Select Committee on Defence Ninth Report

2  NATO's role and relevance in the 21st Century

The Bucharest Summit and the role of the Alliance

21. One of the disappointments of the 2006 NATO Summit at Riga was the collective failure of the Alliance to address and reconcile the divergent views on NATO's overarching purpose in the dramatically changed strategic and political context of the 21st Century. Although the Riga Summit produced agreement on a new Comprehensive Political Guidance (CPG) for the Alliance—"a framework and political direction for NATO's continuing transformation, setting out, for the next 10 to 15 years, the priorities for all Alliance capability issues, planning disciplines and intelligence"—Riga left many of the essential questions about NATO's role, purpose and strategic priorities unanswered: should NATO seek to project stability on a global basis or should it concentrate on the Euro-Atlantic area? Should Afghanistan serve as a model for further expeditionary operations or should it be an exception? What relationship should NATO have with the European Union? None of these crucial questions was addressed adequately at Riga. At the Bucharest Summit in April 2008, it will be essential for the Alliance to deal with these questions. NATO needs to define more clearly its political purpose and strategic priorities for the coming years. Only by doing so can NATO answer its critics and demonstrate its continuing relevance to today's and tomorrow's security challenges.

The evolution of NATO's role and purpose

22. The North Atlantic Alliance was founded in 1949 to counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union in the early years of the Cold War. Between 1945 and 1949, in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War, the United States and the nations of Western Europe had viewed with growing alarm the expansionist ambitions of the Soviet Union. The signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949 established a common security system based upon the principle of mutual defence between Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. Greece and Turkey became members of the Alliance in 1952; the Federal Republic of Germany in 1955; and Spain in 1982.

23. The original role and purpose of the Alliance is enshrined in its founding document, the North Atlantic Treaty, which committed its signatories to "safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law" and to "unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security".[10] Throughout the Cold War, the key provision of the Treaty was its mutual defence clause, set out in Article 5, which stated that an attack on one would constitute an attack on all.

24. From the outset, however, NATO has been a political as well as a military alliance—committed to the territorial defence of the North Atlantic area against external threats and, at the same time, within that area, to preserving liberal democratic values and promoting transatlantic cooperation and stability between the members of the Alliance. Beyond the security guarantee enshrined in Article 5, the Treaty sought to promote "stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area".[11] This duality in NATO's role has existed since the inception of the Alliance. As much as NATO was created to counter the Soviet threat, its parallel, if subsidiary, purpose was to unify the West and to make war between the countries of Western Europe unthinkable. Throughout the Cold War, therefore, NATO developed as both a military collective security organisation and, more broadly, a political organisation for defence and security cooperation.

25. During the Cold War, defining NATO's overarching purpose was straightforward: to contain and counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its allies and deter Soviet aggression against Western Europe, and against Western interests more broadly defined. The Soviet threat gave NATO a clear and compelling purpose around which its members could coalesce. Overall, this common threat served as a glue, binding the Alliance together. To be sure, the Alliance was not without its difficulties and tensions during the Cold War; there were bitter disputes and divisions within NATO over the Suez crisis in 1956, Alliance nuclear-sharing and nuclear doctrine in the early 1960s, the French withdrawal from the NATO Integrated Command in 1966, the Vietnam War, West Germany's policy of Ostpolitik under Chancellor Willy Brand in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the placement of US cruise missiles in Europe in the 1980s. On almost every occasion, critics observed these tensions and predicted the imminent demise of NATO. Yet despite the sometimes bitter disputes between NATO allies over the appropriate strategy for confronting the Soviet threat, ultimately there was no disagreement on the fundamental issue of what NATO was for and what it was designed to achieve.


26. The ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, between 1989 and 1991, left NATO without a single, unifying military threat to confront and without a compelling strategic agenda around which its members could rally. Without the Cold War, critics charged that the Alliance had lost its raison d'etre. In 1990, an article by academic John Mearsheimer, for example, questioned the continuing relevance of NATO and anticipated its early demise as a meaningful political and military alliance: "The Soviet Union is the only superpower that can seriously threaten to overrun Europe; it is the Soviet threat that provides the glue that holds NATO together. Take away that offensive threat and the United States is likely to abandon the Continent, whereupon the defensive alliance it has headed for forty years may disintegrate".[12] In voicing pessimism about the future of NATO, Mearsheimer was by no means alone. Other commentators, such as Owen Harries, argued in a similar vein: "it took the presence of a life-threatening, overtly hostile 'East' to bring [NATO] into existence and to maintain its unity. It is extremely doubtful whether it can now survive the disappearance of that enemy".[13]

27. A decade-and-a-half after the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has not only survived the end of the Cold War but has gone a significant way towards establishing its continuing relevance in the post-Cold War world. If the overarching purpose of its post-Cold War mission remains somewhat less clear, its success in surviving the loss of its principal protagonist and transcending the Cold War is beyond doubt; not a single member of the Alliance believes NATO is irrelevant to the post-Cold War world. That success owes much to the fact that, in addition to acting as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism, the Alliance has always had a discrete political dimension, preserving and extending liberal democratic values. As former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana suggested in 1999, "What unites us are shared interests, not shared threats…This is why the Alliance has remained so strong beyond the end of the Cold War".[14]

28. After the end of the Cold War, NATO increasingly embraced its hitherto largely latent political function and placed it at the heart of the Alliance's policy. The 1990s witnessed the development of new political tools for projecting stability across Europe and beyond, including the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the Partnership for Peace, the NATO-Russia Council and the NATO-Ukraine Commission. The Alliance also admitted new members from the former Soviet bloc; in 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO and were followed later, in 2004, by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. As the then NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson, remarked at the Washington Summit in 1999, the Alliance had "evolved from a passive, reactive defence organisation into one which is actively building security right across Europe".[15]

29. In the 1990s, the political mission of building security in Europe drew NATO into the bloody and brutal conflicts of the Balkans which followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, interventions which were deeply controversial within NATO. In Bosnia, in December 1995, NATO led a UN-sanctioned Implementation Force (IFOR) of some 60,000 troops to oversee the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement and the withdrawal and demobilisation of the warring parties. A year later, a NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR) of some 31,000 troops took over from IFOR to consolidate the peace and promote longer-term stability in Bosnia. Though the size of the military deployment was scaled back in succeeding years, the SFOR mission to Bosnia lasted until December 2004. In Kosovo, meanwhile, NATO intervened in March 1999 to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovan Albanians by Serbian Forces under the control of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. A two-and-a-half month air campaign—Operation Allied Force—against Milosevic's Serb Forces ensued. Following Serbia's agreement to comply with UN Resolutions, NATO led a 50,000-strong Kosovo Force (KFOR) in June 1999 to uphold the Resolutions. Although the size of the deployment has reduced to 16,000 troops, the NATO-led KFOR mission remains deployed in Kosovo to this day. In addition, a smaller 3,500-strong NATO-led force intervened in Macedonia in 2001 following tensions between ethnic Albanian and government forces.

30. Through its interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO was perceived to have demonstrated powerfully its continued relevance in the post-Cold War world, though the debate about whether NATO should intervene militarily beyond Europe was far from settled. Nevertheless, the interventions, in part, paved the way for the development of the expeditionary, operationally-focused Alliance we see engaged in Afghanistan today. In the late 1990s, however, intervening in Afghanistan, way beyond the Alliance's traditional Euro-Atlantic territory, was inconceivable. Though intervening in the Balkans had meant intervention beyond NATO's formal territory, promoting stability in Bosnia and Kosovo was seen as part of safeguarding European security as a whole. Ever since the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, a debate has raged within NATO about whether the Alliance should intervene militarily beyond Europe. Despite its current mission in Afghanistan, those debates about out-of-area operations are still ongoing.


31. The development of NATO in the post-Cold War world was also shaped by the emerging role of the European Union in defence matters. During the Cold War, debates about the development of an autonomous European defence identity alongside NATO arose periodically but did not lead to any substantive developments. While the Western European Union (WEU) certainly constituted a European forum for discussing security questions, its military significance and political role were marginal. Throughout the Cold War, NATO remained in charge of European defence. The debate over European security was still characterised by historically-based divergences between the major members of the then European Community. In the early years of the post-Cold War period, the situation remained broadly the same. Although the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 established a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), including, after bitter negotiation, the notion that this common policy "might in time lead to a common defence", it was not until 1998 that some substance emerged.[16]

32. The trigger for new steps in European defence was the experience of the Balkan wars in which the European nations failed to produce a common strategy in the face of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in the former Yugoslavia. The Balkan tragedy affected all European countries, particularly France and the UK. For the French, the need for effective use of force led in the mid-1990s to a thawing of longstanding tensions between France and NATO. The UK, meanwhile, in its 1998 Strategic Defence Review, concluded that the operational powerlessness of Europe, despite the fact that European GDP was higher than that of the United States, was unacceptable and might imperil the NATO Alliance in the long-term. Commenting on the EU summit in Portschach, Austria, in October 1998, the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, stated that "there was a willingness which the UK obviously shares, for Europe to take a stronger foreign policy and security role…A Common Foreign and Security Policy for the European Union is necessary, it is overdue, it is needed and it is high time we got on with trying to engage with formulating it". He also stated that "we need to make sure that [it] in no way undermines NATO but rather is complementary to it".[17] A Franco-British Summit in St Malo, in December 1998, led to agreement that while the main security responsibility for Europe should remain with NATO, European allies would strengthen institutional and practical arrangements for acting together militarily in activities such as peacekeeping in which the Alliance as a whole chose not to be involved. This led to new agreements at the EU summits at Cologne and Helsinki in 1999 to strengthen the EU's role in defence.

33. The official reaction of the United States to these developments was cautiously welcoming, though at the time it was reported that, in private, senior members of the US administration were less happy. The then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, endorsed the developments but warned that Europe should avoid the "3 Ds": "no duplication, no discrimination and no decoupling".[18] It was essential that NATO was not diminished by these initiatives, that there was no discrimination against non-EU NATO members, and no duplication of efforts or capabilities.


34. The development of an EU role in defence matters was still in its infancy at the time of the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001. The atrocities in New York and Washington DC had a profound impact on the direction of US foreign policy and its attitude towards the Atlantic Alliance. Although in the aftermath of the attacks, NATO invoked its Article 5 provisions in solidarity with America, arguments within NATO about the proper scope of its operations, whether to intervene militarily beyond the Euro-Atlantic area, and whether to embrace a global role were ultimately reinvigorated. The terrorist attacks revealed powerfully the severity of the new threat posed by international terrorism and the danger of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) falling into the wrong hands. Equally apparent was the fact that the terrorist threat emanated largely from beyond Europe's borders, in the Middle East and Central Asia.

35. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 also revived questions about NATO's continuing relevance in the face of this new threat. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and again following the tensions in transatlantic relations caused by the Iraq War in 2003, bleak predictions about NATO's fate abounded. Just at the moment NATO invoked its Article 5 mutual defence clause for the first time in its history, the Alliance was characterised as "irrelevant: a bureaucracy whose time has passed" and as "a military pact that is hollowing out and of diminishing geopolitical relevance".[19] The notion was undoubtedly fuelled by the fact that early operations in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and hunt down Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders were undertaken by the United States without reference to NATO. The schism in transatlantic relations caused by Iraq, in particular, was perceived by some to be a decisive break that had split the Alliance irreparably. For the sceptics, NATO was a broken Alliance and there appeared insufficient political will on either side of the Atlantic to rebuild it.

36. In reality, however, the Alliance has proved remarkably durable, repeatedly confounding its critics. As the rift over the Iraq War heals, and with NATO having taken on command of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, so perceptions about its relevance have shifted. Now, it is said, the Alliance's continued relevance will be determined by its mission in Afghanistan. But there remains an undercurrent of uncertainty about NATO's proper role in the context of today's more diverse and challenging security environment.


37. Compared with the situation during the Cold War, the NATO Allies now face a far more diverse range of security threats: international terrorism, rogue states, failing states, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, drug and people trafficking, international crime, climate change, and energy shortages. A further complicating factor is that many of these threats emanate from beyond NATO's North Atlantic borders. As a result, in the post-Cold War and post-September 11 world NATO has sought increasingly to project stability on its periphery and beyond. The NATO handbook states that "the Allies agree that they must be ready to help to deter, defend, disrupt and protect themselves collectively against terrorist attacks…from abroad and that this may include action against terrorists and against those who harbour or protect them".[20] It also declares that the Allies "agree that the Alliance should not be constrained by predetermined geographical limits", and that "it must have the capacity to act as and when required".[21] This may be true, but it gives the impression that the argument about NATO's current and future role has been settled and that there is consensus in favour of the Alliance acting globally to guarantee security in the Euro-Atlantic area.

38. During our visits to NATO capitals we were aware of a clear divergence in opinion between those countries that favoured a global role for NATO and those that did not. In the United States, we heard that it was essential that the Alliance proved capable of dealing with threats wherever they arose. The Alliance had to be a global organisation; if it failed to prove capable of looking beyond the Euro-Atlantic area, the US was likely to place less emphasis on NATO and, instead, favour "coalitions of the willing". This was a view echoed in Denmark and the Netherlands. In Copenhagen, we heard that the transatlantic dialogue should be expended further to address issues including developments in China and Iran and that membership of the Alliance should be offered to countries beyond the North Atlantic area such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

39. In Spain, Italy and France, however, there was a considerable degree of scepticism about NATO adopting a global role. In Paris, we heard that the future of NATO was promising, but that it should not simply follow the global vision set out by the United States; NATO should instead stick to its Treaty roots and concentrate on providing security in the Euro-Atlantic area. The views expressed to us in Prague and Warsaw were more complex. The Czech Republic and Poland had both strongly backed the Alliance's mission in Afghanistan and supported what ISAF was trying to achieve, but we heard that their principal security concern was that of a resurgent Russia. Whilst not objecting to NATO assuming a global role, both capitals believed that the Article 5 provisions of mutual defence should remain paramount to the Alliance's future role.

40. The possibility of a global NATO—with a global mission and global partnerships—remains deeply contentious within the Alliance. Agreeing the scope and nature of NATO's mission should, arguably, be one of the highest priorities at the Bucharest Summit, with that agreement defined clearly in a new Strategic Concept.

41. Given the global nature of the threats we face, we believe there is no alternative to the Alliance fulfilling a global role. Its willingness and ability to act on a global basis to tackle threats where they arise is fundamental to NATO's continued relevance. If NATO limits itself to a regional role in defence of the territory of the North Atlantic area alone, its value will be diminished, particularly to the United States, and its future will be in doubt.

Uncertainty about the current role and purpose of NATO

42. The profound changes that have taken place within the international system since the end of the Cold War have led the NATO allies, individually and collectively, to reappraise and question the role and continuing relevance of the Alliance in the 21st Century. Together with the demise of the Soviet threat, the diversification of the security challenges confronting the NATO allies means that NATO no longer has the commonly agreed, unifying purpose it once had. Moreover, there is, at present, in Europe and in North America, a lack of popular understanding about what NATO is for, what its purpose is, and whether it remains relevant. As Dr Dana Allin, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, told us in evidence, NATO's purpose has become "more fuzzy" in the post-Cold War world. While a number of plausible and valid explanations of NATO's role could be offered, "they are not obviously as compelling in the fundamental way that mutual defence against the Soviet threat was".[22] According to Professor Michael Cox, of the London School of Economics, "something fundamental changed because of the end of the Cold War" in that it "removed a single magnetic north in [NATO's] strategic thinking". In the Cold War, NATO had been "a clearly focused European alliance…you knew exactly where you were and what you were doing". This was no longer the case and, consequently, NATO's role was now far harder to define.[23]

43. In evidence to our inquiry, Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fry (Rtd), former Director of Operations at the MoD, argued that an alliance formed around the concept of collective defence against an overwhelming external threat was "entirely different to an alliance, held together by all sorts of other motives, which can no longer necessarily see something homogenous in front of it".[24] The result, according to Dr Mark Webber, of Loughborough University, was that "NATO itself is uncertain of its role and purpose". Although NATO's own estimation of its role was "very widespread", that was "a discourse which hides a considerable degree of uncertainty as to what its current role and purpose is".[25] Dr Michael Williams, of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), summarised the current problems confronting NATO in defining that role more clearly:

    At the core of the Alliance's current difficulties is a lack of consensus about what NATO is supposed to do. The allies all agree that NATO is a political-military alliance made up of democratic states that share common values. Beyond this, however, disagreement is rife…The problem for NATO is deciding which [security] challenges to manage.[26]

44. Other witnesses to our inquiry, however, emphasised that it was important not to overstate the significance of NATO's current difficulties in defining its role. According to Sir Paul Lever, Chairman of RUSI and a former UK Ambassador to Germany, the current debates within NATO about its proper role and purpose had to be seen in context. He argued that:

    [NATO] always seems to be fearful that it is losing its role, and yet without a doubt it has been one of the most extraordinarily resilient and successful organisations, and some would say the most successful military alliance ever. It has retained public support within its members, and it still does.[27]

45. The Secretary of State for Defence told us in evidence that he believed NATO remained relevant; the role ascribed to the Alliance in the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty was still a compelling justification for the continued existence of NATO. Mr Browne told us:

    The Treaty itself sets out the ambition of an alliance based on shared values and standards with the clear recognition that the security of its North American and European allies is indivisible, and the reaffirmation in the preamble of what it stands for stands the test of time…It is as relevant today as a purpose for NATO as it was before.[28]

The Secretary of State maintained that despite the changes inaugurated by the end of the Cold War and the demise of a single unifying threat, NATO had proven its resilience and its capacity to adapt to a changing strategic environment. In evidence to us, he argued that:

    NATO has proved to be an organisation which, whilst still retaining its fundamentals, has been able to dynamically evolve in a way that is relevant to the threats that we face in the 21st Century.[29]

46. During our visits to European NATO capitals in 2007, we observed clear differences in attitudes towards, and support for, NATO amongst politicians and the public in of each the countries we visited. In some countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands we heard that NATO retained a significant amount of popular support. In Copenhagen, we were told that Denmark had a similar outlook on NATO to that of the UK. NATO was the foundation of its defence policy and the government was a strong supporter of NATO's military operations. In Prague, we heard that the Czech Republic was enthusiastic about NATO and wanted to be a high quality member of the Alliance. NATO was the cornerstone of Czech defence policy. But while it was committed to NATO operations, its principal concern was the protection it offered against a resurgent Russia.

47. In other countries, such as Italy and Spain, NATO was said to be less popular with a higher degree of scepticism about the Alliance's continuing relevance. In Madrid, we were told that Spanish support for NATO was of the head rather than of the heart; there was little public enthusiasm for the Alliance—which, in general, preferred the idea of separate European defence structures—even though all major parties backed Spain's continued commitment to NATO. At the Spanish Defence Ministry we heard that Spain needed to address what benefit it derived from continued NATO membership. In Rome, we heard that NATO was not popular with the Italian public, though this was to some extent related to antipathy felt towards the current US Administration. In Paris, we heard that NATO was not a subject often raised in public debate in France. Although the Alliance remained an important stakeholder in transatlantic relations, French politicians told us that that they believed NATO should stick to its original purpose of providing collective defence in the Euro-Atlantic area and not seek to broaden its role. Particular scepticism was expressed about the idea of NATO assuming a global role and tackling threats outside its traditional area of responsibility.

48. In Washington DC, during our discussions with US Administration officials and politicians on Capitol Hill, we heard that, of all international organisations, NATO still enjoyed legitimacy in the eyes of the American public. However, NATO did not feature prominently in the public consciousness and there were signs that the public did not appreciate NATO's continuing relevance in the changes circumstances of the post-Cold War world.

49. We also perceived a difference in approach to NATO between the original members of the Alliance, where we found a reducing interest in a concept that was seen to have done its job, and the newer or aspirant members, where NATO's importance as a bulwark against Russia or, in other cases, as an entry ticket into the European Union remained high.

50. During the Cold War, defining the role and purpose of NATO was straightforward: to contain and counter the Soviet threat. In the post-Cold War world, NATO faces a far more diverse range of security challenges. As a result, NATO's role and purpose is far harder to define. Consequently, there is a lack of understanding, amongst the public in Europe and North America and within the Alliance itself, about the purpose of NATO in the 21st Century. We call upon the governments of all NATO countries to do more to explain to their citizens the relevance of NATO in today's uncertain world. If people do not understand what NATO is for or why it is important to them, their support for it will inevitably decline.

The need for a new Strategic Concept

51. The uncertainty and ambiguity about NATO's role and purpose underscores the importance of the Alliance defining that role and outlining its political direction. In 1991, following the end of the Cold War, NATO agreed a Strategic Concept to define both the fundamental security tasks of the Alliance in the dramatically changed strategic landscape of the post-Cold War world and the means of implementing Alliance policy as a whole. NATO's Strategic Concept has become "the authoritative statement on the Alliance's objectives" and the "highest level guidance on the political and military means to be used in achieving them".[30] The 1991 Strategic Concept, the first such document agreed by NATO, stated that safeguarding the security of its members remained the core purpose of the Alliance, but it also stressed the need for cooperation and partnership with former adversaries and emphasised the importance of working towards improving the security of Europe as a whole.[31]

52. Profound political and security developments in Europe during the 1990s led to a revision of the Concept at the 1999 Washington Summit. The 1999 Strategic Concept, now almost a decade old, remains the authoritative statement on Alliance objectives. In essence, it committed the Allies not only to common defence, but also to promoting the peace and stability of the wider Euro-Atlantic area. It contained a strong commitment to maintaining the transatlantic link "by which the security of North America is permanently tied to the security of Europe".[32] It adopted a broad approach to security, encompassing political, economic, social and environmental factors, as well as the Alliance's defence dimension. It emphasised the importance of maintaining Alliance capabilities to ensure the effectiveness of military operations and improving European military capabilities within the Alliance. It defined a new role for the Alliance in conflict prevention and crisis management. It underscored the importance of effective partnerships with non-NATO countries based on cooperation and dialogue. It stated that NATO should remain committed to further enlargement and maintain an open door policy towards potential new members. Finally, it committed the Alliance to the pursuit of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation agreements.[33] The 1999 Strategic Concept stated that the "fundamental security tasks" of the Alliance were:

  • to provide one of the indispensable foundations for a stable Euro-Atlantic security environment, based on the growth of democratic institutions and commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, in which no country would be able to intimidate or coerce any other through the threat or use of force;
  • to serve, as provided for in Article 4 of the Washington Treaty, as an essential transatlantic forum for Allied consultations on any issues that affect their vital interests, including possible developments posing risks for members' security, and for appropriate coordination of their efforts in fields of common concern;
  • to deter and defend against any threat of aggression against any NATO member state as provided for in Articles 5 and 6 of the Washington Treaty;

In order to enhance the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area, it identified the following priorities for the Alliance:

  • to stand ready, case-by-case and by consensus, in conformity with Article 7 of the Washington Treaty, to contribute to effective conflict prevention and to engage actively in crisis management, including crisis response operations; and
  • to promote wide-ranging partnership, cooperation, and dialogue with other countries in the Euro-Atlantic area, with the aim of increasing transparency, mutual confidence and the capacity for joint action with the Alliance.[34]

53. Although the 1999 Strategic Concept identified terrorism as a threat which the Alliance should address, the document was framed before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The attacks transformed the strategic environment, led to changes in US, UK and European defence priorities, and prompted the members of NATO to revise their understanding of global security and the Alliance's place within it. Although NATO has recognised the significance of the terrorist threat and has put in place a number of measures to combat it—including improved methods of intelligence-sharing, enhancements in military capabilities, changes in force structures, and strengthening partnerships with countries outside NATO—the Alliance has not adapted or updated the 1999 Strategic Concept to take account of the nature or scale of the terrorist threat revealed in September 2001.

54. At the Istanbul Summit in 2004, in recognition of the fact that the operating environment of the Alliance had changed dramatically, NATO tasked the North Atlantic Council with drawing up a draft Comprehensive Political Guidance (CPG) to support the existing Strategic Concept for agreement at the 2006 Summit at Riga. In part, this was an admission that rewriting the Strategic Concept, at a time when the Alliance was recovering from the bitter disputes over Iraq, was not feasible. As Julianne Smith et al suggest in their primer for the Riga Summit, Transforming NATO (…again), the members of the Alliance "simply did not have the energy to launch a strategic debate over NATO's purpose, the doctrine of preventative war, multilateralism, and nuclear policy". The CPG was, therefore, a "compromise solution" which, ultimately, was "less ambitious than NATO's original expectations".[35]

55. The CPG agreed at Riga in November 2006 stated that "the Alliance will continue to follow the broad approach to security of the 1999 Strategic Concept and perform the fundamental security tasks it set out, namely security, consultation, deterrence and defence, crisis management, and partnership".[36] It reaffirmed that collective defence would remain "the core purpose of the Alliance", though it also noted that "the character of potential Article 5 challenges is continuing to evolve". It found that "large scale conventional aggression against the Alliance will continue to be highly unlikely", but it noted that "future attacks may originate from outside the Euro-Atlantic area and involve unconventional formed of armed assault", including the use of "asymmetric means" such as weapons of mass destruction.[37] It lists the principal threats facing the Alliance as terrorism—"increasingly global in scope and lethal in results"—the spread of weapons of mass destruction, instability due to failed or failing states, regional crises and conflicts, the misuse of emerging technologies, and the disruption of vital resources. The CPG states that "against this background, NATO must retain the ability to conduct the full range of its missions, from high to low intensity".[38] Enumerating a lengthy list of capability requirements which NATO should seek to acquire, it stated that the Alliance should focus on:

  • strengthening its ability to meet the challenges, from wherever they may come, to the security of its populations, territory and forces;
  • enhancing its ability to anticipate and assess threats, risks, and challenges it faces, with special attention to the threats posed by terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction;
  • providing forces able to conduct the full range of military operations and missions;
  • being able to respond quickly to unforeseen circumstances;
  • ensuring that NATO's own crisis management structures are effectively drawn together; and
  • continuing to adapt planning processes to meet new demands.[39]

56. The CPG is an important document and reflects the significant changes which have taken place in the international strategic environment since the adoption of the Strategic Concept in 1999. It also provides essential guidance to Allies about the kinds of capabilities they should seek to develop and it, rightly, underscores the importance of continuing the process of transformation, including "conceptual and organisational agility" and "the development of robust capabilities that are deployable, sustainable, interoperable and usable".[40]

57. The question remains, however, as to whether the CPG goes far enough. As Julianne Smith et al argue, the CPG:

    does little to settle the debate about NATO's overarching purpose. Is…the current mission in Afghanistan a precedent or an exception? Should the Alliance focus on protecting interests in the Euro-Atlantic area or promoting values around the world? The CPG's answers to these questions are left open to interpretation…While the CPG turns NATO's attention to the future, it does little to help the Alliance prepare for the future. Too many questions about NATO's purpose and planning priorities are left unaddressed, leaving the Alliance susceptible to stagnation and more internal political bickering.[41]

58. We asked our witnesses whether the Alliance needed to adopt a new Strategic Concept. Sir Paul Lever expressed a degree of scepticism as to the value of agreeing a new Strategic Concept. Although he conceded that the existing document was "out of date", he argued that "I am not quite sure whether a further draft of the strategic concept will yield penetrating new insights or innovative solutions".[42] Nevertheless, he believed that "the mega-documents and strategic concepts produced by NATO" do "serve a role" in that agreeing them engages all 26 members of the Alliance, particularly the smaller nations, "in the process of common thought, analysis and to some degree, at a very general level, policy-making".[43] Dr Rob Dover, however, argued against a new Strategic Concept, suggesting that it was "unnecessary and may be divisive".[44]

59. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) told us in evidence that a new Strategic Concept should, eventually, be defined. However, the Secretary of State expressed some scepticism about whether it would be possible to launch a review of the Concept at the Bucharest Summit. In evidence to us the MoD stated that:

    NATO's 1999 Strategic Concept describes the evolving security environment in terms that remain largely valid. The CPG builds on this to provide the framework for NATO's continuing transformation and sets out, for the next 10 to 15 years, the priorities for all Alliance capability issues, planning disciplines and intelligence. Combined with NATO's developing work on a Comprehensive Approach, this provides the strategic framework against which NATO can plan to operate, and a good vision for change. These elements should eventually be brought together in a new strategic concept".[45]

The Secretary of State for Defence told us, "I believe we should refresh the Strategic Concept" and "now, in my view, is the right time for us to consider doing that".[46] However, he suggested that the timing of the US presidential elections might make agreement on a new Concept difficult to reach in this timeframe.[47]

60. We believe that NATO needs to revise its Strategic Concept as a matter of the highest priority. The new Concept should define, far more clearly, the role, purpose and relevance of the Alliance in the context of today's security challenges. The new Strategic Concept should also reflect the fact that, in terms of its operations, NATO is about more than the projection of military force alone; it is about implementing the Comprehensive Approach, and providing the stability in post-conflict situations to allow reconstruction and development to take place. NATO should launch a review of the Strategic Concept at the forthcoming Bucharest Summit for agreement at its 60th anniversary summit in 2009.

NATO and the United States

61. The future of NATO will be shaped, to a significant degree, by the attitude of the United States. Without continued US support, the Alliance will not have a future. Not only is the US by far the largest military and financial contributor to the Alliance, it is the US commitment to make its security indivisible from that of the European members of NATO which has been at the heart of the Alliance since its inception 59 years ago. Witnesses to our inquiry argued that the key to NATO's future was keeping the United States engaged in the Alliance. As Professor Cox told us in evidence, "if NATO is irrelevant to the United States, it is not relevant at all".[48] To remain relevant to Washington, however, NATO had to be an effective alliance. It had to be a viable military organisation and it had to serve US national interests. Professor Cox argued that "the United States looks at NATO and says 'Does it serve our national interest?' and it is as simple as that".[49] He maintained that today's radically changed strategic environment raised "a series of major questions about what an alliance of a stable and permanent character is for a power as strong as the United States". In particular, US politicians asked "tough questions" about why they should continue to give consultation rights to those who do not contribute to international security.[50] Dr Jonathan Eyal suggested that "they cannot understand why they must continually pay a political price for people who are not prepared to invest in their defence in an adequate manner".[51] This was not an attitude limited to the current US administration. Sir Paul Lever argued that:

    We have to be realistic about the difference in power between America on the one hand and its European allies on the other…Even a more benign American administration which took the need for allies much more seriously would not want to be completely hemmed in by having to obtain the consensus of all its NATO Allies to a policy or military action….There are common interests and similar perceptions, but we have to be realistic about the scale of American power and the desire that any US president will have to retain over how that power should be deployed.[52]

62. Although the United States continued to attached importance to NATO, Dr Robin Niblett argued that the US attached less importance to the Alliance than it did during the Cold War. Ultimately, the US was "looking for a NATO that is effective".[53] In recent years, the United States had undergone a dramatic shift in how it perceived the Alliance. Dr Niblett suggested that Washington regarded NATO less as an alliance than a "pool of allies…who happen to be conveniently and well-integrated…around a military command structure, around a certain disciplined structure in which the United States can be heavily involved".[54]

63. Martin Wolf suggested that US thinking about NATO was in transition. The United States was "in the process…of working out a new foreign policy in response to a new world".[55] This had been going on ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and had been greatly accelerated by the rise of China and the threat of international terrorism. Mr Wolf told us that the Bush Administration's early repudiation of alliances as a "constraining force" on the freedom of action of the United States had been shown to be a failure and that even the current president was seeking to re-engage with America's NATO Allies. Today, there was a growing recognition of the "need to have allies which are potent, credible and consistent". But this did not mean that the United States had "gone all the way back to thinking that the entire security aims of the United States should be pursued within NATO, because they are also not at all clear what the other members of NATO give them". According to Mr Wolf, US foreign policy was currently "up for grabs".[56] He argued that much would depend upon both the willingness of allies to make a real contribution to the military capabilities of the Alliance and the outcome of the 2008 presidential elections:

    We are at a time of enormous flux in American thinking about what they should be doing, what their role in the world should be and how their allies fit into that. One can perfectly well imagine outcomes in which they decide that NATO is an important element in their foreign and security policy but not the only one, or possibly even the central element. It will depend on what the other members of the Alliance bring to the table that is of value to them and how co-operative they are from their point of view, that is, how widely they share similar perceptions, interests and values, how effective the institution is and how grievous the constraints imposed upon US action by the requirements of alliance cohesion are seen to be. All of that is to play for and will depend on who wins…the presidency…but also, more broadly, how the debate in Washington goes and how the allies behave.[57]

64. In our discussions with US policymakers in Washington and with American representatives at NATO, we were told that for fifty years, the Alliance had focused on the European continent but that the job in Europe was largely completed. There were no threats on the European continent. The challenge now was to mobilise the Alliance to do other things. NATO was the most effective tool for multilateral action by the United States but there was frustration and resentment in America about the unwillingness of European allies to shoulder their fair share of the common defence.

65. United States support for NATO is fundamental to the continued existence of the Alliance; without it NATO would become redundant. But the US will only support NATO if the Alliance serves the national interests of its members, and particularly the United States. To remain relevant to the United States, and to demonstrate that relevance to the American people, the Alliance must be capable of tackling today's and tomorrow's security challenges. To do so, NATO must become more capable, more deployable and more flexible, and the European Allies together need to demonstrate clearly what they contribute to NATO.

NATO and the UK's national interests

66. We asked the witnesses to our inquiry whether membership of NATO was still in the UK's national interests. Our witnesses said this depended, in part, on how the national interest was defined, and there was some disagreement on what constituted the UK's national interests. Overall, however, our witnesses identified three elements which they argued were fundamental to the UK's national interests:

In each of these, several witnesses to our inquiry argued that NATO had played, and continued to play, a crucial role. Professor Cox argued that the overriding interest of the UK in the past half century had been to remain close to the United States. The "best and most useful means of doing that…in an international institution which still has high legitimacy in the United States is NATO".[58] The UK remained a "global player" and therefore had a direct interest in countering any threats to its interests around the world. The UK had to be capable of dealing with those threats. In this, NATO played a crucial role; it was "the only force projection organisation that exists and Britain plays a role in [it]".[59] Dr Niblett agreed with Professor Cox's analysis:

    From the British national interest perspective, the UK has interests around the world. They are in the future of Pakistan, they are in Afghanistan, they are in parts of East Asia in terms of our economic interest, they are in Africa, they are in the Middle East and ultimately our ability to pursue those is going to be insufficient either by ourselves or with our European partners alone and they are much more likely to be pursued in collaboration with an institution that brings the United States into the mix as well.[60]

67. In evidence to our inquiry, the Secretary of State argued in similar terms that membership of NATO remained in the UK's national interests. Mr Browne stated that the threats facing the UK were global and that:

    we cannot deal with them…as the United Kingdom alone, but we need to do that in an alliance and NATO has proved to be the best political and military alliance the world has known.[61]

68. Not all of our witnesses, however, believed that NATO served the UK's interests. Dr Webber argued that it was an "unquestioned assumption…that NATO does serve British national interests".[62] He suggested that "commentary on NATO tends to be problem-solving about how NATO can be repaired, how it can be made to better serve the functions one presumes it undertakes…[but] NATO is only one of a number of things that serve a presumed national interest". Dr Webber argued that "the assumption that NATO is and must be at the centre of British defence thinking crowds out other creative alternatives…[it] should not be taken at face value, but it should be questioned".[63]

69. We are committed to NATO and believe it continues to serve the UK's national interests. The UK's support for the Alliance should not be uncritical or unquestioning, and there are important areas, such as force generation, burden-sharing and capabilities, where NATO must improve. However, we believe NATO remains an indispensable alliance, the essential embodiment of the transatlantic relationship and the ultimate guarantor of our collective security. NATO must remain at the heart of the UK's defence policy.

10   Text of the North Atlantic Treaty, 4 April 1949, NATO website ( Back

11   Text of the North Atlantic Treaty, 4 April 1949, NATO website ( Back

12   John Mearsheimer, "Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War," International Security Vol. 15, Summer 1990, p 52 Back

13   Owen Harries, "The Collapse of the West," Foreign Affairs Vol. 72, No. 4, September/October 1993, p 41 Back

14   Javier Solana, "NATO in the 21st Century: An Agenda for the Washington Summit," Congressional Digest, April 1999, pp 104-106 Back

15   Lord Robertson, cited in Rebecca Moore, NATO's New Mission: Projecting Stability in a Post Cold War World, London, 2007, p 14 Back

16   Treaty on European Union (The Maastricht Treaty), Article 24.1, 1992 Back

17   Speech by Prime Minister, Rt Hon Tony Blair, cited in Maartje Rutten (ed.), "From St Malo to Nice-European Defence: Core Documents," Chaillot Papers Vol 3, 2001 Back

18   Madeleine Albright, cited in Julian Lindley-French, The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation: The Enduring Alliance, London 2007, p 80 Back

19   Robert Levine, "NATO is Irrelevant: A Bureacracy Whose Time has passed", International Herald Tribune, 24 May 2003, and Charles Kupchan, Financial Times, 18 November 2002, cited in Rebecca Moore, NATO's New Mission: Projecting Stability in a Post Cold War World, London, 2007, p 3 Back

20   NATO Handbook, 2006, p 9 Back

21   Ibid, p 10 Back

22   Q 79 Back

23   Q 96 Back

24   Q 141 Back

25   Q 78 Back

26   Q 103 Back

27   Q 25 Back

28   Q 241 Back

29   Ibid Back

30   NATO Handbook 2006, p 18 Back

31   Ibid Back

32   Ibid Back

33   Ibid, p 19 Back

34   NATO Handbook 2006, pp 19-20 Back

35   Julianna Smith (ed.), Transforming NATO (...again): A primer for the NATO Summit in Riga 2006, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, November 2006, p 17 Back

36   Comprehensive Political Guidance, 2006, NATO website ( Back

37   Ibid Back

38   Comprehensive Political Guidance, 2006, NATO website ( Back

39   Ibid Back

40   Julianna Smith (ed.), Transforming NATO (...again): A primer for the NATO Summit in Riga 2006, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, November 2006, pp 16-17 Back

41   Ibid Back

42   Q 32 Back

43   Ibid Back

44   Q 33 Back

45   Ev 111 Back

46   Q 244 Back

47   Q 247 Back

48   Q 80 Back

49   Ibid Back

50   Ibid Back

51   Q 90 Back

52   Q 39 Back

53   Q 86 Back

54   Q 93 Back

55   Q 12 Back

56   Ibid Back

57   Ibid Back

58   Q 80 Back

59   Ibid Back

60   Q 84 Back

61   Q 243 Back

62   Q 83 Back

63   Q 83 Back

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