December 1, 2021

NATO in Search of Efficiency and Balance

Evacuation from Kabul. Leaving Afganistan highlighted weaknesses in NATO's crisis management.
Evacuation from Kabul. Leaving Afganistan highlighted weaknesses in NATO's crisis management.

Crisis management is one of NATO’s core tasks, alongside collective defence and cooperative security. NATO’s new Strategic Concept, which is currently being developed as a replacement for the previous document adopted in 2010, is likely to place an even greater focus on the issue.

Discussion on the issue should begin with the evaluation of NATO’s current capacity to respond adequately to various global challenges. The extent to which the alliance can positively contribute to their resolution is also essential to bear in mind.

Furthermore, the broader context must be considered. For instance, the current Strategic Concept articulates conventional threats as being not as relevant as they were previously. Unfortunately, the aggressive policies of Russia are a reminder that conventional military conflicts are indeed still a reality. These circumstances, given limited financial, human and time resources, should encourage NATO to focus on defining its key priorities, rather than expanding its scope of responsibilities.

Focus on Core Objectives

Lithuania has taken a clear stance on this issue, encouraging NATO to rethink the need to further develop the concept based on the three core tasks. It might be worthwhile to reaffirm the focus of the alliance on the core objective of strengthening the collective defence.

However, some NATO countries have expressed their desire to broaden the concept of security beyond that of conventional defence. This must be evaluated in the light of the current situation and the realistic prospects.

The lessons gained during the withdrawal from Afghanistan are an example. In theory it was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the current crisis management capabilities in practice; yet it was not as efficient as hoped. Moreover, differences among member states are emerging in regard to multiple other issues (e.g. whether to engage in diplomatic dialogue with the Taliban) which makes consensus seeking more complicated. Therefore, the feasibility of higher ambitions needs to be realistically assessed.

NATO’s determination to manage crises effectively is facing another challenge. In today’s world, crises are occurring in a wide range of areas, including cybersecurity, climate change, migration and disinformation. Although NATO has traditionally prioritised the military component, the aim to manage crises more broadly can potentially raise the problem of proliferation. It also risks somewhat devaluating the concept of a “crisis”. In addition, excessive use of the term “crisis” may call into question the possibility of adequate response. Hence the issue of crisis management is itself facing various dilemmas.

China and Russia

With respect to the outlook on cooperative security, in particular in regard to strategic partnerships, the main difference is the pivot toward China which was not extensively mentioned in the 2010 strategic concept document. The member countries will need to agree on how to define the relationship with Beijing and how to respond to multiple challenges. The issues posed by both Russia and China will need to be well balanced in the new NATO strategy.

With the intensifying focus of the United States on the Indo-Pacific region, the interests of the Baltic states, in particular regarding the Western response to Russian aggression, may be slightly side-lined. At the NATO meeting in Brussels in June 2021, leaders called on China to respect its international commitments and to act responsibly. Nonetheless, the principles of the future policy on China remain vague.

On a positive note, in October 2021, NATO defence ministers endorsed a new overarching plan with a focus not only on the threat from China but also from Russia. The confidential strategy is aimed at preparing for a potential offensive on several fronts in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. The appearance of such a document, in the context of the development of the new Strategic Concept, gives Lithuania the hope that these countries will be able to agree on prioritising the principle of collective defence.

In the current Strategic Concept, the relations with Russia are defined alongside cooperative security with other partners and NATO’s relations with Russia are described as “of strategic importance”. Lithuanian decision makers would argue that NATO’s new Strategic Concept must also reflect the fact that Russia is not a reliable partner but, instead, is a security challenge. This is not only due to the aggression in Ukraine that began in 2014, but also due to recent developments associated with Russia including aggressive actions against various NATO member states. Suspension of Russia’s diplomatic mission to NATO illustrates the tendencies well.

Needs-based Realistic Partnerships

At present, a comprehensive understanding of Russia’s assertiveness is hampered by NATO’s adoption of a “dual track approach”, by which it seeks not only to deter but also to maintain dialogue. Some NATO countries are also continuing to suggest leaving a window of opportunity open for the future development of relations with Moscow.

On this issue, Lithuania supports the proposals to break down the Strategic Concept into more specific parts, to deal separately with (possible) partnerships (in areas such as arms control, counterterrorism and climate change). If agreements with Russia on these issues are possible, however, it must be emphasised that the cooperation must be on a non-naive basis, meaning that other challenges are not neglected (the aggression against Ukraine, the need to reinforce NATO’s deterrence in the eastern part of the EU etc.).

It is also important to maintain a strong transatlantic bond. Although there are no major disagreements between the NATO and EU defence policy initiatives, the sustainable relationship is being hampered by the ambiguous approach of some European leaders towards the issue of European strategic autonomy. The EU is neither able nor probably willing to adequately compensate for the military capabilities of the US, at least in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the new Strategic Concept is expected to strongly emphasise the strategic partnership between the EU and the US.

Finally, it is important that NATO maintains its focus on the countries in the Eastern Partnership region, such as Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. One of the aspects related to this is NATO’s open-door policy which needs to be continued.


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