The Strategic Concept is an official document that outlines NATO’s enduring purpose and nature, and its fundamental security tasks. It also identifies the central features of the new security environment, specifies the elements of the Alliance’s approach to security and provides guidelines for the adaptation of its military forces.
- Strategic Concepts equip the Alliance for security challenges and guide its future political and military development.
- They reiterate NATO’s enduring purpose and nature, and its fundamental security tasks.
- They are reviewed to take account of changes to the global security environment to ensure the Alliance is properly prepared to execute its core tasks, making transformation in the broad sense of the term, a permanent feature of the Organization.
- The current Strategic Concept “Active Engagement, Modern Defence” (2010) outlines three essential core tasks – collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security.
- Over time, the Alliance and the wider world have developed in ways that NATO's founders could not have envisaged, and these changes have been reflected in each and every strategic document that NATO has ever produced.
New and emerging security threats, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, NATO’s crisis management experience in the Balkans and Afghanistan, and the value and importance of working with partners from across the globe all drove NATO to reassess and review its strategic posture.
The 2010 Strategic Concept “Active Engagement, Modern Defence” is a very clear and resolute statement on NATO’s core tasks and principles, its values, the evolving security environment and the Alliance’s strategic objectives for the next decade.
After having described NATO as “a unique community of values committed to the principles of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law”, it presents NATO’s three essential core tasks - collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security. It also emphasises Alliance solidarity, the importance of transatlantic consultation and the need to engage in a continuous process of reform.
The document then describes the current security environment and identifies the capabilities and policies it will put into place to ensure that NATO’s defence and deterrence, as well as crisis management abilities, are sufficiently well equipped to face today’s threats. These threats include, for instance, the proliferation of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, terrorism, cyber attacks and fundamental environmental problems. The Strategic Concept also affirms how NATO aims to promote international security through cooperation. It will do this by reinforcing arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation efforts, emphasising NATO’s open door policy for all European countries, and significantly enhancing its partnerships in the broad sense of the term. Additionally, it affirms that NATO will continue its reform and transformation process.
NATO’s essential core tasks and principles
After having reiterated NATO’s enduring purpose and key values and principles, the Strategic Concept highlights the Organization’s core tasks.
“The modern security environment contains a broad and evolving set of challenges to the security of NATO’s territory and populations. In order to assure their security, the Alliance must and will continue fulfilling effectively three essential core tasks, all of which contribute to safeguarding Alliance members, and always in accordance with international law:
- Collective defence. NATO members will always assist each other against attack, in accordance with Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. That commitment remains firm and binding. NATO will deter and defend against any threat of aggression, and against emerging security challenges where they threaten the fundamental security of individual Allies or the Alliance as a whole.
- Crisis management. NATO has a unique and robust set of political and military capabilities to address the full spectrum of crises – before, during and after conflicts. NATO will actively employ an appropriate mix of those political and military tools to help manage developing crises that have the potential to affect Alliance security, before they escalate into conflicts; to stop ongoing conflicts where they affect Alliance security; and to help consolidate stability in post-conflict situations where that contributes to Euro-Atlantic security.
- Cooperative security. The Alliance is affected by, and can affect, political and security developments beyond its borders. The Alliance will engage actively to enhance international security, through partnership with relevant countries and other international organisations; by contributing actively to arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament; and by keeping the door of membership in the Alliance open to all European democracies that meet NATO’s standards.”
Deterrence and defence
The 2010 Strategic Concept states that collective defence is the Alliance’s greatest responsibility and “deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element” of NATO’s overall strategy. While stressing that the Alliance does not consider any country to be its adversary, it provides a comprehensive list of capabilities the Alliance aims to maintain and develop to counter existing and emerging threats. These threats include the proliferation of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery; terrorism, cyber attacks and key environmental and resource constraints.
NATO is adopting a holistic approach to crisis management, envisaging NATO involvement at all stages of a crisis: “NATO will therefore engage, where possible and when necessary, to prevent crises, manage crises, stabilize post-conflict situations and support reconstruction.” It is encouraging a greater number of actors to participate and coordinate their efforts and is considering a broader range of tools to be more effective across the crisis management spectrum. This comprehensive, all-encompassing approach to crises, together with greater emphasis on training and developing local forces goes hand-in-hand with efforts to enhance civil-military planning and interaction.
The final part of the 2010 Strategic Concept focuses on promoting international security through cooperation. At the root of this cooperation is the principle of seeking security “at the lowest possible level of forces” by supporting arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. NATO states that it will continue to help reinforce efforts in these areas and cites a number of related initiatives. It then recommits to NATO enlargement as the best way of achieving “our goal of a Europe whole and free, and sharing common values”.
A fundamental component of its cooperative approach to security is partnership, understood between NATO and non-NATO countries, as well as with other international organisations and actors. The Strategic Concept depicts a more inclusive, flexible and open relationship with the Alliance’s partners across the globe and stresses its desire to strengthen cooperation with the United Nations and the European Union. It also reiterates its commitment to developing relations with countries of the Mediterranean and the Gulf region.
Finally, the Strategic Concept describes the means NATO will use to maximise efficiency, improve working methods and spend its resources more wisely in view of the priorities identified in this concept.
Over time and since 1949, the decision-making process with regard to the Strategic Concept has evolved, but ultimately it is the North Atlantic Council (NAC) that adopts the Alliance’s strategic documents. Of the seven Strategic Concepts issued by NATO since 1949, all were approved by the NAC, with the exception of MC 14/3.
Issued in 1968, MC 14/3 was adopted by the then Defence Planning Committee (DPC), which had the same authority as the NAC in its area of responsibility. After the withdrawal of France from the integrated military structure in 1966, it was decided that responsibility for all defence matters in which France did not participate was given to the DPC, of which France was not a member. However, shortly after France decided to fully participate in NATO’s military structures (April 2009), the DPC was dissolved during a major overhaul of NATO committees, June 2010, which aimed to introduce more flexibility and efficiency into working procedures.
Before reaching the NAC, there are many stages of discussion, negotiating and drafting that take place. Interestingly, during the Cold War, strategic concepts were principally drawn up by the military for approval by the political authorities of the Alliance. They were classified documents with military references (MC), which are now accessible to the public. Since the end of the Cold War, the drafting has clearly been led by political authorities, who have been advised by the military. This reversal stems from the fact that since 1999, NATO has adopted a far broader definition of security, where dialogue and cooperation are an integral part of NATO’s strategic thinking. In addition, the 1991, 1999 and the 2010 Strategic Concepts were conceived and written to be issued as unclassified documents and released to the public.
The added novelty of the 2010 Strategic Concept was the importance given to the process of producing the document. The process of reflection, consultations and drafting of the Strategic Concept was perceived as an opportunity to build understanding and support across numerous constituencies and stakeholders so as to re-engage and re-commit NATO Allies to the renewed core principles, roles and policies of the Alliance. In addition, the debate was broadened to invite the interested public, as well as experts, to contribute.
Furthermore, it was the first time that a NATO Secretary General initiated and steered the debate. He designated a group of high-level experts who were at the core of the reflection and produced a report “NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement” that guided the debate, before eventually consulting with member country representatives and drafting the document. Final negotiations took place before the document was officially adopted by the NAC meeting at the level of Heads of State and Government at the 2010 summit in Portugal.
Generally speaking, since the birth of NATO, there have been three distinct periods within which NATO's strategic thinking has evolved:
- the Cold War period;
- the immediate post-Cold War period; and
- the security environment since 9/11.
One could say that from 1949 to 1991, NATO's strategy was principally characterised by defence and deterrence, although with growing attention to dialogue and détente for the last two decades of this period. From 1991 a broader approach was adopted where the notions of cooperation and security complemented the basic concepts of deterrence and defence.
- From 1949 until the end of the Cold War, there were four Strategic Concepts, accompanied by documents that laid out the measures for the military to implement the Strategic Concept (Strategic Guidance; The Most Effective Pattern of NATO Military Strength for the Next Few Years; Measures to Implement the Strategic Concept);
- In the post-Cold War period, three unclassified Strategic Concepts have been issued, complemented by classified military documents (MC Directive for Military Implementation of the Alliance's Strategic Concept; MC Guidance for the Military Implementation of the Alliance Strategy; and MC Guidance for the Military Implementation of NATO's Strategic Concept)
- Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, NATO's military thinking, resources and energy had given greater attention to the fight against terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction; NATO had committed troops beyond the Euro-Atlantic area and reached a membership of 28; new threats emerged such as energy security and cyber-attacks. These were among the factors that brought Allied leaders to produce a new Strategic Concept in 2010.
From 1949 until the end of the Cold War
From 1949 to 1991, international relations were dominated by bipolar confrontation between East and West. The emphasis was more on mutual tension and confrontation than it was on dialogue and cooperation. This led to an often dangerous and expensive arms race.
As mentioned above, four Strategic Concepts were issued during this period. In addition, two key reports were also published during those four decades: the Report of the Committee of Three (December 1956) and the Harmel Report (December 1967). Both documents placed the Strategic Concepts in a wider framework by stressing issues that had an impact on the environment within which the Strategic Concepts were interpreted.
NATO's first Strategic Concept
NATO started producing strategic documents as early as October 1949. But the first NATO strategy document to be approved by the NAC was "The Strategic Concept for the Defense of the North Atlantic area (DC 6/1), 6 January 1950 - the Alliance's first strategic concept.
DC 6/1 provided an overall strategic concept for the Alliance. The document stated that the primary function of NATO was to deter aggression and that NATO forces would only be engaged if this primary function failed and an attack was launched. Complementarity between members and standardization were also key elements of this draft. Each member's contribution to defence should be in proportion to its capacity – economic, industrial, geographical, military – and cooperative measures were to be put into place by NATO to ensure optimal use of resources. Numerical inferiority in terms of military resources vis-à-vis the USSR was emphasised, as well as the reliance on US nuclear capabilities. DC 6/1 stated that the Alliance should "insure the ability to carry out strategic bombing promptly by all means possible with all types of weapons, without exception".
Although DC 6/1 was quite detailed, more guidance was needed for use by the five Regional Planning Groups that existed at the time. As a consequence, the Strategic Guidance paper (SG 13/16) was sent to the Regional Planning Groups on 6 January 1950. Entitled "Strategic Guidance for North Atlantic Regional Planning", SG 13/16 was formally approved by the Military Committee on 28 March 1950 as MC 14.
MC 14 enabled Regional Planning Groups to develop detailed defence plans to meet contingencies up to July 1954, a date by which the Alliance aimed to have a credible defence force in place. Its key objectives were to "convince the USSR that war does not pay, and should war occur, to ensure a successful defence" of the NATO area.
In parallel, SG 13/16 was also being used by the Regional Planning Groups as the basis for further, more comprehensive defence plans. These plans were consolidated into "The North Atlantic Treaty Organization Medium Term Plan" (DC 13), which was approved by the Defence Committee on 1 April 1950, just one year after the signing of the Washington Treaty.
NATO's strategy was effectively contained in three basis documents:
- DC 6/1 which set forth the overall strategic concept;
- MC 14/1 which provided more specific strategic guidance for use in defence planning; and
- DC 13 which included both of these aspects as well as considerable detailed regional planning.
The Korean War and NATO's second Strategic Concept
The invasion of South Korea by North Korean divisions on 25 June 1950 had an immediate impact on NATO and its strategic thinking. It brought home the realisation that NATO needed to urgently address two fundamental issues: the effectiveness of NATO's military structures and the strength of NATO forces.
On 26 September 1950, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) approved the establishment of an integrated military force under centralised command; on 19 December 1950, the NAC requested the nomination of General Dwight D. Eisenhower as NATO's first Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR); in January 1951, from Hotel Astoria in Paris, Allies were already working to get the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Forces, Europe (SHAPE) into place and on 2 April 1951, the new SHAPE HQ was activated. Other structural changes were implemented, including the abolition of the three European Regional Planning Groups, and the replacement in 1952 of the North Atlantic Ocean Regional Planning Group by Allied Command Atlantic (SACLANT), leaving only the Canada-US Regional Planning Group in existence.
These structural changes, together with the accession of Greece and Turkey, needed to be reflected in the Strategic Concept. This led to the drafting of NATO's second Strategic Concept: "The Strategic Concept for the Defense of the North Atlantic Area", which was approved by the NAC on 3 December 1952 (MC 3/5(Final)). The new Strategic Concept respected the core principles outlined in DC 6/1 and, in this sense, did not differ fundamentally from this document.
Consequently, the strategic guidance also needed updating. MC 14 was thoroughly revised and reviewed so as to include the information that had been previously contained in DC 13. MC 14 and DC 13 became one document: "Strategic Guidance" (MC 14/1) approved by the NAC at the 15-18 December 1952 Ministerial Meeting in Paris. It was a comprehensive document, which stated that NATO's overall strategic aim was "to ensure the defense of the NATO area and to destroy the will and capability of the Soviet Union and her satellites to wage war…". NATO would do this by initially conducting an air offensive and, in parallel, conducting air, ground and sea operations. The Allied air attacks would use "all types of weapons".
There was another issue which the Korean invasion raised, but was only addressed years later: the need for NATO to engage in a "forward strategy", which meant that NATO wanted to place its defences as far east in Europe as possible, as close to the Iron Curtain as it could. This immediately raised the delicate issue of Germany's role in such a commitment. This issue was not resolved until 1954 when NATO invited the Federal Republic of Germany to become a member, which it effectively did on 6 May 1955.
The "New Look"
In the meantime, while structural issues had moved forward, the strength of NATO forces remained a problem. At its meeting in Lisbon, in February 1952, the NAC set very ambitious force goals that proved to be financially and politically unrealistic. As a consequence, the United States, under the leadership of NATO's former SACEUR, Dwight D. Eisenhower, decided to shift the emphasis of their defence policy to greater dependency on the use of nuclear weapons. This "New Look" policy offered greater military effectiveness without having to spend more on defence (NSC 162/2, 30 October 1953).
However, although alluded to in the strategic documents, nuclear weapons had not yet been integrated into NATO's strategy. SACEUR Matthew B. Ridgway stated in a report that this integration would imply increases instead of decreases in force levels. His successor, General Alfred Gruenther, established a "New Approach Group" at SHAPE in August 1953 to examine this question. In the meantime, the United States, together with a number of European members, called for the complete integration of nuclear policy into NATO strategy.
Massive retaliation and NATO's third Strategic Concept
The work of the "New Approach Group", combined with other submissions gave birth to "The Most Effective Pattern of NATO Military Strength for the Next Five Years" (MC 48), approved by the Military Committee on 22 November 1954 and by the NAC on 17 December 1954. It provided strategic guidance pending the review of MC 14/1 and contained concepts and assumptions that were later included in NATO's third strategic concept.
MC 48 was the first official NATO document to explicitly discuss the use of nuclear weapons. It introduced the concept of massive retaliation, which is normally associated with MC 14/2 – NATO's third Strategic Concept.
An additional report entitled "The Most Effective Pattern of NATO Military Strength for the Next Few Years – Report 2" was issued, 14 November 1955. It did not supersede MC 14/1 but added that NATO was still committed to its "forward strategy" even if there were delays in German contributions that would push the implementation of the "forward strategy" to 1959 at the earliest.
After considerable discussion, MC 14/2, "Overall Strategic Concept for the Defence of the NATO Area" was issued in its final form on 23 May 1957 and was accompanied by MC 48/2, "Measures to Implement the Strategic Concept", on the same day.
MC 14/2 was the Alliance's first Strategic Concept which advocated "massive retaliation" as a key element of NATO's new strategy.
While some Allies strongly advocated massive retaliation since it had the advantage of helping to reduce force requirements and, therefore, defence expenditures, not all member countries wanted to go so far. A degree of flexibility was introduced in the sense that recourse to conventional weapons was envisaged to deal with certain, smaller forms of aggression, "without necessarily having recourse to nuclear weapons." This was also reflected in the accompanying strategic guidance. Despite this flexibility, it was nonetheless stated that NATO did not accept the concept of limited war with the USSR: "If the Soviets were involved in a hostile local action and sought to broaden the scope of such an incident or prolong it, the situation would call for the utilisation of all weapons and forces at NATO's disposal, since in no case is there a concept of limited war with the Soviets."
In addition to including the doctrine of "massive retaliation", MC 14/2 and MC 48/2 reflected other concerns including the effects on the Alliance of Soviet political and economic activities outside the NATO area. This was particularly relevant in the context of the Suez crisis and the crushing of the Hungarian uprising by the Soviet Union in 1956. The importance of out-of-area events was reflected in a political directive, CM(56)138, given from the NAC to NATO's Military Authorities, 13 December 1956: "Although NATO defence planning is limited to the defence of the Treaty area, it is necessary to take account of the dangers which may arise for NATO because of developments outside that area."
The Report of the Three Wise Men
While NATO was hardening its military and strategic stance, in parallel, it decided to reinforce the political role of the Alliance. A few months before the adoption of MC 14/2, in December 1956, it published the Report of the Committee of Three or Report on Non-Military Cooperation in NATO.
This report, drafted by three NATO foreign ministers – Lester Pearson (Canada), Gaetano Martino (Italy) and Halvard Lange (Norway) - gave new impetus to political consultation between member countries on all aspects of relations between the East and West.
The Report was adopted in the midst of the Suez Crisis, when internal consultation on security matters affecting the Alliance was particularly low, jeopardising Alliance solidarity. This was the first time since the signing of the Washington Treaty that NATO had officially recognised the need to reinforce its political role. The Report put forward several recommendations, including the peaceful settlement of inter-member disputes, economic cooperation, scientific and technical cooperation, cultural cooperation and cooperation in the information field.
Similarly to the Harmel Report, published in 1967, the Report of the Three Wise Men contributed to broadening the strategic framework within which the Alliance operated. Both reports could be perceived as NATO's first steps toward a more cooperative approach to security issues.
Massive retaliation put into question
As soon as NATO's third Strategic Concept was adopted, a series of international developments occurred that put into question the Alliance's strategy of massive retaliation.
This strategy relied heavily on the United States' nuclear capability and its will to defend European territory in the case of a Soviet nuclear attack. Firstly, Europeans started to doubt whether a US President would sacrifice an American city for a European city; secondly, the USSR had developed intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities and, more generally, its nuclear capability. As the USSR's nuclear potential increased, NATO's competitive advantage in nuclear deterrence diminished. Terms such as "Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD" started to be used.
The outbreak of the second Berlin crisis (1958-1962), provoked by the Soviet Union, reinforced these doubts: how should NATO react to threats that were below the level of an all-out attack? NATO's nuclear deterrent had not stopped the Soviets from threatening the position of Western Allies in Berlin. So what should be done?
In 1961, J.F. Kennedy arrived