Riga and beyond: The political transformation of NATO
Developing partnerships: NATO's principal decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, convenes a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan(© ISAF )
Allen G. Sens argues that NATO's transformation must be broader than is currently conceived if the Alliance is to meet the security challenges of tomorrow.
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has undertaken a series of extensive reforms designed to adapt the Alliance to new security threats and challenges. Member states have given the Alliance new strategic roles, admitted new countries, and established partnership and dialogue programmes with non-member states. NATO has been used to facilitate collective military action and to deliver security-related technical assistance and advice. An Alliance that was once an instrument of deterrence and containment has become a mechanism for power projection and security consultation. The renovation of the Alliance remains an ongoing project, with the concept of "transformation" now as the driving force behind efforts to make NATO more useful and effective.

Transformation is aimed at enhancing the interoperability and deployment capacities of NATO's military forces through the incorporation of new doctrinal and technological developments. Such efforts are vital if the Alliance is to remain an effective instrument of collective military action. By its nature, however, the transformation agenda is narrowly focused on military affairs. NATO must undergo a political transformation if it is to be an effective instrument of power projection and security consultation in the future. This political transformation must include building global partnerships with key states and regional institutions, enhancing NATO's political and socio-economic information and analysis capacities, developing the ability of the Alliance to respond to the ethical dimension of military action, and improving the state-building and peace-building capacities of the Alliance.

The need for a political transformation

While NATO's member states face a broad range of security threats and issues, the threat of terrorism is the focus of security policy on both sides of the Atlantic. Intrastate conflicts and failed states have also emerged as major international security concerns, making peace and stabilisation operations a political priority. Meanwhile, authoritarian states continue to threaten regional stability. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or the threat thereof, raises fears of their use in warfare and provokes crises with countries such as North Korea and Iran. Organised crime breeds corruption and fear, and diverts resources away from legitimate economic activity and other law and order priorities. Illegal migration and shortcomings in the social integration of immigrant communities can create a racially and religiously defined underclass, fuelling extremism and identity-inspired violence in society. Energy security is a growing concern as the dependence of NATO countries on foreign sources of energy increases. Finally, climate change and environmental degradation will precipitate an increase in environmentally-induced conflict and the frequency and impact of extreme weather events.

Taken together, these issues present a much more complex security challenge for NATO's member states than that presented by the Soviet Union. In the first place, these security challenges are diverse in character yet interconnected in origin and effect. For example, intrastate conflicts and failed states are breeding grounds and safe havens for organised crime and terrorist organisations, and are sources of refugee flows and illegal migration. The threat of international terrorism is increasingly linked to domestic or "home grown" terrorism. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction magnifies the threat posed by authoritarian regimes and terrorist groups. Responding to this diverse yet interconnected security environment places a premium on sound political and societal information gathering and analysis.

Second, these security challenges are predominantly socio-economic, not military-technical, in character. Intrastate conflicts, terrorism, migration, and organised crime are driven and defined by political, economic, and social conditions. Military-technical considerations remain relevant in the context of the military strength of authoritarian regimes, the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, and the tactical capability of armed combatants in intrastate wars. However, successful short-term responses and long-term solutions to current and emerging threats depend on effective political, social and economic policies. As a result, NATO must become a more effective instrument for the analysis and discussion of the socio-economic conditions that drive the security threats it faces and the policies designed to meet them.

Third, none of the security challenges NATO faces can be met solely through NATO's primary comparative advantage as an organisation: the threat or use of military force. Military force can terminate or establish order in intrastate conflicts or failed states, but cannot create a lasting peace. Military action can kill terrorists or disrupt their networks but cannot address root causes or stem recruitment. Military pre-emption of nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare facilities is dangerous, both politically and practically. Authoritarian regimes can be overthrown by military means but must be replaced by non-military means. Illegal migration and organised crime are better addressed through policing and social policy at home and abroad. Energy security cannot be achieved through the use of military power. If NATO is to contribute to successful security outcomes in the face of such challenges, it must become a more effective instrument for diplomatic engagement and outreach, and it must incorporate political and economic programmes into military planning and operations.

Fourth, the contemporary security environment challenges both the conceptual and practical boundaries between internal and external security and the traditional division of responsibilities between international institutions and domestic agencies. Internally, police and other domestic security agencies increasingly employ military style tactics and techniques to passive and reactive tasks, and the military is increasingly tasked as a first (or early) responder to internal security events. Externally, militaries are increasingly taking on law and order tasks in missions outside the NATO area, and police resources are increasingly deployed in cooperation with NATO missions. Meeting security challenges that are simultaneously intrastate and borderless in nature will require NATO to have improved means of communication and consultation with both international and domestic security organisations.

NATO must become a more effective instrument for the analysis of the socio-economic conditions that drive security threats
Fifth, the security challenges NATO faces often provoke and reflect a clash of ideas, value systems, and conceptions of right and wrong. Action or inaction on any of these issues is fraught with ethical dilemmas which in turn can have major international and domestic political implications. The moral clarity that characterised the Cold War in Europe is largely gone. Morality, legality, and ethics now play a much more prominent role in the establishment and maintenance of NATO's international legitimacy, domestic public support in member states, and local support in the world's regions. This is especially the case when the use of military force is involved. As moral, legal, and ethical issues increasingly define the success and failure of security policies and influence what is politically possible or desirable, NATO must improve its capacity to assess and integrate such issues into policy and planning.

The political transformation of NATO

If NATO is to be an effective instrument of power projection and security consultation in response to current and emerging threats, it must undergo a political transformation. The emphasis of this transformation should be placed on enhancing the capacities of the Alliance to perform its key roles effectively, not on repositioning the Alliance in the European security architecture or reformulating decision-making procedures. Too much political attention has been devoted to the NATO-European Union relationship. Little is to be gained by opening a lengthy and contentious debate on the reform of NATO's decision-making structures. And it is unlikely that NATO will be asked to provide anything more than a supportive operational role in response to counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, organised crime, illegal migration, energy security, environmental degradation, and disaster response. However, NATO will continue to be used as an instrument of collective military action and security cooperation. To this end, the political transformation of the Alliance should pursue an agenda devoted to these two primary functions.

Building global partnerships

The political transformation of NATO must include the development of partnerships with states and institutions in other regions of the world. Many of the current and emerging security challenges faced by the Alliance originate outside the Euro-Atlantic area and have global features and effects. If NATO is to remain a useful mechanism for security cooperation against such threats, it cannot remain psychologically confined in a geographic netherworld between the territory of its member states and a vaguely defined periphery of interest. Developing formal partnerships with interested countries and institutions in various regions of the world will augment NATO's capabilities and increase its credibility and legitimacy as a security institution. Global partnerships will establish a culture of security cooperation between NATO and other actors, reduce misunderstanding and miscommunication, and enhance knowledge and awareness of regional politics and social conditions which are fundamentally important in the design of successful security responses to current and emerging threats.

To achieve the greatest mutual advantage to any global partnership arrangement, flexibility should be the Alliance's guiding principle. Global partnership arrangements should be established on a bilateral basis, with specific areas of cooperation determined by a process of consultation and negotiation. A global partnership forum, or regional partnership forums, could be established if there is interest in multilateral cooperation among participants. Similarly, functional partnership forums on specific areas of cooperation (such as force generation for stability operations or maritime counter-proliferation operations) could be developed. Partnership arrangements should extend beyond military cooperation to include wider consultations, for example on responses to terrorism, organised crime, weapons proliferation, methods of enhancing energy security, and the security implications of environmental degradation and resource depletion.

Enhancing NATO's information and analysis capacity

The political transformation of NATO must enable the Alliance to increase its capacity to gather political, social, economic, and environmental information, analyse and identify any implications for the security of NATO countries, and integrate the results of this analysis into political activities and mission planning and execution. To this end, NATO should establish an analysis and assessment unit focused on political and socio-economic developments in areas of interest. NATO can establish consultative groups combining international staff, government officials, academia, industry, intelligence, NGOs, and expatriates to provide insights and information. When the need arises, formal "information generation conferences" should become as important a component in political and operational planning as force generation conferences. The information generated will improve knowledge and awareness at the political level and result in more effective mission-specific training and briefing information.

Furthermore, NATO cannot maximise its performance, influence, or effectiveness without a solid understanding of the impact its activities and missions are having on people, communities, and societies, both within the NATO area and outside of it. NATO is by structure and tradition a "top-down" organisation. The Alliance must improve its institutional capacity to take cues from below, from field missions, local governments, and communities. Engagement in counter-terrorism missions, stability operations in failed states and post-war reconstruction efforts require this kind of capacity. This will enable the Alliance to establish appropriate rules of engagement, create useful "quick impact" projects, and develop effective long-term policies consistent with local conditions. An improved ability to understand and adapt to the political and social environment in which NATO operates will be crucial to the success of Alliance operations.

Developing NATO's ethical awareness

To be effective as an instrument of power projection and security consultation, NATO must develop a capacity to assess the ethical dimension of its roles and missions. The moral foundation of the Alliance's actions, both in the justice of its cause and the means it employs, is crucial to sustaining the ability of the Alliance to act effectively against the security challenges it faces. For example, the ethics of military action (especially the decision to go to war), the use of force in stability operations, and the use of certain weapons systems are now crucial factors in the gain or loss of international and domestic political support for military operations. The ethical dimension of counter-terrorism, especially with respect to the observance of law and treatment of minorities, is just as crucial. Legitimacy built on a foundation of legality and ethical practices will be a vital component of securing support for NATO's political and military activities in the future.

The political transformation of NATO should include the creation of a focal point for research and policy development on ethics located in the International Staff. This research and analysis unit should be given the capacity to assess ethical and legal issues in a cross-cultural context and to analyse public opinion and other social science data. The unit would be charged with making recommendations on the legal and ethical dimensions of NATO's activities. To enhance the range of perspectives available for consideration, NATO should sponsor issue-specific consultative panels composed of government officials, International Staff, academics, lawyers, ethicists, and NGO representatives. Findings and recommendations would be disseminated to the political level and to the International Military Staff, Allied Command Operations, and Allied Command Transformation. This capacity would help ensure that NATO's actions are consistent with the ethical imperatives crucial for success, both at home and abroad.

Improving NATO's state-building and peace-building capacities

The success of peacekeeping and stability operations is largely dependent on the ability to establish a long-term peace in war-torn societies. The political transformation of NATO should include enhancing its capacities to support state-building and peace-building efforts. The Alliance cannot be in the business of stabilisation, peace support, crisis management, or counter-terrorist operations without being a participant in the wider effort of post-conflict or post-violence reconstruction. Experience has shown that peace or stabilisation missions and state-building and peace-building efforts must be designed in tandem and be mutually supportive. While state-building and peace-building should not become a primary role of the Alliance, NATO must become better equipped in doctrine and capacity to support such efforts.

In practical terms, NATO has already been engaged in state-building and peace-building efforts at the field level: witness the experiences in the Balkans and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan. In order to improve its capacities, NATO should establish a state-building and peace-building coordination and policy development office at the headquarters level. This office should combine International Staff resources with national capabilities, and a capacity to work with member states, partner countries, and host nations. NATO should also enhance its consultation and cooperation process with other relevant institutions, including the newly created Peacebuilding Commission and the Peacebuilding Support Office at the UN. Just as NATO develops its deployment capacities and interoperability to improve its military capacities, the Alliance should also develop its state-building and peace-building capacities to help increase the prospects for the long term success of its peace and stability operations.


If NATO is to meet the security challenges it now faces, it must engage in a transformation exercise broader than that currently conceived. This concept of a wider transformation does not invalidate the current emphasis on military transformation. The challenges NATO now faces are globally interconnected, socio-economic in character, largely unsolvable by purely military solutions, characterised by internal and external security implications, and contested in the realm of ideas and ethics. NATO must adapt accordingly. A political transformation is required to make the Alliance a more effective instrument in carrying out its two primary roles: collective military action and security cooperation.