May 10, 2021

NATO’s Strategic Concept Should Initiate a New Partnership Policy

The transatlantic allies must consider a new partnership differentiation that emphasizes societal resilience and technological utility in the growing competition with Russia and China.

NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle group member states flags flutter during military exercise Crystal Arrow 2021 in Adazi, Latvia March 26, 2021.
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The NATO 2030 Reflection Group report published late last year sets the scene for how NATO’s next Strategic Concept should address the growing competition with China and Russia. It is high time to replace the previous Strategic Concept from 2010, which (wrongly) aimed at a “true strategic partnership” with Russia and which did not include a single mention of China. It is expected that NATO formally will initiate the drafting of the Strategic Concept at the Brussels Summit scheduled for June 14, which will later have to be negotiated and adopted by allies. Sitting one level below the North Atlantic Treaty in the hierarchy of NATO documents, the Strategic Concept will be authoritative for alliance strategy in the years to come.

The Importance of Partnerships

The NATO 2030 Reflection Group report rightly focuses its recommendations on how to strengthen internal alliance cohesion, given the combined rise of China and the persistent threat from Russia. On the other hand, NATO also needs to pay adequate attention to its external relations and seek to manage the two great powers within a broader community of liberal states. In an age when NATO no longer has the appetite for military intervention (after Afghanistan and Libya), nor is able to enlarge (lack of realistic new members), the partnerships remain NATO’s only external policy instrument by which it can cultivate security ties with other actors short of collective defense (as enshrined in NATO’s  article 5 provision).

Overall, the Strategic Concept should be careful not to overstretch NATO’s own role as a liberal bulwark against Russia and China and concentrate on its core business. However, the partnerships offer NATO a way to adapt to a broader security agenda while preserving its own military edge, because it can rely on partners that are better placed because of their expertise or comparative advantage. The rise of China and the fact that conflicts with Russia have intensified in recent years require NATO to enhance its cooperation with like-minded partners that are more suited to containing their exploitation of the open nature of democratic societies and to keeping momentum in the tech competition.

Reform of the Partnership Policy

The NATO Strategic Concept obviously cannot detail a reformed partnership policy but it needs to draw the contours, as the 2010 Strategic Concept did, when it set out the alliance’s aim to promote security through a wide network of flexible partnerships around the globe. The concept then led to the current partnership policy adopted by the allies in 2011, whereby NATO transitioned into a “flexible” partnership format to maximize the number of global contributors to its counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. NATO did not abandon its existing regional formats (Partnership for Peace, Mediterranean Dialogue) but their importance decreased significantly, as NATO prioritized willing partners regardless of their geographical location.

Soon enough, in 2014, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine challenged the centrality of this flexibility, as NATO was compelled to deepen relations with its immediate neighbors: defense cooperation with Sweden and Finland and enhanced support for Ukraine and Georgia. Today, the flexible partnership format seems even less optimal when it comes to dealing with the simultaneous rise of China as an additional stress test to transatlantic cohesion and resilience. One the one hand, while flexibility makes sense in order to be prepared for unforeseen events like COVID-19, it can never compensate for the lack of strategic vision about NATO’s place in Europe and in the world. NATO must halt the inflation in partners around the globe, which today number as many as 43, including countries as remote as Mongolia, Mauretania, and Colombia.

NATO must differentiate between different groups of partners that serve the purpose of standing up to the growing competition with Russia and China and the illiberal challenges they pose. The NATO 2030 Reflection Group report is right to stress the need to shift from the current demand-driven approach (by partners) to an interest-driven approach (by NATO itself). However, the report leaves the question unanswered as to how exactly NATO should prioritize. It is essential that NATO first get its regional and global interests straight. To manage its external relations with a higher degree of strategic clarity, the allies should explore differentiating between three main groups from among its existing partner countries.

Toward a New Differentiation

Advanced Partners: First, NATO needs to give priority to the European Union and the Western European partners (Finland, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Malta) when it comes to cooperation on resilience and technology. They are economically advanced and unambiguously share NATO’s values, paving the way for straightforward cooperation in key areas: critical infrastructure and disruptive technology like 5G and artificial intelligence, as well as the containment of foreign interference in democratic processes. NATO’s partnership with the EU needs to be much more focused and should highlight its exclusive trade competencies and the significant civilian capacities it coordinates in the non-military domains of security.

Enhanced Partners: Second, NATO needs to give priority to its partners on Europe’s periphery (Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo) in order to reduce their vulnerabilities to external dependency. They are formally committed to an inclusive European security architecture based on democratic values that Russia and China are seeking to undermine. NATO must capitalize on this but faces the paradox that leaders typically resist giving up control over the core state apparatus. Partnerships should be highly formalized to provide an appropriate framework within which NATO can increase the domestic political pressure toward the implementation of the necessary reforms.

Asia-Pacific Partners: Third, NATO needs to give priority to its like-minded partner countries in geographical proximity to China (Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand) in order to counter the threat it poses to societal and global order. They feel China’s rise more keenly and are further ahead in their adaptation and technological decoupling. NATO needs to explore the extent to which consultations can result in increased operational activities such as intelligence sharing and military exercises (other than what is already included in the bilateral US defense agreements).

Phrasing the Strategic Concept

The Strategic Concept must be precise about the need to tailor its partnerships to fill areas of non-military security that are essential in facing Russia and China. Then again, the concept must use sufficiently elastic wording to allow the allies to add details to the partnership design later. It must preserve “cooperative security” as one of NATO’s core task (alongside “collective defense” and “crisis management” in the 2010 version) but reframe the enhancement of partnerships not as flexibility, but as a question of differentiation.

The Strategic Concept needs to emphasize, as a minimum, the thematic challenges that the partnership groups are supposed to address: transatlantic-wide resilience capacity and tech cooperation with advanced European partners; the need to improve domestic governance in “enhanced” partners on Europe’s periphery; and preparing for the global aspects of China’s rise with the Asia-Pacific partners. For practical and political reasons, NATO needs to maintain existing partners that are not incorporated in the new differentiation (including the southern partners) in the current flexible format.

The concept should naturally drop the reference to NATO as part of a globe-spanning network, which blurs strategic clarity, and seek to crystallize the alliance’s own priorities. It should emphasize the partnerships as a natural external continuation of NATO’s internal effort to find a common footing in the growing competition with Russia and China. Thus, it may lay the groundwork for NATO’s full adaptation to an age of renewed great power competition.

Henrik Larsen is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

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