Capstones: The New NATO's Old Mission

September 2022

NATO has unveiled a new Strategic Concept—a kind of mission statement for the 30-member alliance (soon to be 32-member alliance). The 2022 Strategic Concept is the first overhaul of NATO’s mission statement in a dozen years. Tellingly, the document has much more in common with NATO’s posture during its first four decades than that of the 1990s and early 2000s.


NATO has relied on Strategic Concept documents to guide alliance operations and deployments—and signal alliance adversaries—since its founding in 1949. Strategic Concepts have evolved as times and threats change, but all of them aim to deter aggression. As Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first secretary-general, explained, “The paramount, the permanent, the all-absorbing business of NATO is to avoid war.”

NATO’s first Strategic Concept (1949) focused on developing “a maximum of strength through collective defense planning,” bringing together forces capable of “preventing war” and “insuring in the event of war the effective application of the military and industrial strength of the Treaty nations in a common defense.” Toward that end, it called on each ally to “undertake the task, or tasks, for which it is best suited” and steered the entire alliance toward fielding capabilities to “counter…enemy offensives against North Atlantic Treaty powers by all means available, including air, naval, land and psychological operations,” to “secure and control sea and air lines of communication,” and to “unite the strength of the North Atlantic Treaty nations in order to promote the preservation of peace and to provide for the security of the North Atlantic area.”

NATO’s second Strategic Concept (1952) set out “to convince the USSR that war does not pay…to oppose, by all measures short of war, any peacetime attempts by the USSR or her satellites to increase their threat against the Treaty nation…to achieve and maintain technical superiority…to provide mutual assistance in the provision, and through the standardization of equipment and coordination of production, and through the interchange of planning, intelligence and technical information.”

The third Strategic Concept (1957) called on each NATO member to “develop its military strength to the maximum extent…in harmony with the primary importance of protecting the NATO area, provide for its own defense and, where applicable, its defense commitments elsewhere.” The 1957 document declared that “In order to preserve peace and security in the NATO area, it is essential that, without disregarding the security of the NATO area, hostile Soviet influence in non-NATO regions is countered. Consequently, and insofar as practicable, it is desirable for certain NATO nations to retain sufficient military flexibility so that this policy may be implemented.”

NATO issued its fourth Strategic Concept in 1966, calling for deterrence “by confronting any possible, threatened or actual aggression, ranging from covert operations to all-out nuclear war.” The Soviet bloc, NATO declared, “must not be given any reason to think that they could gain their objectives by the threat or use of military force against any part of the North Atlantic Treaty area.” The 1966 document also trumpeted “the concept of forward defense” and warned of the prospect of “major aggression, possibly supported by tactical nuclear and chemical weapons,” as well as “limited aggression…against an individual NATO country.” And it put the alliance on notice of “covert actions, incursions…infiltrations…[and] ultimatums” by Moscow designed to divide or destabilize NATO.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and retreat of the Soviet Empire, the 1991 Strategic Concept hailed a “radically improved…security environment.” The document pointed to the regained sovereignty of the USSR’s former vassal states in Eastern Europe, the independence of the Baltics, the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and the stunning reunification of Germany. “General war in Europe has become highly unlikely,” the document cheered. “The threat of a simultaneous, full-scale attack on all of NATO’s European fronts has effectively been removed.” NATO’s commitment to deterrence and Article V remained, but there was a clear shift toward new roles for the alliance: serving as one of the foundations for European stability, providing “a transatlantic forum” and moving away from “the concept of forward defense towards a reduced forward presence.”

Continuing along that path, the 1999 Strategic Concept committed the alliance to security and stability in the Balkans, “peace support operations,” “cooperation and dialogue…with Russia,” “extending stability” into Eastern Europe,” pursuing “common interest, reciprocity and transparency” with Russia, and building “a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area based on the principles of democracy and co-operative security.”

Even in the 2010 Strategic Concept—two years after Russia’s invasion of NATO aspirant Georgia—NATO leaders clung to hopes of “a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia” and “practical cooperation with Russia.” The document declared that the “threat of a conventional attack against NATO territory is low.” There was no mention of the Arctic, the Indo-Pacific, China or the looming threat posed by the China-Russia partnership.


That brings us to the 2022 Strategic Concept. What’s most striking and revealing is how little it has in common with the 1991, 1999 and 2010 documents, how much it echoes Cold War-era Strategic Concepts, and how much the world has changed—or more accurately, changed back.

While NATO focused on peacekeeping in the Balkans, nation-building and counterterrorism in Afghanistan, civilian-protection in Libya, counterpiracy off the Horn of Africa, pandemic response and resiliency—all worthy missions—Putin was pouring resources into his military, plotting the reconstruction of the Russian empire, and testing the West in places like South Ossetia, northern Syria, Crimea, the Donbass and cyberspace.

Thus, the new Strategic Concept, at long last, declares that NATO faces a new era of “strategic competition” and “pervasive instability.” The 4300-word document labels Russia a “direct threat to allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic.” It concludes that Moscow’s “war of aggression against Ukraine has shattered peace and gravely altered our security environment.” It confirms what has been obvious since Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia—that “we cannot consider the Russian Federation to be our partner.” And the text grimly concedes that NATO “cannot discount the possibility of an attack against allies’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In an emphatic rejoinder to Putin’s outrageous claims and threats about past and future NATO expansion, the 2022 Strategic Concept reaffirms, “Our door remains open to all European democracies that share the values of our Alliance, which are willing and able to assume the responsibilities and obligations of membership, and whose membership contributes to our common security.”

Echoing the 1949 Strategic Concept, the new Strategic Concept commits the allies to “enhance the collective readiness, responsiveness, deployability, integration and interoperability of our forces.”

Like the 1952 Strategic Concept, the 2022 document vows to deter Moscow through “robust in-place, multi-domain, combat-ready forces, enhanced command and control arrangements, [and] prepositioned ammunition and equipment.” This section also borrows from the 1966 Strategic Concept’s discussion of “forward defense.”

To enhance its deterrent posture, NATO will “increase the alignment of national and NATO defense plans and strengthen and modernize the NATO force structure…[and] enhance the collective readiness, responsiveness, deployability, integration and interoperability of our forces.” NATO’s leaders bluntly warn that “No one should doubt our strength and resolve to defend every inch of allied territory.” In this, the alliance is repeating the 1966 Strategic Concept’s warning against Moscow gambling with “the threat or use of military force against any part of the North Atlantic Treaty area.”

The new Strategic Concept recognizes that the threats to NATO are not confined to Europe—and that the Kremlin is not the sole source of threats facing the alliance.

The Strategic Concept mentions cyberspace 13 times, concluding that “Cyberspace is contested at all times,” that “malign actors seek to degrade our critical infrastructure, interfere with our government services, extract intelligence, steal intellectual property and impede our military activities,” and that “technological primacy increasingly influences success on the battlefield.”

The Strategic Concept assesses that hostile regimes “are investing in technologies that could restrict our access and freedom to operate in space, degrade our space capabilities, target our civilian and military infrastructure, impair our defense and harm our security.” And it argues, rightly, that “Maintaining secure use of and unfettered access to space and cyberspace are key to effective deterrence and defense.”

In the Arctic, the Strategic Concept calls Russia’s “capability to disrupt Allied reinforcements and freedom of navigation across the North Atlantic” “a strategic challenge.”

For the first time ever in a NATO Strategic Concept, the PRC is identified as a challenge to the alliance. The PRC’s “ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values,” the Strategic Concept declares. Like the 1957 document’s linkage of security in the NATO area with threats from non-NATO regions, the 2022 Strategic Concept’s calls on allies to contribute to Indo-Pacific security and be alert to the PRC threat. The document calls out Beijing’s “malicious hybrid and cyber operations…confrontational rhetoric and disinformation” against NATO members. It condemns Beijing’s efforts “to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains” and openly declares that “the deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.”

To blunt the Xi-Putin axis, NATO members pledge to enhance shared awareness, resilience and preparedness; “stand up for our shared values and the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation”; and “strengthen dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners in the Indo-Pacific to tackle cross-regional challenges and shared security interests.” With the leaders of Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Australia attending NATO’s 2022 summit—another extraordinary first—there is clearly momentum and action behind these words.


Indeed, if the words of NATO’s new Strategic Concept haven’t gotten Putin and Xi’s attention, the actions of NATO’s militaries surely have.

Alliance leaders have announced that they are massively expanding the NATO Response Force—an on-alert multi-national, multi-branch, rapid-reaction force—from 40,000 troops to 300,000.Similarly, NATO is creating a new rapid-response unit for cyber-defense. And the Strategic Concept puts NATO’s adversaries on notice that “A single or cumulative set of malicious cyber activities; or hostile operations to, from, or within space; could reach the level of armed attack and could lead the North Atlantic Council to invoke Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty.”

NATO is fielding four new multinational battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. These battlegroups are in addition to existing battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, which were created after Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea.

As the White House details, the United States is standing up a permanent V Corps Headquarters Forward Command in Poland; basing a Brigade Combat Team in Romania; deploying armored, aviation, air defense and special operations forces in the Baltics; stationing additional warships in Spain; basing two squadrons of F-35s in Britain; and moving additional air-defense assets to Germany and Italy. With 102,000 troops now in the European theater, U.S. troop strength has increased 30 percent since late last year.

All of this represents a complete—and welcome—reversal of the shortsighted decisions between 2011 and 2013 to withdraw all of America’s heavy armor from Europe, to deactivate the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic-focused 2nd Fleet and to deactivate the U.S. Army’s Germany-based V Corps

The U.S. is not alone in beefing up NATO’s deterrent capabilities along the eastern flank. Britain, France and Denmark have sent troops to Estonia. Canada, Czech Republic, Albania, Iceland, Italy, Poland, Spain, Montenegro, Slovenia and Slovakia have sent troops to Latvia. Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium, Iceland, Netherlands and Luxembourg have sent troops to Lithuania. Britain, Romania and Croatia have sent troops to Poland. Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Luxembourg and Slovenia have sent troops to Slovakia. France, Italy, Belgium, Poland and Luxembourg have sent troops to Romania. Dutch and Spanish warplanes have deployed to Bulgaria.

French, Belgian and Dutch troops are standing up a new NATO base in Romania.

Germany is nearly doubling defense spending to 2 percent of GDP (something NATO has been begging Berlin to do since 2006); joining the Free World’s F-35 partnership; constructing an air-defense network spanning Central and Eastern Europe; and finally weaning itself from Russian energy. Poland—thrust to the frontlines of Cold War II by Putin’s invasion—announced that its defense budget will jump to 3 percent of GDP next year. Latvia is increasing defense spending by 13 percent this year. The Netherlands, Norway and Romania are all increasing defense spending significantly. By 2024, 28 NATO members will meet or exceed NATO’s benchmark of investing 2 percent of GDP in defense.

Finally, Finland and Sweden are adding their formidable military capabilities, technological prowess and optimal geographic placement to the alliance—significantly enhancing NATO’s strategic depth and deterrent posture in the Baltics and the Arctic.


NATO and America’s bilateral alliances in the Indo-Pacific are, for lack of a better term, insurance policies. For Britain, Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines, defense treaties with the U.S. serve as insurance against invasion. Without that insurance, there’s no security, as history has a way of reminding those on the outside looking in—from Cold War Hungary and Cold War Czechoslovakia to post-Cold War Ukraine and post-Cold War Georgia.

For the United States, these treaties insure against another Korean conflict, another European crisis, another surprise in the Pacific triggering another war that could mushroom into a third global conflagration far more destructive than the second.

Like all insurance policies, there are costs associated with these alliances. U.S. defense expenditures earmarked for Europe amount to $36 billion per year. That’s a lot of money. But Americans tend to forget what we get in exchange for that insurance premium: a Europe not at war with itself, a Europe reinforced against invasion and free from any hostile force, access to bases that enable the U.S. to project power, and the vast trade and economic benefits that flow from these realities.

Moreover, compare the costs of defending Europe with the costs of liberating it. A $36-billion investment in transatlantic security equals less than 0.2 percent of U.S. GDP. During World War I, by comparison, the U.S. spent an average of 16.1 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 116,516 lives. During World War II, the U.S. spent an average of 27 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 405,399 lives.

An Enduring Truth

In Ukraine, Americans and Europeans are being reminded what it’s like to try to survive outside the protective shield of an alliance of shared values and shared interests. As President John Kennedy observed during Cold War I, “We put ourselves, by our own will and by necessity, into defensive alliances with countries all around the globe.”

With Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Okinawa and Iwo Jima still fresh in their memory, his generation understood that alliances like NATO defend American interests and deter great-power war. New generations of Americans—and Europeans—are relearning this enduring truth.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Landing Zone.

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