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Since its formation, NATO has gone through a continuous process of development and change, constantly adapting to the evolution of the global threat landscape. Acknowledging both the struggle and the success of the Alliance in the last eight decades, the present geopolitical and security context unfolds a puzzle of challenging issues that are harder to predict and counter. Is NATO ready for the borderless threats of 2030?

The present threat landscape is rapidly evolving, leaving national governments, international alliances, and organisations with no other option than to develop their capacity to be able to adapt at the same pace. Terrorism, pandemics, cyberattacks, energy crises and climate change are just some of the complex, borderless challenges that require a constant update of strategies and tools.

NATO’s 2022 Madrid Summit came at a crucial moment for the alliance and the democratic world. NATO Heads of State and Government approved a new Strategic Concept on 29 June, setting out the alliance’s priorities and approaches for the next decade. The Strategic Concept 2022 is an opportunity to renew the solidarity and commitment of NATO Allies to deal with current and future threats. In the shadow of the world’s most recent challenges, there is a high level of uncertainty regarding the global challenges of 2030 and NATO’s role in the security power game.

Evolution of NATO’s Security Concepts

Since its formation, the Strategic Concept is a key document for NATO, serving as a reaffirmation of values and collective assessment of the security environment. It also drives NATO’s future political and military development. Due to the constant evolution of global dynamics, the Strategic Concept is reviewed and updated regularly, approximately every 10 years since the end of the Cold War, and eight total in the alliance’s history.
The last four Strategic Concepts of the post-Cold War era have reflected a gradual development of the security concept based on specific crisis for geographic areas. For instance, in the context of the war on terror, in 2010 NATO adopted crisis management and cooperative security as core tasks, and its geographic focus shifted to the Middle East. Subsequently, NATO’s role in this geographic area increased, and has led to various changes to the Alliance’s strategy.

The previous Strategic Concept was adopted at the NATO Lisbon Summit in 2010. Since then, more than a decade has passed, and under the present security landscape it was necessary for Alliance to renew its Strategic Concept to match today’s threats. Along with the Middle East Agenda, NATO acknowledged other components such as cyber security, information warfare, pandemics, climate change, energy crises, and even outer space. Considering the spectrum of non-traditional security challenges facing NATO, the Strategic Concept 2022 was the hardest to draft in the past eight decades. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, together with the global challenges posed by China, and the domino effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, might be just a taste of what 2030 can potentially bring to the table, requiring preparation and rapid responses.

Understanding Security in 2030

Bearing in mind the potential for rapid and unpredictable changes to the global configuration of power, NATO must continue to adjust its understanding of security to dynamic contexts and evolving borderless threats. NATO’s strategy for the next decade should start from the following question: What will “security” mean in 2030? By doing so, allies may be able to realise the need for a more inclusive understanding of security towards the 2030s. Acknowledging challenges such as climate change, technological supremacy, and re-emergence of frozen conflicts would form a valuable starting point.
Based on the reflections of NATO 2030 Young Leaders Group, NATO should feature non-traditional security challenges more prominently on its agenda. According to the Group, climate change has destabilising effects on international peace and security and, more fundamentally, on the very existence of life on earth. Moreover, the relationship between the empowerment of women and long-term global security and stability is also widely accepted and well documented. The NATO 2030 Young Leaders Group acknowledge that defending the Euro-Atlantic area is a moving target, and as challenges to NATO increasingly come from areas beyond its immediate neighbourhood, the alliance must expand its outreach and provide more equitable sharing of responsibilities between Europe and North America. Although NATO’s mandate remains regional, it is vital for its mindset to be global and borderless.

Current Global Challenges and NATO’s Response

Today, the challenges faced by the alliance come in various forms, many of which are borderless. This includes pandemics, terrorism, climate issues, emerging technologies changing the nature of competition and conflict, as well as digital technologies that are transforming diplomacy and defence. Within the Alliance, the relationship between Turkey and Greece has been deteriorating rapidly, culminating in provocative declarations from both sides. From outside, NATO faces strategic competition with a revisionist Russia and a militarily powerful and technologically advanced China, both of which seek to disrupt the existing international order. The scale, complexity, and dependence upon economic, environmental, technological, and human flows, have increased dramatically.

Climate change is a borderless complex issue with the potential to cause domino effects over the short and long term. For instance, the rise of global temperatures causes ice to melt, affecting sea levels, and in turn weather patterns. More extreme weather events, such as storms, floods, and heatwaves, can lead to drought, famine, land degradation, loss of livelihood, and change in demographic trends. Such changes hold the potential to create further conflict and migration, while climate-related risks to military infrastructure, operations, and force readiness are already felt across the Alliance. Therefore, climate change impacts NATO’s ability to fulfil its core mission. Last, but not least, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has started an energy crisis that will reach its zenith by the winter of this year. This combination has resulted in the most complex threat landscape in NATO’s history.

“Ready or not, here I come.”

Acknowledging that NATO has already done much of the theoretical work around the future traits of the global threat landscape, the Madrid Summit and the adoption of the Security Concept 2022 officially set the stage for a new decade in the Alliance’s history. Many argue that this is a long overdue replacement for the 2010 Strategic Concept, which was an immediate casualty of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Given the crises of the past few years, the current Strategic Concept comes at the right time, when it is most needed by the Allies. However, it is merely a single step in a decade of uncertainty. While readiness might be considered a target, NATO also needs to develop its capacity to adapt, to be able to ensure security. Adaptability can serve the purpose of the Alliance better in a decade of flux.