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Commentary | 25 November 2019

Brain dead? No, but NATO needs a new Strategic Concept

NATO Security Euro-Atlantic Security

Fear is not a panacea for death” – a Turkish Proverb

Next week, NATO’s 70th anniversary Summit will take place in London (on 3-4 December 2019) at yet another critical moment. President Macron’s declaration on the eve of the Summit about the ‘brain death’ of NATO further aggravated the doubts surrounding the Alliance.

It is not the first time that a European leader has spoken of ‘taking Europe’s fate into European hands.’ Almost the same language was used by Chancellor Merkel following U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement in the wake of the 2017 G-7 Summit at Taormina. But it is the first time that such clear, public doubt has been cast by a European leader on the credibility of NATO’s Article V security guarantee.

Increasing uncertainties about the transatlantic Alliance do not augur well for the future of NATO. So it is high time to relaunch the Alliance’s sense of purpose and direction. It needs to focus on its future. Continued lethargy could all too easily translate into an unnecessary crisis that further erodes the Alliance’s foundations.

A new Strategic Concept

A new Strategic Concept (SC) would be an effective way forward. Serious thought should be given to using the London meeting to initiate work on it. Now is not a time for timidity or blindness by Allied leaders. Fears that SC work would divide the most successful politico-military Alliance in history ought to be no excuse. Such fears ignore NATO’s built-in capacities, solid rule of consensus building, and working practices. Since its inception NATO has adopted seven SCs, whenever there was a compelling need to confront dramatic changes to Euro-Atlantic security and stability. It has repeatedly proven its ability to emerge from such processes with new strength, vitality and determination. In our present challenging conditions, inaction is no solution. And Allied leaders should not let potential resistance from the higher echelons of NATO bureaucracy be an obstacle. Instead, a solid, common understanding among Allies should point the way forward.

No one can deny the serious worsening of Euro-Atlantic security since Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014, not to mention the 2008 Georgian crisis, the ongoing destabilisation of the Donbas region of Ukraine, and the threats posed by ISIS still being faced by all. Accordingly, we all need to summon political will and courage to start a new SC to map out future Alliance tasks and missions.

The New SC’s shape

A new SC should be proactive for potential future missions and tasks and designed to give clear direction and taskings for the Alliance’s leadership and planners.

The structure and main tenets of the successive SCs adopted since the Cold War did not greatly alter. It would not be difficult to follow a similar pattern. In the five years since the Wales Summit enough important building blocks have been established in NATO’s work to guide and inform work on a new SC. A mere collage of previous decisions and recent policies should certainly not be the aim. Rather, we need a forward-looking strategy elaborating and extrapolating the needs and priorities of the Alliance in a wider timeframe.

Once political momentum is achieved on a new SC, it is highly likely consultations would focus on its title, structure, and content.

Rather than wasting energy at the outset on agreeing a title, it would be more productive to work towards consensus on the new SC’s structure and contents. Structure and contents are somewhat interlinked. But there is enough knowledge and experience within NATO to build both.

Structure and content

The new SC should start with a brief account of the Alliance’s future strategic context. The differing perceptions of this context and differing solutions offered by Allies will no doubt make this one of the hardest pieces of work. So the existing accords reached among Allies since 2010 should be leveraged to the maximum extent to overcome points of divergence. The level of ambition for future NATO tasks and missions will require out-of-the-box thinking. That, in turn, necessitates wider consultations going beyond the confines of Permanent Council consultations.

The new SC should reconfirm the transatlantic bond, which is clearly the backbone of the Alliance. We all need a renewed and unflinching commitment to it, despite recent backsliding. The transatlantic link should continue to serve the enduring, unequivocal principle of the indivisibility of security. Any deviation from this principle would be the gravest of aberrations. Hence, the clear need to preserve and strengthen the 360 degree approach that holds the Alliance together.

The three core tasks of the Alliance will have to be blessed as still valid. There should be more emphasis on the task of collective defence and deterrence, drawing on all the knowledge accumulated and steps taken to confront present challenges. And the scourge of terrorism not only in some partner nations but also on Alliance territory should also be addressed.

More visibility to collective defence and deterrence should not, however, overshadow the other two core tasks of crisis management and cooperative security. The three tasks constitute a whole, reinforcing each other.

We need more powerful crisis management instruments before ‘little green men’ reappear on the field. That requires additional resources to expand the Alliance’s early warning capabilities, increase its resilience against cyber and hybrid warfare, and improve its capacity to nip crises in the bud, thus avoiding wider conflicts.

We also need more innovative modernisation of our approach towards cooperative security by strengthening the existing network of partnerships and possibly exploring new areas of cooperation in an expanded frame.

On Russia, the modus vivendi agreed at NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit based on the dual track approach of deterrence and dialogue seems likely to guide our efforts for the foreseeable future. However, we should also leave some flexibility for the possibility, even if slight, that Russia concretely and visibly moves toward playing a ‘fair game’ in its relations with the Euro-Atlantic structures. The new SC should also briefly address Chinese security and defence policies that have implications for Euro-Atlantic security at large.

Arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation must also feature, particularly given that the INF Treaty is no more and the NPT Review Conference is fast approaching. The new SC should give renewed direction to efforts on emerging and disruptive technologies which have already introduced phenomenal changes in security and defence.

NATO’s Open Door Policy towards potential new members should be reconfirmed since this has been one of the Alliance’s most influential instruments for stability projection. We should elevate the current level of partnerships certainly to include the NATO-EU relationship, but going beyond it to be complemented by further outreach activities extended to regional organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, The African Union, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Establishing links with ASEAN could also be explored.

Finally, adaptation and transformation of the Alliance to prepare it for the 2040s and 50s will have to feature.


Preparing a new SC is daunting and painstaking. To ease the process, a Wisepersons’ Commission of former Foreign and Defence Ministers and Chiefs of Defence could kickstart the work. The Commission should have access to Allied leaderships, as necessary, and should engage the Permanent Council at intervals. It should benefit from the expertise and insights of think tanks, academia, and opinion shapers. It should report its recommendations to the Permanent Council which should retain the custodianship of this exercise.


It is commonplace to say that NATO itself is ‘the grand strategy’ against uncertainties. But it is equally true that the Alliance in the past successfully found the will and courage to map out its vision and direction. To prepare it for the future, another courageous decision is essential. Turkey should play an active role in supporting this since ‘Ankara remains at the centre of NATO’ in the words of the Turkish Defence Minister in October 2019.

NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept is the product of a different era. Radical developments since 2010 have totally changed the security context in which NATO operates. Current events make it more than ever necessary for the Alliance to reinforce its unity and solidarity and that requires a bold decision to initiate work on a new SC. London could well be the place to start. The sooner we all get into action, the better for a safer and more secure world.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network (ELN) or any of the ELN’s members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges.