NATO's Next Decade

NATO report makes recommendations to reduce internal conflicts and strengthen the alliance against Russia and China.

BERLIN/BRUSSELS (Own report) - NATO must strengthen its cohesion and take new steps to position itself against Russia and China, according to the report "NATO 2030" officially presented by the military alliance at its meeting of foreign ministers that ended yesterday. Vetoing inconvenient decisions by the Alliance will be made more difficult. Cooperation with countries at Russia's borders and in China's vicinity should be intensified. The report was commissioned last December to settle openly escalating dissension within the Alliance, which French President Emmanuel Macron previously denounced in blunt terms ("brain death of NATO"). The report was drawn up under the aegis of former German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière and US diplomat Wess Mitchell. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has highly praised the report, intended to provide the basis for a "Strategic Concept," whereas experts dismissed it as a "security policy hawker's assortment."

"Brain Death of NATO"

French President Emmanuel Macron's declaration in early November 2019 that "we are currently experiencing the brain death of NATO,"[1] gave the official impetus for elaborating the report, discussed by foreign ministers at their meeting over the past two days. Shortly before Macron had made this declaration, Turkey had invaded Syria and the United States had announced its withdrawal of troops from that country. Not having been given advance notice of these moves, France had to rush to call back its special forces operating in Syria. Neither the US nor Turkey's action could be considered a blunder: Under President Donald Trump, Washington had increasingly tended toward unilateralism. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey uses its growing economic and political clout to pursue its expansion without any particular consideration being given to the Alliance. Under its future President Joe Biden, the USA will most likely return to more cooperation within the Alliance. If this can last beyond the 2024 elections, however, cannot be automatically assumed, considering the deep division within US society.

"United for a New Era"

Against this backdrop, NATO's London summit (December 2019) launched a "Reflection Process" on the initiative of German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, to consolidate the Alliance. To this end, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg set up a "Reflection Group" in April. Chaired by Germany's former Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière and US diplomat Wess Mitchell, most recently head of the Europe Desk in the State Department, the group elaborated the now presented report "NATO 2030: United for a New Era." The ten-member "Reflection Group" included all relevant currents in NATO, particularly Turkish diplomat Tacan İldem and former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine. The group focused on strengthening the political cohesion and unity within the military alliance, which tends to drift apart, to be better able to confront Russia and China. The current report not only presents core assessments of alleged "global threats" in the coming years, but also makes 138 concrete recommendations for NATO's practical work.

Threat Scenarios

The "reflection group" diagnoses "threats" around the globe. Whereas NATO's 2010 "Strategic Concept" had noted: "Today, the Euro-Atlantic area lives in peace," it now speaks of a "return of systemic rivalry" and a "rise of global threats."[2] The report affirms that while Russia is "by economic and social measures a declining power," it has proven itself "capable of territorial aggression and is likely to remain a chief threat facing NATO over the coming decade." China, on the other hand, poses "a very different kind of challenge to NATO." It is not, "at present, a direct military threat to the Euro-Atlantic area," but has "a global strategic agenda," and by 2030, will likely "challenge NATO's ability" to "build collective resilience." China's strongly attacked participation in setting up European 5G networks is also what is implied by this formulation. "Terrorism" remains "one of the most immediate asymmetric and significant threats facing the Alliance," the report continues, with "other threats and challenges" persisting in the South, in the huge region extending from North Africa via the Middle East "to Afghanistan."

Against Russia, Against China

The report's concrete recommendations for NATO's practical activities have a double dimension. On the one hand, they are aimed at attenuating the emerging divergences within the alliance, and on the other, aimed at a strategic reinforcement of the alliance, particularly in confrontation with Russia and China. It is recommended that "in the North" the "partnerships" with Sweden and Finland should be continued and intensified. In fact, since quite some time, both countries have been treated as informal members and have attended numerous NATO meetings, for example the NATO foreign ministers' meeting yesterday. In "the East," the "partnerships with Ukraine and Georgia must be strengthened," the report recommends. For years, both countries have served as frontline allies directly at the Russian borders. Concerning Asia, the report makes a plea for "deepening consultation and cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners" - Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea. These four countries are already "global partners" of the military alliance; the existing NATO+4 Format cooperation can be expanded, it is noted. A supplementary option mentioned in the report is cooperation with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, a loose-knit alliance of the USA, Australia, Japan and India aimed at confrontation with China - also militarily.[3]

Potential for Conflict

Among the recommendations regarding the alliance's internal cohesion, the report suggests that "the transatlantic consultation" be "strengthened in a systematic, credible, and powerful manner." Therefore, the consultations of the foreign ministers should be intensified and more ministerial meetings should be held. Consideration of bolstering the Secretary General’s chief executive role is another recommendation. In addition, blockages should be made more difficult. Recently Hungary systematically torpedoed alliance cooperation with Ukraine and Turkey cooperation with Austria because of differences they had at national levels. If a state - as in the cases of Hungary and Turkey - wants to use its veto, it should be done at the ministerial level, rather than in committees," insists de Maizière. "That would up the political ante."[4] However, it also ups the political ante, when future conflicts are no longer resolved in committees but by the ministers and therefore more publicly debated. De Maizière also announced that, in the future, "a group of states within NATO" could cooperate more closely together. This opens new options, creating, however, new potentials for conflicts and factionalism.

"The Security Policy Hawkers' Usual Assortment"

The assessment of the report has resulted in an astonishingly wide array of judgments. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas explicitly lavishes praise: the paper's "recommendations" have "substance" and are "very balanced." "We thank the group for its outstanding job."[5] Patrick Keller, Vice President of the Federal Academy for Security Policy (BAKS), sees the paper quite differently. "The best aspect of this discussion paper is that it contains no surprises," says Keller. It not only lacks "any true innovation," it also lets "the tradition-minded focus on national and alliance defense" the "other key crisis management and partnership duties looking extremely pale."[6] One seeks "truly new ideas in vain," for example on "partnership" with the Asian countries bordering China. "About half of the paper" is merely "the security policy hawkers' usual assortment."


[1] Emmanuel Macron warns Europe: NATO is becoming brain-dead. 07.11.2019.

[2] Zitate hier und im Folgenden: NATO 2030: United for a New Era. 25 November 2020.

[3] See also Deutschland im Indo-Pazifik (IV).

[4] "Russland fordert uns heraus". Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 02.12.2020.

[5] Gemeinsame Erklärung der Außenminister Frankreichs und Deutschlands zum NATO-Reflexionsprozess. Berlin, 01.12.2020.

[6] Patrick Keller: Denkanstöße für die NATO 2030: Zum aktuellen Reflexionspapier.