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.
- At the Brussels Summit, in June 2021, NATO Leaders agreed to develop the next Strategic Concept in time for the next summit in 2022.
- 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.
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.
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.
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 entitled 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 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. 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 at the White House. He was concerned by the issue of limited warfare and the notion that a nuclear exchange could be started by accident or miscalculation. In the meantime, the Berlin crisis intensified, leading to the construction of the Berlin Wall, and in October 1962, the Cold War peaked with the Cuban missile crisis.
The United States started advocating a stronger non-nuclear posture for NATO and the need for a strategy of "flexible response". Initial discussions on a change of strategy were launched among NATO member countries, but there was no consensus.
The Athens Guidelines
NATO Secretary General Dirk Stikker presented a special report on NATO Defence Policy (CM(62)48), 17 April 1962, on the issue of the political control of nuclear weapons. It was basically NATO's first attempt to temper its policy of massive retaliation by submitting the use of nuclear weapons to consultation under varying circumstances.
Other attempts at introducing greater flexibility followed, but these caused resistance from several member countries. This internal resistance combined with the fact that the US Administration had been shaken by the assassination of Kennedy and was increasingly concerned by US military involvement in Vietnam, momentarily froze all discussions on a revised Strategic Concept for NATO.
NATO's fourth Strategic Concept and the doctrine of flexible response
NATO's fourth Strategic Concept – Overall Strategic Concept for the Defence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Area (MC 14/3) – was adopted by the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) on 12 December 1967 and the final version issued on 16 January 1968. It was drafted after the withdrawal of France from NATO's integrated military structure in 1966.
There were two key features to the new strategy: flexibility and escalation. "The deterrent concept of the Alliance is based on a flexibility that will prevent the potential aggressor from predicting with confidence NATO's specific response to aggression and which will lead him to conclude that an unacceptable degree of risk would be involved regardless of the nature of his attack". It identified three types of military responses against aggression to NATO:
- Direct defence: the aim was to defeat the aggression on the level at which the enemy chose to fight.
- Deliberate escalation: this added a series of possible steps to defeat aggression by progressively raising the threat of using nuclear power as the crisis escalated.
- General nuclear response, seen as the ultimate deterrent.
The companion document, "Measures to Implement the Strategic Concept for the Defence of the NATO Area (MC 48/3) was approved by the DPC on 4 December 1969 and issued in final form on 8 December 1969.
Both MC 14/3 and MC 48/3 were so inherently flexible, in substance and interpretation, that they remained valid until the end of the Cold War.
The Harmel Report
As NATO was setting its strategic objectives for the next 20 years, it also decided to draw up a report that provided a dual-track approach to security: political and military. In the context of the questioning, by some, of the relevancy of NATO, the "Harmel Report" or the "Report on the Future Tasks of the Alliance" was drawn up.
It provided a broad analysis of the security environment since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949 and advocated the need to maintain adequate defence while seeking a relaxation of tensions in East-West relations and working towards solutions to the underlying political problems dividing Europe.
It defined two specific tasks: political and military; political, with the formulation of proposals for balanced force reductions in the East and West; military, with the defence of exposed areas, especially the Mediterranean.
The Harmel Report introduced the notion of deterrence and détente. In that respect, as already stated in the context of the Report of the Three Wise Men, it set the tone for NATO's first steps toward a more cooperative approach to security issues that would emerge in 1991.
However, between 1967 and 1991, there were still moments of great tension between the two blocs, as there were instances that gave rise to hope of a less turbulent relationship.
Tensions increased with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles to which NATO reacted by initiating its Double-Track Decision, December 1979: it offered the Warsaw Pact a mutual limitation of medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and, failing a positive reaction from Moscow, threatened to deploy Pershing and cruise missiles, which it eventually did.
Détente increased with the signing of the US-Soviet agreements on Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT I) and anti-ballistic missile systems, and SALT II (although not ratified), as well as the signing of US-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
By the mid- to late 80s, both blocs moved to confidence-building. However, mutual distrust still characterised East-West relations and it was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the break-up of the Soviet Union that relations could start on a new basis.
The immediate post-Cold War period
In 1991, a new era commenced. The formidable enemy that the Soviet Union had once been was dissolved and Russia, together with other former adversaries, became NATO partners and, in some case, NATO members. For the Alliance, the period was characterised by dialogue and cooperation, as well as other new ways of contributing to peace and stability such as multinational crisis management operations.
During the immediate post-Cold War period, NATO issued two unclassified Strategic Concepts that advocated a broader approach to security than before:
- The Alliance's Strategic Concept, November 1991;
- The Alliance's Strategic Concept, April 1999.
Both of these were accompanied by a classified military document: respectively MC 400 and MC 400/2.
NATO's first unclassified Strategic Concept
The 1991 Strategic Concept differed dramatically from preceding strategic documents. Firstly, it was a non-confrontational document that was released to the public; and secondly, while maintaining the security of its members as its fundamental purpose (i.e., collective defence), it sought to improve and expand security for Europe as a whole through partnership and cooperation with former adversaries. It also reduced the use of nuclear forces to a minimum level, sufficient to preserve peace and stability:
"This Strategic Concept reaffirms the defensive nature of the Alliance and the resolve of its members to safeguard their security, sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Alliance's security policy is based on dialogue; co-operation; and effective collective defence as mutually reinforcing instruments for preserving the peace. Making full use of the new opportunities available, the Alliance will maintain security at the lowest possible level of forces consistent with the requirements of defence. In this way, the Alliance is making an essential contribution to promoting a lasting peaceful order."
The 1991's Strategic Concept's accompanying document was - and still is - classified. It is entitled: "MC Directive for Military Implementation of the Alliance's Strategic Concept (MC 400), 12 December 1991.
NATO's second unclassified Strategic Concept
In 1999, the year of NATO's 50th anniversary, Allied leaders adopted a new Strategic Concept that committed members to common defence and peace and stability of the wider Euro-Atlantic area. It was based on a broad definition of security which recognised the importance of political, economic, social and environmental factors in addition to the defence dimension. It identified the new risks that had emerged since the end of the Cold War, which included terrorism, ethnic conflict, human rights abuses, political instability, economic fragility, and the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and their means of delivery.
The document stated that the Alliance's fundamental tasks were security, consultation, and deterrence and defence, adding that crisis management and partnership were also essential to enhancing security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. It noted that NATO had managed to adapt and play an important role in the post-Cold War environment, and established guidelines for the Alliance's forces, translating the purposes and tasks of the preceding sections into practical instructions for NATO force and operational planners. The strategy called for the continued development of the military capabilities needed for the full range of the Alliance's missions, from collective defence to peace support and other crisis-response operations. It also stipulated that the Alliance would maintain for the foreseeable future an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces.
The 1999 Strategic Concept was complemented by a strategic guidance document that remains classified: "MC Guidance for the Military Implementation of the Alliance Strategy" (MC 400/2), 12 February 2003.
The security environment since 9/11
The 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States brought the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction to the fore. NATO needed to protect its populations both at home and abroad. It therefore underwent major internal reforms to adapt military structures and capabilities to equip members for new tasks, such as leading the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
NATO also proceeded to deepen and extend its partnerships and, essentially, accelerate its transformation to develop new political relationships and stronger operational capabilities to respond to an increasingly global and more challenging world.
These radical changes needed to be reflected in NATO's strategic documents.
A first step in that direction was taken in November 2006 when NATO leaders endorsed the "Comprehensive Political Guidance". This is major policy document set out the framework and priorities for all Alliance capability issues, planning disciplines and intelligence for the next 10 to 15 years. It analysed the probable future security environment and acknowledged the possibility of unpredictable events. Against that analysis, it set out the kinds of operations the Alliance must be able to perform in light of the Alliance's Strategic Concept and the kinds of capabilities NATO needed.
Later, at the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit in April 2009, NATO leaders endorsed the "Declaration on Alliance Security" which, inter alia, called for a new Strategic Concept. This provoked a thorough debate and analysis of NATO issues and, together with the economic context, presented an opportunity for rethinking, reprioritising and reforming NATO. The 2010 Strategic Concept was issued at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010 and is accompanied by the Military Committee Guidance MC 400/3, March 2012.