to restore stability to the region.
Perhaps the most important change included in the seventh strategic concept is that of NATO’s position on Russia, where Russia was described as a strategic partner, and it was allowed to participate in the NATO summit meetings in Lisbon in 2010, which is a fundamental change given that the alliance was originally established to counter the Russian threat.
The Ukrainian war & NATO’s new strategic concept
The Ukraine crisis of 2022 constituted a crossroads for NATO and an opportunity to show its effectiveness and emphasize the importance of its role for the member states, after many years of doubts about the feasibility and attempts by countries like Germany to dismantle the alliance, and the French President Emmanuel Macron saying that the alliance has become “brain dead” in 2019.
Even though NATO did not directly intervene in the Russian-Ukrainian war, its role was decisive in preventing the expansion of the war into the borders of the member states of the alliance, especially the eastern ones, as well as providing Ukraine with military support and boosting its ability to resist the Russian incursion and prevent Russia from achieving a quick military victory as it had planned.
Hence, there was broad agreement among researchers and observers that the war restored momentum to the alliance and reaffirmed its importance to its member states and their peoples.
One of the direct results of the Russian-Ukrainian war was that Finland and Sweden, two countries not historically affiliated with NATO, retracted their neutral position for the first time, and applied to join the alliance during the Madrid summit in late June 2022, a request that was approved during the NATO summit and has already been endorsed by most Member States.
This development reaffirmed the importance of the impact that the Ukrainian crisis had on the European mentality and perception of the vital role played by the alliance and its role in protecting Europe and defending its security.
Furthermore, the Russian threat eliminated American criticism of the Europeans’ lack of military contribution to the alliance, especially Germany, prompting Chancellor Olaf Schultz to announce a historic review of the German defence policy, on February 27, 2022, adding 100 billion euros to the defence budget, and confirming that Berlin will allocate more than 2% of its GDP to military spending from now until 2024, which is what the US has been demanding for years.
The Ukrainian war restored momentum to NATO and reaffirmed the importance of its role, and the keenness of its members to strengthen its future role as the guarantor of European security.
This was clearly reflected in the eighth strategic concept adopted by the alliance during the recent Madrid summit, called “The Strategic Concept of NATO 2022”, where the document confirmed that the war waged by Russia on Ukraine led to the destabilization of peace and a serious change in the security environment surrounding the alliance before it clearly announced that “The Russian Federation represents the greatest direct threat to the security of the Allies as well as peace and stability in the Atlantic European region” after it was a partner in the previous strategic concept.
The conditions created by the war prompted NATO countries to reaffirm their cooperation and enhance their capabilities in the field of deterrence and defence, thus confirming that NATO will continue to strengthen its capabilities to achieve strategic stability through the development of an integrated air and missile defence system “to prevent any potential enemy from using any potential opportunity for aggression”, which will require enhancing the collective readiness of its member states, and improving its ability to deploy, respond and cooperate.
Regarding the nuclear option, the document reaffirmed that as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance, and the document also considered that the possible use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials against NATO by hostile and non-governmental parties still constitutes a threat to the security of the alliance countries.
To face these threats and risks, the document confirmed that the alliance will accelerate the process of digital transformation, enhance electronic defences and innovation, and focus on increasing investments in emerging technologies, in addition to enhancing resilience at both the national and alliance levels against military and non-military threats.
The document was not limited to the military threats highlighted by the Russian war on Ukraine, which created a security environment very similar to the Cold War period, and dedicated a large space to asymmetric threats, the most prominent of which are:
1- The terrorist threat: the new document describes it as “a direct, disproportionate threat to the security of our citizens and international peace and prosperity”, noting that terrorist organizations seeking to attack or incite attacks against allies are expanding their networks, enhancing their capabilities, and investing in new technologies to improve their reach and lethality.
2- Cyber and space threats: the document referred to “malicious actors” that seek to weaken the vital infrastructure of NATO countries, interfere in their government services, extract intelligence information, steal intellectual property and impede their military activities, considering that maintaining safe use and unrestricted access to space and cyber security is a key factor in any effective deterrence and defence.
The document went so far as to classify malicious cyber attacks or hostile space operations as a reason to activate the collective defence article of the Washington Treaty.
3- Climate change: The new strategic concept gave this issue special importance, as “climate change” was mentioned 11 times in the document compared to once in the 2010 document, stating that climate change will have a profound impact on the security of allies, describing this threat as a crisis that could exacerbate conflict, fragility and geopolitical competition.
Perhaps, the most remarkable development in NATO’s new strategic concept is its position on China.
For the first time in its history, the alliance classified China as a “challenge” to the security, interests and values of its member states, accusing Beijing of seeking to control key technological and industrial sectors, vital infrastructure, strategic materials and supply chains, in addition to using its economic influence to create strategic dependencies, enhance its influence, and undermine the rules-based international order, including in the space, electronic and maritime fields, which indicates that there is a state of ambiguity about China’s strategy and objectives behind increasing its military capabilities.
The document also criticized China’s deepening economic partnerships with Russia, and in a remarkable move, the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand along with their counterparts from the thirty NATO countries participating in the recent Madrid summit, confirmed that they will follow the lead of the US in focusing attention on East and Southeast Asia.
How the new strategic concept affects the future of NATO
The Russian-Ukrainian war has given NATO new momentum and restored its status as the most prominent, important and strongest defence alliance in the world, and the new strategic concept lays the foundations for the alliance’s future rise in position, whether through the clear commitment of member states to strengthen the alliance’s deterrence and defence capabilities through an integrated mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities complemented by space and cyber capabilities, or by developing a road map to deal with asymmetric threats, including issues such as terrorism, cyber security and climate change, or by pledging to accelerate the digital transformation of the countries of the alliance and adapting the NATO command structure to the advanced era of information and strengthening its cyber defences, networks and infrastructure, and working to promote innovation and increase investments in emerging and disruptive technologies to maintain the possibility of comprehensive superiority, or by increasing efforts to anticipate crises with the aim of preventing or managing them in a manner that does not harm the security of the alliance countries, or by continuing the open door policy and expanding to include New allied countries, or any of the other pledges and commitments included in the new document, all of which confirm that NATO will strengthen its future position as the largest and strongest military alliance in the world, and more importantly, the most capable of deterring threats.
However, some of what was included in this document may push NATO in the opposite direction, especially the part regarding NATO’s position on China, which may push China to rapprochement with Russia to form a front against NATO which sees them as a threat, which would effectively restore international polarization similar to the Cold War.
Furthermore, the alliance’s tendency to expand the scope of its military and security operations to cover larger areas of the world will add to its burden, and increase the divisions among its member states about the feasibility of this expansion, especially if the situation develops into a confrontation in East and Southeast Asia.
However, in light of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the new NATO document, the current political scene clearly indicates that the most likely scenario is that NATO will enhance its capabilities and cohesion, as well as its status as the most prominent military alliance in the world, at least in the near future.
» By: Dr Fattouh Haikal (Head of Research at Trends Research and Advisory )