NATO’s short and crisp Strategic Concept

At the 2009 Strasbourg-Kehl summit, NATO members agreed to produce a new Strategic Concept for the alliance. The Strategic Concept (SC) is usually the guiding policy document for NATO for the coming decade. In November, at the NATO summit in Lisbon, NATO countries hope to agree on a document that is “short and crisp”. The main content will to a large extent re­peat the 1999 SC, but it will be shorter overall. Insiders expect a document of 12 pages max. Unlike previous Concepts, this one is written to “sell” the vision of NATO to the populations of the member states, while at the same time it aims to get across the right message to non-NATO countries: that NATO is still a relevant, strong, unified, agile, 21st century multifunctio­nal alliance,... but also a friendly and helpful neighbour.

Listening to NATO representatives of the different countries, much of the text will be agreed on by the 28 members without too much trouble. NATO Reform, Open Door Policy, Part­nerships, Comprehensive Approach, reaffirma­tion of Article V, Cyber Defence, all those cause little debate, if any. At the same time though, the aim to make the document a public show of alliance unity means that several debates cur­rently ongoing in NATO HQ will need to be resol­ved before Lisbon, or marginalised in the writing process. Here’s a collection of contentious issues.


The main limitation faced by NATO, in all its current planning and strategising, is money, and a lack thereof. The recession already led to de­fence budget cuts in many of the member sta­tes, and the effects of those cuts will be felt in Brussels too. Next to that, the protracted occu­pa­tion of Afghanistan is starting to drain the en­thusiasm in some capitals for plans that involve new expenses. As a result, the intent to first set the policy and then work out the budgets has evolved into a reality in which budget restraints increasingly determine the policies.

Off Balance

Against that background, several discus­sions arise on priority-setting for the alliance. First and foremost, many countries indicate they want NATO to rethink the balance between “out-of-area” missions and the more old-school collective defence missions. Opinions on this topic are diverse. Some argue that there is no real difference between the two – when it comes to military strategising and planning. Afghanistan, they argue, is an out-of-area mis­sion that started as a collective defence mis­sion. Others argue that, in the end, the debate is not really about “less out-of-area”, but about more visibility of collective defence, to reassure the Central and Eastern European allies. Yet others go so far as to say that there needs to be a real resetting of the balance, in favour of col­lective defence, and downscaling NATO’s out-of-area objectives. For some countries, their participation in the Afghanistan mission has started to affect national defence planning and procurement. Ammunition used must be re­stocked. Materiel lost, damaged or used-up must be replaced. But also, some of the coun­tries that have not participated in the occupa­tion of Afghanistan argue for a stronger focus on NATO’s original core task: the common de­fence of the treaty territory. By now, there seems to be little debate on the need to reem­pha­sise collective defence as the core respon­sibility of NATO. The open question is to what extent that will result in a scaling down of the out-of-area capabilities and intentions of NATO, and how it all should be framed in the SC.

Good Russian, bad Russian

A second hot topic is the relationship bet­ween NATO and Russia. This paper is too short to reflect the full range of views within NATO and all aspects of it. But while all allies are quick to proclaim that NATO “neither poses a military threat to Russia, nor considers Russia a military threat to the Alliance” [1], the interpre­tations of that pre-agreed line differ country by country. Some countries openly suggest a route that would eventually lead to Russian member­ship. On the other side of the spectrum are those that regard Russia as the biggest poten­tial threat to NATO security. The likely outcome of that clash of visions is a middle way such as that proposed by the May 2010 Report of the Group of Experts, which suggests a “focus[…] on opportunities for pragmatic collaboration in pursuit of such shared interests” [2]. Short indeed; not so crisp

Old glue

Another debate that is unlikely to be finish­ed before November is the one on the new designs for NATO’s extended deterrence. All agree that “As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO should continue to maintain secure and reliable nuclear forces” [3]. The debate is on what those secure and reliable nuclear forces look like. More specifically, the debate is about the policy of nuclear sharing and the continued presence of US sub-strategic nuclear weapons on European territory. Most experts – and mili­tary planners – by now agree that this whole class of nukes is redundant, if not militarily use­less. Of the five nations hosting the 200 or so US B61 nuclear freefall bombs, three have indi­cated they’d prefer to phase them out. That hasn’t happened yet, because nuclear sharing has long been considered “the glue that holds the alliance together”. Through nuclear sharing, European member states showed their willing­ness to share the moral responsibility and the financial burden of maintaining a Cold War de­terrence posture. At the same time, nuclear sharing was regarded at the time as a reassu­ran­ce by the US towards Europe of the indivi­sibility of the alliance. And it seems NATO has not yet managed to find another system of burden sharing that would similarly reassure the member states sufficiently – a new glue if you will, one that would at the same time serve a relevant military purpose.

To change NATO’s nuclear policy a consen­sus decision is needed. Belgian, Dutch, Ger­man, Norwegian and Slovenian calls to rethink NATO’s nuclear policy have been met with Baltic reluctance. Moreover, by discussing it as a (political) policy issue, instead of a (military) posture issue, France is included in the consen­sus decision making. And France is notoriously hard to convince of any change to existing nu­clear policy. For Germany, and to a lesser ex­tent for Belgium and the Netherlands, a “no change” in the status-quo will be hard to explain back home. There is speculation that a compro­mise may be in the making that accommodates both sides to the debate. In one scenario, the B61 bombs would be relocated in one central location (probably Aviano, Italy). This way, NATO is still held together by the same old glue, while the domestic public relations pro­blems of the Western European countries are solved.

Missile Defence

A couple months ago, NATO HQ launched the plan for Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence [4]. A rather cryptic, if not internally contradictory name. The first word seems to be added to convince us that, really, this time it works! It seemed for a while that getting consensus on the plan would be a no-brainer. But in talking to the national delega­tions at NATO, it turns out that several are reluctant to accept the system at face value. Doubts about the technical feasibility of the proposed system prevail, and some – France most notably – are reluctant to get caught up in an “open-ended funding programme”. And then there’s the issue of the involvement of Russia in these plans. Not to antagonise Russia, the plan invited Russia to join efforts to create a joined NATO–Russian Missile Defence system. But the level of Russian participation is a cause for concern for many NATO member states. So, for the moment, the future of missile defence is undecided.

In chambers

In the past, NATO Strategic Concepts were presented as cornerstone documents laying out the parameters for policy decisions for years to come. In contrast, the new NATO SC is to be a document of more limited scope, aiming to pre­sent to the public a likeable and reliable allian­ce. The desire to stress the unity in the alliance pushes NATO to exclude those subject on which the debate is still ongoing. Such a strate­gy would make the text even shorter of course, but also less durable. If it turns out only the surface is “crisp” it may not be too brittle to hide rising tensions underneath.

Wilbert van der Zeijden


[1] NATO 2020 – Assured Security, Dynamic Engagement, Group of Experts, May 17, 2010, p. 10
[2] NATO 2020 – Assured Security, Dynamic Engagement, Group of Experts, May 17, 2010, p. 10
[3] NATO 2020 – Assured Security, Dynamic Engagement, Group of Experts, May 17, 2010, p. 11