A New Strategy for NATO and Germany
The Madrid summit has delivered, now it’s up to Berlin: What NATO’s new key document means for Germany’s first comprehensive National Security Strategy.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
Germany’s foreign, security, and defense policy has always been anchored in multilateral alliances. Whatever Berlin thinks or decides in relation to foreign policy, it is always shaped by the conditions of collective action.
This multilateral orientation is most clearly reflected in the country’s membership of NATO and the European Union. Strategy development is also largely guided by decisions made by the Euro-Atlantic defense alliance. For example, the 2016 whitepaper “On Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr,” which is still valid, states, “We know that our security is best served if we shape security policy responsibly together with our partners and from within alliances: with a strong NATO and a Europe capable of action.”
Questions Marks Regarding Content
Now, for the first time, the German government is attempting to formulate a National Security Strategy (NSS). This was envisaged in the coalition agreement of the current coalition government, which has been in office since December 2021. Developed under the leadership of the German Foreign Office and with the involvement of other ministries such as the Ministry of Defense, the strategy document is supposed to be made public at the beginning of next year.
The first details about the process of creating the document are now known. For example, the views of citizens are to be heard, in specially organized forums, and incorporated into the strategy-building process. To that end, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock went on a summer tour all over Germany. In addition to German parliamentarians and academics, allied states are also to be involved in the drafting of the document.
What remains unclear so far, however, is the content. What does the government intend to include in such a landmark paper—especially in light of the upheavals in Europe’s security architecture sparked by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine? It goes without saying that the developments that have led to a turning point in Germany’s foreign and security policy must also be taken into account in the broad strategy. However, those involved in its formulation should not focus their attention exclusively on Russia and the lessons learned from President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against his neighboring country.
Back to Basics
Against the backdrop of complex international developments, some of which are interdependent and some of which contradict each other, and in view of limited financial resources, it will be particularly important to give precise weighting to the goals, tasks, and instruments of national security policy in the new framework paper. When it comes to guiding this prioritization, a careful look at NATO’s new Strategic Concept can help. This applies both to questions of substance and those of style. After all, although the document is not very long, it is extremely rich in content.
The Strategic Concept, signed off on at a summit in Madrid at the end of June, is the first such document in more than a decade. The most recent applicable paper had been written in 2010, in which the allies had stated that they were striving for a “genuine strategic partnership between NATO and Russia.” Since Russia’s large-scale attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, this idea has certainly become obsolete.
Accordingly, the new concept is explicit in its wording: The Russian Federation is, it says, “the greatest and most direct threat to the security of the allies and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” That a reassessment of Russia would find its way into the new concept is hardly surprising. Nor is the first mention of China as a challenger; it is well known that the United States will continue to focus its strategic attention on the Asia-Pacific region.
Not only has the attitude toward actual and potential rivals changed significantly, innovations in strategy are also evident with regard to the main tasks to which NATO intends to devote itself in the future. The allies certainly intend to maintain the triad of deterrence and defense, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security (in other words, the open-door policy and partnerships with non-NATO states). However, upon closer examination, two conceptual changes from the previous document stand out.
First, collective defense is now the primary category that encompasses the three main tasks; according to the concept, these are expected to complement each other in order to ensure the collective defense and security of all allies. In other words, collective defense is the primary task, which is to be ensured through various channels.
Although this specification does not amount to a conceptual gradation of the three main tasks, it is nevertheless evident that conventional as well as nuclear deterrence and defense form the foundation of collective defense in the sense of the territorial protection of the alliance area. The large amount of space allotted to deterrence and defense in the very brief document of 11 pages underscores this innovation.
In light of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and President Putin’s announcement in December 2021 that he intends to reverse the previous European security order, a shift in emphasis is taking place in a consistent manner: NATO should focus more of its efforts on its founding mission and concentrate a substantial part of planning with regard to its allied forces on securing its eastern flank.
Covering All the Bases
But thinking beyond the potential threat from Russia, positing collective defense as a framework to which other concerns of the alliance must be subordinated is only logical for a defensive alliance—regardless of which direction the danger comes from. After all, the member states determine which threats they consider relevant.
That is why the allies are right to stick to their 360-degree approach, according to which allied partners keep an eye on all the geographic areas and acute and potential threats that affect them. Following this logic, counterterrorism, and the stabilization efforts often associated with it at the alliance’s southern flank, remain a primary concern; it is likely that NATO’s members bordering the Mediterranean area, in particular, have made a strong case for upholding this focus.
Transnational concerns, which also fall under the unofficial primary task of collective defense, include challenges such as climate change mitigation, energy security, critical infrastructure protection, and the race to embrace new and disruptive technologies.
These and other concerns—and this is the second obvious innovation in the concept compared with its predecessor—can be summarized under the heading of democratic resilience. The new NATO strategy already makes a pledge, in the introductory chapter “Purpose and Principles”—“We will enhance our individual and collective resilience and technological edge. These efforts are critical to fulfil the alliance’s core tasks.”
Elsewhere in the document, and also in the final communiqué of the Madrid summit, it states that increased national and joint investment should strengthen the ability to defend against cyber and hybrid threats. Despite the topic of resilience having a prominent place in both texts, this isn’t an unofficial, semi-concealed fourth task, but rather a tool to be able to fulfill the main concerns of the alliance.
Broad-based Understanding of Security
So, the new-old guiding principle of the alliance for the coming years is collective defense. Arguably, this essentially refers to deterring and defending against a possible Russian attack on NATO territory. Nevertheless, it is clear from the document that collective defense will no longer be limited to the territorial integrity of the alliance area. Rather, the 30 allies state that “NATO is determined to safeguard the freedom and security of allies. Its key purpose and greatest responsibility is to ensure our collective defense, against all threats, from all directions.”
Underlying the conceptual broadening of the notion of collective defense is a broad understanding of security and defense. If the members of the alliance perceive a potential threat, irrespective of its form, or the direction from which it comes, together, they will counter it.
The first German National Security Strategy is to adopt this interpretation as its guiding principle in conjunction with an increased focus on defense and deterrence. The impetus for this approach was provided by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in her speech at the launch event for the development of the NSS, in March of this year, in which she outlined the guiding principles for the strategy document: “Security means, first, the inviolability of our lives. Protection from war and violence, from acute, concrete threats. Second, security means the freedom to protect our lives ... The third element is keeping the foundations on which our lives are built secure.”
This reflects the guiding principles and main tasks of NATO’s Strategic Concept: The foremost duty of a state to its population is to ensure its physical and territorial integrity—in Germany’s case in close association with its allies and partners. All other concerns fall under this objective and should have the ambition and purpose of contributing to the fulfillment of this intent.
Such prioritization suggests that geographically and functionally tailored tasks, such as deterrence and possible military defense against Russia or international stabilization operations, contribute to the overarching goal of collective security and defense. The same applies to all those concerns that can be subsumed under the heading of democratic resilience and that are just as important for Germany's security as they are for the NATO allies, according to the Strategic Concept.
Securing the Northeastern Flank
Derived from this prioritization of tasks, Germany should focus in a strategic-military sense on securing northeastern Europe, since Russia’s threat and risk potential vis-à-vis its allies along its eastern flank represents the heaviest burden for the foreseeable future. Berlin will have to further expand its existing leadership role, especially in and for Lithuania—as announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz prior to the Madrid summit.
So far, the core of the German presence in Lithuania has been one of four multinational battlegroups with the size of a reinforced battalion (1,200 to 1,500 soldiers), part of NATO's “enhanced Forward Presence” (eFP). At the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, member states agreed to deploy eFP forces in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland on a six-month rotational basis to help improve allied deterrence against Russia. The intention was to signal to Moscow that even in the event of a limited military incursion into the territory of one of these four allies, Russia would be instantly at war with the whole of NATO, including the nuclear powers of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.
Not only the Russian war against Ukraine, but also Putin’s vision for a future European security architecture, formulated in December 2021, are a justifiable cause of concern for the alliance. In ultimatums to the US and NATO, the Russian president demanded, among other things, the reversal of NATO enlargement since 1999 and a de facto (nuclear) US withdrawal from Europe.
In light of the current conflict and criticism from allies that Germany has so far done too little on its northeastern flank, Berlin has agreed to further expand its support for Lithuania. According to the current plans, the Bundeswehr is to provide and lead a combat brigade. At the NATO meeting in Madrid, all 30 allies decided to follow Germany’s lead, stating in the communiqué: “Allies have committed to deploy additional robust in-place combat-ready forces on our eastern flank, to be scaled up from the existing battlegroups to brigade-size units, where and when required.”
Germany as a Framework Nation
The fact that NATO has followed Germany’s example in this regard should encourage Berlin to assume a leadership role, not only in the case of Lithuania. In this context, a revival of the “Framework Nations Concept,” which Germany brought to NATO, can serve as a useful bridge to strengthen the German role in the alliance as a whole and for the country to develop into the political-military backbone of the European pillar of the Euro-Atlantic alliance.
According to this concept, a larger state, the “framework nation,” provides the basic military equipment—including logistics and command structure—and smaller states contribute individual capabilities such as air defense. The result is a complete military alliance without all of the European NATO member states having to maintain all capabilities at once. However, Berlin should work to ensure that rather than the Bundeswehr becoming the framework for European defense alone, the armed forces of the allies should also play a decisive role. These steps should be taken in close consultation with our European partners, especially our Central and Eastern European allies.
It will only be possible to become an equal partner of the United States, in the medium term, with a substantial strengthening of the European NATO military component. After all, it is foreseeable that the Americans will place their strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific region, notwithstanding their currently increased commitment to NATO in Europe.
In order to convince our US allies to remain a reliable (nuclear) guarantor for Europe, despite and in addition to their focus on China, the European allies must assume their strategic responsibilities and provide the appropriate conventional means to do so.
Aylin Matlé is a Research Fellow in the Security and Defense Program of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).