20 years ago: London Declaration marks birth of new NATO

  • 05 Jul. 2010 - 06 Jul. 2010
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  • Last updated: 02 Jul. 2010 14:08

“Today, our Alliance begins a major transformation. Working with all the countries of Europe, we are determined to create enduring peace on this continent.” NATO’s Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance issued at its London Summit of 5-6 July 1990 was a seminal moment in Alliance history.

Opening the historic meeting, the then NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner expressed the significance of the moment: “The Cold War belongs to history. Our Alliance is moving from confrontation to cooperation. […] Never before has Europe had such a tangible opportunity to overcome the cycle of war and peace that has so bedevilled its past.

The London Declaration was the Allied leaders’ response to the dramatic changes in the security environment that rapidly followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. It set the scene for the transformation of the Cold War NATO and laid the foundations for what NATO has become today.

“Europe has entered a new era. […] Europeans are determining their own destiny. They are choosing freedom. They are choosing economic liberty. They are choosing peace. They are choosing a Europe whole and free. As a consequence, this Alliance must and will adapt.”

“Our Alliance must be even more an agent of change. It can help build the structures of a more united continent, supporting security and stability with the strength of our shared faith in democracy, the rights of the individual, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.”

(London Declaration, July 1990)

NATO’s new and broader approach to security was enshrined in a new Strategic Concept for the Alliance, issued in November 1991. The Allies reviewed the Strategic Concept again in 1999, reflecting the need to adapt the Alliance to further changes in the security environment.

Today, on the eve of NATO’s Lisbon Summit in November 2010, the Allies are engaged in in-depth discussions on a new Strategic Concept for the Alliance. It is an opportune moment to look back at the transformation process that was launched at the London Summit, and to be reminded of the fundamental principles that underpin the Alliance and its capacity for both continuity and change.


At the 1990 London Conference, Allied leaders recognized that “in the new Europe, the security of every state is inseparably linked to the security of its neighbours.” They extended a “hand of friendship” across the old East-West divide and proposed a new cooperative relationship with all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

The London Declaration outlined proposals for developing cooperation with NATO’s former Cold War adversaries across a wide spectrum of political and military activities. It emphasized the importance of promoting arms control and confidence building and proposed regular diplomatic and military contacts.

This paved the way for the establishment in December 1991 of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) as a forum for bringing together NATO and its new Partner countries to discuss issues of common concern – the first of NATO’s formal instruments for pursuing cooperation with non-member countries. (The NACC was succeeded by the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997.)

Such was the pace of change in Europe at the time that the first meeting of the NACC itself witnessed an historic event: as the final communiqué was being agreed, the Soviet ambassador announced that the Soviet Union had dissolved during the meeting and that he now only represented the Russian Federation.

New security challenges

At the London Summit, NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner warned that “Europe is not yet immune from future risk or danger. This Alliance, which has contributed so much to overcoming Europe's painful division, must play its full part alongside other Western institutions in extending the stability and security we enjoy to all European nations.

There are many potential instabilities, both within and without Europe, that we must plan for prudently today if we are not to be their victim tomorrow,” he cautioned.

He explained that NATO's impact would be critical in four areas: clearing away the legacy of the Cold War; helping to erect a new European security architecture; ensuring membership of a reunited Germany into the Alliance; and continuing to prevent war.


The London Declaration referred to ongoing work on the adaptation of the Alliance to the new circumstances, which had already been launched by Allied foreign ministers at a meeting in Turnberry a month earlier in June 1990.

The transformation of NATO was to involve revised defence and force planning, moving towards a reduced forward presence and a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons. It also called for a restructuring of NATO member countries’ forces to make them smaller, more mobile and versatile in order to give Allied leaders maximum flexibility in deciding how to respond to a crisis.

Allied leaders also reaffirmed that “security and stability do not lie solely in the military dimension” and announced their intention to enhance the political component of the Alliance, as provided for by Article 2 of NATO’s founding treaty.

Reviewing NATO’s Strategic Concept

Building on the decisions taken at the London Conference, the 1991 Strategic Concept acknowledged that while the defence dimension remained indispensable, more prominence could now be given to economic, social and environmental issues as a means of promoting stability and security in the Euro-Atlantic area as a whole. Dialogue and cooperation would be essential to managing the diversity of challenges facing the Alliance.

The key goals were now to reduce the risk of conflict arising out of misunderstanding or design and to better manage crises affecting the security of the Allies; to increase mutual understanding and confidence among all European states; and to expand the opportunities for genuine partnership in dealing with common security problems.

In the years to follow, the operational value of partnership, which helped develop the ability of NATO forces to work together with those of non-member countries, was demonstrated by the contributions of non-member countries to the NATO-led operations in the Balkans.

NATO’s Strategic Concept was reviewed again in 1999. This reflected the need for further transformation of the Alliance to adapt to further changes in the security environment and the increasingly important crisis-management and peacekeeping role of NATO. It also emphasized the importance of strengthened partnerships with non-member countries and for cooperation with other international organizations.

Consultations and discussions are ongoing on NATO’s new Strategic Concept that is to be published at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010. The Alliance continues its process of transformation in order to be able to address more effectively the ever-evolving security challenges of the 21st century. Yet, the basic principles set out in the London Declaration twenty years ago remain valid today.