February 01, 2021

NATO Must Adapt for a Dangerous New Era

The North Atlantic Alliance has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make much-needed changes and reinvent itself as the central strategic platform for transatlantic cooperation.

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An F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in support of Exercise Trident Juncture 18 in the Norwegian Sea October 25, 2018.
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NATO must adapt to prepare itself for a new era of strategic rivalry with China and Russia. That is the central message of a 67-page report that a group of 10 senior experts, which we co-chaired, delivered to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in November 2020.

This new era will be both very different from and more dangerous than the comparatively stable world that NATO knew after the Cold War. Navigating it will require NATO to rethink its Strategic Concept, get serious about the threat from China, and develop a transatlantic agenda for emerging technologies. While prioritizing strategic competition with big-power rivals, NATO will also have to be capable of addressing transnational risks such as pandemics and climate change. All of this will require the alliance to reinvent itself as the central strategic platform for transatlantic cooperation.

Although none of this will be easy, NATO has shown throughout its history that it is capable of evolving in response to changing external conditions. To do so today, NATO allies will have to grasp the seriousness of the geopolitical changes underway, set strategic priorities that reflect the realities of the emerging environment, and show political will and follow-through in implementing tough reforms. We believe that NATO is up to this challenge, and that it has an opportunity and responsibility to overcome internal centrifugal forces and strengthen a stable and open international order. But the hour is late and the time to act is now. 

Why NATO Must Adapt

The world of 2030 will look very different from the post-Cold War world. That environment was characterized, above all, by the absence of a great power competitor of the type that NATO faced throughout the Cold War. That’s not to say that NATO did not face challenges. In the 1990s, there were the aftershocks of the collapse of Yugoslavia and instability in the Balkans and other neighboring regions. In the early 2000s, the threat of international Islamist terrorism reared its head, first with the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on Washington and New York and later with attacks on Madrid, London, Berlin, Paris, and other European cities.

These were serious challenges that required NATO to evolve and sometimes placed strains on its internal cohesion. But throughout this period, NATO did not face the one thing that, historically, has been the greatest threat to the freedom and existence of its members: a large state rival powerful enough to directly threaten the Euro-Atlantic area.

Looking to 2030, NATO will have to contend with not one but two such players. The first and most familiar to us is Russia. That country’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine exploded two Western conceits—that Russia was a spent geopolitical force incapable of effectively challenging the West, and that the use of military force to take and hold physical territory was a thing of the past. As Russia has amply demonstrated in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya, it is able and willing to project force outside its own borders in ways that threaten Western interests. More importantly, Russia’s pioneering use of limited-war techniques to achieve territorial faits accompli, backed by a modernized conventional and nuclear arsenal, will continue to make it a primary threat to NATO security for the foreseeable future.

Then there is China. That country’s growing power and assertiveness will be the single most significant trend of the coming decade. China is neither purely a commercial partner nor bound in its actions to the Asia-Pacific region. Its leaders are pursuing an increasingly aggressive global strategic agenda, backed by their country’s rising enormous economic and military heft. They seek dominance in emerging technological fields such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, eagerly harvest know-how from NATO members for military application, and seek wide-ranging control in critical infrastructure and other sensitive sectors of the economy. China is modernizing its armed forces in all domains, and in coming years will project more military power globally, including in the Euro-Atlantic region.

The Imperative of Setting Priorities

Of course, the threats posed by China and Russia don’t mean that other problems will go away. Terrorism remains a vexing and ever-present danger for most NATO societies. Turbulence from NATO’s south will continue to generate human and security pressures. Climate change could in coming years take on greater security implications, for example as melting ice caps facilitate geopolitical competition in the Arctic. And as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, global pandemics pose an enormous challenge not only to the public health of NATO countries but to their economic security. In all of these areas, our report makes recommendations for how to strengthen or clarify NATO’s role going forward.

But a key message of the report is that not all threats are equal. Some lend themselves more naturally to being dealt with in a NATO format than others. Ultimately, NATO remains a military-defensive alliance charged with the security of its members. Surveying the threat landscape of the 2020s, the most serious dangers by far will come from large, purposeful, well-armed state actors. Specifically it is the combination of China’s rise and Russia’s persistence as a capable and vengeful military power that will comprise the central problem set for the alliance over the coming decade. Taken in tandem, even if they do not formally align, Russia and China confront NATO with a larger share of power and territory in the hands of rival states than it has ever faced since the height of the Cold War—and possibly ever.

This fact poses very real implications for the security of all NATO allies. But the challenge of Russia and China is not only, or even mainly, military in natureit is political as well. Both Russia and China are ruled by avowedly authoritarian regimes. While not animated by ideology to the extent that the Soviet Union was, both advance an anti-democratic vision for their neighborhoods and the world. They use a range of non-military tools, from divisive diplomacy to disinformation, as well as active measures, seeking to stoke divisions inside democratic societies as a means of weakening public institutions and to gain an advantage in geopolitical competition.

A strategic environment characterized by competition with Russia and China will be more demanding than anything NATO has experienced since the end of the Cold War. The leitmotif of such an environment will be what our report calls strategic simultaneity: the need to concurrently deal with big-power threats from different points of the compass and which take different forms (military, cyber, informational, etc.), without losing the ability to also deal with traditional threats like terrorism and other secondary risks.

All of this places a higher premium on political cohesion in NATO, for the simple reason that Western strategic and political solidarity will be more vitally necessary than it has in generations, given the scale and immediacy of the threats at hand. Importantly, such an environment will be less forgiving of intra-NATO political divisions. The greater the divisions in NATO, the more Russia and China will be able to exploit intra-alliance disagreements to isolate, over-awe, and coerce individual allies.

This environment will also place a higher premium on NATO’s ability to forge effective partnerships with other Western institutions—above all, the European Union. Not all new security threats can be dealt with by NATO alone. Given the scale of the challenges presented by Russia and China, encompassing as they do all the domains of competition in war and peace, the West as a whole needs to mobilize all the available tools at its disposal. In such an environment, NATO cooperation with the EU beyond the usual summit rhetoric will be essential.

For these reasons, NATO disunity of the kind that has often been on display in recent years must be seen as a strategic rather than merely a tactical or optical problem. As our report notes, this brings into sharper focus the central political task for NATO in our time: to consolidate the transatlantic alliance for an era of strategic simultaneity. In practical terms, that means that NATO must move with alacrity to cement its ability to act as the principal political forum for the strategic and geopolitical challenges facing the West.

Grounds for Optimism

In short, the world of the next 10 years will be one in which there will be a more compelling role for NATO than arguably at any point since the height of the Cold War. And yet it may be justifiably asked in some quarters whether NATO is capable of performing this role. Recent years have seen no shortage of rifts in the transatlantic relationship. These are rooted in very real differences among allies about how NATO should assess and prioritize external threats. For this reason, some Western leaders have publicly questioned NATO’s utility and health. It was in this vein that in December 2019 French President Emmanuel Macron called NATO “brain dead”—a statement that served as an impetus for the formation of our reflection group.

The answer of our report is that NATO is not brain dead and is indeed capable of adjusting to the challenges at hand. We ground this assessment not in naïve optimism but in NATO’s record of successful adaptation. At key intervals in its history, NATO has implemented changes to match the requirements of a changing environment. In the mid 1950s, amid tensions over the Suez crisis, NATO created the system of periodic ministerial meetings we know today as a way of ensuring close coordination among allies. In the late 1960s, following the erosion of America’s nuclear superiority, NATO developed a dual-track agenda that laid the groundwork for détente. In the 1990s, NATO launched a comprehensive political agenda of enlargement, eventually taking in 10 new members. After the September 11 terrorist attacks NATO embraced a stabilizing out-of-area role. And in the period since Russia invaded Ukraine, NATO has developed enhanced tools of deterrence and consultation to deal with increased Russian aggression.

On each of these occasions, NATO’s adaptation was not just military but political. Over time NATO has steadily improved its standing habits and structures of consultation. Like democracies throughout history, NATO’s members have found that the ability to cohere in alliances is an advantage over authoritarian opponents. Ultimately, however, the force propelling this cohesion has been strategic necessity. Whether the threat was the Soviet Union, Al Qaeda, or ISIS, NATO’s members made the repeated calculation that they stood to gain more from aggregating their defensive strength than from attempting to deal with these threats on their own.

The same logic holds true today. NATO is the only existing platform where the countries of North America and Europe can coalesce to face the pressures of competition with the large continental states of Eurasia. This binding role will grow more important given the likelihood that China’s rise accelerates and Russia maintains its aggressive posture. So, too, will NATO’s ability to work effectively with the EU—a relationship in which the alliance has invested deeply in recent years, with abundant benefits to both organizations. NATO cohesion is necessary to provide for the safety and well-being of the nearly 900 million citizens that the alliance exists to protect. In playing this role, NATO ultimately acts as a stabilizer in a changing and increasingly dangerous world.

What Needs to Be Done

While NATO is certainly capable of adapting, it is not a foregone conclusion that it will do so. For adaptation to occur, three conditions must be present. The first is an external impetus, which as we found in our deliberations and have outlined here clearly exists.

The second is a realistic and substantive agenda for reform. Providing such an agenda was the task of our reflection group. Like the Wise Men Committee Report of 1957, the Harmel Report of 1967, and the Albright-Van der Veer Report of 2010, we sought to build this agenda by taking stock of the new strategic environment, consulting with allied governments, and then providing recommendations that are politically and practically plausibleideas, in other words, that are not academic but rather have a reasonable prospect of being embraced by a plurality of allies.

There are more than 130 such recommendations in the report. All carry the consensus support of the 10 members of our group and are worth close attention. But a handful stand out as especially crucial for the future of the alliance.

First, NATO needs to get serious about strategy. Above all, this means updating its Strategic Concept. The current one dates to 2010—a time when Russia had not yet invaded Ukraine, China’s rise seemed to be on the far horizon, and the alliance could preoccupy itself with Afghanistan. Certain attributes of the current Concept remain valid—for example, the three core tasks (collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security). But the Concept must be updated to reflect the challenge of systemic rivalry. In our view (and speaking here for ourselves and not for the group), NATO must develop a fourth core task that plainly articulates the alliance’s role in countering instability and addressing cross-cutting threats in this new environment. Beyond this, NATO must begin to move away from the mentality of crisis management that it developed after the Cold War and embrace the mindset and tools of long-term strategy.

Second, NATO needs to get serious about China. To date, it has been slow to do so. NATO urgently needs a comprehensive political strategy for China. Infusing the China challenge throughout existing structures is a starting point. But NATO also needs a designated consultative body—encompassing, where appropriate, other actors such as the EU and even the private sector—charged with discussing all aspects of allied security interests vis-à-vis China. Across the board, NATO must jettison the notion that because China does not physically border on Europe it is not a threat; China is already present and active in the Euro-Atlantic area in ways that erode NATO security; the alliance must defend against Chinese infiltration of NATO infrastructure and bolster its members’ defenses against China’s Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) strategy.

Third, NATO must play a more ambitious role in addressing the challenges presented by emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT). Recent technological strides by China in particular threaten NATO’s ability to win on the battlefield and ensure the security and privacy of its citizens at home. NATO should be the indispensable place where allies coordinate and share information on all aspects of EDT that affect allies’ security. Beyond that, it must develop a comprehensive agenda for retaining allies’ collective technological edge, including via the creation of a transatlantic DARPA to promote a pooling of research and development in key EDT fields. 

Fourth, NATO must strengthen its relationship with the EU. At a time of accelerating global power shifts, the West urgently needs to present a unified front to authoritarian rivals. A good starting point would be to honestly evaluate the progress (or lack thereof) that the two institutions have made in implementing past agreements. NATO should welcome EU efforts to create a European defense capacity, but only insofar as they strengthen rather than dilute NATO capabilities. Arriving at a more efficient and predictable strategic cooperation template between the two will bolster a stable and open international order. This is not a moment in history when we should wish to see the West splinter into competing blocs.

Finally, NATO must devote serious attention to strengthening political unity and cohesion inside the alliance. Our report recommends that NATO adopt a political pledge whereby all allies would recommit themselves to the founding principles of the alliance and to proactive consultation on the full gamut of national security challenges they face. In tandem, the alliance needs to improve its internal capacity for reaching and implementing decisions. It should confront head-on the growing practice whereby single allies can paralyze action by the other 29, erect stronger obstacles to allies forming close military-political relationships with NATO’s rivals, bolster the powers of the secretary general for guarding consensus once it is reached, and create time limits for reaching decisions in a crisis.

We believe that these and other recommendations in the report are both practical and politically realistic. But ideas alone are not enough; the third and by far most important ingredient of strategic adaptation is political will. Even the most exigent of geopolitical environments and best ideas for reform are of little avail if the countries that make up NATO do not elect to do the hard political work of modifying the alliance.

Based on our consultations with capitals, we believe there is an overwhelming groundswell of support among the allies for evolving NATO in the more strategic direction outlined in our report. The political timing for such an evolution is auspicious. In 2021 the alliance will see a confluence of the end of Secretary General Stoltenberg’s 2030 review process, the findings of NATO’s internal assessment of the China challenge, the start of the post-Brexit phase, and a new US administration taking charge.

The secretary general and allied governments should view this confluence as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the changes, in some cases long overdue, that are urgently needed to upgrade the Western alliance for a challenging new era. The external, geopolitical impetus for doing so is obvious; with our report, realistic and achievable ideas are at hand. Now it is up to NATO’s leaders to act. Rarely have leaders on both sides of the Atlantic had a greater opportunity, or responsibility, to renew their alliance, its strategies, structures, and the spirit of solidarity that it embodies for a new era. The future of the West hangs on what they do with this opportunity.

Thomas de Maizière is member of the German Parliament and former Minister of Defense and of the Interior of Germany.

A. Wess Mitchell formerly served as US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia and is currently a principle at The Marathon Initiative.

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