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NATO Strategy in the 1990s: Reaping the Peace Dividend or the Whirlwind?

Authored by Dr. William T. Johnsen. | May 1995

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In November 1991, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization released "The Alliance's New Strategic Concept" (hereafter Strategic Concept), the first significant revision of NATO strategy since the Alliance adopted the strategy of Flexible Response in 1967. In this new document, NATO acknowledged the dramatic improvements in the European security environment, and positioned the Alliance for the post-Cold War era. Since 1991, the Strategic Concept has guided NATO as it absorbed a unified Germany, massively reduced allied forces, partially overhauled its command and control structures, undertook peace operations in the former Yugoslavia under the aegis of the U.N., conducted combat operations for the first time in its history, and started to tackle the difficult question of enlarging the Alliance.

Despite these accomplishments, pundits have subjected the Alliance to a constant barrage of criticism. While individual critiques fall across a wide spectrum, an overarching complaint is that the Alliance has not adapted sufficiently to the changed conditions in Europe.1 Because the Strategic Concept sets out the basic principles of the Alliance and serves as the guide for NATO's future direction, these criticisms also call into question the validity of the Alliance's current strategy. This monograph, therefore, will examine the elements of "The Alliance's New Strategic Concept," to include its implementation and follow-on initiatives, and assess whether these efforts adequately prepare NATO to meet the 21st century.

This assessment begins with a brief description of the key elements of the Strategic Concept to inform those who may have been unable to examine it in detail because of the press of other international and European crises. The study next assesses NATO's numerous political and military initiatives for implementing the Strategic Concept, with emphasis on evaluating their success. Particular emphasis will be devoted to the issue of NATO's growing participation in collective security activities, and the inherent contradiction this holds for NATO's continued existence--specified in the Strategic Concept and routinely reiterated thereafter--as a collective defense organization. The reportcloses with conclusions and recommendations for further Alliance action.


The Alliance's New Strategic Concept represents a dramatic departure from past strategies, and, in an ideal sense, offers an excellent starting point for preparing NATO for the considerable demands of the 21st century. But lofty goals and idealistic implementing concepts ring hollow without the military means to bring the Strategic Concept to fruition. This conclusion does not imply that a focus on military forces will rectify NATO's strategic dilemma. Inadequate force levels and capabilities and an absence of detailed military planning are not the core problem; these are merely manifestations of the lack of political will--individual and collective--necessary within the Alliance to undertake the painful steps needed to turn rhetoric into reality.

Creating the requisite political will is a progressive process. First, the Alliance must firmly decide on its fundamental purpose. While the Strategic Concept and subsequent pronouncements have reaffirmed that collective defense remains the core function of the Alliance,92 core does not mean sole, and the Alliance has increasingly looked to assume a collective security function in Europe.93 But simply put, NATO can no longer straddle the fence between collective defense and collective security. Collective security missions run the risk of fatally undermining NATO's ability to carry out its collective defense function:

  • Limited residual force structure may well be consumed with peace support operations, and may not be available to respond to collective defense requirements (e.g., an Article IV mission that suddenly spills over into an Article V mission).
  • Limited funds being spent on collective security operations could result in long-term modernization being postponed in order to pay for short-term collective security operations.
  • Most importantly, internal political conflicts over NATO's role in peace support operations (e.g., the current row over Bosnia-Hercegovina) could destroy consensus within the Alliance.

The Alliance, therefore, must focus on and protect its stated core function of collective defense. But this is not the collective defense of the Cold War. As the Strategic Concept indicates, NATO must now protect not only its territorial integrity, but also its interests. This will require NATO to retain adequate forces that possess the capabilities to execute key provisions of the Strategic Concept, specifically: adequatenumbers and types of forces able to conduct modern operations, the ability to transport those forces to the point of crisis and to sustain them, and a command and control organization that ensures effective and efficient application of Alliance military power to achieve desired strategic aims. Most importantly, it will require the political will to provide, employ, and sustain these forces. Without these requisite means and the political will to employ them, the lofty rhetoric of the Strategic Concept will remain exactly that and NATO will slip into irrelevancy.


1.Criticism began even before the publication of the Strategic Concept (see, e.g., Otfried Nassauer and Daniel Plesch, "NATO Strategy Review: Out of Step with Events," Armed Forces Journal International, October 1991, pp. 50-52.), and has continued on a broad scale ever since. For samples of criticism, see Richard Perle, "The Charade in Brussels," The New York Times, January 11, 1993, p. A21; Ronald D. Asmus, Richard L. Kugeler, and F. Scott Larrabee, "Building a New NATO," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 4, September-October 1993; Senator Richard G. Lugar, "America's `Near Abroad' and NATO's Future," address to the AEI Conference on the Clinton Administration's Foreign Policy, November 2, 1993; or the literally hundreds of articles debating the pros and cons of NATO expansion.

92. Strategic Concept, paragraphs 16 and 31; and, for example, NATO Press Communique M-1(94)3, January 11, 1994, paragraph 7 (Brussels Summit).

93. NATO Press Communique M-NAC-1(92)51, June 4, 1992, paragraph 11, and NATO Press Communique M-1(94)3, January 11, 1994, paragraph 7.