NATO’s Future Paths

"A Scholar's Take" in white text above a white pen outline

NATO’s Future Paths

In November 2010, NATO held its 24th summit in Lisbon where its Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen unveiled the organization’s latest Strategic Concept. “The world is changing,” Rasmussen proclaimed, “We face new threats and new challenges. And this Strategic Concept will ensure that NATO remains as effective as ever in defending our peace, our security and our prosperity.” NATO’s new ten-year plan has identified 7 key areas of security concern for the transatlantic alliance: crisis-management, proliferation of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), terrorism, secure communication, trade and energy transit routes, cyber attacks, technology-related threats, and environment and resource constraints. At the core of NATO’s strategic thinking is the belief, one that NATO’s official website spells out, that members must develop new capabilities and skills to combat the new and unconventional threats which have arisen.

NATO’s new plan has many implications for international relations and raises several questions. I would like to discuss three essential questions here.

How new is NATO’s new Strategic Concept?

It’s only partially new. Challenges of crisis management, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and threats from WMDs, secure communication, trade and energy transit routes, and resource constraints are all security concerns discussed in NATO’s previous strategic concept, the Washington Treaty of 1999. Nevertheless, the plan has added new concerns, such as those from Cyber attacks and technology-related threats, such as development of laser weapons, technology that impedes space travel, and electronic warfare.

But, perhaps, the “newness” of the plan can also be assessed through the shift in NATO’s strategy of combating these threats. Crisis Management is one such example. Whereas the last Strategic Concept dedicated only a few sentences to affirming the alliance’s commitment to prevent conflict or end conflicts, a significant portion of new the plan enlarges how NATO will manage crises.  The document defines “crisis management” as helping manage developing crisis, stop ongoing crisis, and stabilize post-conflict situations. Where NATO puts most emphasizes, however, is in the second and third goals. Drawing on the Afghan experience, the plan states that NATO will develop the doctrinal and military capabilities required to execute counterinsurgency and stabilization operations, as well as post-conflict reconstruction.

An article published in 2005 in the NATO Review titled “Big World, Big Future, Big NATO” was one of the first to push this line of thinking. Amongst a series of recommendations, the author also argued that NATO would have to develop “armed forces with strategic civil-military capabilities able to manage a broad threat set to achieve desired political end-states.” In short, NATO would have to produce nation-builders. Such recommendations are also very common in the American politico-military discourse. This new emphasis on the nation-building aspect of crisis management, however, has dire implications. Counter-insurgency and post-conflict reconstruction are post-invasion engagements, and this makes one wonder if NATO foresees invasion, occupation and nation-building in its future? Should the world brace for more U.S.-led and NATO-backed invasions? And if so, which countries will be invaded?

What is NATO’s raison d’être? 

Formed in the aftermath of the Second World War, NATO was supposed to be a bulwark against the Soviet Union and the expansion of its sphere of influence in Western Europe. It was the surest way for the U.S. to protect its economic interests and military assets in Europe. Through offerings of security guarantees and the promise of reconstruction, the U.S. commanded a leading role in Western Europe’s foreign defense and diplomatic policy, using this power to deter and contain its archrival, the USSR.

The end of the Cold War brought joy to the organization because it had accomplished its mission. But, with the Soviet threat eliminated, NATO’s relevance was now in question. Nevertheless, U.S. desire to establish global hegemony, NATO’s own bureaucratic and organizational interests, and the lack of an alternative non-U.S. European security arrangement all allowed NATO’s continued existence. After forty years of a stable mission plan, however, NATO stood almost aimless and since then has been in the search of its new raison d’être. This search has been marked by ad hocism. NATO has adopted different Strategic Concepts and justified its existence on a mission-to-mission basis, such as the1995 bombing of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, and the current occupation of Afghanistan. Many commentators have described the alliance’s search for a new role as “NATO’s identity crisis!”

It remains unclear if even after the Lisbon summit NATO has found a stable objective and a reason to exist. It has committed to combat a series of threats that are diffuse and will define the twenty-first century’s security agenda. These threats, however, have been identified by almost every international security arrangement and are on the national security agendas of major world players. This leaves NATO without a unique mission that was once its trademark. It also raises questions regarding whether NATO, as it exists today, is even the right organization to deal with these threats. Whereas drafters of the eleven-page Strategic Concept have chosen to market the organization as “An alliance for the 21st Century,” serious doubts remain about whether NATO has any meaningful or grand role to play in this century.

Will NATO survive the 21st Century? 

This question is deeply tied to the last. Finding a new role to justify its existence is no longer NATO’s only worry. Over the years the European Union (EU) has begun moving closer toward establishing a common European defense. France and Germany have led this shift and seek to create a security arrangement that allows them to sidestep the American security agenda. This policy is in line with the EU’s goal to move out of the American camp and establish itself as an independent power. The transatlantic organization represents political realities of the Cold War. Today Europe has re-emerged as an independent power. According to John McCormick, a leading scholar of the EU, Europe has emerged as a superpower and the world has returned to bipolarity.

As a 2008 paper published by the EU Institute for Strategic Studies explained, there are clear demands in Europe to increase the EU’s defense capabilities and independently pursue European security objectives. The EU’s policy aims to invest in military research and development, acquisition of military hardware, and training of personnel.

Europe’s push for greater security independence does not mean, of course, that the EU and the U.S. will become hostile. It does, however, point out that with declining American power the EU is preparing to take greater responsibility for its own security. Moreover, it signals that as a distinct politico-economic power, the EU has certain security interests that may not always overlap with those of the U.S.

All this leaves the future of NATO in question. The alliance lacks a grand strategic mission and has provided a Strategic Concept that is only partially new. Furthermore, with the European Union working towards forging a common European defense the alliance will start to become less legitimate and relevant. In short, NATO may not survive the 21st century. If it survives, the organization will inevitably suffer a decline in its influence, bereft of power and acquiring a symbolic position.

Shehzad H. Qazi is a Research Associate at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Founder of the Council on Strategic and International Affairs.


This article was published by SA Global Affairs on January 21, 2011:


ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap