Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Blog

Free to read

NATO is Revived, but Challenges Remain

Simon Smith


Prateek Katyal

| 9 mins read

Geopolitics has returned to Europe in a devastating and destructive fashion. Most obviously, there is Russia’s armed attack on Ukraine. But it has also returned in the form of a deepening geopolitical challenge from China.

Considering NATO is set to publish its new strategy at the Madrid Summit in June 2022, this was always going to be a challenging year; politically, economically, institutionally and, given NATO’s 360-degree approach to security, collectively.

Future-proofing NATO will mean demonstrating its relevance to a range of threats, challenges, and policy issue areas, across domains, and geographical directions. The following lays out the most critical of these challenges.

Reviving US Leadership and European Commitment

Although NATO is a military alliance that prioritises consensus as a fundamental operating principle, US leadership is still vital to the health and capability of the Alliance. The incessant critiques from both sides of the Atlantic that either the US has lost its interest in NATO, or that the Europeans do not keep their side of the ‘burden-sharing’ bargain, have a history as long as NATO itself.

That said, recent years have been especially trying for NATO and transatlantic relations in general. Take the jarring rhetoric (and action) during the Trump administration. Or comments by Emmanuel Macron that ‘what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO’. Then there was the disastrous end to NATO operations in Afghanistan last summer. It is safe to say that this was a low point in the post-Cold War history of the Alliance.

US leadership is still a central challenge for NATO. In What's Wrong with NATO and How to Fix it, Webber et al note that US leadership should incorporate a ‘Goldilocks solution’ whereby ‘the US settles for the obligations of leadership’ while at the same time, the European member states ‘reciprocate with a more concrete commitment to European and Transatlantic security’.

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has consolidated NATO’s purpose and resolve in a way that could not have been anticipated only six months ago. In this context, not only has the US demonstrated leadership but these events have finally put the member states of NATO (and the EU) ‘on the same page’. As Rosa Balfour has recently put it, ‘Finland and Sweden may join NATO. Poland is mending fences with Brussels, and the UK is [even] cooperating with the EU [emphasis added]’.

But how will this translate into action?

Deterrence and Collective Defence

As is often noted, ‘deterrence, far more than defence, is NATO’s real business’. Although a nuclear armed Russia limits NATO’s options to engage in a direct confrontation on the battlefield, NATO’s deterrence posture also limits Russia’s ability to escalate from a relatively contained local war to a wider regional conflict.

John Deni has recently advocated that NATO move from its traditional deterrence by punishment posture to one of deterrence by denial – deterring an enemy by making it physically difficult for them to achieve their objectives in the place where aggression occurs. Although the Ukraine crisis has given renewed vitality to the Alliance, this shift would be a serious long-term challenge for NATO member states, including the UK. To accomplish this, a considerably larger (than is currently implemented) pre-deployed and in situ force-package would have to be directed to the Baltic states and Poland indefinitely – and be of a strength that could stop and repel an attempted attack into allied territory, not merely respond to one after the fact.

There is also the challenge of NATO’s future nuclear posture and how this feeds into its deterrence strategies. NATO will continue to rely on the US and UK  (and to some degree French) strategic nuclear forces in terms of its supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies. But now that the NATO Russia Founding Act – designed to increase trust, unity of purpose, and cooperation with Russia – is well and truly lifeless the member states may reconsider their commitment not to ‘to deploy [tactical] nuclear weapons on the territory of new members’. This would pose challenges for NATO member states politically, but it will also contribute to the ever-increasing NATO-Russia security dilemma.

Defence Spending in NATO

If the path outlined above were to be implemented, it would necessitate a level of political resolve and a commitment by NATO member states to increase defence spending considerably. To some extent, spending has been increased since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. NATO’s challenge, therefore, will be to update its concept of burden-sharing to meet its current defence and security challenges, while at the same time convincing member states to significantly increase their respective defence spending.

Recent announcements by Germany to increase its defence spending to more than the two per cent defence investment guideline is a positive sign. The UK has met this target for some time, but a continuous realisation of this will be challenged by everything from the cost of Brexit, Covid-19, the looming cost of living crisis, and all related government debts.

One other issue to consider is how these projected increases in European defence spending will translate into what current NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg has labelled NATO’s three “Cs”–cash, capabilities, and contributions. Kaija Schilde has recently argued (forthcoming as part of a special section on the new NATO Strategic Concept in the journal Defence Studies) that this should also demand better coordination of defence spending between European Allies as well as between the Europeans and the US. A key challenge here, she argues, is how to cultivate a strong and independent European defence industrial base that may in turn reconcile the US to less market share in the European defence economy. This reasoning envisions European Strategic Autonomy of a type that is beneficial to the Alliance.

The NATO-EU Strategic Partnership

European-led initiatives at defence and security have a long and difficult history. Even the NATO-EU Strategic Partnership has been characterised as an uneasy relationship. That said, the unified response to the Ukraine crisis has been laudable. Even so, finally establishing a truly strategic division of labour between NATO and the EU is a central challenge going forward. Three documents to be delivered this year - the NATO Strategic Concept; the EU’s Strategic Compass; and a new (third) EU-NATO joint declaration of mutual cooperation – should go some way to making this a reality.

A further challenge for the UK will be how it considers its position vis-à-vis any developments in terms of the EU Defence Union and Strategic Autonomy as well as how it facilitates the NATO-EU partnership given its new status outside of EU security decision-making structures.


The new Strategic Concept is the sensible opportunity for NATO to map out a well-defined hierarchy of priorities. The last Strategic Concept (published in 2010) was organised around three core-tasks: collective defence; crisis management; and cooperative security. All three are still valuable but NATO’s new challenge is to prioritise deterrence and collective defence above all other tasks. It must also critically think through and then align ends, ways, and means to achieve this.

Balancing all the interests and identified threats of its member states will not be easy. However, the renewed unity and solidarity of the Alliance in the face of Russian aggression, as well as the long-term strategic concerns posed by a rising China, should help to future proof NATO. Only time will tell.

  • Simon Smith

    Simon Smith

    Dr Simon Smith is Associate Professor in the School of Justice, Security and Sustainability at Staffordshire University.

    Articles by Simon Smith