Renewing the Vows: NATO's New Strategic Concept

Image courtesy of NATO Media LibaryTHE NATO GROUP OF EXPERTS led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has issued its report outlining a series of recommendations on NATO’s new Strategic Concept.  The report will serve as a basis for drafting the final version of the Strategic Concept to be presented at the NATO summit in Lisbon in November.

As expected, the report plays up the historical successes of the alliance and, since this is the first Strategic Concept in a decade and the first in the post-9/11 world, it lays out a case for repositioning NATO to develop global capabilities to meet the increasingly complex challenges of proliferation, terrorism, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, and migration and such. 

Yet, there was something very odd and puzzling about the report.  One the one hand, it begins by noting that NATO today is doing more than ever before – it is conducting major operations in Afghanistan, supporting security operations in Kosovo, providing training assistance in Iraq, and leading two maritime patrol operations – but, the value of the alliance is less obvious to the populations of its member states.  In a nutshell, most folks simply do not know or understand all the ways NATO helps them.  

In the face of this reality, the report recommends that the Strategic Concept must serve as “an invocation of political will – or to put it another way – a renewal of vows on the part of each member.”  It goes on to note:

“Threats to the interests of the Alliance come from the outside, but the organization’s vigor could easily be sapped from within.  The increasing complexity of the global political environment has the potential to gnaw away at Alliance cohesion; economic headaches can distract attention from security needs; old rivalries could resurface; and the possibility is real of a damaging imbalance between the military contributions of some members and that of other.” (emphasis added)

This seems right to me and all well and good so far – NATO clearly needs a strategy that understands and adapts to the obvious domestic political and economic constraints that it faces.  

Something does not square here. NATO already has expanded to 28 countries and likely will add more. And, despite all of its successes, there are real differences within the alliance.

Yet, the report’s focus on the internal challenges and constraints essentially ends there.  The bulk of the report details a series of recommendations that envision a significant expansion of NATO’s core mission and objectives in the next decade.  The central theme within the 15 recommendations is that NATO must simultaneously enhance its defense and deterrence capabilities within its borders and improve and upgrade its capabilities to fight and win in military operations beyond its borders.  And, while the report recommends that the alliance needs to establish guidelines for operations outside of its alliance borders, the thrust is that NATO must respond to threats where they emerge, i.e., well outside of the traditional theater.  The report also recommends that NATO must prepare to expand its partnerships and move toward the Comprehensive Approach in its training and doctrine to integrate civilian and military operations in state-building efforts.

In short, the report is recommending NATO become a more engaged and robust alliance and be prepared to operate globally (all of which require substantial increases in resources and capabilities) at the same time it faces serious internal constraints. 

Something does not square here. NATO already has expanded to 28 countries and likely will add more.   And, despite all of its successes, there are real differences within the alliance.  It is not clear that expanding the scope and mission of the alliance without a plan to address those differences makes much sense. Just this week we’ve seen three illustrations of the internal challenges facing the alliance. 

First, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates again pressed – actually this time he pleaded – with the Europeans not to take big bites out of already relatively small defense budgets.  Only five of the 28 are meeting current obligations on resource commitments.  And, given the magnitude of the current European financial crisis, its hard to see how any country other than the United States is going to be able meet, let alone expand, its resource commitments to NATO in the near future.

Second, Turkey, with the second largest number of troops in the alliance, voted in the United Nations Security Council to oppose new sanctions on Iran.  Turkey has been much more active as a Middle East regional power in the past several years and openly objected to the US, British, French, and EU positions on the sanctions regime. 

And, third, as NATO casualties continue to mount – another dozen NATO troops were killed this week – General McChrystal was in Brussels at this week’s Defense Ministerial asking for additional troops and trainers for the upcoming offensive in Kandahar.   Yet, public opinion polls in almost every NATO country reveal extensive opposition to committing more troops:  80 percent of Germans, French, and Poles oppose sending more troops and nearly 60 percent of those in the UK, the Czech Republic, and Denmark oppose more troops.   Perhaps even more worrisome is that sizable majorities in almost every country believe the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse and was a mistake. 

Of course, none of these challenges by themselves pose a threat to NATO’s existence and the alliance has weathered a number of serious storms over the years – most recently over the Iraq War.  Still, the new Strategic Concept will define how NATO will position itself to deal with very real and complex global security challenges over the next decade. If it fails to understand the range and scope of the internal constraints, it will move the alliance in an unsustainable and unworkable direction and we’ll see even more crises.  It’s going to take more than a bit of public diplomacy to address these challenges.