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Don’t Let Russia Dominate the Strategic Concept

When NATO members agree on a new Strategic Concept at their summit in Madrid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will dominate the discussion. But with this existential crisis rightfully taking center stage, other threats have not gone away. The challenge for NATO is to situate Russia’s invasion in a wider strategic context, addressing other key issues before they create new existential crises in the future.

What does this mean in practice? We contend that despite the current centrality of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Sino-American rivalry is likely to drive U.S. national security thinking in the coming decades. NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept should address this reality. Among the many challenges in Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific, China’s designs on Taiwan figure most prominently. China is watching the Russo-Ukrainian war closely, seeking to draw strategic lessons. This dynamic need not be catastrophic for European and trans-Atlantic security. It creates opportunities for E.U.-NATO cooperation and greater European strategic autonomy (or strategic responsibility) in the context of an enduring trans-Atlantic bond. Europe and Asia are increasingly linked as two theaters in a global system hinging on the United States and anchored in its alliances in both regions. The strategic concept should thus lay out a vision for how NATO can simultaneously compete with both China and Russia.

There are also several specific threats and challenges that the 2022 Strategic Concept should address. First, allies should tackle the effects of emerging and emerged disruptive technologies on strategic, defense, and force planning. Second, adversaries are increasingly using high- and low-tech approaches short of armed conflict to disrupt national politics and daily life in Western democracies. Enhancing and coordinating resilience across the alliance should be a goal of the strategic concept. Third, money remains the sinew of war. Whether it is investment in national and common-funded capabilities, or transfers to partners like Ukraine, ample and efficient spending is a requirement for a successful strategy. Fourth, NATO should continue to grapple with the distinct but related challenges of terrorism and irregular warfare.

While it seems clear that Russian aggression has mitigated some centrifugal tendencies in the alliance, NATO will remain more like an orchestra requiring a conductor to avoid strategic cacophony, rather than a self-organizing jazz band. The strategic concept represents an opportunity to better bring the members of the alliance into harmony. To do so, it should address the dual challenge posed by Russia and China, while better balancing NATO’s core commitments with a diverse set of new and growing threats.

Russia, China, NATO, and the World

As the trans-Atlantic community focuses on the Russo-Ukrainian war, rivalry with China continues apace. Scholars and policymakers differ on conceptual approaches to this dual dynamic, with some arguing for a geographic division of labor both within Europe and across the Atlantic, and others maintaining that, because Europe is less than the sum of its parts, U.S. military leadership remains indispensable.

Identifying a role for NATO in the Indo-Pacific is exceptionally challenging. Whether by Europeanizing NATO to enable the United States to focus on the Indo-Pacific, contending with Chinese commercial investment in European critical infrastructure, or encouraging allies to engage in Asia themselves (individually or collectively), the new strategic concept must address the relationship between the trans-Atlantic community and China. At an absolute minimum, the strategicconcept should position NATO to support the current global order and “demonstrate its commitment to security and democratic values as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes.” Such a concerted approach to China is certainly attainable: Chinese behavior may even have “brought NATO together” in ways analogous to Russian behavior, and there may be more room for economic convergence between China and the West than sometimes imagined.

A significant strategic concern for NATO allies is to avoid precipitating a Russian-Chinese authoritarian alignment. While Russia and China face distinct strategic challenges of their own and their “unlimited partnership” has appeared to stumble upon some limits, their continued pursuit of emerging, disruptive technologies and their authoritarian models of governance present significant risks to NATO allies. These models, coupled with Russia and China’s shared willingness to undermine national and international institutions in the trans-Atlantic community, mean that the most daunting threat NATO faces may be to its foundational values. Incorporating these core values into strategy and policy will be a key task for the 2022 Strategic Concept.

New Domains

Whether in coordination or not, China and Russia will undoubtedly continue to challenge allies in domains like space and cyber using emerging and emerged technologies. Dealing with such challenges is core NATO business — grounded in Article 3 of the Washington Treaty and resting primarily with national authorities. The new Strategic Concept should aim to integrate these relatively new domains while responding to disruptive technologies as well. Allies must endeavor to reach a “pre-crisis” consensus on what space and cyber actions would constitute an “armed attack” in accordance with Article 5. This kind of crisis decision-making is a core function of NATO’s political and military headquarters. Such agreement, when paired with improved national capabilities, would contribute to deterrence by communicating resolve to adversaries. Improved capabilities themselves will only arise through public-private partnership to maintain a technological edge. A common strategic culture of innovation, much of which arises from the private sector, is a key advantage that NATO has — and should retain — over its adversaries. Such innovation has been on display in the Russo-Ukrainian war and will doubtless be essential in future conflicts.

National Resilience

Although defending human and physical infrastructure from asymmetric threats is inherently national business, NATO itself can serve as a platform for coordinating allied responses to these challenges. NATO allies agreed on seven baseline requirements for national resilience at their 2016 Warsaw Summit. They have also “improve[d] their cyber resilience by introducing capability targets” into the NATO Defence Planning Process.

Recently, however, national resilience has been challenged in additional areas, which should be reflected. Specifically, NATO should address democratic backsliding, election interference, and economic and information manipulation. Specifically, NATO’s requirements for national resilience should be upgraded to require national safeguards against democratic backsliding. Prior to taking up her position as the senior U.S. Department of Defense official in Europe, Rachel Ellehuus highlighted the vulnerabilities laid bare by such backsliding and argued that “the trans-Atlantic alliance will only remain strong if members genuinely abide by its founding principles.” By incorporating such safeguards into NATO’s systems for monitoring allies’ defense preparations, allies can shape one another’s political, economic, and security incentives in ways that reduce these vulnerabilities.

Allies should also agree to reduce dramatically their reliance on non-allied energy — the vulnerabilities inherent in German dependence on Russian gas have been exposed during the Russo-Ukrainian war. Progress toward independence cannot come fast enough. Finally, non-allied ownership of critical infrastructure, especially transportation and telecommunications, poses risks that have not yet materialized in the same way as energy dependency but are just as dangerous. The risks should be explicitly addressed in the strategic concept, and concrete steps toward mitigation should increase accordingly. Military mobility remains a critical infrastructural challenge that allies should also explicitly grapple with in coordination with the European Union. As in the cyber realm, the NATO Defence Planning Process may be an appropriate venue for these efforts.

The Sinews of War

Burden-sharing has been a primary challenge to NATO since its birth — mitigating collective action problems inherent in alliances is one of the key functions of the “O” (Organization) in NATO. Allies and analysts are often in search of new burden-sharing metrics to provide a more precise view of how the cost of collective defense is actually distributed across the alliance. But time and again the basic metrics that NATO tracks — such as share of GDP allocated to defense and the four components of defense budgets (equipment, personnel, operating and maintenance, and infrastructure) — have proved to capture the essence of this issue. The “inputs” NATO measures are highly predictive of virtually every measure of “outputs” that has been devised. This appears to hold true even in measures of aid to Ukraine. The simple pairwise correlation table below makes use of data provided by the newly developed Ukraine Support Tracker. The only factors that seem predictive of military support to Ukraine (at the 5 percent level of statistical significance) are previous spending on operating and maintenance and infrastructure as a share of GDP (column 1 in the pairwise correlation table below). The relatively large (.4173 and .4395, respectively) and statistically significant coefficients on these two variables suggest that allies that deploy and allies that invest in national infrastructure have also invested in supporting Ukraine militarily.

Table 1: Pairwise Correlations Between Defense Spending and Military Aid to Ukraine

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
1 Military Aid to UKR 2022 1
2 Milex/GDP 2018 0.1882 1
3 Equipment/GDP 2018 0.074 0.8256* 1
4 O&M/GDP 2018 0.4173* 0.8311* 0.7416* 1
5 Personnel/GDP 2018 -0.0735 0.8701* 0.6244* 0.5207* 1
6 Infrastructure/GDP 2018 0.4395* 0.5264* 0.4161* 0.5023* 0.3595* 1
7 Proximity to Russia -0.1763 -0.1758* 0.2824* 0.4041* 0.1743* -0.1029* 1
8 Atlanticism 2018 -0.1125 -0.0937* 0.0842* 0.2138* -0.1208* 0.0279 0.0158 1
Pairwise correlations, * = significant at .05 level

Nonetheless, NATO can improve its burden-sharing arrangements by enabling allies to specialize in capabilities through the NATO Defence Planning Process and invest in high-return advisory missions such as supporting Ukrainian armed forces. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s balanced focus on “cash, capabilities, and contributions” is a common-sense approach at the strategic level and should be carried forward in the new strategic concept. Rather than jettison the Wales Pledge benchmarks, allies can continue to focus on their implementation. Increased investment creates new capabilities — integrating those capabilities into a strategy will produce better outcomes.

In practice, this means recognizing that there is a strong empirical link between spending today, the capabilities which that spending buys tomorrow, and the contributions to collective security those capabilities make the day after tomorrow. It is relatively clear that capability shortfalls result from the decisions not to invest in those capabilities. The NATO Defence Planning Process is an adequate model to address this. While efficiency is important, allies should not enable one another to use it as an excuse to avoid necessary spending. In short, if NATO is serious about fielding more capabilities and achieving more equal trans-Atlantic burden-sharing, European allies must invest more.

Terrorism and Irregular Warfare

Focusing on geopolitical competition with China and Russia will likely lead NATO allies to shift resources from the fight against terrorism. This structural situation requires NATO to develop a sustainable approach to mitigate terrorist threats. Fortunately, the key requirements for this complement the requirements of great power competition. Both involve improving defensive capabilities, maintaining crisis response capacity, and continuing to enhance intelligence sharing. For example, partnership structures like those used to support Ukraine since 2014 can be used to deepen cooperation in combatting terrorism globally. Similarly, many of the elements inherent in great power proxy warfare are compatible with combatting terrorism — for NATO this principally involves partner capacity building and information operations. The gains that NATO, and particularly NATO special operations forces, have made in coordinating the fight against non-state adversaries will help in great power competition, and their continued engagement will prevent basic counterterrorism capabilities from withering. The 2022 Strategic Concept can offer high-level political direction in support of incorporating irregular warfare into a broader approach to deterrence and defense.

Orchestrating a Cacophony of Cacophonies

While experts have long described NATO as perpetually in crisis, the current Russo-Ukrainian war presents a unique military, political, and strategic challenge that truly merits the use of the term. So far, it has helped create a clear consensus around collective defense. But allies’ strategic priorities continue to differ in secondary areas. Where these differences can lead to cacophony, the goal is to help create a symphony, or at least a coherent jam. Thus, the 2022 Strategic Concept offers an important opportunity. If approached wisely, this document can articulate a division of labor for competing with Russia and China, while also improving high-tech protection, general resiliency, burden-sharing, and counter-terrorism capacity.

Jordan Becker is an academy professor and director of the Social Science Research Lab at the United States Military Academy, West Point. He is also affiliated with the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, and IHEDN and IRSEM at the French École Militaire. Ambassador Douglas Lute is the former U.S. permanent representative to NATO and retired from the U.S. Army at the rank of lieutenant general. Simon Smith is an associate professor at Staffordshire University and is the editor-in-chief of Defence Studies. This article reflects the views of the authors and does not necessarily represent the position of the U.S. government. It draws upon discussions at the NATO Strategic Concept Seminar held at West Point on Feb. 3–4, 2022. Those discussions are captured in greater detail in a recently released special section of Defence Studies.

Image: NATO

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