Chris Donnelly - 15/04/2016

Diplomacy without armies is like music without instruments”. Frederick the Great.

NATO is a political alliance, not a military coalition. It traditionally draws its strength from 3 sources:

-          The political solidarity between member nations (“Allies”)

-          The permanent political and military mechanisms that enable collaboration between its members and with its partners

-          The military strength of the Allies, which they make available for collective defence and security.

The driving forces behind NATO were:

-          A common principal threat to all member nations- the USSR

-          US leadership

-          Lower defence spending that collective defence and the US military umbrella allowed

NATO has been adapted constantly since the end of the Cold War in response to changing circumstances. But with the wisdom of hindsight these changes have not always been wise. The preoccupation with supporting operations in Afghanistan distorted the Alliance and it has neglected to maintain some of the non-military functions which made it politically effective.

The expansion of NATO over the past 20 years to take in (now 12) countries emerging from Soviet domination roughly coincided with NATO’s engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Consequently, more time was spent on helping these new members transform their armies so that they could contribute troops to the wars than was spent on helping them learn the use and value of the Alliance’s unique extensive political collaborative mechanisms. This has made NATO’s political processes more awkward and lumpy than they need to be and hampers efforts to reform the Alliance further so that it can meet today’s new challenges.

The current turmoil in the international security situation consequent on the re-emergence of Russia as a challenge to NATO rather than a partner now means that many NATO structural and procedural reforms mechanisms made to accommodate Russia need to be reversed.

Consequently, NATO now needs to evolve more rapidly to keep pace with the changing  world circumstances than at any time in the past 20 years, since it transformed itself after the end of the Cold War. Today:

-          Russia’s identification of NATO in its new (Dec 2015) National Security  Doctrine as its principal threat means that NATO must now  bite the bullet and find a way to reflect this new security reality in its political mechanisms and military posture.

-          Inadequate, inefficient and inappropriate defence spending has greatly reduced the military force that NATO can deploy and employ. Until recently, NATO assumed that armed force would no longer be a tool of policy in Europe. As a result, NATO has become militarily ineffective where it matters to Allies. Allies’ (including UK) reliance on NATO to compensate for their own defence cuts creates a dangerous illusion of defence sufficiency. NATO has lost its military edge.

-          The changing character of conflict means that NATO and Allies now need to be competent in generating and employing a wide range of powers (“weapons”), not just classic kinetic force. These include: cyber; information; energy; economic tools etc.

-          Allies no longer share a single, principal threat. E Europe’s main concern is a military threat from Russia; for S Europe it is Islamist terrorism and uncontrolled migration; for the US it is China in the Pacific; for Canada it is the Arctic. Allies will only invest in NATO today to the extent in which it helps them with their current principal concern. This is especially true for the US. NATO needs to find a way to meet Allies’ different security needs – one size no longer fits all.

-          US leadership is weakened as US interest in Europe and the Middle East wanes and US military power shrinks. The Ukraine conflict has reawakened US interest and strengthened transatlantic solidarity, but we have not turned the corner. Without the US, there is no NATO. To keep the US interested, the US too must see a return on its (very large and disproportionate) investment.

NATO’s current problems are not terminal. The Alliance can be fixed so that it meets the challenges it now faces. But an effective NATO will not just “happen”. Keeping NATO effective will require:

-          A much greater investment of political effort and resources: to revitalise and reform the Brussels HQ (about to move into a billion-dollar new home), strengthen the International Staff and International Military Staff, and renew the effectiveness of NATO’s internal political and military mechanisms of collaboration given the Alliance’s increased membership.

-          Constant demonstration that Allies are prepared to come to the aid of others when needed, despite the negative impact of the economic crisis on their public finances.

-          An understanding of today’s multi-dimensional warfare and the creation of mechanisms and procedures to use all the forms of power that this requires, in coordination with classic military power and nuclear weapons. Amending Article 5 of the Washington Treaty to take account of this unpalatable fact.

-          Improved collaboration with EU mechanisms to increase the coherence in the use of different forms of power.

-          A formal recognition of the changed relationship with Russia; amending alliance internal political and military mechanisms to reflect this; returning to a secret Strategic Concept.

-          Reforming the military stance of E European forces, moving them from having small regular forces to having effective territorial defence[1]

-          Increasing the quality and quantity of deployable forces by Allies, especially in Europe; reforming further the command and control structure; strengthening the classic military rapid reaction forces, the forces capable of deploying to deal with new problems (eg refugees), and the capability to operate in strength in the arctic.

-          Encouraging Allies to show the will to deploy their forces in support of U.S.-led operations and thereby engage the US, which can sometimes see NATO as a hindrance rather than a help.

-          From the UK, it will require a much greater investment of political effort and resources to strengthen the UK’s position within the HQ. the recent serious reduction of UK military power has also weakened the UK’s standing in NATO, in particular as they are no longer seen as a such a credible independent asset by the US as was the case in times past.

The Alliance’s political mechanisms have become undervalued in the past decade, largely due to a preoccupation with military deployment in Afghanistan. These need rediscovering and rejuvenating. They are:

·         Talking. NATO’s mechanisms for dialogue between allies and with or between partners are unique amongst international institutions in their scope and effectiveness. They create a space to talk – with friends, neighbours, and potential enemies alike which many nations cannot find in any other forum.

The Asia-Pacific region has no mechanisms for dispute resolution and confidence-building. Setting up NATO-style mechanisms for dialogue in the Far East would appear to be a good option for addressing US security concerns with China

·         Consensus building. NATO is a consensus organisation rather than one based on compromise. Compromise on issues of national security only stores up resentment and bad blood for the future. By evolving a system limiting actions to only those issues on which consensus can be achieved, and aligning national interests only in these areas, there is no essential loss of sovereignty and no threat to national interests.

·         Implementation. NATO’s practical ability to get things done quickly and in difficult circumstances is a feature of The Alliance’s military-style staff and procedures, backed up by an “old-boy network” of people from all Member Nations who have served together, befriended each other, learnt each other’s strengths and weaknesses, obsessions and taboos.

·         Standardisation. For all the failures of standardisation that can be pointed to (equipment in particular) it is the successful standardisation of operating procedures, C3, language and technical agreements that creates the interoperability of the many different national systems.

·         Information sharing and cascading. The help larger Allies give to smaller ones by way of intelligence and know-how is another feature of NATO which makes the Alliance attractive to new members.

·         Education. Education is one of the principal means to evolve NATO. NATO supports a great deal of broad educational activity amongst its members and partners, not just in the military sphere but addressing the wider challenges of modern society. However, NATO’s research programme has shrunk in many fields. Now is the time to reinvigorate it.

A most important element of NATO’s educational function was its annual high level military-political exercise WINTEX which teamed politicians with Generals to fight a strategic wargame in a way which enabled both to learn how to work with one another in crisis and war. This needs to be reinstated.

·         Interoperability. This is both a political and a military asset. It enables countries with vastly different political and military systems to operate together and undertake complex and stressful military activities. It is the most valuable product of the Alliance’s military mechanisms.



[1]NB: only effective territorial defence plus a demonstrably effective rapidly deployable NATO force will provide adequate deterrence against current Russian military developments. NATO’s Armed Forces have been allowed to decline to a point where NATO cannot now make good its promise to deploy significant forces to defend new members which, two decades ago NATO persuaded to move to small, regular forces providing ‘niche capabilities’ instead of large conscript forces for territorial defence.


This publication is supported by NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division.