The NATO alliance survived four years of US President Donald Trump largely thanks to the strong support of Congress and the clever leadership of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. After the doorbells and fireworks end in European capitals to welcome President-elect Joe Biden, the alliance must realize that it cannot go back to normal operations. The world has moved on in those four years and the alliance needs to keep rejuvenating to stay relevant.
This rejuvenation process will be anchored in a new strategic concept that is slated to emerge over the next year or so. Stoltenberg has already started what is known as a reflection process to identify key areas where change is needed. Biden’s foreign policy team will now weigh up.
The rejuvenation of NATO could unfold under the so-called “Four Cs”. We should want an alliance that is more coherent, more capable, broader, and with a more balanced contribution to common defense.
The return of Joe Biden alone will add to NATO’s coherence and reverse toxic transatlantic political ties. The problem is deeper, however.
The perception of threats differs significantly across the alliance. There is widespread lack of confidence in the commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty, including its Article V on Mutual Defense. Several NATO members have had a democratic relapse. The allies in the Eastern Mediterranean compete against each other. There are different attitudes towards Russian behavior in the Black and Baltic Seas. There are differences in the final in Afghanistan. And there are uncertainties about how the Alliance should address China’s growing security role in Europe and in the global community.
The new strategic approach needs to improve coherence by reaffirming common democratic values and re-advocating common defense. This will be the most important element of a new strategic concept. A strategic concept review can provide a process through which allies can evaluate mechanisms to maintain their mutual commitment to strengthening their free institutions, not to deviate from agreed democratic practices, and to prevent allies from militarily confronting each other.
Second, the Alliance must continue efforts to strengthen its capabilities in two distinct areas: conventional military power and resilience to so-called hybrid or non-kinetic attacks.
Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the NATO countries have once again focused on a major rival in power. Four NATO combat groups are deployed to the Baltic states and Poland. A small, very well-prepared force and a major standby initiative have been undertaken to support these battalions. A mobilization initiative should ensure that the forces can move forward quickly. However, Europe’s defense budgets constrained by COVID-19 will jeopardize these initiatives. The strategic concept must prioritize these programs.
The alliance must also methodically address unconventional human security challenges from Russia, such as media disinformation, corrosive cyber operations, supply chain disruptions and energy intimidation. The strategic concept must develop resilience programs so that the members of the alliance can better protect the critical functions of our societies from such disruptive threats.
Next, the scope of the NATO mission must be broader. The core tasks of NATO in the areas of collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security must be expanded to address challenges that contribute to global instability. These challenges would range from addressing global warming and pandemics to the refugee crisis to the rise of China.
NATO recently used its mobility and civil defense assets to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The NATO Navy has helped save the lives of refugees at sea. In addition, the aftermath of a major ice melt will have a significant impact on security in the Arctic, along urban coastlines and other refugee flows. To remain relevant, NATO needs to start defining its role in these areas.
Stoltenberg has drawn the alliance’s attention to China. This nation is increasingly cooperating with Russia in the military field, including industrial defense cooperation and joint exercises. It has also invested in Europe’s strategic infrastructure, creating technological dependencies and using forced diplomacy to suppress European voices. The expanded role of NATO should include reducing these dependencies and developing much closer partnership relationships with America’s Asian allies.
Ultimately, the new strategic concept should lead to an equal transatlantic distribution of military capabilities and responsibilities. This is less about traditional burden sharing and more about responding to two historical trends. Europe’s response to the Trump years was to seek greater strategic autonomy. China’s military challenge has American planners focused on Asia first.
Many American friends of Europe are discussing a possible new division of labor, with the United States focusing more on China and the European armed forces on Russia. However, this could lead to Europe being poorly defended and open to coercion. The strategic approach must find an elegant solution, perhaps Europe will take on the responsibility of providing half the capabilities needed to defend against a major Russian attack.
NATO has remained the strongest alliance in history precisely because it has adapted to new strategic conditions. That can do it again.
Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished member of the Atlantic Council and was formerly Senior Director of Defense Policy for the US National Security Council. Daniel S. Hamilton is a distinguished fellow of the Austrian Marshall Plan and director of the Global Europe program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.