The True Value of the New NATO Strategic Concept

The True Value of the New NATO Strategic Concept

Clearly, the consensus is forming—rhetorically at least—regarding broadening security dialogue, setting a specific global security agenda, and ensuring that countries effectively work together.


The transatlantic community has a single pool of resources available to address a single set of challenges. The reality of an expanded set of collective challenges stemming from renewed great power competition with authoritarian regimes and the seeming growth of as-of-yet unresolved challenges should compel the transatlantic community to work together with its global partners to apply “the West’s” significant resources deliberately, systematically, and effectively to the problems at hand and in so doing re-establish democracy as the ideology of choice in the world. For such multilateralism to be effective in allocating resources to solve the root causes of problems, leaders need to collectively set clear priorities, apply the requisite and appropriate resources to those priorities, understand and manage the risks involved in those choices, and commit to making good collective decisions quickly to execute our comprehensive security agenda effectively. 

Time is of the essence. North Atlantic Treaty Organization Heads of state and government at the upcoming NATO summit should agree to a strategic agenda as the action plan for effective multilateralism and direct their ministers to set priorities, allocate resources, and start work on improving the Alliance’s ability to manage risk, measure progress, and most importantly make timely consensus decisions. The safety and security of our populations, the credibility of our values-based democracy, the prosperity of our economy, and the autonomy of our transatlantic society now require such resolute and determined leadership. So much is at stake. 


Moving at the speed of relevance in this way to outmaneuver authoritarian regimes that can decide and act quickly will first require a structural reinforcement of the foundation of transatlantic relations. As they define our strategic agenda, improve and accelerate our consensus decision making, and prioritize our resources for action, leaders must first ensure that we remain fundamentally strong and secure by strengthening our societal and structural resilience, deepening our economic and financial unity, and asserting wherever necessary our transatlantic autonomy. 

An Actionable Program that Can Deliver Results? 

At February’s Munich Security Conference in which President Joe Biden declared triumphantly “America is back” emphasizing to Europe that “together, there is nothing we can’t do,” the unspoken questions before European leaders were: “Is Europe back too?” If so, how will we know? At the virtual Munich Security Conference, the European leaders speaking after President Biden committed to our common democratic cause in laying out their views of the necessary components of unified transatlantic action. We’ll know Europe’s back too if these leaders direct their ministers to follow through on the specific proposals they outlined in their remarks, but, as the Munich Security Conference conclusion asks, can these commitments if realized be translated into “an actionable program that can deliver results?” In other words, if Europe is truly back and America is truly back, how do we move forward together at the speed of relevance in the face of committed autocratic and often well-funded competitors?

When the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the NATO nations met virtually in December 2020 they were presented the conclusions of the Reflection Group appointed by the secretary-general based on deliberations at the meeting of the leaders of the nations in London a year prior. The analysis in the full report of the Reflection Group “NATO 2030: United for a New Era” concisely lays out the complex and critical challenges confronting the transatlantic community in this decade setting a very high bar for the Alliance going forward.

To meet the challenges, America and Europe back together again (i.e. NATO) must, before 2030, go beyond the all-too-often “least common denominator” result of consensus-decision making and evolve the Alliance into an anticipatory body that makes decisions in advance of need so that it not only remains relevant but defines relevance for its adversaries. The task for ministers then is to craft an actionable program that can deliver such convincing results based on the Munich “guidance” of their heads of state and government. 

Top Down Direction for the Way Ahead 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed we “join forces in all spheres and regard security as a concept of networked security, of multidimensional security.” President Macron in concurring was more specific defining success saying, “I think that we need an effective multilateralism.” Further, he said, we have to build a security agenda, which in his view includes rebuilding our security architecture through a new NATO Strategic Concept. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized that “we have to demonstrate our commitment to transatlantic solidarity not just in words, but in deeds.” The secretary-general’s test for success mirrored President Macron’s call for effective multilateralism and a jointly defined security agenda when he said: “NATO is the unique platform that brings Europe and North America together every day. Allies should commit to consulting on all issues that affect our security.” He also recognized Chancellor Merkel’s multidimensional security saying “we must broaden our approach to security. Potential adversaries use all the tools at their disposalmilitary, political, economicto challenge our institutions, weaken our societies and undermine our security” noting that “Of course, to keep our people safe, we need a strong military. But we also need strong societies.”

What Decisions Need to Be Made, When? 

Clearly, the consensus is formingrhetorically at leastregarding broadening security dialogue, setting a specific global security agenda, and ensuring that countries effectively work together. At this NATO Summit in these tumultuous times, therefore, our leaders should tell ministers, foreign, defense, finance, and others to get things done together to keep our societies safe and secure, to defend our democratic way of life, and to ensure our prosperity as the foundation of our success. Ministers, in turn, will need to define the security agenda for the transatlantic community, prioritize the items on that agenda, allocate sufficient resources for each agenda item or develop plans to manage risk in those areas where resources are insufficient, and commit to making decisions in advance of the need to give NATO and national mechanisms sufficient time to prepare for and execute required tasks.

As in any political endeavor, and more so in a multinational one, making decisions is the most difficult part. Driven by our current reality and given the opportunity of renewed transatlantic commitmenton both sidesa resource-informed and prioritized strategic agenda is within reach. With such an “action plan” in hand, decisions need not be difficult. Various staff members will need to work across NATO, with the nations, and with NATO’s partners, to determine what decisions need to be made and when and ministers will have to commit to making those decisions on time so that the collective work of the Alliance can proceed at the required pace. This will mean nations must focus on the work at hand and not hold NATO’s deliberations hostage to national whimsy. 

A Broader Approach

In the current context achieving the desired outcomes agreed within the prioritized transatlantic security agenda will require the full and active engagement of diplomatic, military, economic, information, intelligence, development, and law enforcement elements of power. This broader approach to security, as called for in Munich by the German Chancellor and the NATO Secretary General, will enable Heads of State and Government, through their ministers, to balance risk and reward within our collective means to effectively address current and future security challenges. Clearly, this work will require the participation of more than just foreign and defense ministers. Heads of State and Government should decide during the NATO Summit how they will direct the support of other ministers required in this multidimensional approach. 

The Survival Interest 

Joining transatlantic elements of power in this way to employ a networked approach to cooperative security to deliver multidimensional stability in the regions around NATO’s periphery and beyond is urgent and important lest the burden of our common challenges exceed the sum of our combined resources. To guarantee that the application of our resources meets requirements, the NATO Strategic Concept called for by President Macron and others must be both comprehensive, that is, inclusive of all our security challenges, and multidimensional, inclusive of all aspects of our security. This new concept will, by necessity, need to move beyond merely reminding us of why NATO exists and telling us what it does, to one that tells us how NATO will leverage the organization’s comparative advantages to be the forum in which effective multilateralism anticipates challenges, prioritizes actions, allocates resources, manages risk, then makes decisions to deliver real results. The new NATO Strategic Concept will need to lay out how NATO will deal with today’s finite security problems within the constraint of the single pool of resources available, as well as lay out how NATO will sustain and adapt itself during the seemingly infinite contest now thrust upon it by a myriad of challengers. 

Such a comprehensive survival-level strategic concept is also essential if we are to break our paradigm of merely focusing piecemeal on the urgent because a too-limited focus on the issue du jour results in uncoordinated withdrawals from our single set of resources, which diminishes our capacity for supporting our collective priorities.