NATO’s future & the new strategic concept

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 ) ‬

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