Should NATO take a tougher line with Russia?

by Aleksandar Nacev

As NATO has now moved past its 70th anniversary and reached 30 member states, it now makes perfect sense to initiate work on a new Strategic Concept.

The current Strategic Concept was adopted in 2010, at the NATO Summit meeting in Lisbon, and it was announced that it would serve as the Alliance’s roadmap for the next ten years, reconfirming the commitment to defend one another against attack as the bedrock of Euro-Atlantic security. The document also lays out NATO’s vision for an evolving Alliance that will remain able to defend its members against modern threats and commits NATO to become more agile, more capable and more effective.

However, if we look at this document from today’s perspective, it is safe to say that it is visibly outdated; for example, its description of the security environment is that “the Euro-Atlantic area is at peace” and that NATO-Russian cooperation “contributes to creating a common space of peace, stability and security”.

Since 2014, however, the security situation in Europe has changed substantially. The European order that was established together with Russia after the end of the East-West conflict has ceased to exist. Hopes to establish cooperative security in the Middle East have been destroyed by civil wars, failed states, and Islamist terror. Tensions in the Asian-Pacific region could easily escalate to military conflicts affecting vital interests of NATO member states. Increasing uncertainties about the transatlantic Alliance do not augur well for the future of NATO. 

So, it is high time to re-launch the Alliance’s sense of purpose and direction. It needs to focus on its future. Continued lethargy could all too easily translate into an unnecessary crisis that further erodes the Alliance’s foundations. Serious thought should be given to initiating work on it, and in my opinion the most pressing issues that need to be taken into consideration are the following:

Cooperative security in today’s world – Cooperative security, which embraces a broad range of partnerships outside of the Alliance’s borders, might be the area most affected by changes in the strategic context. Partners such as Sweden and Finland have moved closer to NATO in collective defence than anyone envisioned prior to 2014, blurring the lines between partner and ally – NATO must consider if this risks undermining the Article 5 commitment, or if it simply strengthens the Alliance.

The 2 per cent pledge and transatlantic burden sharing – It is widely accepted that the Alliance-wide 2 per cent GDP target for defence spending, as envisioned in the Wales pledge, will not be met by 2024. Therefore, NATO runs the risk of either having to admit defeat on the pledge or start seriously discussing how to punish some member states. Both outcomes would be very sensitive.

NATO – Russia relations – Should NATO just play defence or also consider offence in this game? Should NATO confront the Russian regime more directly, increasing the costs of its aggressive foreign and defence policy through deploying more NATO forces forward? Should it press hard against any Russian provocation, and substantially surge support for partners opposing Russia?

Open Door Policy – The last country to join NATO was N. Macedonia in March 2020. Yet enlargement has increasingly become a topic of dispute between Russia and the Alliance – as well as within the Alliance itself. Several member states have expressed concern that expansion might lead to a deteriorated security situation, rather than a stabilised one.

All of these issues pose dilemmas for NATO. What the Alliance would benefit from, at this moment, would be a deeper reflection on the strategic challenges it faces and ways to address them jointly. The result should provide meaningful guidance for NATO’s activities in the next decade, reinforce Alliance cohesion and pay more attention to NATO’s core challenges. A new Strategic Concept would be an effective way forward.

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