Center for Strategic Decision Research


The New NATO

The Right Honorable George Robertson, MP
Secretary of State for Defense of the United Kingdom

Although I was the penultimate speaker of the XVth NATO Workshop, I will not be providing you with a summary, but with a look forward. I want to talk about the new NATO—how will it meet new challenges? How will it take advantage of new opportunities? How can it define its role as it begins its second half-century? These are vital questions that we must answer if NATO is to remain relevant into the new millennium and—just as important—if it is to be seen as relevant by the taxpayers who fund it.


These issues are now being debated within NATO as part of the examination and updating of the Alliance’s Strategic Concept, which will be put to our heads of state and governments at the Washington Summit. The Strategic Concept must set out the roles and purpose of the new NATO, and I would like now to discuss how I believe the Strategic Concept should address those roles and that purpose.

Retain Founding Principles

First, the new NATO must retain the key principles that have brought success and security in the past. These are:

  • Embodying and maintaining the transatlantic dimension of our security;
  • Maintaining an effective and flexible military instrument for dealing with future risks and challenges;
  • Acting as the Allies’ primary forum for consultation on all issues of security concern;
  • Preventing the renationalization of defense in Europe.

These principles have underpinned the Alliance for half a century. Through them, NATO has brought greater stability to Western Europe than our continent has ever known, so it is vital that we maintain them. NATO has been one of the great success stories of the 20th century, and we should celebrate this but not rest on our laurels—the world does not stand still.

Recognize and Address New Developments

Second, the Euro-Atlantic security environment in which the 1991 Strategic Concept was written was very different from today’s environment—the Concept was written for a world in the midst of dramatic transition. That transition is still taking place, opening doors to an era of ever more rapid change. But NATO has developed too, in both scale and scope.

It is a fact that NATO is now undertaking operations in Bosnia, and did so in mid-June around Kosovo. It is also a fact that NATO now has varied and strong relations with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. And it is a fact that European Allies are developing a European Defense Identity with the Alliance. There are many areas in which NATO has moved forward since 1991. And it is important for NATO’s continuing relevance that the Strategic Concept recognize these developments.

I would like now to talk about three particular developments: the types of military missions the Alliance might undertake; the development of military relations with non-Allies; and the development of a European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI).

1. The types of missions we might ask our armed forces to undertake. I am quite certain that we must maintain NATO’s bedrock mission of collective defense. We must also ensure that our national and Allied plans, and the military capabilities that would turn them into reality, are equal to this collective guarantee.

But, increasingly, in the current and foreseeable security environment, the risks that we face are not of a collective-defense nature. NATO must therefore place more emphasis on its ability to respond to the multi-dimensional contingencies that are now more prevalent. Increasingly, we must face situations where there is no direct attack on an Ally but shared Allied interests are affected nonetheless.

The Alliance response to such contingencies cannot be automatic or determined in advance. So our approach should be permissive and flexible. Decisions should be made case by case, taking full account of the circumstances at the time. We must judge whether, and by how much, collective interests are at stake, and whether a military response is appropriate.

Our focus in updating the Strategic Concept should be on identifiable risks to shared Allied interests. We will not find success in geographical or functional limits. All NATO action must of course be fully consistent with international law. And the Strategic Concept must also recognize that response decisions will always be difficult. It must facilitate the decision-making process, not encumber it.

But to undertake the full range of its missions collectively, NATO Allies must ensure that they have the right military capabilities. Alliance forces must be flexible, deployable, mobile, and sustainable. They must be capable of operating well away from their normal base location; they must be capable of operating over extended periods of time; and they must be capable of responding rapidly to a diverse range of military scenarios.

If we are to be a serious military alliance, it is important that all Allies have capable armed forces. NATO cannot rely on one or two countries alone. And we must not think that peace-support operations are less demanding on our forces than conventional territorial defense: such operations can, as Bosnia has taught us, be very challenging, particularly to our deployability and sustainability.

2. NATO’s developing relationship with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Since 1994, the Partnership for Peace has steadily created a community of nations willing and able to work together—and with NATO. It has been a great success, and is now a major feature in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.

The Partnership for Peace, and a mature Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, can play major roles in building confidence and trust between the armed forces of NATO and its partners, as well as between their peoples and their governments. The new Strategic Concept must reflect this point. The Partnership for Peace offers Partners an unprecedented spectrum of opportunities through which to develop links with NATO, and we must continue to build and deepen them.

Bilateral relations between Allies and Partners are also extremely important. The U.K.’s bilateral program with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe complements NATO’s own work. The know-how of British armed forces is highly sought after in these countries. I am keen to promote this “defense diplomacy” in every way I can.

The skills and ethos of the British armed forces make our servicemen and women especially able to develop bilateral contacts with their colleagues in Central and Eastern Europe, generating confidence between them and building advanced security. This is the human face of military-to-military relations, and I am keen to develop it wherever possible. Investments of this type are a valuable insurance policy against future instability—in Europe and further afield. Conflict prevention is equally as important as conflict resolution.

The Strategic Concept must also reflect the very welcome developments in NATO’s relations with Russia and Ukraine. NATO must work up a solid and constructive relationship with the new Russia. We are already partners in attempting to resolve the problems of the Balkans. We must build on this. The signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and the founding of the Permanent Joint Council, will also allow greater practical cooperation and confidence building.

Our work with our Ukrainian partners under the NATO-Ukraine Charter recognizes the distinctive place of Ukraine in European security. Last September, as guest of the Defense Minister of Ukraine and the Defense Minister of Poland, I sailed from Sebastopol to Yalta aboard the flagship of the Ukrainian navy on the way to a joint military exercise. By engaging in practical cooperation of this type, we are breaking ground for the foundation of wider Euro-Atlantic security.

As part of developing relations with non-NATO countries, we must look to the enlargement of the Alliance. We look forward to formally welcoming the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland as full members of the Alliance, and believe the new Strategic Concept should reaffirm that the Alliance will remain open, under the provisions of Article 10 of its treaty, to countries in a position to further the principles of the treaty and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area. But the Strategic Concept is not the place to debate the who or when of further enlargement.

3. The development of the European Security and Defense Identity. I firmly believe that the development of ESDI within NATO will come to be seen as one of the most important developments in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture in recent years. It is therefore important that the new Strategic Concept recognize that European Allies may wish to act together in circumstances where our North American Allies do not wish to become involved. The Concept must take account of developments to make ESDI a reality, including the possibility that NATO may agree that Alliance assets and capabilities can be used for operations under the political control and strategic direction of the WEU.

If European Allies are to build a credible ESDI, however, they must also recognize that their military capabilities must be developed to meet the challenges of these operations. The Strategic Concept must ensure that it is this vision of a powerful, practical, and empowering ESDI that prevails.


In summary, the new Strategic Concept will give us unique scope for setting out how NATO will meet new challenges and use new opportunities. NATO Allies must seize this chance to demonstrate the Alliance’s relevance to their publics.



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