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LMC 2022

Charting NATO’s Future: The New Strategic Concept

The new Strategic Concept, to be agreed at Madrid, will set NATO’s course for the coming years. Allies will need to come to a common view of the threats they face and how these should be addressed.

Kyllike Sillaste-Elling

Director General of the Security Policy Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia

Russian soldiers run past an S-400 air defence battery, in Crimea, in 2010, the year NATO last published a strategic concept. TASS/Scanpix

NATO is putting together a new Strategic Concept. The process, which began last September, will be completed in June, in time for the Madrid Summit, where the new concept will be adopted. Alongside the North Atlantic Treaty, the Strategic Concept is one of the Alliance’s most important policy documents. It is a strategic document that quite literally focuses on the big picture: NATO’s key objectives. NATO’s first Strategic Concept was completed in 1950, shortly after the Alliance was created, and its first publicly announced concept was rolled out after the Cold War, in 1991.

What must NATO do?

The previous Strategic Concept was adopted in 2010. The fundamental principles that NATO stands by have not changed since then. Ensuring the freedom and security of all members remains its main purpose. NATO is the key security organisation in the Euro-Atlantic area and will remain so. However, the 2010 Concept, which sees Russia as a strategic partner and only deals in passing with new threats such as cyber attacks, is clearly outdated. Even those long sceptical about the need for a new strategic concept have now realised that the current document, which was adopted more than a decade ago, is no longer relevant. What is needed is a concept that takes account of the new political and military efforts launched by NATO in recent years and helps to integrate them into a single strategic whole.

The central question that the concept must answer is: what are NATO’s core functions? In other words, what must NATO do to continue to ensure security in the Euro-Atlantic area? It is clear that the security environment – in our region and beyond – has changed enormously recently and is bound to become even more fragile in the coming years. The threats are getting more serious and new topics are constantly arising. It is crusial to single out the most important tasks because in the end, NATO cannot and should not deal with everything.

The central question that the concept must answer is: what are NATO’s core functions?

According to the 2010 Strategic Concept, NATO has three core tasks: collective defence, crisis management, and cooperative security or partnerships. There is widespread agreement among the Allies that all three continue to be relevant and should underpin the new concept. However, it is also clear that both the security situation and NATO’s priorities have changed since 2010. As a result, the importance of each task and the balance between them have inevitably changed too. In 2010, NATO placed much emphasis on crisis management operations, such as its mission in Afghanistan. Today, with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, NATO must have a clear focus on collective defence and its defence and deterrence stance. However, it is not yet clear how this will be addressed in the Strategic Concept.

What is clear is that it will not be easy to reach agreement on balancing the three core tasks and on other fundamental issues, such as how to deal with partnerships or China. Every Allied nation, including Estonia, has its interests to protect. Each Ally has its own threat perception. While it is important for us to highlight the Russian threat and collective defence, other Allies may prioritise partnerships and events in the Western Balkans. NATO’s priorities – both old and new – must be set out, but it would obviously be unreasonable to list them all. The Allies must make choices and reach compromises to avoid ending up with an overcrowded wish list. It takes time to reach a consensus on such an important document. Fortunately, several weeks have been planned for discussions among the Allies.


Regarding the details of the document, the Allies agree that the first part – on the security environment – definitely needs to be updated. The threats we face today are very different from those of ten years ago. According to the 2010 Strategic Concept, the threat of a conventional attack against the Alliance at the time was low. Today, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this assessment clearly no longer holds. The security environment, both globally and in the Euro-Atlantic area, has become more complex and unstable over the last decade. Competition between states has markedly intensified. New adversaries as well as new threats have emerged that NATO must take into account.

The threat to security in the Euro-Atlantic area posed by Russia is manifest and must be unequivocally highlighted in the new Strategic Concept.

The threat to security in the Euro-Atlantic area posed by Russia is manifest and must be unequivocally highlighted in the new Strategic Concept and formulated as clearly as possible. In addition, the threat of terrorism and new challenges, such as climate change, new and groundbreaking technologies, space, and China, must also be reflected. While the 2010 Strategic Concept points to an increase in the likelihood of cyber attacks, the new concept needs to pay much more attention to cyber issues, especially given the great emphasis NATO has placed on developing its cyber capabilities in recent years. Most importantly, the description of the security environment must be realistic, not based on hopes, but on indisputable facts.

For Estonia, the preparation of a new Strategic Concept is an excellent opportunity to contribute to guiding NATO’s activities in the coming years. This is only the second Strategic Concept that we have been involved in preparing as a NATO member. As NATO’s Strategic Concepts are updated approximately once a decade, rather than every year or at every summit, we need to take this process very seriously. 

Our desire is to produce a forward-looking document that will not lose relevance in a few years’ time. On the other hand, we have no certainty about what the world will be like in five or ten years. We can only rely on the current security environment and trends. We need to be as realistic as possible about the future and flexible in our plans because the security environment in the Euro-Atlantic area may change unexpectedly. Ultimately, only time will tell whether the new Strategic Concept will meet the challenges lying ahead.

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