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A New Strategic Environment

December 15, 2021
7 min read
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "NATO 2030: Towards a New Strategic Concept and Beyond."

Adaptation has been NATO’s unwritten—yet perhaps most significant—task. Burden sharing has often been NATO’s most fraught one. Time and time again, NATO has managed to answer questions about its purpose and relevance in the post-Cold War period, even as burden sharing discussions lagged. But an assessment of the current regional and geopolitical reality reveals that both NATO strategy and burden sharing discussions are deficient and must be updated.

Perhaps the most significant change facing the Alliance at a strategic level is the recalibration of U.S. foreign policy to confront the challenge posed by China in the Indo-Pacific (see Binnendijk and Townsend’s chapter in this volume). As the United States adjusts, it forces serious conversations about the future of the U.S. force posture in Europe and difficult questions around fair burden sharing in a new geopolitical era. From President Obama’s rebalance to Asia to Trump’s ‘Great Power Competition,’ the trendline in U.S. policy points to an increased prioritization of the Indo-Pacific. Today, there is a need to collectively adapt to the fact that for the first time in the post-Cold War era, the United States—NATO’s most capable ally—has a serious near-peer competitor in military, economic, and technological terms. Of course, this has implications for NATO strategy and what the Alliance should do about the China challenge. The 2021 Brussels Summit clarified that China’s ambitions and behavior present challenges “relevant to Alliance security.”2 But it also has significant implications for how Allies will share the burden in and along Europe as U.S. foreign policy is increasingly preoccupied with the Indo-Pacific.

While China has forced the Alliance to consider the impact of challenges outside of the Euro-Atlantic area (as well as China’s challenge within), Russian foreign and security policy over the past several years has cemented the need for a common understanding and shared responsibility of deterrence in Europe.

The implications of this shift in U.S. policy for NATO need to be clarified, particularly as the Biden administration engages NATO and Europe. In early 2021, President Biden affirmed that “the United States is fully committed to our NATO Alliance” but shortly thereafter welcomed “Europe’s growing investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defense.”3 This should reassure Allies about U.S. engagement in Europe, but it also places expectations on NATO members to jointly confront the current strategic environment. This will of course require new investments, but it also requires new thinking about shared responsibilities. In addition to confronting China on internal Euro-Atlantic security related to critical infrastructures and misinformation, Canada and European NATO members will likely be asked to take on a greater share of the regional security burden in Europe as the U.S. prioritizes what it has termed a “pacing challenge.”4

While China has forced the Alliance to consider the impact of challenges outside of the Euro-Atlantic area (as well as China’s challenge within), Russian foreign and security policy over the past several years has cemented the need for a common understanding and shared responsibility of deterrence in Europe. Russia’s actions in Georgia and Ukraine (both key NATO partners and prospective members) have shown that it is willing to use military force in Europe to change borders. Thus, deterring Russia continues to be the most important priority for NATO. As U.S. foreign policy prioritizes China, maintaining and augmenting key deterrence initiatives such as the Enhanced Forward Presence and readiness efforts like the Four Thirties initiative—which commits Allies to provide 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 combat ships to NATO within 30 days—will be crucial. Moreover, Russia’s modernization of its nuclear forces requires a commitment from NATO to existing nuclear-deterrence arrangements. From maintaining the nuclear sharing agreement to the Allies’ determination to develop advanced radars and interceptors, harden the resilience of dual-capable aircraft, and enhance command and control (C2) assets, these efforts will be critical for NATO to maintain a clear deterrent posture.5

In the current geopolitical environment, the systemic challenge posed by China and 'existential' threat posed by Russia rise to the top.

In the current geopolitical environment, the systemic challenge posed by China and “existential” threat posed by Russia rise to the top.6 But other disruptive challenges that have long impacted Euro-Atlantic security remain. Instability in the Middle East, the continued challenge posed by terrorism, and the problems of piracy demonstrate the enduring need for NATO to engage farther afield. Future burden sharing conversations will have to address how best to share responsibility more fairly at an operational level to counter these challenges. This is particularly true as the United States is likely to be less engaged in the Middle East and North Africa. NATO—or at least key members and partners—will need to be able to successfully conduct capacity building and crisis management efforts with fewer U.S. assets. Sustained support for low-intensity counterterrorism operations and cooperative security in the region, such as capacity building, will directly impact Europe’s own security. As such, activities focused on awareness and intelligence, as well as the ability to thwart chemical and biological threats, in this new systemically competitive environment will be an essential. More Allies will need to play a larger role.

Beyond these more traditional issues, NATO members must also consider how to jointly address challenges in disruptive new domains. Advances in big data, artificial intelligence, hypersonic systems, and quantum technologies are reshaping how NATO Allies think about deterrence and conflict, while simultaneously increasing the scope and speed of threats. Concerns around issues like disinformation, infrastructure vulnerabilities, and espionage are being heightened. Specifically, the use of cyber technologies can adversely impact critical infrastructure vital for collective defense (see Blessing’s chapter in this volume). In response, leaders endorsed a Cyber Defense Policy at the 2021 Brussels Summit which affirmed the domain’s impact on NATO’s core tasks and its implications for Article 5 commitments.7 Advancement in these new technologies, alongside growing challenges emanating from traditionally non-kinetic or non-military domains like space, will complicate and potentially undermine NATO’s territorial defense commitments. The increased militarization of space could create uncertainties around strategic deterrence, while also threatening various communication technologies vital to territorial defense (see Johnson’s chapter in this volume). NATO’s new military strategy highlights significant risks around many of these technologies and domains, characterizing a “strategic competition for advantage.”8 Assertive developments in Russian foreign policy (e.g., Ukraine and Georgia), alongside its military modernization efforts, will require NATO to assess how its competitive edge maintains deterrence and bolsters collective defense (see the chapter by Simakovsky and Williams in this volume). Russia’s investment in more expensive technologies like hypersonic systems and efforts to infuse conventional capabilities with hybrid tactics is one facet of this assertive behavior. China’s military modernization efforts and increased engagement in Europe’s neighborhood could also create significant challenges for NATO’s core tasks of crisis management and cooperative security (see the chapter by Bērziņa-Čerenkova).

Looking toward the future, other environmental issues like climate change—alongside disruptive technological developments—will transform the security environment. 

The new security environment poses difficult questions for NATO resilience across core tasks and domains. Consequently, resilience will increasingly be featured as a priority in Alliance thinking.9 As such, an unclassified read-ahead document for a conference on NATO’s Warfighting Capstone Concept (NWCC) argued that to project power, NATO must integrate a multi-domain defense. This means “the Alliance Military Instrument of Power will need to possess a spectrum of non-lethal, non-kinetic to lethal kinetic all-domain options to shape the battlespace to NATO’s strengths.”10 The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated key resiliency gaps disrupting NATO’s training mission in Iraq, while wreaking havoc on military exercises and readiness. Looking toward the future, other environmental issues like climate change—alongside disruptive technological developments—will transform the security environment. Efforts to increase resilience across all domains will be critical. This should include a focus on layered resilience as outlined by the NWCC that spans military, military-civilian, and civilian spheres.11 Consequently, NATO member efforts that increase national and broader institutional resilience should be considered important contributions to the Alliance’s security.

  • 2NATO, “Brussels Summit Communique,” June 14, 2021 (www.nato.int/ cps/en/natohq/news_185000.htm?selectedLocale=ro).
  • 3Joseph Biden, “Remarks by President Biden at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference,” The White House, February 19, 2021 (www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/19/remarks-by-president-biden-at-the-2021-virtual-munich-security-conference/).
  • 4For more see Terri Moon Cronk, “Austin Outlines His Top Three Priorities on Defense, People, Teamwork,” DOD News, U.S. Department of Defense, March 5, 2021 (www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2526532/austin-outlines-his-top-three-priorities-on-defense-peopleteamwork/).
  • 5For more see, Jens Stoltenberg, “The Secretary General’s Annual Report: 2020,” p. 31, 56, et al. (https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/ pdf/2021/3/pdf/sgar20-en.pdf).
  • 6Terri Moon Cronk, “Allies, Partners Critical to U.S. European Command,” DOD News, U.S. Department of Defense, February 24, 2021 (https:// www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2514537/allies-partners-critical-to-us-european-command/).
  • 7NATO, “Brussels Summit Communique.”
  • 8NATO, “NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept (NWCC): Building the Alliance’s Decisive Advantage,” Read Ahead Material for NWCC Virtual Conference, NATO ACT, June 20, 2020, p. 2.
  • 9“Noting that resilience remains a national responsibility, we will adopt a more integrated and better coordinated approach, consistent with our collective commitment under Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty, to reduce vulnerabilities and ensure our militaries can effectively operate in peace, crisis and conflict.” From NATO, “Brussels Summit Communique.”
  • 10NATO, “NATO Warfighting Capstone,” p. 4.
  • 11Ibid, p. 4-5.

NATO 2030: Towards A New Strategic Concept and Beyond

This book contributes to critical conversations on NATO’s future vitality by examining the Alliance’s most salient issues and by offering recommendations to ensure its effectiveness moving forward.