Xenia Wickett
Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs
Kathleen McInnisFormer Chatham House Expert
NATO is in the middle of a difficult process to redefine its priorities. Greater interoperability, better integration of planning and strategy, and more effectiveness when it comes to resourcing critical military capabilities are key – and building public support. On its domestic front, NATO is presently losing the battle.
US army soldiers of the second Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, part of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, stand next to a Black Hawk helicopter during a US military exercise near the town of Gjakova,on 1 July 2014. Photo by Armend Nimani/AFP/GeUS army soldiers of the second Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, part of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, stand next to a Black Hawk helicopter during a US military exercise near the town of Gjakova,on 1 July 2014. Photo by Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images.

This year, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is dealing with changes and challenges that cut to the very essence of the alliance. The choices it makes in response to these developments will define its future. The culmination of the Afghanistan operation this year (the largest and most complex military operation the alliance has ever undertaken) has raised long-term strategic questions about NATO’s future. With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves in Ukraine these have been overlaid with the recognition that old challenges also still remain. Meanwhile there is little discussion that the current decline of defence spending in most capitals will be reversed by these events, leading to ever fewer resources to meet these rising challenges. 

NATO is going through the necessary but difficult process of trying to establish how to prioritize and prepare for the old and new challenges these events dictate. It needs to deal with today’s problems while not losing sight of tomorrow’s strategic objectives; to keep the eye on current fires but maintain the long-term vision, something notoriously hard for governments (let alone multi-governmental institutions) to do. Thus, the NATO Summit in September provides a key opportunity for leaders to lay out their plan for the alliance looking ahead. 

The emerging strategic landscape

NATO’s primary task in the coming months is to balance the demands of its two principal categories of emerging (or re-emerging) threats, the traditional and the non-traditional.

The situation in Ukraine is a poignant indicator that the most traditional of security concerns – defence of territorial integrity – remains extremely relevant. Much like during the Cold War, NATO has a key role to play in reassuring allies that feel threatened as well as deterring Russian or other state aggression. Reassurance and deterrence are, of course, two sides of the same coin: the more NATO does to credibly assure allies in central and eastern Europe – through exercises, forward basing and other such actions – the greater the likelihood that Moscow will respect the borders of NATO’s member states. But as General Breedlove has made clear, NATO’s current posture, basing and strategies are no longer adequate to address the manner of threats currently being faced with, and they no longer provide the kind of deterrence effect  – let alone operational capability – that is required.

Over the past two decades, NATO has been involved in crisis management operations that are both sizeable and complex. From peace enforcement in the Balkans to air strikes in Kosovo, operations in Afghanistan, and the Libya intervention, NATO’s ability to respond to crises has been a central part of its role and responsibilities. If one looks to the national security strategies of the member states, threats of this type are still front and center. Sitting on Europe’s southern border, instability in the Middle East has great potency, with the fear of overflowing conflict, violence, refugees, terrorists and more into the territories of the member states. Crisis management is going to continue to be of central importance to the member states and thus of NATO.

With the end of the Cold War and the perceived (but over optimistic) decline of NATO’s traditional role, policy analysts have focused instead on the new strategic threats to NATO members. These have been drawn from the national strategies of the member states, and are reflected in the new tasks that NATO has taken on with respect to emerging threats. Terrorism continues to be a key challenge, ever since the events of 11 September 2001. The increasingly interconnected world has also led to issues such as cyber-security, natural resource constraints (from food to water and energy) and economic and trade flows having increasingly been recognized as central to a nation’s security. 

In short, the scope of the challenges NATO faces, traditional and emerging, has significantly expanded. And, NATO needs to meet these without increasing resources.

A NATO for now and for the future

NATO members prioritize these challenges differently. Those in the south feel the potency of Middle Eastern unrest more than do those in the north and therefore prioritize crisis management. Equally, given recent events, those in the east understandably have an immediate interest in territorial defence. This diversity over priorities need not translate into indecision or inadequacy on the part of NATO. Instead, it can be used to define the broad characteristics and capabilities – some old, some new – that NATO must possess in order to meet these challenges. 

First, NATO must be an effective platform for collaboration, both within the institution and outside of it. It needs to maintain and build on its capacity for military interoperability among member states and between the institution and external partners. Operations in Afghanistan have vastly improved such coordination among ISAF members, and in the coming years the institution needs to ensure that it continues to build on these capabilities. It is one of NATO’s fundamental characteristics that make it so valuable.

Given the nature of the challenges facing the transatlantic allies and the often-limited utility of military force in addressing them, NATO must also serve as a platform for collaboration with partners beyond the alliance. These prospective partners include multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, European Union, World Bank and OSCE. It also includes like-minded and capable non-NATO states such as Sweden, Finland and Australia. Both the operations in Afghanistan and Libya have made clear: When NATO acts out-of-area, it is absolutely vital that it partners with local friends and allies in the Middle East or Asia. NATO must tailor its partnerships to the contours of the organization or state with whom it collaborates. It must expand its mandate for improving interoperability amongst allies to achieve closer coordination with the broader community of international actors with common security objectives. 

Second, NATO must become better at integrating its planning and strategy among its member states. Defence planning is presently a largely mechanistic process in which national capabilities are inventoried and information is then shared. Given limited resources, this is a necessary step but not sufficient. Achieving joint planning comes up hard against sovereignty issues and thus will require significant political will. However, there are some relatively easy wins in the areas of joint training and basing, and some longer-term ones in supporting closer intelligence and information sharing among member states leading to better early warning. These latter areas are vital for improving the capabilities of NATO.

Third, NATO and its member states must become more effective when it comes to resourcing critical military capabilities. A first step is common threat perception, which can support better joint planning and strategy, and can, in time, lead to collaboration on future capability acquisition and divestment. This is all the more vital as defence budgets remain stagnant. NATO could further serve as a platform for smaller groups of like-minded nations to coordinate more closely on matters of defence acquisition.

Fourth, member states must build more public support for NATO. As the Second World War and the Cold War fade into the distance, there are fewer people that recognize the need for defence and national security and are willing to prioritize it over other social, educational and other domestic issues. Without public support it will be impossible for NATO members to make some of the political decisions that are required. NATO members, supported by the institution itself, therefore have to prioritize their domestic public diplomacy.

But NATO and its members might need to go even further than this. As the events in Ukraine have made clear, adversaries are increasingly using public diplomacy as an offensive tool to change the public narrative thereby garnering political, diplomatic and even military power. While NATO may not take the lead in this area, it also needs to build its capacity to support its members to take leadership in redefining the common narrative. Public support is increasingly a formidable weapon in a state or institutional arsenal, and NATO and its members are currently losing this battle.

Finally, in order to achieve all this, NATO must become more flexible and agile. To be sure, NATO has been able to adapt to emerging security requirements: Afghanistan and the Balkans being notable examples. However, the challenges are becoming more diverse and complex and faster moving. NATO needs command structures designed for this.

Flexibility without sacrificing solidarity

It is not clear whether this will be possible with a structure based on consensus among all 28 members for all its decisions. So, NATO will have to decide whether there is a way to encourage smaller groupings of allies to collaborate without sacrificing the solidarity which is so important to the credibility and legitimacy of the alliance itself. The examples of Afghanistan (ISAF was far larger than NATO) and Libya illustrate that this is already happening. But NATO might need to push this flexibility even further in the coming years.

While there are many changes and challenges NATO must grapple with, these can be seen as opportunities rather than obstacles. NATO does not need another rethink of its broader role or vision, but it does need to find more effective and efficient ways to achieve its objectives. And it needs to implement changes in structure, capabilities and processes to facilitate this. Yet in so doing it must keep an eye on, and respond to, both today’s fires as well as tomorrow’s strategic problems. NATO leaders have an opportunity to reinvigorate the alliance. They must seize it.

This article was originally published by IP Journal.

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