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Three Questions for the Strategic Concept Mark Webber

In document DIIS REPORT (Page 99-106)

9. Three Questions for the Strategic Concept

NATO and thereby to mobilise support for its activities.3 The Concept has done rather well in cataloguing concisely a variety of prior and known NATO positions, but to the well informed there are few surprises.4 Much of the Concept’s content was heralded in the 2006 Comprehensive Political Guidance, in summit and other ministerial communiqués of the last few years, and in keynote national statements – the French Defence White Paper, the UK Strategic Defence and Security Review, and the US National Security Strategy.

This tendency toward repetition reflects the difficult task of reconciling national positions. In an inter-governmental organisation, a document such as this has to satisfy a large constituency, one which has grown by twelve states since the end of the Cold War. The Alliance is spared the agonising process of national approval that attends the adoption of historic documents in the EU (the Strategic Concept, in this sense, is not the Lisbon Treaty) but it has to address a problem all of its own – satisfying US demands while at the same time bringing together often discordant European positions. Constructive ambiguity is thus an ever-present possibility. To wit, on nuclear issues, Franco-German differences are elided in a bland statement5 that allows for both the latter’s desire for cuts in NATO tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and the former’s scepticism toward any move that might cast an unfavour-able light on its own nuclear forces. Ballistic missile defence, meanwhile, is noted in a very short paragraph (admittedly, more detail is contained in the Lisbon Summit Declaration), that both masks the concerns of allies such as Norway and Germany and renders indiscernible the doubts of some about cost, technical difficulty and possible damage to relations with Russia. Perhaps most artful of all is the resolute insistence on the importance of Article 5 collective defence (paragraph 4). This is NATO’s essential and agreed bottom line. Expressed in the Concept as relevant to

‘any threat of aggression’ and any ‘emerging security challenges’, it is elastic enough to encapsulate the concerns of all Allies but sufficiently vague to avoid committing them collectively to a particular course of action.

Compromise and the affirmation of set positions are not without political merit but does this mean the Strategic Concept is devoid of substance?

What’s new?

NATO’s most recent Strategic Concept has a lineage that goes all the way back to the inception of the Alliance. Four Strategic Concepts were adopted during the Cold War (in 1949, 1952, 1957 and 1968). A fifth – and the first to be made

public – was released at the Cold War’s end in 1991. A major revision followed in 1999 and this, in turn, has now been replaced by the current document. The circumstances surrounding each of these keynote statements differ, yet all share the same essential purpose – they are ‘strategic’ in the sense of defining key priorities and orienting the Alliance toward the means of fulfilling them. During the Cold War this was a relatively straightforward task in that the functions of the Alliance were narrowly focused – to deter the Soviet threat and, if necessary, to engage in combat with the adversary. But providing focus has become that much harder since 1991 as NATO has lost its central point of reference. Its documents have thus become more conceptual than strategic, with a consequent tendency to map the external environment as a prelude to, and justification for, the variety of func-tions the Alliance is held to perform. This is an exercise that works well when that environment is in flux. The 1991 Strategic Concept was thus an important signi-fier of the birth of a new Europe, and the movement of the Alliance toward a ‘new strategic environment’ of ‘multi-faceted’ and ‘multi-directional’ risks.6 The 1999 Concept could not make such a claim to historical importance. Yet, in many ways, it too marked an important point of departure. What is striking in that document is the note of self-confidence, the assertion, after a decade of post Cold War turmoil, of NATO’s place at the centre of Europe’s military and security governance.7 That this came in the midst of a major NATO intervention in the Balkans advertised just how unsettled the environment continued to be, but equally, how purposeful NATO could be in response.

The two Strategic Concepts which bookmarked the 1990s were framed by reference to the ‘Euro-Atlantic area’. This Euro-centrism, however, did not sit comfortably with a US less and less inclined toward the continent’s affairs; neither did it entirely accord with NATO’s own proclamations on the proliferation of risks, many of which lacked a territorial base. The US had, in fact, been pushing a more globalist perspective for some time. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had spoken in 1997 of the need for NATO to face up to ‘challenges beyond Europe’s shores’ only to be rebuffed by European allies wary of the uncertainties surrounding a ‘global NATO’.8 The strains of operations in Bosnia followed in short order by Operation Allied Force over Kosovo, only added to this wariness. The Strategic Concept of 2010 is not a radical departure in this connection. Its ‘three essential core tasks’ of collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security continue to be refer-enced to Euro-Atlantic security as, indeed, do other major tasks such as enlargement and partnerships with Russia and the EU. More eye-catching is the characterisation of a ‘security environment’ replete with problems of terrorism, instability beyond

NATO borders, cyber attacks, environmental and resource constraints, and threats to communication, transport and transit routes; all suggestive of a deterritorialisa-tion or globalisadeterritorialisa-tion of security. Many of these challenges were noted in 1999 but here they are given greater prominence. What this means in practice, however, is less clear. Tellingly, those instances where NATO has already demonstrated an ability to go beyond traditional boundaries are barely mentioned. Afghanistan, to use a cliché, was the ‘elephant in the room’ in the framing of the Security Concept.

The Afghan mission is not the only expression of how NATO has adapted to the post 9/11 strategic context (its naval operations are also important) but it is by far the most obvious. What it signifies – in the language of the 2010 Concept – is an acceptance among many allies, led by forceful US example, of the need to act ‘at strategic distance’.9 That this message is not articulated with any great enthusiasm, however, tells us two (possibly contrasting) things. Firstly that the Strategic Con-cept is striving to be ‘future proofed’, to rise above current, perhaps only temporary, predicaments. Secondly, and less generously, it reflects the impasse to which the Afghan war has led the Alliance. NATO’s emerging globalist perspective has for several years had to contend with an American-led agenda shaped by 9/11. The Alliance as an organisation did well to avoid the war in Iraq but its efforts since have become synonymous with the United States’ initial military response to the attacks on Washington and New York – the overthrow of the Taliban. From this the long, slow-burning Afghan war has followed. That it has been so controversial and that NATO is looking for life beyond is now obvious. The 2010 Concept al-lows for that possibility, although where it fails (and here the contrast with the 1991 and 1999 documents is clear) is to articulate how this approaching watershed should compel a new sense of direction.

What’s missing?

That the Strategic Concept is seemingly so predictable sits badly with the promise of the consultation exercise that preceded it. Perhaps this was to be expected. An inescapably political process of consensus building was never going to result in a clear statement on political hot potatoes such as a reform of NATO’s decision-making procedures (a very obvious omission in the Concept), burden sharing (also omitted) or force generation and defence capabilities (merely hinted at in paragraph 37). The Group of Experts Report, somewhat less mindful of these political realities, con-tains bolder statements on some of these matters (including an extensive section on capabilities).10 And an earlier but less noticed effort, the ‘Multiple Futures’ project overseen by Allied Command Transformation, provides an extended overview of

NATO’s urgent force transformation requirements.11 These two documents share the Strategic Concept’s preoccupation with the turbulent security environment facing the Alliance. But such awareness has led to self-defeating consequences, a fruitless quest on NATO’s part for ever-greater security. The irony of the Strategic Concept lies in the fact that an Alliance tested to the limits in a single theatre of war judges its relevance not by what it can do best or could do better but by how it can safeguard its interests against ever more abstract, distant and unvanquish-able threats. Cataloguing multiple problems is not the same as willing the means to address them or, indeed, that the means when provided will be sufficient or even useful. In giving the go-ahead for a missile defence capability, for instance, the Alliance is about to embark upon an expensive and unproven system against a threat which, at present, barely exists. At the same time, it allows for only a ‘modest civilian crisis management capability’,12 in an area – the comprehensive approach to crisis management – where NATO has a solid track record.

In this light a degree of modesty would seem wise counsel. One possibility, rea-sonably well rehearsed before the Lisbon Summit, is for NATO to return to its principal function as a defence alliance, called into action when necessary “to deter and defend the North Atlantic from direct attack from other states.”13 This accords with NATO’s uncontroversial central purpose but would be against the grain of the transformational work, political and material, it has invested in over the last two decades. Indeed, the strategic culture within the Alliance is less and less attached to such a static role. NATO, rather, needs to continue in the direction of travel it has moved in during the post Cold War period but to do so in a manner that avoids the pitfalls of over ambition. The Strategic Concept hints at such a synthesis in its three core tasks. The importance of the first – collective defence – is clear. The second and third, however, lose focus owing to the panoply of tasks which then follow. What is missing is precisely the sense of vision which the Strategic Concept was meant to articulate.

The basis for that vision ought to be the notion of human security.14 Such a position has several advantages. First, it connects with NATO’s political roots. The preamble of the North Atlantic Treaty makes plain a commitment to the moral principles at the heart of human security – democracy and the rule of law. Article 2, mean-while, commits the Alliance to promote ‘conditions of stability and well-being’ in international relations and thus, by implication, is a mandate to act in the face of genocide, ethnic cleansing and the systematic abuse of human rights. Second, it is a vision to which NATO has already steered. Recall here the justification given for

Operation Allied Force – “to avoid a humanitarian tragedy outside [of NATO’s]

own borders.”15 The ISAF mission, meanwhile, is mandated to promote a ‘secure environment’ in Afghanistan for a very particular reason – so that the Afghan au-thorities, the UN and civilian NGOs can engage in ‘reconstruction and humanitarian efforts.’16 This important task has been largely superseded by kinetic operations, but NATO counterinsurgency (most obviously under erstwhile ISAF commander Stanley McChrystal) has, it is claimed, always been married to civilian protection, reconstruction and support for humanitarian relief.17 Third, NATO already has the potential capabilities to undertake such a role. As Berdal and Ucko have suggested, the recent emphasis on expeditionary combat has diverted the Alliance from the course of transformation it embarked upon during the 1990s in light of experience in the Balkans. Stability operations and peacekeeping, however, remain in their view

“a profitable and perhaps Alliance-saving niche for NATO”, a more achievable goal of military transformation than expeditionary wars “for which there is insufficient will and capacity.”18 Fourth, NATO’s commendable efforts to develop partnerships would be best served by such a course. The Strategic Concept’s desire to “deepen [...] practical cooperation with the UN”, and to develop “partnerships through flexible formats” allows NATO the opportunity to offer those resources (high readiness force headquarters, strategic lift capacity, logistical support, security sector expertise, and rapid-reaction forces) which others sorely lack.19 Its humanitarian airlifts to Haiti and Kashmir, several years of cooperation with the African Union and the legacy of cooperation with the UN and the EU in the Balkans, point to what is possible here. Fifth, and finally, it is a course which is likely to have greater public support than the politically sapping mission in Afghanistan. One, moreover, which has moral standing, which connects to international legitimacy through the notion of responsibility to protect, and which demonstrates best NATO’s readiness to cultivate wide and inclusive partnerships.

In one of his final speeches as Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer suggested that the soon-to-be updated Strategic Concept should take account of “the new agenda of human security”. To do otherwise would be to ignore one of the main trends in “the evolution of the security environment.”20 Regrettably, the framers of that document have not taken his advice. The 2010 Strategic Concept is meant to last for at least a decade. Let us hope that in its actions the Alliance can make good that omission.


1 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2010-11/20/c_13614281.htm

2 Lisbon Summit Declaration, 20 November 2010, §2.

3 Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European Reform interviewed for NATO Review at: http://www.nato.


4 Its reference to NATO missile defence was headline-grabbing but had been trailed in a speech by President Obama in September 2009 and accepted in principle by NATO as long ago as 1999.

5 ‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence - Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’, 18 November 2011, §26. (Hereafter Strategic Concept 2010).

6 ‘The Alliance’s New Strategic Concept’, 7 November 1991, §7. at: http://www.nato.int/ cps/en/natolive/


7 ‘The Alliance’s Strategic Concept’, 24 April 1999 at: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_


8 See D.S. Yost, ‘NATO Transformed: The Alliance’s New Roles in International Security’, Washington DC:

United States Institute of Peace Press, 1998, p.244.

9 Strategic Concept 2010, §19, bullet 2.

10 NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement (Analysis and Recommendations of the Group of Experts on a New Strategic Concept for NATO, 17 May 2010) at: http://www.nato.int/strategic-concept/


11 ‘Navigating towards 2030’, Multiple Futures Final Report, April 2009, at: http://www.act.nato.int/mfp-documents

12 Strategic Concept 2010, §25, bullet 3.

13 P. Porter, ‘Hooked on Security’, The World Today, November 2010, p.14.

14 What follows is based partly on the ‘Citizens Strategic Concept – A NATO Strategy for Human and Sustainable Security’ elaborated by the virtual think tank NATO Watch at: http://www.natowatch.org/node/413

15 J. Solana, ‘NATO’s Success in Kosovo’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 78, no. 6, 1999.

16 United Nations Security Council Resolution 1510 (2003).

17 See NATO’s own overview of the ‘ISAF Mandate’ at: http://www.nato.int/isaf/topics/mandate/index.


18 M. Berdal and D. Ucko, ‘NATO at 60’, Survival, vol. 51, no. 2, 2009, pp.65–66.

19 Berdal and Ucko, pp.69–71.

20 ‘Speech in Bratislava’, 17 July 2009, at: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/opinions_56487.htm

10. From Lisbon to Lisbon: Squaring the Circle of EU and

In document DIIS REPORT (Page 99-106)