It’s that Time of the Decade Again: Some Considerations for NATO’s Eighth Strategic Concept

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This article was originally published by the NATO Defense College on 22 January 2020.

In the Declaration that emerged from the December 2019 London Leaders Meeting, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was tasked to present Foreign Ministers with “a forward-looking reflection process under his auspices, drawing on relevant expertise, to further strengthen NATO’s political dimension including consultation”.1 This new tasking has been largely attributed to French President Emmanuel Macron’s remark the previous month that the Alliance was suffering from “brain death”.2 Speaking at a press conference alongside Stoltenberg, Macron elaborated on his comment, complaining the Alliance was overly focused on “cost-sharing or burden-sharing” whereas too little attention was being placed on major policy issues such as “peace in Europe, the post-INF, the relationship with Russia, the issue of Turkey, who is the enemy?”3

Although the London tasking is premised on the need to account for “the evolving strategic environment”, reference is only made to a “reflection process”. No explicit mention is made of the need for a new Strategic Concept despite the phrase “reflection process” having earlier been associated with the drafting of the 2010 Concept. Does this mean NATO has no immediate intention of producing a new Concept, that it has again deferred a long-awaited decision to initiate one, and that a “reflection process” means only that and nothing else? If so, why the reluctance to proceed with a new Concept? After more than a decade since the last one, how much longer must NATO wait?

In the hierarchy of NATO documents, the Strategic Concept sits one step below the North Atlantic Treaty. Since 1949, seven of these documents have been produced. This combination of its high-profile and rarity has given the Strategic Concept a unique status. As the length of time increases after one is produced, so too does speculation about when the next will appear. Failure to produce one, especially in a period of significant change, only serves to fuel concern about the Alliance’s willingness and ability to move with the times. Although the eighth Strategic Concept is still years away, due to the lengthy nature of the process of crafting one, preparations must begin sooner rather than later. Even to place the matter on NATO’s agenda requires overcoming the widely-held fear that producing a new Concept will undermine rather than strengthen the Alliance. Getting to this next stage will therefore necessitate a realistic appreciation of the problems generated by not having one, a familiarity with the key issues and dilemmas of the drafting process, including obvious pitfalls to avoid, and some basic idea of what the final product might look like and seek to achieve.

In answer to a question posed in 2018 if the Alliance was preparing a new Concept, Stoltenberg replied that whilst the Concept is important, “even more important is strategic action”.4 As Stoltenberg’s reply highlights, despite the substantial differences that exist in the security environment of 2018 relative to 2010, “strategic action” can be taken independent of an updated Concept. When seeking to identify the relevant policy guidance that has underpinned the “strategic action” of the Alliance during this period, it is normal to point to the communiqués and declarations from the Wales, Warsaw, Brussels and London summits. Why then is a new Strategic Concept needed?

Awaiting the next Strategic Concept

For the NATO bureaucracy, the plethora of policy documents that are produced or updated to account for policy decisions regularly taken probably constitutes sufficient high-level guidance and therefore a Strategic Concept is useful but not essential to carry out the day-to-day business of the Alliance. For the analysts, commentators and historians that comprise the broader community of “NATO watchers”, as well as non-NATO states that are curious about the Alliance’s future, the Concept is of considerable interest and debate. The Concept’s high-level status and reputation as the Alliance’s premier strategy document guarantees that it is constantly referenced.

As of the start of 2020, the “NATO watcher” community exists in an uncomfortable state of purgatory. A decade has now elapsed since the last Strategic Concept “exercise” but there is little sign of the next one. It is noteworthy that the Group of Experts’ report that contributed to the formulation of the 2010 Concept was titled “NATO 2020: Assured Security, Dynamic Engagement”.5 The report made several references to 2020 but did not explicitly recommend that another Concept be produced for that year. Nevertheless, the reference to 2020 combined with the fact that since 1991 a new Concept has emerged roughly every decade thereafter (1999 and 2010), created an expectation that another one would probably emerge around 2020.

Extending the timeline

Since the 1990 London Summit, it has been the standard practice that the decision to produce a new Concept is announced at a summit meeting, with the new Concept approved at the following meeting. That no announcement was made at either the 2018 Brussels Summit or the 2019 London Leaders Meeting, and assuming the earlier precedent does not change, this means that at least two more years will probably elapse before a new Concept emerges, given that the soonest the process could begin is after the next Summit in 2021. This timeline is important to keep in mind because in September 2022 Stoltenberg’s tenure as Secretary General ends. This leaves three possibilities.

First, the current Secretary General might initiate the process and see it through. This option has the advantage of timeliness but the disadvantage that the next Secretary General will be bound to a Strategic Concept of which he or she had no input. This option is also highly impractical due to the short timeline involved. In theory, it might be possible to use the “reflection process” as a “below the radar” (i.e. without a specific Summit directive) means of generating the content for an ersatz or draft Concept to be discussed or approved at the 2021 Summit, or at a potential second Summit prior to September 2022. Though unlikely, this possibility should not be discounted entirely. A second option is that the process will be initiated under Stoltenberg but completed by his successor, whereas the third option is that the process will be deferred until a new Secretary General is appointed and takes up the post. The second option has the advantage of being more expedient than the third but the disadvantage that the next Secretary General may have different ideas about the content or process which may cause complications. The third option is the least timely but has the advantage of being fully-owned by the next Secretary General. The third option, although this might technically apply to the second as well, also has the potential advantage, to the extent it is an advantage, of its release being timed to coincide with the Alliance’s 75th anniversary in 2024.

Choosing to move forward

The issue of timing for a new Concept has historically been a tricky one with many different factors contributing to it. Among the reasons the 2010 Concept was not produced earlier was due to a fear that a new Concept would divide the Alliance over the issue of relative balance between NATO acting closer to home versus globally (i.e. “acting globally” rather than being a “global actor”). The 1991 Concept followed more than twenty years since the previous one was issued and the need to produce it can be attributed to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. By contrast, the 1967 Concept (MC 14/3), the content of which had been under discussion since at least the early 1960s, was only possible following France’s withdrawal from the integrated military command structure, due to its longstanding objection to shifting Alliance strategy from “massive retaliation”, as embodied in the 1957 Concept (MC 14/2), to one of “flexible response”.

Internal or external shocks can also bear little relation to the decision to revise the Strategic Concept. Only two years after the 1999 Concept, unveiled at the Alliance’s 50th anniversary, 9/11 occurred, yet the Alliance waited a further eight years before starting on a new version. In the interim, post-9/11 calls for a new Strategic Concept only resulted in the Comprehensive Political Guidance, issued at the 2006 Riga Summit. In 2007, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer publicly called for a new Concept to be produced for the Alliance’s 60th Anniversary in 20096, but within a matter of months it was recognized this would not be possible. Similarly, after 2010, the Alliance has chosen to refrain from a new Strategic Concept despite the Arab Spring, the 2011 operation in Libya, the drawdown in Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, the growth of China’s power, and so forth.

In terms of substantive policy change, the Summit communiqués and declarations issued since 2014 have already proved enormously influential as can be seen with the Alliance’s ongoing adaptation. Moreover, even in the absence of a new Concept, the Alliance has moved ahead with producing a new Military Strategy as well as an “initial concept for the deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic area”.7 These developments raise a fundamental issue at the heart of any Strategic Concept: will the next Concept be anything more than a reaffirmation of the major policies that have been endorsed since the previous Concept or is there scope for new ideas, initiatives and policy emphasis? In the drafting of the 1991 Concept, such was the radical nature of political-military developments in Eastern Europe occurring at that time there was almost certainly a greater acceptance of change than was the case with the 1999 and 2010 versions. On the other hand, if a major change is desired in the Alliance’s strategic orientation, is a Strategic Concept the most appropriate means of introducing change, or can change occur with less fanfare?

Process versus content

Interestingly, the 2010 Concept gained a reputation for innovation not so much for its content but for the process that led to its creation. Unlike all earlier Concepts there was a greater emphasis in the 2010 version on transparency, with a Group of Experts – consisting of a dozen outsiders from different member states, working in consultation with a handful of think tanks, partner governments and the North Atlantic Council – being tasked with generating the bulk of the substance from which Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the Private Office would draft the final product. When Rasmussen’s predecessor announced the Group’s formation he analogized it to the drafting process of the French “Livre Blanc exercise” undertaken by President Nicolas Sarkozy, and specifically praised the appointment of “an experienced Commission of insiders and outside experts to take a genuinely fresh look in which no sacred cows are sacrosanct”.8 However, it is important not to overstate the importance of the Experts’ report. Although it received a great deal of publicity it was only one of several inputs to the final draft.9

By contrast, during the Cold War, the Military Committee was responsible for the initial drafting process. With the 1991 Concept, an “Ad Hoc Group on the Review of NATO’s Military Strategy” was tasked by the NATO political authorities to undertake the drafting, supported by a Military Strategy Working Group within the International Military Staff.10 One complaint that was heard in the run-up to the 2010 Concept was that the lack of military representation in the “civilian” Group of Experts would result in an absence of military input. Another complaint was that the group mainly consisted of ex-senior officials rather than academics or others with special expertise on NATO matters. Moreover, limiting the Group of Experts to a dozen individuals meant that less than half the NATO member states were represented.

Will the process designed for the 2010 Concept serve as a model for the next one? There is little reason to assume so. Whilst the text will almost certainly be made public, keeping with the convention established with the 1991 Concept rather than the Cold War practice of producing a classified document, the extent to which the drafting process incorporates engagement outside of the NATO staff will be highly dependent on the preference of the Secretary General who initiates it. For instance, the December 2019 London Declaration’s call for a “reflection process” only refers to “drawing on relevant expertise” which can be interpreted as “inhouse” experts only rather than “external” experts. Outside engagement has the twofold advantage of being a high-profile public relations activity as well as providing a means of informally testing ideas under consideration for inclusion in the Concept. Alternatively, a more discrete process may be preferred, though it should be expected that if important disagreements exist among the member states, there is no guarantee these disagreements will remain confidential. As was the case with the classified Strategic Concepts, major policy differences can quickly become public knowledge, assuming they are not well-known to begin with.

In a sense, getting the process right is just as important as getting the content right. A badly-handled process can easily undermine Alliance solidarity as well as confidence in the Secretary General’s leadership. A process that takes too long, that results in a document that offers nothing new, that is too secretive, that degenerates into a debate about NATO’s fundamental purpose and that exposes major divisions, will result in a public relations disaster rather than a public relations success, regardless of the quality of the final product.

For all the risks involved and all the effort it takes to produce a new Concept, what are some of the other challenges of designing one? Before considering the content, the drafting team must have some idea of the length, which for previous concepts have varied significantly. The 1949 Strategic Concept (DC 6/1) was the shortest at some 1,400 words. The longest amounted to more than 8,000 words (MC 14/2), with the 2010 version consisting of approximately 4,000 words. This is fundamentally a dilemma about readability versus substance. In 2010, the Group of Experts report was roughly five times longer than the Concept that would eventually emerge, and this reflected a deliberate choice on the part of Rasmussen and other NATO members for a Strategic Concept that would serve more as a generic “mission statement” than as a “blueprint for military planning”.11

There is also the question of emphasizing continuity versus change and of finetuning existing strategy and principles versus providing new direction, new ideas and new terminology (e.g. “deliberate escalation” in MC 14/3). Furthermore, it is essential to consider how different audiences (e.g. within the Alliance, partners, adversaries, and the public) will interpret the content. Are the messages the document intends to send – to inform, to deter, to reassure, etc. – forthright and consistent, and what are the critics likely to say? One must also view the document’s content not only in its present sense (i.e. how it is viewed or used today) but from a future perspective as well. When looking back at some of the more notable Concepts, there are usually specific ideas or buzzwords, sometimes encompassed in no more than a few sentences, that make it distinctive and resonate in Alliance history.

The need to “cross the threshold”

Looking ahead to the 2021 Summit and then to the 75th anniversary, the Alliance leadership must recognize that continuing to defer the decision for a new Concept carries its own risks of undermining cohesion and cannot be put off indefinitely. Shortly after the December meeting in London, former NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller wrote, “Member states should use the review to help devise a new Strategic Concept […] With a new document settled, NATO allies can begin to focus on the work ahead”.12 Despite prevailing concerns that the drafting of a new Concept will open a Pandora’s Box, the prospect of internal political differences being prematurely exposed should not be overstated. The fact of the matter is these differences are already well-known and any additional embarrassment must be counter-balanced by the potential benefits that can be derived by forcing member states to forge a new consensus on the way forward. As the current “reflection process” gets underway, Alliance leaders have a unique opportunity to lay the groundwork for a new Concept and have the flexibility to “cross the threshold” should they choose to.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence. (CC BY-NC-ND)


1 London Declaration issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in London, 3-4 December 2019, Press Release (2019) 115, 4 December 2019.

2 R. Gottemoeller, “NATO is not brain dead”, Foreign Affairs, 19 December 2019.

3 Joint press point with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of France Emmanuel Macron, Paris, 28 November 2019.

4 Keynote speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the “NATO Talk around the Brandenburg Tor” Conference, 12 November 2018.

5 “NATO 2020: assured security; dynamic engagement, analysis and recommendations of the Group of Experts on a New Strategic Concept for NATO”, 17 May 2010.

6 Speech by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the Munich Conference of Security Policy, 9 February 2007.

7 Press Briefing on USEUCOM Priorities with General Tod Wolters, 3 October 2019.

8 “Launching NATO’s new Strategic Concept, introductory remarks by NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the opening of the strategic concept seminar”, 7 July 2009.

9 K-H. Kamp, “NATO’s new Strategic Concept: an integration of civil and military approaches?” in C.M. Schnaubelt (ed.), Towards a comprehensive approach: integrating civilian and military concepts of strategy, NDC Forum Paper 15, March 2011, p.58.

10 M. Legge, “The making of NATO’s new strategy”, NATO Review No.6, December 1991; K. Wittmann, “Towards a new Strategic Concept”, NDC Forum Paper 10, September 2009, pp.98-99.

11 K-H. Kamp, 2011, pp.58-59.

12 R. Gottemoeller, “NATO is not brain dead”.

About the Author

Jeffrey Michaels is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London.

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