NATO's decade old Strategic Concept is woefully out of date and needs a major revamp.
Next month the leaders of the 30 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will meet in Brussels for a major summit. It will be the first summit held by the alliance since President Joe Biden entered office and the first meeting of NATO's leaders since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This will also be a busy summit. Russia remains active in Ukraine. The recent state sponsored hijacking by Belarus of a commercial airliner is fresh in everyone's minds. The members of the alliance are becoming more aware of the challenges and threats China poses to the North Atlantic region. Therefore, keep an eye on five big policy areas.
The first is Russia. NATO was founded in 1949 with the mission of protecting the territorial integrity of its members and—if required—defeating the Soviet Union. While NATO’s members are no longer worried about the spread of Communism, many current NATO members are certainly worried about protecting their territory from Russian aggression.
Russia poses a conventional, non-conventional, and nuclear threat to NATO, in particular its members on the Eastern flank. Although a conventional Russian attack against a NATO member is unlikely, it cannot be entirely discounted.
Russia continues to use cyberattacks, espionage, its significant share of the European energy market, and propaganda to sow discord among NATO member states to undermine the Alliance. Allies should talk openly and frankly about the threat from Russia, and which steps are being taken to deter Russia and bolster defensive capabilities.
Secondly, China is also on everyone’s mind. The question of which approach NATO should take with China is a complex one. There is little agreement inside the Alliance on how to deal with China. Some of the biggest challenges posed by China to NATO’s member states deal with investments in critical infrastructure, disinformation campaigns, and encroachments in the technology sector using Huawei’s 5G.
As an intergovernmental security alliance, these are issues for which NATO lacks the needed policy competencies to confront. Therefore, while policymakers should look to NATO to provide a robust conventional and nuclear deterrence for members of the Alliance, only the national capitals, and in some cases the EU, have the political and economic tools that can reduce the economic and political threats posed by China. Even so, at the upcoming summit expect strong language regarding China.
Third, is the contentious issue of defence spending. As an intergovernmental security alliance, NATO is only as strong as its member states. Weak defense spending on the continent has led to a significant loss of capabilities for NATO members.
In 2006, NATO set a target for member states to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. At the 2014 Wales Summit, member states recommitted to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. So far progress has been made but more work remains.
In 2020, eleven countries spent the required minimum of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. With the 2024 deadline to meet the 2 percent mark only three years away, and with national budgets being squeezed due to the economic consequences of the pandemic, expect the spending issue to be addressed at the summit.
Fourth, one of the top regions NATO will focus on at the summit is the Black Sea. The Black Sea sits at an important crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Caucasus. Many important oil and gas pipelines, as well as fiber optic cables, crisscross the sea. Throughout the history of the region, the Black Sea has proven to be geopolitically and economically important.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow has tried turning the Black Sea into a Russian lake. This is a direct threat to US and NATO security interests. Many of the recent initiatives regarding the Black Sea at the NATO level have not met expectations.
Three of six Black Sea countries (Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey) are in NATO. Another two countries (Georgia and Ukraine) work closely with NATO, have suffered the direct impact of Russian aggression, and aspire to join the Alliance someday.
The economic, security, and political importance of the Black Sea and the broader region is only becoming more important. With Russia increasing its military capability in the region, now is not the time for NATO to grow complacent. Expect the Black Sea to receive attention at the upcoming summit.
Finally, the Alliance will be discussing NATO’s upcoming Strategic Concept. Now a decade old, NATO’s most recent Strategic Concept is woefully outdated. Since its publication at the 2010 NATO Summit in Lisbon, the Alliance has had to deal with, either directly or indirectly, the so-called Arab Spring and its aftermath, NATO’s intervention in Libya, the end of NATO-led combat operations in Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the rise of the Islamic State, the migrant crisis in Europe, and Russia’s intervention in Syria.
The words “pandemic” and China are not even found in the last Strategic Concept, a document meant to guide the Alliance on how to deal with future challenges.
In addition to these geopolitical challenges, advancements in hybrid warfare, especially in the cyber and disinformation realm, have posed new challenges for NATO. At the same time, some are questioning the purpose of NATO. At the upcoming summit, NATO leaders need to agree on the basics of what the next Strategic Concept will say.
NATO has done more to promote democracy, peace, and security in Europe than any other organisation—including the European Union—since its inception in 1949. Far from being outmoded, NATO today is more relevant and crucial for maintaining transatlantic security than it has been since the end of the Cold War.
The Brussels Summit is therefore an important opportunity for NATO members to recommit themselves to their treaty obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty and prepare for the future.
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