NATO will become irrelevant

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NATO should be careful not to let the ‘back to basics’ rhetoric steal the show at the 2016 Warsaw Summit. By moving away from out-ofarea operations with a crisis management focus back to its original purpose – collective defence – NATO will become irrelevant in the long run.

The problem is that going ‘back to basics’ sounds like an intentional limitation of NATO’s role in the 21st century, and it implies a downgrading of NATO’s two other core tasks: cooperative security and crisis management.

The three core tasks were identified in the 2010 Strategic Concept as essential if the Alliance was to remain fit for the 21st century. Having multiple roles has served the Alliance well in the past.

Moreover, important as the changes in the relationship with Russia are, the changes in the global strategic environment, which led NATO to codify its three core tasks in the first place, are still in play.


■ End the rhetoric suggesting a return to basics and instead focus on implementing the decisions from the Wales Summit as a first step towards repairing damage from years of under-investment.

■ Use NATO’s partnerships to strengthen the anchor of liberal order – cooperative security should be seen as an essential tool of statecraft in a shifting strategic environment.

■ Forge a new transatlantic bargain suitable for the 21st century in which the United States contributes ‘unique capabilities’ in return for European NATO meeting security challenges through crisis management in Europe’s neighbourhood.

The problem is that the ‘going back to basics’ narrative emphasises one aspect of the changing security environment, but neglects other important changes. ”Today we do not have the luxury to choose between collective defence and crisis management. For the first time in NATO’s history we have to do both”.

A flexible and adaptable Alliance The Alliance is – and always was – more than ‘just’ a defence alliance. This is clearly stated in the Washington Treaty, which emphasizes both ‘collective defence’ (Article Five) and ‘cooperative security’ (Article Two).

Moreover, following the end of the Cold War, the Alliance added the role of crisis management through a growing practice of meeting security challenges outside NATO’s own geographical area. Had NATO been ‘just’ a defence alliance, ‘just’ doing territorial defence, it would have had no raison d’etre and would probably have disappeared along with the Cold War.

It was recently pointed out by NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, that one of NATO’s greatest strengths is its ability to adapt in response to changes in its strategic environment. The ability to do so stems directly from the Alliance standing on three legs rather than just one. During the Cold War, NATO focused almost exclusively on collective defence, whereas the post-Cold War period has been characterized by a focus on cooperative security through NATO’s growing circle of partnerships and increasingly – though at times reluctantly – on crisis management through NATO’s many operations.

  • In response to the dramatic deterioration in the relationship with Russia, the temptation is to go ‘back to basics’ to focus primarily, or even exclusively, on collective defence. Such a move would make sense if the Alliance was going back to a strategic environment similar to that of the Cold War.
  • That, however, would not be an accurate reading of the emerging global security environment.
  • The nature of change in the security environment It is tempting to think that the changes NATO has to respond to are ‘simply’ the return of a specific Russian threat and the emergence of a number of unruly non-state actors such as Islamic State.
  • But what if Russia’s new assertiveness and the rise of IS are symptoms of even greater change? What if it is the basic structure of the international system that is changing; a change that is as significant – perhaps even more so – as the changes following the end of the Cold War? There is no doubt that the international system is changing and that the rules-based liberal order established in the wake of the Second World War is being challenged and is under internal strain.

A polycentric system appears to be emerging characterized by plurality of power and principle and by changing practices (such as hybrid war) and the weakening of its multilateral institutions as well as the emergence of new ones (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). As new powers are rising, they challenge the understanding of how order in the international system should be maintained, and some are balancing against the Western powers (in Europe on NATO’s borders – in Asia more directed against the United States).

In addition, the demise of the Arab Spring and the failure of Western efforts to bring democracy and stability to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya wiped some of the shine off the liberal democratic model’s promise of freedom and prosperity. The point is that these are changes that require more effort by engaging fully in all three core tasks rather than scaling back to just one of them.

Trine Flockhart, Professor of International Relations, University of Kent



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What to expect in Warsaw-1


  1. The endurance of the role of the United States as a global hegemon is coming into doubt, whilst its attention is increasingly diverted towards Asia and to domestic matters.

  2. NATO and the EU both have to adapt to the strategic change, and both organizations are in the process of preparing major strategic policy decisions. The EU, under the leadership of High Representative Frederica Mogherini, is currently working on formulating a new Global Security Strategy to replace the document agreed in 2003. A report on the state of the strategic environment will be presented at the June 2016 European Council meeting, just a few weeks before the NATO Warsaw Summit.

  3. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg explained that the Comprehensive Package brings together all the strands of NATO’s support, and will “help Ukraine establish more effective and efficient defence and security structures, and to strengthen civilian control over them.” He highlighted that the Alliance is already implementing projects under the Trust Funds established for Ukraine, including on command and control, cyber defence, and rehabilitating wounded soldiers. “We are also developing new projects, including in the areas of countering hybrid warfare and explosive devices,”

  4. Assurance measures under RAP have NATO air, land and sea forces operating and exercising in a persistent rotation along our eastern flank from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea to reassure Allies that feel threatened and reinforce deterrence.

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