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Is it time to update NATO’s Strategic Concept?

Lionel Ponsard VERSUS David S. Yost

Lionel Ponsard is deputy chief of the Academic Research Branch at the NATO Defense College in Rome.

David S. Yost is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, currently seconded to the NATO Defense College in Rome as a senior research fellow

Dear David,

NATO today faces strategic challenges that are very different from those it faced in the past. In particular, the Alliance has to deal politically and militarily with asymmetric threats such as that posed by terrorism to remain relevant to the security needs of its members. I welcome this opportunity to make the case for immediately updating NATO’s Strategic Concept to reflect changes in the strategic environment and hope that our discussion will spur fresh thinking in this area.

NATO has had an overarching strategic document setting out the threats it faces and the ways in which it addresses them almost since its creation. The first Strategic Concept, the so-called Strategic Concept for the Defence of the North Atlantic Area, was agreed in 1950. The document has since been revised in 1957, 1968, 1991 and most recently in 1999. NATO’s Strategic Concept serves to set the broad policy framework for the Alliance’s work and periodic revisions to it have reflected the need for NATO to adapt its plans and approaches to meet evolving challenges.

The 1999 version reflected the adaptation of NATO’s strategies to what were then new post-Cold War circumstances. It maintained the Article 5 guarantee, but recognised that effective collective defence required measures that were different from those designed in the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. It took into consideration threats posed by rogue and failed states, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other transnational threats such as ethnic or religious disputes. It did not, however, foresee the magnitude of the terrorist threat. The current Strategic Concept was written before events such as the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. Although the Allies have since formulated important documents including the Military Concept for Defence against Terrorism, the Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism, and the NATO-Russia Action Plan on Terrorism, they still need to update their overall threat assessment and adapt the capabilities and strategies required to meet it.

The current Strategic Concept was written before events such as the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks

Another crucial issue for a revised Strategic Concept is that of NATO’s relationship with the United Nations, specifically the issue of UN Security Council authorisation for NATO operations. The 1999 document acknowledges the primacy of the UN Security Council at several points. However, the document does not resolve the issue of the Alliance’s relationship with the United Nations and the need – or otherwise – to seek Security Council blessing before contemplating military action. A revision of the current Strategic Concept should help provide the Alliance with additional legitimacy for future missions, which in the minds of some analysts was lacking at the time of the Kosovo air campaign. In other words, it should clearly define NATO’s relationship with the United Nations and in particular the legal framework for the use of force.

Discussions on a revised Strategic Concept would provide an ideal opportunity to help redefine the transatlantic security debate and encourage greater strategic dialogue with the European Union. At the least, they would eliminate obsolete references to the European Security and Defence Identity and the Western European Union and sharpen the focus on achievements such as the “Berlin-Plus” arrangements, governing EU-NATO cooperation. At most, they could help bring NATO’s Strategic Concept into line with the National Security Strategy of the United States and the Security Strategy of the European Union, both of which were agreed after 9/11.

In 1999, the Alliance’s operational experience was largely limited to the Balkans. In the intervening years, however, NATO has taken on a much more diverse range of missions and is now involved in operations in Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean, as well as in Europe. A new Strategic Concept should reflect this and clarify the scope of the Alliance’s interests and operations. And it should reflect a military strategy incorporating the many initiatives that the Alliance has taken in recent years and in particular the concept of “transformation”.

An astonishing amount has happened to the strategic environment since NATO last revised its Strategic Concept in 1999. In the wake of 9/11, the Afghan campaign and the Iraq War, we have definitively moved beyond the post-Cold War era. To ensure that the Alliance is as prepared as it can be for the challenges of what might be described as the post post-Cold War era, I believe that now is the time to launch a process leading to the revision of NATO’s Strategic Concept.

Yours,

Lionel

Dear Lionel,

We must not over-estimate what a new Strategic Concept could achieve or disregard the political sensitivity of composing one. Now is not the time for a new Strategic Concept review. The Allies have largely overcome the irritations of 2002-2003 about the Iraq conflict, but a Strategic Concept review at this time could still bring residual bitterness to the surface. Some Allies might use the Iraq case to revisit the controversies over the legal basis for the Alliance’s use of force in the Kosovo conflict in 1999. It is, moreover, doubtful whether the Allies could devise a compromise superior to that in the 1999 Strategic Concept on the subject of UN Security Council authorisation for the use of force in non-Article 5 contingencies.

A Strategic Concept reflects consensus; it does not create it. The Allies are on the road to recovering a more positive transatlantic (and intra-European) consensus on dealing with fundamental challenges, notably terrorism, failed states, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These major changes in the security environment and resulting new tasks assumed by the Alliance will probably lead, in due time, to a new Strategic Concept. However, it is now more urgent to carry forward the generation of a new consensus on security requirements, the Alliance’s roles, and corresponding capabilities.

To conduct a successful review, the Allies must agree that a new Strategic Concept is necessary and have the requisite “comfort level” about undertaking such an endeavour. Launching a Strategic Concept review at this time, when the political context is premature, could be counter-productive for the process of building consensus and composing a final product as flexible and useful as the 1999 Strategic Concept.

The Allies have historically undertaken revisions of the Strategic Concept only when convinced of the necessity of such a demanding effort and when persuaded that the political context favours a positive result. Strategic Concepts have in the past summarised the achievement of a working consensus, if necessary employing artfully ambiguous phrases to patch over continuing disagreements.

The Allies agree that the 1999 Strategic Concept still captures the essentials and has in no way impeded effective action or policy definition. Indeed, it is difficult to identify anything that the Alliance is failing to achieve owing to the absence of an updated Strategic Concept. After all, the Alliance’s policies are expressed in all the documents endorsed by the North Atlantic Council, not only the Strategic Concept. That is why, even in the absence of a new Strategic Concept, the Allies have been fully engaged in dealing with changes in the security environment.

The terrorist attacks against the United States in September 2001 led to the first invocation in history of Article 5. The Allies promptly took a number of measures, some of which continue to this day, such as Operation Active Endeavour, the maritime security effort in the Mediterranean. The 1999 Strategic Concept includes several references to terrorist threats and even highlights the dangerous prospect of links between terrorists and WMD proliferation. In various recent documents assessing terrorist threats, the Allies have defined strategies for action and capability requirements.

A Strategic Concept reflects consensus; it does not create it

A new Strategic Concept would be unlikely to break any fresh ground on EU-NATO relations or the Alliance’s military transformation. When the Allies endorsed the current Strategic Concept, the European Union’s formulation of its European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) was at an early stage; and it seemed as if the Western European Union might remain relevant. However, in the 1999 Washington Summit Communiqué the Allies simultaneously approved fundamental guidelines for the development of effective EU-NATO cooperation. These guidelines have been incorporated into the EU-NATO “Berlin-Plus” agreements. In other words, despite certain outdated references, the 1999 Strategic Concept has not impeded the pursuit of EU-NATO cooperation in support of the European Union’s ESDP, including NATO support for the EU peacekeeping operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina that replaced SFOR in December 2004.

Despite their focus on the Balkans during the 1990s, the Allies allowed for operations outside Europe when they declared in the 1999 Strategic Concept that: “Alliance security must also take account of the global context.” Since 2002 they have repeatedly reaffirmed their determination “to meet the challenges to the security of our forces, populations and territory, from wherever they may come”. They have established the NATO Response Force and Allied Command Transformation, among other initiatives. Force planning and transformation are the central focus of the Comprehensive Political Guidance exercise set in motion by the Allies at the Istanbul Summit in June 2004.

Since it is unnecessary in terms of substance, the prospect of launching what would probably be at this juncture a divisive process – formulating a new Strategic Concept – understandably repels Allied governments. In sum, there are solid reasons why composing a new Strategic Concept does not rank high among Allied priorities.

Yours,

David

Dear David

You seem to believe that now is not the time for a Strategic Concept review because such a process risks bringing “residual bitterness to the surface”. I understand the risk but believe that historically the timing has almost never been right for so difficult an exercise and that in the future it may never be.

In both 1957 and 1968, NATO’s Strategic Concept was revised at times of Franco-US and UK-US tensions. Events such as the collapse of the European Defence Community in 1954, the Suez debacle in 1956, and France’s 1966 decision to withdraw from NATO’s integrated military structure created an atmosphere that was anything but conducive to reviewing so important a document. Yet despite less than auspicious circumstances and irrespective of any “comfort level”, the Allies both launched a Strategic Concept review and succeeded in developing and agreeing new strategies, namely those of “massive retaliation” in 1957 and “flexible response” in 1968.

The Alliance has to be willing to address the most difficult issues on the transatlantic security agenda

The issue that is arguably closest to the heart of NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is that of making the Alliance a more political organisation in such a way that the Alliance’s military transformation is placed within a more dynamic political context. I share this vision and want NATO to be the transatlantic venue for debate in such a way that the Allies discuss all security and defence issues, not simply matters relating to situations in which NATO is considering an operational deployment. But to create such a forum, the Alliance has to be willing to address the most difficult issues on the transatlantic security agenda, including those involved in developing a new Strategic Concept.

You find it “difficult to identify anything that the Alliance is failing to achieve owing to the absence of an updated Strategic Concept”. There is, however, no way to compare what the Alliance might have achieved if armed with a new Strategic Concept with what the Alliance has achieved in recent years. But let’s not forget that the crises in NATO’s recent past have not been caused by a lack of collective military power, but by political disagreement over the use of that power.

Setting in train a revision of the Strategic Concept may well reopen wounds that have only recently closed and discussions on competing visions of what NATO should or could be will probably last for years. Still, the need to define shared threats and risks, to develop common standards for the use of force and to forge a better EU-NATO relationship is becoming ever more urgent.

Yours,

Lionel

Dear Lionel,

Your judgement that “in the future it may never be” the appropriate time for a new Strategic Concept review seems excessively pessimistic. The Allies have historically found incentives to undertake such reviews when the timing has been right.

It is difficult to identify anything that the Alliance is failing to achieve owing to the absence of an updated Strategic Concept

Moreover, the historical cases you mention do not support your argument. The profound UK-US discord over Suez in 1956 had no relationship to – and no effect on – the firm UK-US agreement to pursue the strong reliance on nuclear deterrence articulated in the 1957 “massive retaliation” strategy. This agreement was well-established for financial as well as strategic reasons before the Suez crisis. Disenchantment with “massive retaliation” was, it should be recalled, almost immediate, owing mainly to the Berlin crises and the Soviet Union’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. US efforts to persuade the Allies to adopt what became known as “flexible response” began in earnest with the Kennedy administration in 1961. De Gaulle’s France, however, blocked such a revision of NATO strategy for years. As a result, it was only after France’s withdrawal from the integrated military structure that the other Allies could adopt “flexible response”. The facts that France never approved “flexible response” and that the Defence Planning Committee (that is, the North Atlantic Council without France) endorsed this Strategic Concept underscore the need for a minimum “comfort level” to achieve Alliance-wide consensus.

Many Allied officials and experts share the NATO Secretary General’s goal of making the Alliance the central venue for discussing all security and defence questions affecting Allied interests. However, this does not mean that now is the time to undertake a new Strategic Concept review or that undertaking such a review would suddenly convince all the Allies “to address the most difficult issues on the transatlantic security agenda” in the North Atlantic Council. The reluctance of some Allies to discuss issues such as Iran’s nuclear programmes and the future of the European Union’s arms embargo on China in a NATO framework derives from factors other than the absence of an updated Strategic Concept.

Your observation that “there is . . . no way to compare what the Alliance might have achieved if armed with a new Strategic Concept with what the Alliance has achieved in recent years” is indisputable but irrelevant to our debate. The question at hand is whether it is time to update NATO’s current Strategic Concept. Undertaking such a review prematurely would be politically counter-productive. It would lead to new recriminations or a weak and evasive document, papering over rather than addressing the key issues. The Allies have demonstrated in their activities and joint declarations that they have been able to deal with many of today’s major defence and security challenges on the basis of the current Strategic Concept.

Yours,

David

Dear David,

I have argued from the outset that NATO needs to revise its Strategic Concept within the context of a broader transatlantic discourse on the changing security environment. New threats, the emergence of new security actors, and changing operational requirements bolster the case for a new document. While it is unrealistic to expect total consensus on current and future international security priorities, the Allies need to find ways to arrive at a clearer understanding of the political context in which NATO is likely to operate.

The need to define shared threats and risks, to develop common standards for the use of force and to forge a better EU-NATO relationship is becoming ever more urgent

My point is that until NATO’s political leadership articulates a more coherent strategic role for the Alliance, the benefits of transformation will remain unclear. In other words, the current military transformation must be guided by a parallel political transformation. The Allies need to update their threat assessments and adapt the capabilities and strategies required to meet them.

In my view, a revised Strategic Concept would help persuade member states to do more. It would define NATO’s relationship with both the European Union and the United Nations, based on an equitable share of burdens and responsibilities. And it would determine the scope of NATO’s interests and operations and establish more clearly the legal framework for the use of force. A new Strategic Concept would not create any new obligations nor change NATO’s historic purpose, but it would help make NATO yet more effective in addressing new challenges.

Inviting more debate might well result in more division. Nevertheless, there is no real alternative, if the Alliance wants to continue to shape the wider strategic environment. As the novelist Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote of Italy: “If we want things to remain as they are, things will have to change.” This is the challenge for NATO and for those who wish to ensure that it remains the most successful politico-military alliance in contemporary history.

Yours,

Lionel

Dear Lionel,

In the context of Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, the famous maxim you have quoted is a counsel of cynicism and a rationale for accommodation with the irresistible social and political forces of the Risorgimento. The advice is offered by one Sicilian aristocrat to another. These aristocrats hope that they will be able to retain their status and privileges if they make timely and astute compromises with the rising new rulers of Italy.

A prematurely initiated review would invite sharp dissension or lead to a feeble statement of generalities, dodging rather than seizing challenges

As you point out, however, the Allies have greater ambitions than simply reaching modus vivendi agreements with increasingly powerful social and political-military forces. Indeed, they have a dynamic and positive conception of their purposes. The Alliance’s many activities reflect, as noted in the 1999 Strategic Concept, “its determination to shape its security environment and enhance the peace and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area”. To this end, the Allies have continued to engage in precisely what you prescribe: updating their threat assessments and adapting their strategies and capabilities to meet new challenges.

The proposition that “a revised Strategic Concept would help persuade member states to do more” overlooks the fact that such a document is an artifact of their collective will, not an agent of change in itself. If the Allies are not ready to agree on contentious questions such as the legal basis for the use of force in non-Article 5 contingencies, launching a Strategic Concept review will not magically produce consensus. A prematurely initiated review would invite sharp dissension or lead to a feeble statement of vague generalities, dodging rather than seizing challenges.

The right way forward on the central issues, including the Alliance’s relations with the European Union and the United Nations, is consensus-building through practice. This is the most effective means to provide the Allies “ways to arrive at a clearer understanding of the political context in which NATO is likely to operate”. When the Allies make further progress in overcoming the residual acrimony deriving from the Iraq conflict and gain even greater experience with problem-solving in actual operations, they will eventually conclude that the time is right for a constructive and successful Strategic Concept review.

Yours,

David

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