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Future NATOs

Stephan De Spiegeleire and Rem Korteweg consider a variety of scenarios for the Alliance's future.

What might NATO look like in 2025? Every important aspect of NATO has fluctuated considerably - with many ups and downs - since the signing of the Washington Treaty. The Alliance is continuing to change today, and will certainly be called upon to change even more in the future. In the summer of 2005, the Clingendael Centre for Strategic Studies (CCSS) supported the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A) by conducting a study on potential future contexts for NATO defence-planning purposes. The study, entitled Future NATOs and summarised in this article, was one input used by the NC3A to support Allied Command Transformation (ACT) in developing a range of alternative "future worlds", each comprising a future security environment and a future NATO.

The literature about NATO is replete with articles about what the future may bring for the Alliance. Many of these articles are normative in nature - what is right or wrong with NATO and how things could be improved in the eyes of the author. These articles may be useful for policy purposes, but are typically more driven by the author's policy preferences than by any structured reflections or intuitions about the future. On the other hand, there are a number of articles that attempt to explore the future, but most tend to extrapolate NATO's future from existing trends as perceived by the author. The strategic community has been surprised so many times in the past two decades - the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of terrorism as the world's pre-eminent security challenge - that it has become clear that this extrapolation approach is insufficient for long-term, defence-planning purposes.

Given the pitfalls of existing normative and extrapolation approaches, the CCSS organised a scenario workshop to develop a number of "snapshot" scenarios intended to capture NATO's main dimensions of change. The aim of the scenario workshop was not to predict or state probabilities, but rather to sketch and map the various uncertainties surrounding NATO and to distil "snapshots" of future NATOs within this scenario space. The workshop brought together a high-level group of Dutch analysts representing a diverse mix of professional, academic and ideological backgrounds. Two balanced work groups independently identified the key characteristics of NATO that might be subject to future change and the main drivers that were felt to drive that change.

Since the findings of the workshop were intended to serve as input into Alliance long-term planning, the question whether or not NATO would still exist in 2025 was not systematically addressed. A majority of the participants felt that the disappearance of NATO was conceivable, but not useful for the defence-planning purposes of the exercise.

Key NATO characteristics

The first step of the methodology involved identifying the primary characteristics of NATO that the group felt might change in the next 20 years. For each of those characteristics, a simple scale was developed that allowed to demarcate the bandwidth within which change might occur. The characteristics the group identified and the values of the corresponding scales are listed below:

  • Transatlantic link: the strength of the link - both political and operational - between American and European Allies;
  • US leadership: the extent to which the United States remains engaged in NATO and willing to assume a leadership role;
  • Area of operations: the geographical range within which NATO operations can take place;
  • Decision-making: the extent to which the Alliance is able to make decisions on contentious issues;
  • Top-down guidance: the extent to which NATO as an organisation is able to sway the decisions and actions of its members;
  • Mission spectrum: the range within the conflict spectrum in which NATO will carry out missions;
  • Capabilities: the scope of capabilities at the Alliance's disposal and the Alliance's effectiveness in the joint application of its coercive instruments;
  • Political vs. military nature: the balance between the Alliance's political and military dimensions; and
  • Membership: the extent and geographic spread of NATO membership
  • .

    In the next step, the workshop participants discussed the main drivers that they felt might trigger change in the above-mentioned characteristics. The group identified the following three key drivers:

  • US willingness to assume a leadership role in NATO: whether US leadership is strong or absent;
  • Impact of the European Union: whether it will be a coherent political actor and thereby have a significant footprint in international politics (including its security realm), or a fragmented - and hence weak - one; and
  • Threat perception: independent of what the threat might be, whether the NATO Allies in 2025 hold a common threat perception or whether threat perceptions are increasingly diverse across the Alliance.
  • Interestingly, both work groups identified drivers that are exclusively internal to NATO. They concluded independently that developments within the Alliance were more important to its future than whatever happens outside NATO in the wider security environment.

    These characteristics and drivers, rather than specific trends, frame the contours of the future shape and nature of NATO. Instead of specific scenarios, the result of the group's deliberations was the delineation of a scenario space. The ensuing scenario space graphically illustrates the primary uncertainties confronting NATO. The contours of this space are the extreme values of the drivers mentioned above. Within this space, the group positioned five "snapshot" NATOs that could be used as a context for defence planning. They should be viewed as illustrations within the scenario space rather than an exhaustive listing of all likely futures for NATO in 2025. Nevertheless, they were selected to be sufficiently diverse and broad to capture NATO's main dimensions of change and thereby to be useful for defence planning.

    Scenarios : "Strong toolbox" NATO

    In this scenario, the United States is a dominant political actor in the international arena and fully assumes a leadership role within NATO. Enlargement of the European Union has not resulted in increased political unity, and the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) lacks coordination and vigour. Both sides of the Atlantic perceive the threats facing the Alliance in a similar way. Against this context, European states consider NATO the preferred instrument for enhancing global stability. Yet a common political outlook has not translated into a substantial increase in defence capabilities. As a result, the ability to operate alongside the United States in the higher conflict spectrum is reserved to a few of the European Allies. European states are not capable of commanding full spectrum major theatre operations without strong support from the United States. The technological gap between the two continents is still growing. Interoperability standards are maintained and advanced, but most European Allies only offer limited expeditionary capabilities to crisis-management operations. Nevertheless, the United States continues to be interested in European niche capabilities, and continues to see NATO as the preferred forum to nurture actual or potential capable force providers. Likewise, European member states perceive NATO as the privileged instrument through which to use their armed forces. NATO's scope is global and through the wide range of available capabilities it covers a broad segment of the mission spectrum. The Alliance is a potent, flexible and modular toolbox. It is united in its perception of threats, though the composition of the coalition is shaped by the mission at hand and the ability of individual members to contribute to operations.

    "Shared partnership" NATO

    The second scenario reflects a truly shared partnership between the United States and the European Union in crisis management. The European Union has made great strides towards enhanced political unity. Further political integration has resulted in greater coherence in the field of the ESDP. European states have developed methods for using their limited (possibly somewhat higher) defence budgets to make substantial progress in transforming their militaries to possess effective expeditionary components. Moreover, the capability gap between the European Union and the United States has been narrowed mainly as a result of efficiency measures - including standardisation of equipment and pooling of various assets (such as airlift). The NATO Response Force (NRF) has played an important role in this transformation. A new transatlantic political bargain is struck in which the United States accepts more of a say for the European Union within NATO in return for beefed up (and complementary) European capabilities. The European Allies still accept a US leadership role as threat perceptions between Americans and Europeans are commonly defined. There is a common understanding on both sides of the Atlantic that true progress can only be achieved by projecting stability and peace through a genuine partnership. European capacity to operate at a distance and in the higher echelons of the conflict spectrum remains more limited than US capacity. Therefore, a division of labour has been agreed in which the European Union (even operating without US support) carries out military operations predominantly at closer reach to Europe and in the lower ranges of the conflict spectrum. Selected European military forces can participate alongside the United States on a global scale and in the higher ranges of the conflict spectrum, while making use of established NATO procedures, assets and capabilities. Coalitions of the willing (also from within NATO) remain an important feature of international crisis management, but NATO also increasingly acts as an actor in its own right.

    "Dispersed toolbox" NATO

    The third NATO represents a less cohesive alliance based on limited US dedication to NATO, a medium-power European Union and a drift in transatlantic threat perceptions. This leads to a "toolbox" approach to the remaining NATO capabilities, giving a less cohesive NATO a more limited role as a stable, global crisis management actor.

    European and US perceptions of the security threats surrounding them have drifted apart. Whereas the United States views the world predominantly in traditional "realist" terms and focuses on military threats, its European Allies, nurtured by enhanced - although incomplete - political unity in the European Union, have developed a post-modern view of the world and have emphasised non-military approaches in their security considerations. European capital has been mainly invested in low-spectrum capabilities, such as the capability to perform stabilisation and reconstruction operations. As common political priorities prove increasingly difficult to set, NATO's position in the international political arena is eroded, while at the same time political dissension increases in the Alliance. The United States' interest in leading the Alliance is dwindling. The capability gap has not been closed. Instead, a diversification of capabilities has occurred, weakening the Alliance as a military entity. Differences in strategic culture among the Allies are significant. In this way, military pre-emption continues to be a favoured option for US intervention but is not accepted by EU member states. On the positive side, European member states have focused on the development of crisis response, humanitarian-relief and disaster-aid capabilities and NATO now has a wider range of instruments at its disposal. The willingness to use these assets is global. The NRF is a European force focused on the lower spectrum of crisis response. As such, in those cases where leaders on both sides of the Atlantic manage to agree on a common policy, NATO can use the capabilities from its diverse toolbox. Managing this implicit division of labour represents a significant obstacle.

    "Return to ESDI" NATO

    The fourth NATO represents an Alliance that is primarily driven by the European Union. Increased political unity within the European Union has had a strong impact on NATO. A relatively successful ESDP has led to significant advances in crisis-management by giving shape to a coherent, more "holistic" European component. It can operate within the NRF framework and is also capable of doing so without US support. The capability gap has not been closed and has perhaps even widened. European Allies are mostly incapable of operating alongside the United States in the medium to high ranges of the conflict spectrum. The NRF is mainly used for crisis-response missions in the lower-to-medium segments of the conflict spectrum. The United States is focused on high-end capabilities and does not wish to use its assets for NATO operations in the lower spectrum. As a result, US leadership in the Alliance has been waning. In practice, if NATO acts, it is Europeans who act. Fears of a structural transatlantic rift have persuaded the Allies not to give up on NATO altogether. But political debates continue to impair the Alliance's effectiveness beyond a relatively low threshold. The United States operates on a unilateral basis and does not participate in NATO operations, yet it has politically supported the operations undertaken by its European Allies. Similarly, the European fear of a rift with the United States has led to operations being undertaken under a NATO flag. Hence, much of the early ideas for a European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI) have materialised, yet the European pillar of NATO is bearing most of NATO's weight.

    An alternative direction in this scenario is that, as US leadership in NATO diminishes and European cohesion increases, European states prefer to use the European Union as the main crisis-management instrument instead of NATO. Thereby crisis-management operations are performed through the "Berlin-Plus" mechanism, making use of NATO planning assets and capabilities but performing operations under an EU flag. NATO here becomes an enabler for EU operations.

    "Old boys' lounge" NATO

    The final NATO is the most pessimistic of the five NATOs in 2025. The United States has lost all interest in the Alliance. The capability gap has increased and even the most Atlanticist Allies have been unable to keep up with US progress in the transformation and further development of their armed forces. The NRF failed to become the glue to keep the Alliance together. Defence budgets in Europe continue to decrease or remain stable at best. The European Allies have turned towards the European Union and ESDP for answers to security issues. Without US leadership they argue there is no reason to invest in the Alliance and one could better focus on a European approach to crisis-management through the European Union. Meanwhile, the United States embraces a preference for unilateralism, and is only occasionally moved to participate in an ad-hoc coalition of Europe's willing. NATO is no longer the instrument for developing military capabilities and standardisation. Although issues of global security are discussed, the resolve to act together is absent. NATO has become a political forum, reminiscent of a gentleman's club at the turn of the 19th century rather than a collective-security organisation. The shape of this NATO within the scenario space illustrates that if the United States loses interest in NATO, then the two other drivers are essentially inconsequential. Whether the European Union is weak or strong and irrespective of threat assessments, the Alliance's future is grim in the absence of US leadership in NATO.


    How to deal with the deep uncertainty that has enveloped the international system in the past decades has become the central preoccupation of strategic planners around the globe. In a rapidly changing world, strategic planners can no longer pursue rigid policy choices that are optimised for today's and tomorrow's assumed certainties. Instead, they are forced to pursue adaptive policy choices that are robust against a wide range of plausible futures. NATO defence planning is heading in that direction. To NATO's credit, the Alliance has also started including uncertainty about itself into its long-term defence-planning process - a step that is frequently omitted in scenario-planning even in the business world. The scenario space developed in the CCSS study sketches some key uncertainties about NATO's own future. What remains to be seen is the extent to which this particular form of uncertainty can now be integrated into the process by which these uncertainties are translated into concrete defence requirements.

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