In a joint meeting of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and Subcommittee on Security and Defence on 13 July 2022, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the NATO Summit in Madrid as “historic and transformative”. He elaborated on the Summit’s decisions and discussed EU-NATO cooperation with MEPs. This is proof of how intensive the cooperation between the EU and NATO has become at the high political level.
The New Strategic Concept
Indeed, many observers see the decision-making emanating from the NATO Summit, including the new Strategic Concept, as a kind of general overhaul. Thanks to Putin, NATO is not experiencing ‘brain death’, but a kind of revival. The “biggest overhaul of our deterrence and defence since the Cold War” (Jens Stoltenberg) envisages, among other things, an increase in the troop strength of the NATO Response Force from 40,000 to 300,000. More prepositioned equipment and weapons stocks will invigorate forward defence. NATO Battlegroups in the eastern part of the Alliance will be strengthened and expanded to brigade level, which would increase missions (in the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary) from the current 643 to 1,887 to between 3,000 and 5,000 troops.
In addition, the Alliance wants to establish more forward capabilities, including air defence, and an efficient command organisation. The US is expected to station more forces in the Baltic States.
The nine pages (excluding the preface) with 49 sections contain several new lines of allied strategy. What stands out is the clear statement citing Russia as a significant and direct threat and no longer as a partner or challenge or competitor. In doing so, NATO remains true to its 360-degree view – that security is all-encompassing and extends across all domains, includes all threat types and concerns all regions geographically. Observers underline the mention of the threat situation for the southern member states (Italy, Spain). Another profound change relates to two sections dedicated to China and its attempts to challenge the interests, security and values of NATO member states. At least, the concept includes the offer of dialogue to reduce tensions through transparency. However, the possible implementation, such as the establishment of a NATO-China Council or a similar permanent mechanism, remains (still) unmentioned.
NATO is also addressing climate change as a crucial challenge of our time. As much as the confirmation of security risks directly or indirectly related to climate change is to be acknowledged, there is at the same time a concern that NATO will not fully address this issue in view of the war in Europe.
The points made on resilience building are similar. They must now lead to concrete programmes in the member states in order to remain more than just lip service.
Some observers find the remarks on nuclear deterrence marginal. In paragraph 28, the replica from the 2010 precursor document (paragraph 17) states: “The circumstances in which NATO would have to consider the use of nuclear weapons are extremely remote. Not only in view of the war in Ukraine and the Russian threat, critics would go further to emphasise Western credibility.
In contrast, there is a sense of further development when the security, demographic, economic and political challenges are described as interconnected and multidimensional. Here the door is opened to an integrating approach of other policy areas beyond defence policy: Diplomacy and development cooperation. Analysts see this as a departure from the earlier, more military-oriented approach.
Other Summit Outcomes
As much as one may be happy about the new Strategic Concept and other results of the Madrid Summit, truth and fiction will be proven in the implementation. Permanent bases generate expenditure to a different extent than troop rotations. For the time being, the focus is on the East. As security situations change, desires may arise in other regional focal points. Member states on NATO’s southern flank like to point to security threats close to them and Russian attempts at intimidation.
Alexander Vershbow, former US Ambassador to Moscow and Deputy Secretary General of NATO from 2012 to 2016, recommends rebalancing the Alliance. While Washington’s focus of interest has been shifting to the Western Pacific for some time now, thus also shifting resources to the Indo-Pacific region, the Europeans will have to assume greater responsibility in collective defence. “Europe must prepare to be the first responder to crises on NATO’s periphery,” he said in an interview with Politico, adding that this would mean “greater European strategic responsibility – as opposed to autonomy”.
This notwithstanding, NATO is currently faced with a balancing act between, on the one hand, an effective defence posture that meets the expectations of the Eastern member states, without, on the other hand, crossing Russia’s red lines, which are fuelled by fears of encirclement, and without evoking the risk of a confrontation. Without mutual dialogue, this hardly seems achievable. The changed geopolitical architecture around the Baltic Sea may hold the key to a new approach. From its threat perception, Moscow could find interest in questions of conventional arms control and confidence-building measures. Brussels should be prepared for this.