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Throughout its seven-decade history, NATO has demonstrated adaptability and resilience in overcoming diverse challenges as an international entity due to the shared values among its member states. Beyond its initial military alliance role, NATO now prioritises multilateral cooperation and adopts a multifaceted approach to tackle complex contemporary challenges. But today’s fast-changing geopolitical landscape requires the Organisation to redesign its tools and capabilities to develop a comprehensive proactive security strategy.

NATO confronts a rapidly-evolving and intricate security landscape that demands capabilities beyond just adaptability and resilience. External challenges that no longer fit the pattern of traditional threats leaving complex transboundary challenges intertwine with internal factors, including strained trans-Atlantic relations, perceived value disparities, and escalating tensions between members, all of which threaten the Alliance’s cohesion. Divergent perceptions of threats among Allies contribute to NATO assuming different roles for different members. Historical discord has at times been part of NATO’s norm, but constructive diplomacy often emerged from such differences. But this is no longer the case, as today’s geopolitical situation calls for unity and common action.

This analysis discusses NATO’s developing role in the constantly changing global dynamics, underlying the imperative to reassess its strategy and enhance innovation, agility, and the cultivation of multidomain capabilities. It will do so while engaging proactively in international security to prove its continued relevance in the coming decades.

Historical background

Established in 1949, NATO constituted a component of a more comprehensive initiative aimed at fulfilling three objectives: deterring Soviet expansionism, preventing the resurgence of nationalist militarism in Europe by maintaining a robust North American presence on the continent, and fostering the process of political integration within Europe. The Alliance has been a pivotal force in global security, navigating through distinctive periods influenced by dynamic geopolitical shifts and the strategic objectives of its principal member, the United States. NATO’s evolution has unfolded across four discernible periods— the tension-filled Cold War epoch; the uncertainty of the post-Cold War era; the war against terrorism phase; and the contemporary stage characterised by the complexities of Great Power competition, notably with the inclusion of China.

NATO has demonstrated its adaptability since the Cold War era, transitioning its focus to international stabilisation and peace-supporting missions after the Cold War ended. Significantly, this included military operations in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, culminating in the activation of Article 5 of the Alliance’s ‘Collective Defence’ commitment. The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 marked a return to great power rivalry and force-induced border changes in Europe. Confronting Russian revisionism, NATO has reoriented towards collective defence while addressing persistent threats, such as regional instability and the proliferation of violent extremist organisations. Nevertheless, the past decade has posed a complex variety of global and regional threats emerge, such as the rise of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the COVID pandemic, the Russia–Ukraine war and, most recently, the Israel–Hamas war. All those challenges have one common trait: they transcend traditional boundaries and require a multidimensional response.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg opens a session during the meeting of Defence Ministers at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, 12 February 2020. The North Atlantic Council meets periodically throughout the year at different levels of governance and coordination; the event brings together defence ministers from all NATO states to discuss the Alliance’s future.
Credit: NATO/Tech Sgt Cody H. Ramirez

In response, NATO initiated various programmes to enhance capabilities, with its members reaffirming decisions at summits in 2014, 2016, and 2019, with the latter ratifying a new NATO Military Strategy. Concurrently, a reflection process – NATO 2030 – was initiated to enhance the Alliance’s political strength, with recommendations provided at the 2021 NATO Summit. While the NATO 2030 Agenda can be described as one of the first signs of proactive capability development undertaken by the Organisation, the results of the process, as reflected in the 2022 Strategic Concept, might prove an enhanced capacity to respond to the developing transboundary threats, but it is far from a pre-emptive approach. Historically, NATO’s mission expanded beyond regional defence to encompass international stabilisation, peace-supporting missions, and counter-terrorism efforts. Furthermore, the Alliance has recognised and engaged with persistent global challenges, such as instability in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the spread of violent extremist organisations. In addition to traditional military challenges, NATO has expanded its scope to address emerging threats such as cybersecurity, disinformation campaigns, the weaponisation of new technologies, and cognitive warfare.

Acknowledging progress made up to the most recent Strategic Concept, defined by adaptability and resilience, the current security landscape calls for a rapid change of perspective, beyond the political and military divide, transcending the classical domains and physical boundaries. The developing strategy should not be static, but rather flexible and fluid, serving as a foundation for proactive action, as requested by the evolving map of complex challenges.

The nexus of internal and external security threats

Internally, NATO cohesion and effectiveness have been facing growing threats such as: divergent national interests, defence spending disparities, political instability, erosion of trust, political (dis)unity for decision-making, technology gaps, enlargement issues, and operational coordination.

Divergent national interests within NATO represent an inherent complexity that underscores the Alliance’s composition of diverse members. While NATO operates under the shared principles of collective defence and mutual security, the unique geopolitical priorities, historical contexts, and domestic considerations of individual member countries often result in varying strategic perspectives. The challenge lies in reconciling these divergent national interests to maintain a cohesive and effective alliance. Effective consensus-building mechanisms and diplomatic efforts become imperative in navigating the intricacies of diverse national agendas within NATO, ensuring the Alliance’s ability to address contemporary security challenges with unity and resolve. Moreover, maintaining political unity among members is essential for NATO’s effectiveness.

The Alliance’s decision-making processes require consensus, and internal disagreements on issues such as military interventions or strategic directions can hinder timely and decisive action. Within the same sphere of internal challenges, another relevant issue is the question of whether and how to expand the Alliance by admitting new members. Decisions regarding enlargement involve considerations of security, stability, and potential geopolitical implications.

The issue of burden-sharing – as illustrated in defence spending – has been a persistent challenge. This concern was first pointed out by former US President Donald Trump, but it still represents an internal threat to the Alliance today. Some NATO members consistently fall short of the agreed goal of allocating 2% of their GDP to defence. This not only affects the Alliance’s overall military capabilities, but also creates resentment among those member countries that perceive themselves as carrying a disproportionate burden. Moreover, rapid advancements in military technology may create disparities in military capabilities among NATO members. Ensuring that all members have access to and can integrate cutting-edge technology is crucial for maintaining the Alliance’s effectiveness. NATO’s strength relies on the ability of its member’ armed forces to operate cohesively. Achieving interoperability and seamless coordination in joint military operations represents a persistent internal challenge, given differences in military doctrines and equipment.

Political instability within member countries can also affect NATO’s ability to respond cohesively to emerging threats. Changes in leadership, shifts in foreign policy priorities, or internal political conflicts may hinder the Alliance’s ability to formulate and implement a unified strategy. In the same way, trust among members is crucial for the functioning of NATO. Disputes over issues such as intelligence sharing, military interventions, or diplomatic strategies can erode trust and cooperation. Building consensus becomes more difficult when there is a lack of confidence among member states.

Externally, NATO is dealing with a complex set of challenges, emphasised by the 2022 Strategic Concept: Russia’s aggressive actions, the global power competition – China, terrorism, regional conflict, cyber threats, hybrid warfare, emerging and disruptive technologies, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, maritime security challenges, migration, climate change and global health emergencies.

Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and 18th Airborne Corps file onto a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, February 2022. The soldiers are deploying to Eastern Europe as directed by the US Secretary of Defense to assure the United States’ NATO allies and deter Russian aggression.
Credit: US Army/Sgt Brian Micheliche

The Russian Federation constitutes the principal and most direct threat to the security of NATO members and the overall peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region. Its strategic objectives encompass the establishment of spheres of influence and the exertion of direct control through methodologies such as coercion, subversion, aggression, and annexation, employing conventional, cyber, and hybrid means. Notably, Russia is actively modernising its nuclear forces and expanding its innovative and disruptive dual-capable delivery systems, concurrently engaging in coercive nuclear signalling. The explicit aim is to destabilise countries situated to the east and south of NATO member countries. Furthermore, in the High North, Russia’s capacity to disrupt allied reinforcements and impede freedom of navigation across the North Atlantic poses a strategic challenge to the Alliance. Moscow’s military build-up, particularly in the Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean Sea regions, in conjunction with its military tango with Belarus, poses a direct challenge to the security and interests of NATO member countries.

Shifts in global power dynamics and competition among major powers, including the People’s Republic of China (PRC), can have implications for NATO’s strategic environment. The Alliance monitors these developments and assesses their impact on security. PRC ambitions and policies pose a significant challenge to NATO’s interests, security, and values. The PRC employs a comprehensive array of political, economic, and military instruments to expand its global influence and project power. However, the PRC maintains opacity regarding its strategy, intentions, and military build-up.

Malicious hybrid and cyber operations, coupled with confrontational rhetoric and disinformation, have been used by the PRC against Allied member states, posing problems for the Alliance. Additionally, the PRC has built up its control over pivotal technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, as well as strategic materials and supply chains. Leveraging economic influence, the PRC has also created strategic dependencies to enhance its global influence. As a whole, the PRC’s efforts have challenged the existing rules-based international order, particularly in the space, cyber, and maritime domains. Furthermore, the deepening strategic partnership between the PRC and the Russian Federation, represents a further challenge to the Alliance’s core values and strategic interests.

Terrorism remains a significant concern for NATO, representing the foremost asymmetrical threat to the security of citizens and to the global state of peace and prosperity. The Alliance collaborates on counterterrorism efforts and works to address the underlying factors contributing to extremism. Terrorist organisations aim to launch or incite attacks against NATO Allies. These entities have undergone network expansion, capability enhancement, and technological investment to extend their operational scope and lethality. They often lack a centralised structure, expanding their reach. Non-state armed groups, inclusive of transnational terrorist networks and those with state backing, persist in exploiting conflict zones and areas characterised by weak governance for the purposes of recruitment, mobilisation, and the amplification of their influence.

Ongoing conflicts, political instability, and the presence of extremist groups in several regions, and specifically in the Middle East and North Africa have implications for NATO’s security. The Alliance monitors and addresses potential spill-over effects and collaborates with partner countries in the region. NATO’s southern vicinity, notably encompassing the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel regions, confronts interlinked challenges spanning security, demographic shifts, economic concerns, and political instabilities. These challenges are compounded by the consequences of climate change, vulnerable institutions, health crises, and food insecurity. This complex environment serves as conducive terrain for the proliferation of non-state armed entities, including terrorist organisations. Additionally, it facilitates destabilising and coercive interference by strategic competitors.

The domain of cyberspace is subject to continuous contention, where malevolent actors endeavour to disrupt critical infrastructure and government services, extract intelligence, pilfer intellectual property, and obstruct military operations. NATO faces challenges from hybrid warfare, which involves a combination of conventional military tactics, cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns, and other unconventional methods. This multifaceted approach makes it challenging to respond effectively.

The advent of emerging and disruptive technologies introduces both opportunities and potential hazards, thereby transforming the nature of conflict and elevating their strategic significance as pivotal arenas in the global competitive landscape. Technological pre-eminence remains a key contributing factor to determining success on the battlefield.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remains a global concern. NATO works to prevent the spread of these weapons and address the risks associated with their potential use. The degradation of the framework governing arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation has had adverse effects on strategic stability. The conceivable employment of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials or weaponry by antagonistic state and non-state entities against NATO continues to pose a threat to the security of the Alliance.

Lt Col Robert Cuthbertson, Commander of Hunter Army Airfield, fist-bumps a soldier assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, as he boards an airplane at Truscott Air Terminal, Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, 5 September 2023.
Credit: US Army/Sgt William Griffen

NATO confronts multifaceted challenges in the maritime domain, highlighting the intricate nature of contemporary security threats at sea. Foremost among these challenges is the evolving spectrum of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies employed by potential adversaries, employing advanced anti-ship capabilities to restrict NATO’s maritime access. The proliferation of submarines equipped with sophisticated sensors and weaponry amplifies the submarine threat, underscoring the need for vigilant monitoring and countermeasures. Furthermore, the increasing availability of naval platforms and technologies, including unmanned systems, introduces new complexities in maritime operations. Hybrid maritime threats, combining conventional tactics with cyberattacks, pose an additional layer of vulnerability, exploiting weaknesses in communication systems and infrastructure. The persistent spectre of maritime terrorism, illegal activities such as piracy and trafficking, and resource competition further contribute to the intricacies of NATO’s maritime security landscape. The Alliance works to ensure the security of sea lines of communication and maritime trade routes.

Climate change poses long-term security challenges, including resource scarcity, migration pressures, and potential geopolitical shifts. NATO recognises the security implications of climate change and works to address related risks. Climate change stands as a pivotal challenge in our era, significantly affecting allied security as a crisis and amplifying existing threats. It possesses the capacity to exacerbate conflict, fragility, and geopolitical competitions. The escalation of temperatures results in elevated sea levels, heightened occurrences of wildfires, and more frequent and intense weather events, causing disruption to our societies, jeopardising security, and posing threats to the well-being and livelihoods of our citizens. Furthermore, climate change influences the operational dynamics of our armed forces. The vulnerabilities of our infrastructure, assets, and bases are exposed to the effects of climate change, necessitating military operations in increasingly extreme climate conditions and more frequent engagement in disaster relief efforts.

Internal and external threats are interlinked, challenging the organisation in different spaces, at different levels simultaneously. In the era of interconnectivity, NATO needs a strategy that transcends a unilateral approach and provides the foundation for enhancing proactive capabilities, tackling threats on multiple domains, and enhancing its capacity to anticipate and effectively address future challenges. The Alliance’s commitment to innovation, collaboration, and the continuous reassessment of its strategic objectives underscores its crucial role in navigating the complexities of contemporary global security dynamics. Over the preceding two decades, the swift advancements in space technology, cyberspace, artificial intelligence, and autonomous weapon systems have provided both state and non-state entities with novel means to exert influence and engage in unconventional warfare. The escalating threat of cyberattacks, dissemination of disinformation, and the weaponisation of emerging technologies have underscored the critical importance of cybersecurity and prompted concerns regarding the susceptibility of vital infrastructure and the resilience of societies. These developments have heightened the competition for influence, resources, and strategic advantages, fostering increased tension and rivalries.

The path to an evolving mission: multidimensional proactiveness

In the context of the evolving great power competitive landscape, NATO is confronted with the pivotal question of reassessing its role and mission. A strategic framework is indispensable for the realignment of objectives, methods, resources, and means, ensuring the cohesion of NATO, integral to its credibility in both operational and deterrent capacities. Recognising the diverse security concerns of all members emerges as a central imperative for NATO’s prospective trajectory. NATO must tackle the perception of being ‘many things to many people’ and should concentrate on fostering a cohesive community within the Alliance.

The potential of the NATO 2030 initiative to create the premises for proactiveness has led to a new Strategic Concept which, although it reiterates NATO’s primary objective of collective defence, adopts a comprehensive 360° approach. The concept prioritises national and collective resilience across all core tasks, integrating technological innovation and addressing climate change, human security, and the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda. The overarching goal is to create a safer world and safeguard nations, societies, and shared values.

However, bearing in mind the complex nature of the aforementioned threats and their fast evolution, the decade-long Strategic Concept is no longer a sustainable tool for NATO. Instead, the organisation needs to redefine its mission as constantly evolving, enhancing proactive capabilities and strategies spanning all domains. In this way, NATO endeavours to both deter and overcome potential threats posed to its members, thereby ensuring the Alliance’s capacity to sustain security and deliver decisive responses.

NATO HQ exterior, Brussels, Belgium, on 27 June 2019.
Credit: US DoD/Lisa Ferdinando

The most relevant example for NATO’s evolving mission is the revised strategy for NATO’s transformation, as advocated by Allied Command Transformation (ACT), which seeks to cultivate a military instrument of power characterised by a more fluid nature, as opposed to a static strategic approach. Therefore, NATO’s Military Instrument of Power (MIoP) must possess inherent fluidity and flexibility, allowing it to adeptly respond to diverse contexts, threats, and tensions. The overarching goal is to sustain a cycle encompassing strategic foresight, conceptual and doctrinal frameworks, enhanced capabilities, and human resources.

Strategic foresight plays a pivotal role in proactively identifying emerging trends, risks, and opportunities within the global security landscape. Through the analysis of geopolitical shifts, technological advancements, and societal transformations, NATO can discern potential threats, enabling the formulation of pre-emptive strategies. This foresight establishes a robust foundation for informed decision-making and the establishment of enduring objectives and priorities. In this virtuous cycle, concepts and doctrine assume a critical role by fostering the dissemination of best practices, fostering alignment among member states, and establishing shared norms and standards for collaborative military endeavours. Such alignment ensures interoperability, promotes cooperation, and strengthens NATO’s collective defence efforts. The Alliance must consistently cultivate and enhance its military capabilities, leveraging technological innovations through investment in research and development, modernising equipment and infrastructure, and refining training and education programmes. Attracting and retaining skilled personnel while providing avenues for professional growth and advancement enables NATO to harness the expertise of its human resources, enhancing its capacity to anticipate and effectively address future challenges.

Nevertheless, NATO will realise its transformative objectives by embracing the process of digital transformation to facilitate the effective use of technology, optimise data utilisation, and cultivate collaborative endeavours encompassing academia, the private sector, as well as its members and partners. At the Madrid Summit in June 2022, heads of state and government agreed to “expedite our digital transformation.” Since then, the digital progress has been accelerated by the adoption of a Digital Transformation Vision in October 2022 and a Digital Transformation Implementation Strategy in July 2023.

The challenges faced by NATO over the past decade represent a mere glimpse of the global security threats that the organisation will face in the future, emphasising the need for a fluid, comprehensive, and extensively holistic strategy which focuses on expediting interoperability, and benefits from the application of digital transformation to the development of capabilities for enhanced agility.

Dr. Andreea Stoian Karadeli is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Public Affairs and security Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Associate Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and a Visiting Researcher at the University of South Wales. Her research interests include intercultural studies, conflict resolution, national security and terrorism, with a specific focus on the Middle East.