NATO in 2030: Charting a New Path for the Transatlantic Alliance

Last year’s NATO summit in London was supposed to be a celebration of the 70th anniversary of one of the most successful military alliances in history. But growing internal divisions amid a rapidly deteriorating security environment dimmed the mood. As NATO has done in similar moments in its history, it paused to reflect on its challenges, a preparatory stage for a shift in direction. This year was a time for NATO to step back and take stock by launching a “forward-looking reflection process” on the future of the alliance.

Carried out under the auspices of NATO’s secretary general, the publication of the findings of a group of independent experts appointed by Jens Stoltenberg was recently released to provide insight on how to adapt NATO to a changing landscape. Presented to NATO foreign ministers on December 1, “NATO 2030: United for a New Era” offers a great deal to reflect upon and recommendations for allies at a timely moment, as the United States undergoes a presidential transition.

The Mandate: Strengthening NATO’s Political Dimension

While NATO members have strengthened the military component of the alliance to address rising security challenges, NATO leaders acknowledged in London that they needed to bolster the unity, cohesion, and efficiency of its political dimension. In his interview with The Economist in October 2019, French president Emmanuel Macron bluntly highlighted NATO’s political and strategic incongruity, to include the Turkish decision to launch an offensive in Northeast Syria without consulting its allies or President Trump’s repeated criticisms of the alliance.

While President Macron’s comments grabbed the headlines at the time and were not particularly welcomed by allies, they led to the adoption of a mandate of an expert group to explore ways of enhancing the political cohesion of the alliance, particularly in three areas:

  1. Reinforcing allied unity, solidarity, and cohesion, including to cement the centrality of the transatlantic bond;

  2. Increasing political consultation and coordination between allies; and

  3. Strengthening NATO’s political role and relevant instruments to address current and future threats and challenges to alliance security emanating from all strategic directions.

This broad mandate provided the group of experts sufficient leeway to undertake a comprehensive review of the alliance’s challenges and tasks, although the group did not address NATO’s military activities.

The Reflection Process: A Collective Brainstorming

Composed of five men and five women with diverse backgrounds and reflecting the geographic diversity of the alliance, the group of experts offered a variety of perspectives on the alliance. Co-chaired by Thomas de Maizière (former German minister of interior and defense) and Wess Mitchell (who served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs from 2017 to 2019), the group also conducted extensive consultations within and outside of NATO from April to October 2020.

Through more than 90 meetings, the group engaged government representatives, international organizations, scholars, parliamentarians, and military officials, as well as members of the private sector. This inclusive approach allowed the group to tackle a wide variety of issues, from the overall political cohesion of the alliance, to NATO’s adaptation, to emerging and disruptive technologies.

The Diagnosis: A Divided House to Address Rising Threats

Starting with an analysis of the challenges facing the alliance, the report notes that NATO has experienced over the past decade fundamental shifts in its external security environment. Since 2010, when the last Strategic Concept was adopted, allies have simultaneously faced a return of great power competition and the intensification of global threats (e.g., enduring terrorism, a changing technological landscape, pandemics, and climate change).

But the main danger might come from inside, according to the authors, who describe the numerous “internal strains” weakening the cohesion of the alliance: diverging threat perceptions, bilateral disputes, tensions over burden-sharing, lingering doubts on the reliability of U.S. security guarantees, and even democratic backsliding within the alliance (“representative democracy is being challenged”).

Such “drift toward NATO disunity . . . must be seen as a strategic rather than merely tactical or optical problem,” the report stresses. Because, without cohesion, allies would face this unravelling strategic environment divided. “And neither Europe nor North America . . . are powerful enough to manage these threats alone.” Besides, the fragmentation of the alliance could be exploited by external actors, in particular Russia and China, which could “take advantage of individual Allies in ways that endanger their collective interests and security.”

The Recommendations: Adapting to Survive

Against this backdrop, the authors advocate for pushing further the adaptation of NATO, which has already “weathered stormy times before” and managed to evolve to changing strategic circumstances. The report gives the example of the “Harmel Report” of 1967, which defined the “dual-track approach” of deterrence and dialogue toward Russia that the alliance still follows today. Now NATO must again adapt “to survive, and remain effective and relevant to the needs of its members.”

To that end, the experts provide 138 recommendations aimed at enabling the alliance to remain in 2030 the “bedrock of peace, stability, and the rule of law in the Europe-Atlantic area,” covering everything from Russia to the challenges of outer space. The following recommendations are noteworthy.

An Updated Strategic Concept for a New Security Environment 

As a first step, the authors advocate for updating the 2010 Strategic Concept, which they believe is “an inadequate basis for responding to the current geopolitical environment.” While recognizing that a new strategic concept is not a cure-all, the report underlines that it would provide an opportunity to “establish clear priorities,” “solidify cohesion” among allies, and create coherence among existing adaptation efforts. The work to modernize the Strategic Concept could start immediately after the next summit.

On Russia, the experts reaffirmed the dual-track approach of deterrence and dialogue, even though allies would need to push both components further by raising the costs of Russian aggression while supporting “increased political outreach” with Moscow, most notably on arms control and risk reduction measures. More specifically on arms control, the alliance should become a meaningful forum to debate and consult on the challenges of existing and future arrangements.

The allies should moreover devote “much more time” and “political resources” to the security challenges posed by China. NATO should strengthen its resilience toward cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns originating from Beijing and better assess the security implications of China’s industrial and technological strategy.

In addition to adapting to the reemergence of geopolitical competition, the alliance should also better address global threats, starting with the “immediate threat” of terrorism. In that respect, the fight against terrorism should become a genuine “cross-cutting line of effort” throughout NATO’s activities (military planning, exercises, intelligence sharing). Besides, NATO could provide a “surge capacity” to individual allies overwhelmed by a terrorist attack. Likewise, the alliance should build up its military preparedness on its southern flank and better coordinate with the European Union on issues such as maritime security (though the report does not specify how both organizations could concretely improve their cooperation in that domain).

Also, NATO should strengthen its resilience toward new risks stemming from climate change and pandemics by increasing its situational awareness (the report notably proposes the creation of a Center of Excellence on Climate and Security) and fully including these challenges in its planning on crisis management.

Strengthening the Political Dimension of the Alliance

However, these adaptations would only be achievable if they are underpinned by a return to the alliance’s core values and a revived political cohesion that should be an “unambiguous priority” for all allies. To that end, the experts recommend that the allies pledge, at the highest level, to a “code of good conduct” to abide by the spirit as well as the letter of the 1949 Washington Treaty (e.g., to uphold the alliance’s common values, meet agreed burden-sharing requirements, and refrain from politically motivated blockade).

The report also highlights how societal vulnerabilities make countries targets for malign influence. It proposes the creation of a Center of Excellence for Democratic Resilience dedicated to providing support to allies facing “interference from hostile external actors in the functioning of their democratic institutions.”

Transatlantic consultation should also be enhanced in a “systematic, credible, and powerful manner.” In that regard, the North Atlantic Council should be the “unique and essential forum” for consultation on the most important security challenges and therefore should broaden the scope of issues it tackles, including “national-operational or capability-related” decisions having an impact on NATO (a veiled reference to Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system). Allied foreign ministers should also meet more often, with expanded formats when appropriate.

The alliance should also strengthen its coordination with its key partners, starting with the European Union. Both organizations should seek to “reinvigorate trust and understanding at the highest levels.” An EU-NATO Summit in 2021 could provide an opportunity to better organize the relationship, through institutionalized staff links and better deconfliction on issues where competencies overlap, and determine areas of greater cooperation (on resilience, artificial intelligence or military mobility, for instance). Both organizations could also adopt coordinated strategic communications and arrange joint travels of their officials.

Last but not least, the report provides thought-provoking recommendations to reinforce NATO’s political decisionmaking, such as establishing mechanisms to support ad hoc coalitions within the alliance (similar to the EU Permanent Structured Cooperation), setting time limits for making decisions in the event of a crisis, or raising the threshold for single-country blockages at the ministerial level when they involve external bilateral disputes.

The Next Steps

This report admittedly has its own limitations. The recommendations on external challenges are not prioritized sufficiently given NATO’s limited resources and do not necessarily give indications on what should be the most pressing issues for allies when adapting to this new security environment. Moreover, one could question the added value of some proposals, such as adding more NATO centers of excellence. On political cohesion, the experts are very cautious in the language they use and refrain from giving specific examples of ongoing “internal strains” or proposing potential corrective measures when an individual member does not comply with the “code of good conduct.” Many of these shortcomings are nonetheless the result of the diverse composition of the experts, which in turn reflects political sensitivities within the alliance.

But the release of the report is far from being the final stage of NATO’s reflection process. The experts’ recommendations are intended to provide a baseline for and inform the deliberations of the secretary general, who should put forward his own proposals at the next NATO summit in 2021. At the end of the day, the decision to take the decisive steps needed to genuinely adapt the alliance will rest with the allies. But for the experts, the current situation leaves no room for doubt: adaptation is essential for NATO, not only because it proved to be a “lifeblood” of the alliance, but also because it is now “a baseline requirement of its survival.”

Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) 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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Pierre Morcos