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NATO’s Strategic Concept – a View from Mars

Commentary, 30 March 2009
International Institutions
As NATO marks its Sixtieth anniversary, many analysts will argue that members of the Alliance have sufficiently overcome their differences to launch a new Strategic Concept. This new Concept would see a rationalisation of Europe’s military capability and would envisage a ‘minus US’ strategy for some NATO operations.

As NATO marks its Sixtieth anniversary, many analysts will argue that members of the Alliance have sufficiently overcome their differences to launch a new Strategic Concept. This new Concept would see a rationalisation of Europe’s military capability and would envisage a ‘minus US’ strategy for some NATO operations.

By Michael Codner, Director, Military Sciences Department, RUSI

There is broad agreement that the Sixtieth Anniversary Summit should launch on a new Strategic Concept for the Alliance. The present Concept was agreed in 1999 and predates the 11 September 2001 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It predecessor of 1990 addressed the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, replacing MC 14/3, which was the Strategic Concept of Forward Defence and Flexible Response for most of the second half of the Cold War. It bears mention that this earlier Concept was a Military Committee document and expressed a military strategy. The subsequent Concepts were agreed by Heads of State and Government and were North Atlantic Council documents presenting ‘grand strategy’ such as it was.

There has been a great deal of discussion amongst analysts about the content of a new Concept. The present security situation is characterised by uncertainty, in particular political uncertainty and implications of strategic shocks of which the economic crisis is the most immediate. It is especially difficult to define short- and medium-term trends based on post-Cold War history (Climate change is long-term albeit with near-term consequences). The purpose of this analysis is therefore to give a view as to the issues at stake that is deliberately naïve in that it is unfettered by recent history.

First and foremost, NATO is a military as well as a political alliance and its defining feature is its unique military purpose and structure. Whatever the origins of the Concept, it must contain a military strategy that relates policy ends to military means through ways. A problem for the 1990 and 1999 Concepts has been that uncertainty, instability and the lack of a need for specific territorial defence has spawned a capability-led ‘tool kit’ approach to defining military means in which members have the option of dipping in-and-out -of choosing their military contributions to Alliance force structures whether these are the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps, Combined Joint Task Forces or NATO Response Forces. Moreover contributions to non-Article V (defence of the NATO area) operations are by their nature matters of choice for members. NATO does not provide defence ministries with arguments to secure and increase defence budgets or to commit forces where national security is not directly threatened nor national interest at stake.

Of course for many members, in particular new East European recruits, there are still concerns about territorial defence which have been exacerbated and extended by Russian military action in Georgia and air and naval deployments, its vision of its ‘near abroad’, and increasingly authoritarian government. However a NATO strategy that refocused on Russia would be self-defeating in that it would reinforce polarity when co-operative security is more important than ever vis-à-vis nuclear arms reduction and non-proliferation, countering terrorism, coping with Iran and other common security concerns.

So what does the Man from Mars recommend?

  1. The strategy should have at its core a principle of undirected military deterrence. NATO needs the military capability to deter any emergent or re-emergent military power from using the military instrument for bullying or blackmail. There must be the capability to win in war against a large technologically sophisticated foe. If NATO has this capability to an adequate level, it will not make sense for other nations to develop policies that are dependent on their military instrument. Nations such as Russia should not be identified as threats although their capabilities and geo-strategic situation should be used as benchmarks for NATO capability and factors in scenario development.
  2. European nations should have a substantial portion of this warfighting capability. Operational and force planning should identify scenarios in which the United States is not committing substantial combat forces because of the demands on America of operations in other regions.
  3. Force structures and capabilities should be planned to address operations beyond the Article V area with a view to these capabilities being usable in territorial and Euro-Atlantic regional defence scenarios. As these operations are likely to be elective for individual members, there can be no presumption that NATO force structures will ever be available in their entirety for interventions beyond the Article V area.
  4. NATO and the European Union should have a common force planning and operational planning system with a single staff and location. Indeed large portions of the NATO and European Union strategic military staffs could be integrated. The political issues of ‘jobs for members’ and of countries who are not members of both organisations are trivial in the great scheme of things. The Berlin Plus arrangements should be developed further to the logical conclusion of complete integration.
  5. Framework nation command structures should be incorporated as options within an integrated NATO/European Union command and force structure to cope with frequent ‘coalition of the willing’ operations.
  6. NATO should accept a formal Reverse Berlin Plus arrangement with the European Union to address the issue of the ‘comprehensive approach’ and the need to integrate economic and political activity with military engagement in interventions.
  7. The integrated NATO/EU military structure should inherit and strengthen the processes developed during the Cold War whereby nations were interrogated by NATO formally over their force plans and their commitments to meet the requirements for forces identified by the Strategic Commanders.

Clearly parallel European Union developments would be needed. There is now the opportunity. France intends to rejoin the Integrated Military Structure. The new American Administration is more internationalist and a positive approach towards the EU and strengthening European military capabilities for ‘US minus’ scenarios would permit rationalisation of European military capability and greater cost-effectiveness if not substantial increases in European defence budgets. Strong political leadership is the key. It is a pity that the United Kingdom is at present in a state of defence policy and planning blight.

(Needless to say, the view from Venus would be rather different – but if it were heeded, NATO might as well close down.)

The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI.


Michael Codner
Senior Associate Fellow for Military History

Michael Codner is a Senior Associate Fellow for Military History. Until 2013, he was RUSI's Director of the Military Sciences Research... read more

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