Visualizing the NATO Strategic Concept: Five ways to look at the Alliance’s future

Timely Commentary & Analysis

June 16, 2022 • 5:08 pm ET

Visualizing the NATO Strategic Concept: Five ways to look at the Alliance’s future

Atlantic Council experts

This article is part of the Transatlantic Security Initiative’s Stronger with Allies series, which charts the course forward for the Alliance in conjunction with the 2022 NATO Summit.

At the upcoming NATO Summit in Madrid, the Alliance’s attention will be on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked and illegal war is transforming how the Euro-Atlantic—not to mention global—community views its security environment. The war is having a profound effect on NATO’s strategy, which is due for a refresh at the summit with Alliance members set to agree on their new Strategic Concept—a critical document that will guide NATO’s political and military development for the foreseeable future

Yet even before the invasion, NATO faced a dramatically changing security landscape. The systemic challenge from China, the existential threat of climate change, the emergence of disruptive technologies, the use of cyberattacks as a core instrument of power, supply-chain problems, democratic backsliding among allies and partners, questions about adequate defense investment, and more all combine to present a complex and unsettling future for the Alliance.

NATO’s forthcoming Strategic Concept will need to grapple with all of these issues while finding commonality among the diverse perspectives and priorities of its thirty members (with two more likely on the way).

So we asked our experts: With so much happening in the global arena, what critical but underappreciated topics will be featured in the Strategic Concept—and how should NATO think about addressing them?

Dual-use technologies

Natasha Lander Finch is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center’s Transatlantic Security Initiative and former advisor on countering weapons of mass destruction to the US Department of Defense.

The Future of NATO’s Partnerships

NATO’s network of partners boasts some of the world’s most innovative economies as well as climate-change leaders. In the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization Global Innovation Index, eight of the top twenty most innovative global economies are NATO partners. And according to the MIT Green Future Index, which evaluates countries’ ability to transition to a low-carbon future, six of the top twenty states are also NATO partners.

As NATO seeks to reconceptualize its role in meeting the unfamiliar and multifaceted challenges posed by emerging technologies and climate change—and looks to reconceive of its partnership model with its closest partners (Finland and Sweden) on the road to membership—the Alliance should look to its network of forty partner states and three international organizations as a unique opportunity for progress.

Interest-driven partnerships

The NATO 2030 Agenda recommended reforming partnerships from “demand-driven” to an “interest-driven” framework by consolidating and steering cooperation toward NATO’s objectives. NATO might also embrace a revamped model of partnerships that seeks to dramatically expand the expertise and support of industry and civil society. A strategy-driven approach to partnerships that draws on these models would enhance NATO’s ability to tackle new challenges.

As evidenced by the data, NATO partners are leaders on climate policy, sustainability, clean technology; manage sophisticated markets and innovation economies; invest heavily in research and development; and possess world-class human capital. NATO partners have much to offer in conversations about science and technology standards, the ethics of disruptive technologies in conflict, building climate resilience, and responding to natural disasters and crises, among many others. 

However, NATO must be willing to engage in genuine two-way political dialogue and expand opportunities for partners, state and non-state alike. If NATO is willing to think a little outside the box, and reinvigorate cooperative security in the upcoming Strategic Concept, NATO partnerships offer opportunities for progress on these new challenges.  

Lisa Aronsson is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center’s Transatlantic Security Initiative and a research fellow at National Defense University.

Brett Swaney is an associate research fellow at National Defense University focused on NATO, Europe, and the Baltic Sea region.

Threat perceptions across the alliance

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped to sharpen the focus on the threat posed by the Kremlin, but it is not the only security challenge confronting NATO. To discern the diversity of allied threat perceptions and how the next Strategic Concept should address them, we studied the security strategies (produced before Russia’s war in Ukraine) from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the United States, and the United Kingdom to see what the word count in each strategy might say about each country’s perceived greatest threats (e.g. words like China and cyber) as well its priorities (e.g. words like Europe/European and NATO).

Geographical concerns abound with Poland rather focused on Russia, Germany very Europe-centric, Italy biased towards the Mediterranean, and France particularly invested in Africa. France and the United Kingdom made the only mentions of the Arctic among the group. China was of some concern to all these allies, with the United States and France most invested in Indo-Pacific security–which reinforces why France was so bruised following the AUKUS agreement, as the region is a definite priority for Paris. Germany made the most mentions of NATO, alliances, and Europe, and its strategy very much reflects the long-held standard of a Federal Republic nestled at the heart of Europe and multilateral institutions. The challenge with the NATO Strategic Concept will be for drafters to reconcile US interest in the Asia-Pacific region against the more local interests of other allies. What role, if any, does NATO have regarding great-power competition in Asia? How exactly does the Alliance square the circle of requirements from the Artic to the Mediterranean?

The regional divergence was somewhat offset by similar perceptions of the primary challenges with cyber issues featuring across the board. Terrorism and societal resilience to terrorist attacks remains a prominent issue. The rise of authoritarianism and concerns about the strength of democratic societies are shared by many, but such concerns are not mentioned by Poland— not a surprise considering its own democratic backsliding. Nearly all the documents, especially the more recent ones, assert the challenge to the “liberal international order” and call for reinforcement and support for global norms and international law. Nuclear weapons proliferation is a worry for some but not all, and migration featured in the documents of countries that expressed more concern with instability in NATO’s near abroad.

Michael John Williams is a nonresident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center’s Transatlantic Security Initiative and director of the international relations program at the Maxwell School for Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Natalie Petit is a graduate student in international relations at the Maxwell School for Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. 

NATO’s Military Capacity Post-Ukraine

Moscow’s war against Ukraine has altered the European security environment. As allies reorient NATO’s focus back toward collective defense in the Strategic Concept, it is time for the Alliance to get serious about defense spending and move the discussion beyond rhetoric and toward measurable contributions to defense and deterrence. As this graphic indicates, though a number of allies already spend above 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, if all allies were to meet or exceed the pledge (agreed to in 2014), they would have nearly one hundred billion dollars more to invest where it’s needed most: readiness, capabilities, and capacity. Not to mention what Finland and Sweden can bring to the Alliance.


Unit and individual readiness should be dramatically increased. Expanded NATO training and exercise programs should integrate advanced command and control, logistics support, and military mobility initiatives.


Technology applications should be accelerated, particularly cyber defense, artificial intelligence, autonomy, precision engagement, power, energy, and logistics.


NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in Poland and the Baltics should be expanded beyond battalion strength, leveraging $1-2 billion of US European Deterrence Initiative funding. Naval operations in the High North, Mediterranean, and Black Sea should be expanded, providing NATO with opportunities to increase maritime presence and awareness. 

Numerous current and future allies have renewed the 2 percent pledge and already committed substantial new resources to defense. Yet allies have far more capacity to act, and the Strategic Concept must both reassert this pledge and clearly prioritize for a public audience where these new resources should be spent. With a substantial and focused increase in defense investment, NATO could enhance European defense and deterrence by responding to the increased Russian threat with essential readiness, capability, and capacity upgrades. NATO allies must summon the will to respond to the new security environment Putin has created. Spending at the 2 percent level should be considered a floor, and not a ceiling, as we move toward the new NATO Strategic Concept. At this moment, NATO must lay out a clear level of ambition to realign national defense programs to the actual needs of transatlantic security.

Wayne Schroeder is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center’s Transatlantic Security Initiative and a former US deputy undersecretary of defense for resource planning and management.

Attributing Russian cyber activity

It is a common saying among cyber practitioners that there are two types of victims: “those who know that they have been hacked and those who have, but don’t know it yet.” Attribution of an attack through cyberspace requires technical information and the willingness to name names. Attribution can be tricky, though it happens with increasing frequency in hints and outright statements from governments as well as a sea of claims from private sector firms. To establish attribution, analysts might try to determine if the cyberattack looks like—or originated from similar places in cyberspace—as attacks on other targets, if the software program used in the attack shares similarities with others, or even the language and time zone of the program (as simple as that may sound).

While government attribution against other states is more common now than even five years ago, it is still seen as a significant action in part because of the political will necessary to publicly decry offending states. This map identifies the NATO governments that have attributed an incident of cyber espionage and reconnaissance to Russia. As can be seen, the majority of NATO governments have publicly attributed cyber operations targeting sensitive official files and government personnel to Russia in recent years. In particular, the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Poland have all reported breaches, and in some cases a multitude of them. Russia’s continued efforts to spy on the computer networks and classified systems of NATO governments, even when revealed in public, would suggest that the Kremlin is impervious to “naming and shaming” for these activities in cyberspace.

While cyberspace has taken its place firmly with air, land, sea, and space as one of the domains of modern warfare, the ease of connecting digitally across borders, significant role of the private sector, and a host of other factors can make cyberspace a challenging domain to manage. This is especially so when attacks are so common and, seemingly, useful to attackers. Until the United States and its NATO allies either increase the risks or lower the rewards for such attacks, Russia has no incentive to change course.

Paul Gebhard is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center’s Transatlantic Security Initiative and a vice president at the Cohen Group in Washington, DC.

The Transatlantic Security Initiative, in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, shapes and influences the debate on the greatest security challenges facing the North Atlantic Alliance and its key partners.

Vortex vector created by liuzishan –

Related Experts:
Natasha Lander Finch,
Lisa Aronsson,
Michael John Williams,
Wayne Schroeder, and
Paul R.S. Gebhard

Image: Abstract background consisting of Colorful arcs, vector illustration.

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