December 1, 2021

American Leadership in NATO: A Rocky Return but a Firm Future

People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers pose with a Chinese flag during the Tank Biathlon Contest at the 2021 International Army Games at a military training ground in Alabino, Moscow Region.
People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers pose with a Chinese flag during the Tank Biathlon Contest at the 2021 International Army Games at a military training ground in Alabino, Moscow Region.

Although America is ‘back’ at NATO, Europe remains unsettled about the credibility and longevity of US commitments to the alliance. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the alliance’s next Strategic Concept and how the two sides will craft a common agenda to endure the coming decade. The Biden administration, despite a few recent transatlantic missteps, recognises the gravity of this moment and has come prepared with a focused set of priorities for NATO’s future.

Following his successful first trip to Europe, a string of recent US decisions has undermined President Biden’s early pledges to strengthen cooperation with NATO allies. Whether the tacit approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, or the controversial announcement of the AUKUS security pact, these disjointed moves have begun to sow doubt in Europe about America’s willingness and ability to work jointly with Europe, even under an Atlanticist president. While the Biden administration has acknowledged and sought to address these slipups, such unpredictability in the transatlantic relationship has weakened the political cohesion required for building NATO’s next Strategic Concept.

The concept is a guiding document, now under development, intended to revitalise NATO’s purpose and core tasks for the future. After former US President Donald Trump’s and French President Emmanuel Macron’s respective accusations of NATO being “obsolete” and “brain dead”, the alliance is in grave need of a new concept that brings the US and Europe together to tackle the security challenges of today and tomorrow. The problem, however, is that the two sides are not entirely coordinated on how to do that.

Compared to the Trump era, divisions among the allies are not nearly as evident. But given Washington’s growing focus on the Indo-Pacific over Europe and flawed coordination efforts thus far, its allies have some doubts about how America’s intentions regarding NATO will mesh with their own. Europe, for its part, is in some ways stronger than ever—thanks to four years of consolidating its own interests and capabilities in response to growing US unpredictability. Now, it finds itself sometimes at odds with Washington over key issues such as China, strategic autonomy and even technology. Simultaneously, it is more capable of defending its positions. Given the domestic political volatility in the US, its allies are skeptical about what US decisions will last through the next presidential elections. This means their own decisions matter even more. All of these dynamics complicate the crafting of NATO’s future common agenda.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration remains committed to NATO. President Joe Biden and his team believe America and its allies are at a historical inflection point. In the strategic competition with China and Russia, they view NATO as a great advantage. They see the strategic concept drafting process as a critical opportunity to make NATO work better in this environment—to serve not only US interests, but the shared interests of its allies and partners. For the US, adapting NATO for strategic competition will mean closing a decades-long chapter of out-of-area operations in favour of investing more in cyber and technological capabilities. It will require empowering Europe to be a more equal partner in defence, as well as creating more global partnership platforms to support allied objectives beyond the Euro-Atlantic sphere. It will also involve reinforcing the shared democratic values that unite NATO allies against their authoritarian challengers. To these ends, the US has a robust list of priorities for NATO’s next Strategic Concept.

Balancing Russia and China

First and foremost, the US will want the Strategic Concept, last updated in 2010, to more accurately reflect today’s threat environment. This requires acknowledging that NATO is up against not one, but two strategic challengers—Russia and China—and getting the balance right between the two.

Step one is to recast Russia, which is no longer the possible partner envisioned in the last concept but now an adversarial force. The aim should be to provide a clear mandate and a unified threat assessment to better enable the alliance to address the Kremlin’s persistent probing and aggression in Europe. While some allies have accused the Biden administration of trying to “park” the Russia issue in favour of other priorities (China), Washington has kept a focus on Moscow in respect to arms control, cyber threats, authoritarianism, disinformation and foreign malign influence. US Defense Secretary Austin’s recent visit to the Black Sea reinforced US commitment to countering Russia’s conventional military threat in Europe and NATO’s fundamental role in deterring and defending against it.

Step two is to add China, which is not even mentioned in the last concept. Reflecting its own geostrategic shift to the Indo-Pacific, which elevates China as the “pacing” challenge over a Russia in relative decline, the US has spent the last few years pushing NATO to do more about China. Washington has met resistance from some allies who view China primarily as a US problem with a military threat too far from NATO’s borders; or prefer to maintain cautious cooperation with China in favour of lucrative economic opportunities; or argue Russia remains the most pressing threat, more squarely in NATO’s wheelhouse. In the 2021 Brussels Summit Communique, allies carefully cited both the challenges and opportunities posed by China’s rise for the first time in a NATO document. From here, the US wants the new concept to clarify NATO’s role and approach. But a robust debate is ongoing, even in Washington, on whether NATO should focus on countering China in the European theatre (primarily through building resilience to cyber threats, technological penetration, and political and economic subversion) or branch out to more conventional military activities with key allies in the Indo-Pacific (though not necessarily under a NATO flag).

Hoping to leverage its closest allies against both its major challengers, the US will want the alliance to help address the “strategic simultaneity” problem. Given that the US and its allies could face two crises at once—one in Europe’s East with Russia and another in the Indo-Pacific with China—who will go where, what will they bring and what role will NATO itself have? Answering these questions will require frank conversations among the US and its allies about division of labour, expectations and assumptions that will be baked into the Strategic Concept.

Boosting Defence, Deterrence and Burden Sharing

Another top priority for the US in the concept will be bolstering the basics—i.e., ensuring NATO can fulfil its core function of defence and deterrence—whether against Russia, China or any other actor. Some in Washington worry NATO’s recent efforts to take on new issues like climate security could distract from the alliance’s baseline tasks. The US will push to keep a focus on filling key capability gaps; improving mobility, readiness and exercises; designating forces to implement NATO’s new defence plans; enhancing interoperability; and speeding up decision-making.

At the heart of this agenda is the timeless priority of burden-sharing. The US will want to preserve the concept’s focus on individual allies increasing their defence investment. Yet it might seek to reframe this (at times painful) debate around responsibility sharing between more equal partners. As the US looks to the Indo-Pacific, Washington may embrace France’s controversial concept of “strategic autonomy” to empower Europe to do more to defend its own neighbourhood. Regardless of what exactly the moniker refers to, who supports it and whether it’s achievable in practice, many in Washington welcome EU-incentivised defence initiatives launched in this spirit, as long as they focus on building European capabilities that are supportive and complimentary to NATO. If Europe can agree to and deliver on such capabilities, the US will want to ensure the concept lays a strong foundation for tapping into them and promoting more meaningful NATO-EU cooperation in this space. Ultimately, Washington recognises that Europe must retain sovereignty over its decision-making and how its nations use their capabilities. It also seems the Biden administration acknowledges that a more capable and autonomous Europe, although perhaps more difficult to manage, it is a better partner for the US in NATO and the world.

Adapting to Emerging Threats and Building Resilience

Despite its focus on the basics, the US believes NATO must also modernise for a new era of emerging threats. Future-proofing the alliance will mean adapting for cyberattacks, hybrid warfare, and disruptive technologies—all of which are insufficiently covered in the last concept. In the new version, the US will advocate for its allies to build resilience to these threats. Washington could champion the establishment of stronger shared resilience requirements for allied nations and capability targets aimed to address these challenges. Some in the US have even advocated for resilience to become a new NATO core task.

As part of building resilience, the US will support efforts to strengthen NATO’s cyber defences. The alliance should be a more formidable and proactive actor against persistent Chinese and Russian hacks, espionage, and infiltration of allied networks. Washington will also push allies to do more to counter Chinese and Russian disinformation, investment in sensitive critical infrastructure and other hybrid activities in allied nations, which have serious security implications. For some at NATO, resilience should also include stronger sustainability guidelines and natural disaster response capacities to mitigate shocks from climate change. But given NATO’s limited resources and competing priorities, some in Washington believe climate issues should be left to other international frameworks. While the US will likely support acknowledging climate security in the Strategic Concept, it may wish to accordingly scope NATO’s role in addressing it.

In response to the rise of emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT), the US supports the alliance’s efforts to maintain its technological edge over Russia and China, including through NATO’s new EDT strategy. However, Washington sees NATO not as a developer of technology, but as a customer. With hesitation among allies to share key data and intellectual property (IP) necessary for the successful co-development of tech, some in the US believe NATO’s added value lies in standardising, adopting and integrating emerging technologies across allied nations. In this spirit, the US will want to make sure the Strategic Concept empowers nascent allied innovation initiatives—including DIANA and the NATO Innovation Fund—to fulfil this function.

Carving a Constructive Counter-terrorism Role

In the wake of Afghanistan, the US and its allies have minimal risk appetite to keep stabilisation activities conducted outside of NATO territory as a core feature of the next Strategic Concept. The fallout of the crisis, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the visible unravelling of the results of NATO’s presence there have led allies to question the value of all of NATO’s capacity-building missions across Europe’s southern neighbourhood. For the US, counterterrorism activities in the Middle East and Africa may not be a top priority in the years to come, but Washington hopes its allies will support maintaining a constructive, albeit limited, role for NATO in this space. Together, they may seek to maintain the progress NATO has made in training other partner country militaries under its “projecting stability” agenda, for example, in Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia. But given resource constraints, the US will want the Strategic Concept to outline realistic, manageable goals for NATO to achieve here, alongside the EU and other humanitarian organisations.

Revamping Partnerships

As strategic competition has intensified, the US has sought to expand and diversify its partnerships in hopes of strengthening its position globally. Already a platform for extensive partnership programs, Washington believes NATO can play a key role in this, even beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. Generally, US voices have been supportive of NATO, through the next Strategic Concept, finding new ways to identify, plan, fund and incentivise partnership activities across the globe. The US could encourage the alliance to move toward a more strategic approach—no longer waiting for external demand signals but instead more proactively approaching nations it is interested in engaging.

One priority for the US in the next concept will be to deepen partnerships with countries on the frontlines of freedom between Europe and Russia, such as Georgia and Ukraine. The US will want to reaffirm its commitment to NATO’s Open Door. It may also look for alternative paths that could bring these countries closer into the alliance’s orbit, even if membership is not immediately imminent. Another key goal for Washington will be to leverage NATO to build bridges between the transatlantic and transpacific spheres. From a US standpoint, this should include engaging new partners in the Indo-Pacific that can help build a counterweight against China.

Reinforcing Values and Cohesion

Finally, for a Biden administration sharply focused on the struggle between democracies and authoritarianism, transatlantic values—democracy, individual liberty, human rights etc.—will be paramount in the new Strategic Concept. The US policy community sees this issue as twofold. First, the alliance has been grappling with external challenges to these values, namely from Russia and China which tout authoritarian political models and actively undermine allied democracies. Second, the alliance has faced internal challenges from allies such as Hungary, Turkey, and even Poland to an extent, which have struggled to implement some of these principles given political dynamics at home. This is an animating issue for many US policymakers, especially on Capitol Hill.

Despite several pledges to renew these values which are core to the alliance’s founding nature, NATO has struggled to find its role in enforcing them. While some allies are skeptical of NATO becoming too involved in nations’ domestic affairs, others have suggested NATO take a more proactive role in promoting democratic resilience—the absence of which creates vulnerabilities to foreign malign influence from Russia and China. The US will be keen to see the Strategic Concept reinforce these values and promote mechanisms for supporting good governance, such as bodies like centres of excellence. Still, Washington will likely remain skeptical of any punitive measures at the NATO level to punish allies for straying from these values, which could ultimately damage allied cohesion.

Ahead of the June 2022 Madrid Summit, which will launch NATO’s next Strategic Concept, the US will be hard pressed to achieve each of these priorities. Even if Europe does not agree with all of them, it is important for the US to be present and actively championing them at the NATO table. With only three years left in Biden’s term, there is an urgency to cement as much progress as possible before political winds could usher in change. The US cannot afford to miss this opportunity to make NATO fit for today, tomorrow and whatever the uncertain future may bring.


This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazineViews expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).