London Calling: A Strategic Review to Preserve NATO’s Strength in the Twenty-first Century

There are plenty of reasons for NATO leaders to rejoice as they meet in London.

For the fifth consecutive year, defense spending has been rising in Europe and Canada, representing an additional $100 billion that will contribute to better capabilities and better trained forces—and will support better burden sharing between the United States and other allies. NATO has consistently strengthened its posture through its credible and well-oiled forward presence arrangements in Poland, Baltic countries, and the Black Sea region. It has been significantly improving its readiness, making good progress towards its target of 30 warships, 30 air squadrons, and 30 army battalions ready to use within 30 days, and it has engaged in a fruitful cooperation with the European Union to increase military mobility on the continent. NATO is also tackling future challenges, having just announced that space will be considered as a new operational domain and adopting a roadmap on emerging technologies. Finally, one new member, North Macedonia, will soon join the family.

But these successful endeavors of NATO can no longer conceal the fact that the Alliance—a deep political partnership grounded in collective defense and shared values—is going through challenging times, which French president Emmanuel Macron bluntly exposed.

A house divided against itself cannot stand

Over the past few years, the United States has been consistently reassessing its own security interests to prepare for an era of great power competition , in particular with China. In this context, Europe (but also the Middle East) will likely not top the list of U.S. strategic priorities in the future. This does not mean that the United States will not remain committed to European security, and the fact that the U.S. presence in Europe has not declined testifies to this point. But the pivot to great power competition indicates that the strategic interests of European allies will not automatically amount to the strategic interests of the United States in Europe—and that, in turn, those U.S. strategic interests in Europe will not necessarily be the defining factor in Washington’s global strategy.

So far, European allies have tried to respond to these evolutions as if they were only new conditions to maintain the old transatlantic contract. They have ramped up their defense efforts, with some significant achievements, and every single European ally will be increasing its defense budget this year. Yet European defense spending, capabilities, readiness, and political willingness to act remain too meager. The death of 13 French soldiers fighting jihadist groups in the Sahel illustrates this asymmetric reality: while some Europeans crucially take part in these efforts to combat a common threat to Europe, others seem less willing to match words of solidarity with deeds. Therefore, it is not only a matter of transatlantic equity that Europeans take up more responsibility for their own security. It is also a necessity if Europe wants to be politically and strategically relevant.

A real turning point came with the Turkish offensive in Syria, which saw a NATO ally take direct action against the interests of other allies with no consultation or coordination beforehand. From Ankara’s perspective, the Syrian Democratic Forces are a Kurdish terrorist organization—but for the United States and its European allies, they have been decisive partners in the fight against the Islamic State, which killed hundreds of its citizens. And all NATO allies will now be confronted to the consequences of those actions: the possibility of a resurgent Islamic State, the gains made by Russian forces, and the tightened grip of the Syrian regime—as will the Kurdish population of course.

This issue was at the heart of Emmanuel Macron’s much-discussed interview with The Economist. He argued:

You have partners together in the same part of the world, and you have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None . . . This situation, in my opinion, doesn’t call into question the interoperability of NATO which is efficient between our armies, it works well in commanding operations. But strategically and politically, we need to recognise that we have a problem.

Reactions to this controversial interview were particularly vivid in part because they also reflected deeper concerns about the French president’s intention to “rethink the strategic relationship with Russia,” which should be addressed. But beyond headlines, it is worth noting that NATO’s consistent policy of deterrence and dialogue with Russia and President Macron’s calls for a new engagement “without being the slightest bit naive and remaining just as tough on the Minsk process and on what’s going on in Ukraine” are anything but contradictory.

Regardless of the failings or merits of such a blunt approach, this interview shed a brutal light on the actual state of the transatlantic relationship and the absence of a strategic discussion regarding European security. Indeed, there is only so much that NATO, even as fit and relevant as it is today, can achieve if its members do not view their security as an indivisible common good and do not share a common understanding of their interests.

What are the roles of Europe and NATO in a world of great power competition? How can Europeans make sure that their interests will be protected—and what are the improvements required to their capabilities and their collective decisionmaking process? What does solidarity really entail in terms of military but also in terms of shared democratic values or political coordination within and outside of NATO? What is at stake for Europeans in the demise of arms control arrangements, and how should they respond?

So far, it is undeniable that answers to those questions diverge significantly amongst allies. But disagreements could be less dangerous and much more manageable than denial, which would risk hollowing out the Alliance.

Renewing the allies’ vows

The NATO Leaders Meeting in London represents an opportunity to lay the foundation for an in-depth and clear-eyed discussion intended to revive the Alliance and further strengthen NATO at the political level. Going back to the North Atlantic Treaty should be the first step. It gathers in a remarkably succinct document all the fundamental principles of which the Alliance was built: commitments to shared values, the peaceful settlement of disputes, develop national capacities, to consult and to defend one another, et cetera. Interestingly, during the last foreign ministers meeting, both Germany and France (though they had expressed different views in the previous days) also called for a strategic review, which received support by “many allies” according to NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.

There is no reason for the Alliance to shy away from such a discussion. First, because it is not unprecedented. In 1967, as NATO risked “developing into a sort of 'shell with no real spirit left in it'” because of political divergences, the “Report of the Council of the Future Tasks of the Alliance”—commonly known as the Harmel Report—gave a new impetus to the organization by defining "the future tasks which face the Alliance, and its procedures for fulfilling them in order to strengthen the Alliance as a factor for durable peace" and led to a consistent policy of “deterrence and détente.” In this regard, the insistence of the report on shared ideals, common interest, and transparent consultations appears entirely relevant to today’s context:

From the beginning the Atlantic Alliance has been a co-operative grouping of states sharing the same ideals and with a high degree of common interest. Their cohesion and solidarity provide an element of stability within the Atlantic area. As sovereign states the Allies are not obliged to subordinate their policies to collective decision. The Alliance affords an effective forum and clearing house for the exchange of information and views; thus, each of the Allies can decide its policy in the light of close knowledge of the problems and objectives of the others. To this end the practice of frank and timely consultations needs to be deepened and improved.

Second, because NATO is a well-functioning organization fueled by substantial activities implemented by competent allied personnel driven by their daily commitment to allied solidarity. British and French troops in Estonia, U.S. troops in Poland, Canadian trainers in Iraq, German and Polish troops in Afghanistan, Belgian and Danish airmen in Lithuania all constitute the fabric of the Alliance. Sustaining and supporting their efforts has been, and should remain, an utmost priority to enhance the credibility and the effectiveness of NATO.

A serious political discussion is needed to revive the Alliance and live up to its motto, animus in consulendo liber—a mind unfettered in deliberation. To achieve this objective, the idea of a “strategic review” carried out by an external group of political figures, representative of the diversity of the Alliance, could result in a broad assessment of the tasks, values, principles, and instruments needed to further strengthen the Alliance. Conversely, engaging in a purely technical or institutional process would just amount to a mere revision of the Strategic Concept and would just miss the mark.

London, where NATO had its first headquarters, would be the right place to start such a strategic process. It would unambiguously reaffirm that the Alliance is the cornerstone of European and transatlantic security—and that it ought to adapt to preserve this role in the twenty-first century.

Quentin Lopinot is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Quentin Lopinot