The NATO 2022 strategic concept: continuity, change and consistency

(To Rosario Colavero)

On the occasion of the NATO summit in Madrid on 29 and 30 June next, the heads of state and government of the 30 allied countries will approve the new NATO Strategic Concept, unless postponements are unlikely due to the war in Ukraine. This important document will guide, in the years to come, the Alliance's policy and its military strategy to face current and future challenges and threats, guaranteeing security in the Euro-Atlantic area, as has happened from 1949 to today.

The eighth strategic concept was developed more than ten years later and in a decidedly different geopolitical and security context than the previous one, issued in Lisbon in 2010, before the Russian annexation of Crimea, the crisis in Syria and the advent of ISIS.

The dramatic evolution of the Ukrainian crisis, with the war present again in the old continent, only confirms the need to strengthen the collective defense strongly supported by many parties, after more than twenty years of focus on the peacekeeping.

Next to this, what will be the new guidelines of the 2022 Strategic Concept? Will there be an upheaval or will the usual prudence converge on a balanced version? And the new challenges, such as cyber and space?

Let's proceed with order.

At the end of the first decade of 2000, NATO, fully committed to crisis response operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan, was concerned with maintaining its purpose as a Political - Military Alliance. The Strategic Concept 2010 thus defined a new strategic paradigm, based on three guidelines, called core tasks, respectively, collective defense, crisis management e cooperative security.

The new strategy managed to reconcile the different visions within an alliance that already had 28 countries. France had recently reinstated its military structure, after exiting it in 1966 and the US had started its strategic pivot to Asia, demanding greater weight (and investment) from its European allies. An important part of countries to the east, worried about Russia's return to power games, were beginning to demand greater weight for collective defense.

The Strategic Concept of 2010, based on the contribution of a group of experts led by Madeleine Allbright1, turned out to be balanced and fully responding to the purpose, remaining in force for more than eleven years, despite the changes in the situation. This, it must be said, also happened thanks to the numerous adaptations in the descending policies, which indicate the sector strategy in detail: military implementation, defense planning, etc.

Surely the task of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is not the easiest: to outline the political-military center of gravity of the alliance, guaranteeing relevance, unity and adaptability over the next ten years. The challenges and risks will be multiple, along with the opportunities, as we will see below. Once again, balance will be an essential feature, particularly in the delicate negotiation phase of the document, in which the sometimes conflicting variants required by individual allies will have to be discussed with difficulty in order to reach final consensus.

In European capitals, also interested in issuing the EU Strategic Compass2, already on 24-25 March 2022, work is underway to help outline the contents of these important documents, on which the future security of the European continent will be based. There are many questions about the contents, both on the part of insiders and on the part of those who watch with attention and anxiety at the evolutions of the geopolitical framework, hoping for confirmation from the NATO side and a maturation of the defense dimension of the EU, which has been awaited for years.

A coherent way to respond can start from the analysis of challenges, risks and opportunities, to outline, therefore, a conceptual paradigm that appears pertinent to us: continuity, change and consistency, the three "Cs" on which the NATO Strategic Concept should be based 2022.

The challenges

In the writing of the New Strategic Concept the allies will have to consider multiple challenges that concern both the contents of the document and the essence and soul of the Alliance itself.

In terms of content, the 2022 Strategic Concept will be based on a large part of the 2010 version which is still substantially valid. Let's talk about the three core task already mentioned, of much of the construct on deterrence and defense and transformation. The analysis of the security context and the part relating to partnerships will certainly be revised.

There will also be news concerning the new domains, with particular reference to space (the subject of a future article), emerging technologies, on the exploitation of which the supremacy of the so-called Western bloc has always been based, environmental issues and pandemics , very current.

Alongside this, it will be necessary to consider the increasingly important role of actors such as terrorist organizations which, with ISIS and ISIL, have shown that they can, if necessary, also take on a territorial connotation. Furthermore, private companies are increasingly protagonists of technological innovation and the use of new technologies in fields such as space and telecommunications, once the prerogative of the military and other institutional actors.

On the existential level, the challenges will concern at least three vital aspects. First, maintaining cohesion, faced with the risk of dividing NATO into several "groups", depending on the perceptions of risks and threats or the responses to be implemented to the various crises. Then, the link to be preserved between the two sides of the Atlantic, despite the divergent pressures on the one hand towards Asia and the Pacific and on the other towards the EAST and to a lesser extent towards the SOUTH. Finally, thebalance between the different tasks, collective defense and crisis management in particular, also seeking to revitalize the value of partnerships and international cooperation.

In our opinion, rather than worrying about the contents, the debate will have to focus on the two major challenges. The first concerns the maintaining unity and cohesion: Each member of the Alliance must be able to feel that others will come to his aid if his security - in a broad sense - is put at risk. The allies to the east3 they must be able to count on the commitment and solidarity of the other allies to exercise deterrence and, if necessary, to repel any aggression, as confirmed in the last period.

It is not enough, however. Other countries must also be able to count on a similar solidarity to face more complex and no less insidious challenges (at least in the medium to long term) coming from the southern and south-eastern peripheries of NATO.

While NATO is more prepared for the first threats, because historically it has had to face similar threats of a mainly (but not exclusively) military type, for the others it is less so, since the military response is not decisive and also the perception of danger is more evanescent and discordant.

Nonetheless, it must be recognized that, although in the official dialectic many countries minimize the threat from the south4, in practice they take strong initiatives against, such as the construction of walls and the reactivation of borders to stem migratory flows, testifying to the fact that, at least within individual countries, this type of threat is perceived as existential.

It is therefore a question of showing willingness (and knowing) to face all risks with the necessary attention, without wanting to question the priorities and timing with which the response mechanisms are put in place.

The second is the ability to adapt to changes, carrying out the necessary reforms and demonstrating that it is able to reconsider choices made in the past, once they have proved ineffective. This is what is happening with the growing attention to type operations war, which culminated with the issue of the Warfighting Capstone Concept and with the revision of the structures of Command and Control necessary to strengthen the Alliance and make it capable of facing the most dangerous situations.

One cannot exactly speak of a yet return to basics, since it is necessary to reconstitute complex and costly mechanisms of mass mobilization, as is not the case nowadays in the times of the Cold War.

A further example could be the creation of new NATO structures Command Structure and in Force Structure to strengthen the allied posture to face the most dangerous threats.

The risks

Of course, any business is not immune to risk. Even NATO - which is the longest-running alliance in history, victorious from the Cold War - must maintain its relevance and its real and perceived usefulness, managing to reduce internal risks and overcome external ones.

The former represent existential threats to NATO, which would be perceived as irrelevant or, worse still, ineffective if not kept in check. An example is the complexity of decision-making mechanisms, a direct consequence of the constant increase in the number of countries, which would reduce the effectiveness and timeliness of responses to threats. This risk could, in the limit, lead to decision paralysis, if the differences are not overcome, with serious consequences on the Alliance's strength.

A further risk could be represented by distorting the character of NATO, established as a political and military alliance to defend the integrity of the Euro-Atlantic space (therefore with a regional connotation), seeking a more global role. This could lead to a loss of effectiveness, if not accompanied by a profound rethinking of the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty and the end, ways e means that a global action would imply.

In fact, the objectives of 2% of the Defense Budget / GDP ratio and 20% as a share of expenditure dedicated to investments in new equipment would not be enough to meet global tasks and ambitions, if we take into account the surge in military spending by Russia, China, India and many other countries.

This does not mean ignoring the assertive role assumed by Russia and China, but rather addressing in a coordinated manner (and as much as possible unitary, without proceeding in random order) the risks that have an impact on the security of the Euro-Atlantic area, seeking synergies and cooperations with other territorial organizations. History is full of examples of strong empires that have fallen apart because they are too large (Alexander the Great, Roman Empire, Mongol Empire).

External risks could derive from the difficulty of adapting to changing situations, first of all, from a technological point of view, losing the advantage held up to now over potential adversaries. Then on the social level, it could derive from not understanding the changes taking place in civil society, leading, for example, to the loss of consent. Wrong choices in the economic field would undermine the very well-being of countries. Finally, the information sector cannot be ignored, where the greatest risk is the reluctance to share information, essential for effectively addressing new threats and challenges.

It will be important, therefore, that many resources - intellectual and material - are invested, in addition to the desire to combine one's own destiny as a nation with that of other countries to ensure that the responses are effective and have such a weight as to counterbalance the pressures of critical players like China and India.

It is therefore evident how internal and external risks are linked together and how the response mechanisms must in turn be unitary and articulated in order to be effective. Measures applied uncertainly or on a local scale can hardly have an effective and broad scope, such as to stem the problems. Similarly, broad and global measures require cooperation and consensus-building mechanisms and a broader commitment that only the involvement of all international actors can generate.


The revision of the Strategic Concept also presents numerous opportunities.

The first is represented by the possibility of updating the definition of collective defense, especially in some areas such as cyber defense, where attacks can have no less dire consequences than in classical domains.

Another sector is space, where certain actions can seriously compromise the conduct of operations and the economic prosperity of one or more nations. We are talking, for example, of the destruction of satellites in strategic orbits by missiles launched from the ground, lasers, or through other interventions, kinetic or otherwise, conducted from another satellite. Of course, the task will not be easy, considering the difficulties in attributing responsibility for cyber attacks or hostile actions in space. However, reflection on these issues must be started as soon as possible and the new strategic concept could define some initial elements and guidelines, to be deepened with dedicated documents.

Furthermore, the new strategic concept could serve to relaunch the issue of partnerships, which remained "frozen" due to the changed relations with some countries considered a decade ago as potential partners (Russia and Belarus in the first place), which have radically changed their attitude towards the Alliance.

Cooperative security relies on partners, so reducing activities with them automatically means giving up on one of the core tasks. Therefore the countries located on the borders of the Alliance assume a significant importance for the purposes of security. The question arises as to whether it is appropriate to keep them as a partner or to admit them as Member States: but until when can NATO continue to assimilate other countries?

We need to think carefully about NATO enlargement and the perceptions it generates in other countries, considering the real increase in security / stability in the region. arguably, NATO should pursue an effective partnership at its borders, seeking to build strong diplomatic relations that foster mutual trust. A new strategy towards partners, based on an open dialogue and on the search for common points, would therefore be a desirable new element of the Strategic Concept.

Finally, it would be truly unforgivable if an effective collaboration with the European Union, based on common interests and perspectives, could not be established. Continuing to highlight the differences would serve to make the game of those who seek division between Europeans, and this division, as well as between NATO and the EU, would also have negative consequences within NATO itself. Up to now, the differences of views between the two organizations and the lack of operational commitment within the EU have prevailed. However, the EU has exceptional tools to address crises more comprehensively and to forge partnerships that can act on multiple levels.

A renewed commitment to defense and security issues that passes through the definition of the Strategic Compass could testify to a clear sign of change towards the will of the countries of the Old Continent to be architects of their own destiny.

Continuity, change and consistency

The picture outlined above is very complex and not without pitfalls. You cannot leave everything unchanged - business as usual - if only to try to change what did not work as expected (eg Afghanistan), while acknowledging the validity of many elements of the Lisbon Strategic Concept.

Continuity, in our opinion, is especially valid in the basic principles: collective defense which remains the cement of the Alliance, transatlantic link, reference to the reference values. Collective defense will be a central element of the 2022 Strategic Concept and the descending military strategy.

There is an urgent appeal from various sides for change (not only with regard to Russia and China) to respond to those who, like former US President Trump or French President Macron, had raised doubts about NATO's relevance in the face of new threats.

However, as we have seen, change can expose itself to serious risks, such as that of setting goals that are too global or difficult to define and achieve. What does it actually mean to defend democratic values ​​when there is no homogeneous vision on this issue within NATO? There is a risk of making a hole in the water and jeopardizing the cohesion which is NATO's highest value.

Somewhere there was also talk of a fourth core task linked to stability, with a series of tasks and missions linked to the protection of democratic values. It is an interesting proposal on the one hand and very difficult to implement and insidious on the other, thus requiring particular attention in the formulation and definition of the resulting tasks.

As we have seen, an effective way of enhancing stability would go through the revision of the partnership mechanism, to be adapted individually to the situation of each country, encouraging and rewarding virtuous behavior, expanding access to broader and more ambitious programs as the mutual trust and collaboration, with benefits on both sides. The effect of the partnerships would be to increase stability at the borders of the Alliance - concretely implementing the mechanisms for projection of stability already defined years ago - without necessarily having to go through successive enlargements.

The aspect on which attention will need to be focused will be consistency, understood as the ability to adapt, to face and overcome challenges in a compact way (resilience) and to achieve one's goals (concreteness) as has happened up to now.

A weak or unsuitable alliance would soon fall apart, despite political efforts and ideals. The Strategic Concept that will see the light next June will have to lay the foundations for a politically and militarily strong alliance, able to make balanced choices, maintaining an intense and continuous dialogue between its members and with other international organizations (EU in primis ).

It will then be ultimately up to each country to assume its share of responsibilities and burdens (so-called burden sharing), investing financial, human, diplomatic and political resources in the implementation of the strategy it helped to develop. Yes, because the security and stability of Europe and of individual countries must be based on deterrence and defense capabilities that are not only hypothetical but concrete and ready to be deployed quickly, if necessary.

1 In this too, the 2022 version marks a change. In fact, the Secretary General guides the writing of the concept, through a process of internal and external consultation, which has seen the carrying out of consultations with the capitals, listening to experts (NATO 2030 report) and representatives of the world of youth and the sector. private.

2 Of the 30 NATO members, 21 are also members of the EU.

3 In addition to the Baltic countries, Romania has also requested the deployment of NATO troops on its territory, following the war in Ukraine.

4 Initially it was Italy that asked, almost in isolation, for greater attention to the threats and challenges coming from the south. Moreover, Italy hosts the so-called Hub for the South in Naples which deals with addressing these security challenges. However, there is still no real “Plan for in the South” which tackles issues such as illegal immigration, terrorism, human trafficking, maritime safety, etc. in a unified manner.

To learn more

NATO homepage

NATO Strategic Concept 2010

NATO 2030

Defense Information

Towards a new Strategic Concept NATO - Parliament

The future of NATO's Strategic Concept

Defensenews - NATO needs-a new core task

EU Strategic Compass

Atlantic council - The EU Strategic-compass is a defini ng moment for European defense

The strategic compass can bring true EU common defense closer

NATO Partnerships

Reforming NATO Partnership

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