The NATO Summit came at a pivotal moment for the Alliance as it adapts to a new security environment shaped by transnational challenges and increasing competition with Russia and, most significantly, China. The challenges associated with China’s rise first surfaced in official NATO documents during the 2019 Leaders Meeting, where allies agreed on the need to respond collectively. Since then, allied positions have hardened considerably as a result of the pandemic, China’s “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” economic coercion, and human-rights abuses. Today’s NATO Summit communiqué outlines China’s “systemic challenge to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.”
Over the next twelve months, the allies will negotiate a new Strategic Concept that adapts NATO’s core tasks—collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security—to this contested environment. It will be informed by the NATO 2030 Report, which characterized China as a full-spectrum rival and offered recommendations to strengthen NATO’s political dimensions and extend its global reach. The next Strategic Concept presents an opportunity to breathe new life into cooperative security by steering cooperation with non-member states toward these challenges. NATO should double down on what works—capacity-building—while expanding political consultations with partners and forging new frontiers in science and technology cooperation.
NATO’s Partnerships programs have provided options for cooperation with non-member states for more than twenty-five years. They’ve proven remarkably flexible and adaptable, serving partners’ as well as NATO’s evolving interests. They helped consolidate democratic transitions in Europe, provided support for NATO-led missions and operations, and strengthened collective defense and deterrence. Through Partnerships for Peace, NATO offers a menu of more than 1,400 activities open to all forty partner states around the world. Partners choose the scope, focus, and intensity of their cooperation with NATO. The arrangement has appealed to a diverse group of states, which NATO organized into the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the Mediterranean Dialogue, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, and Partners Across the Globe.
In the current environment, however, there is mounting pressure to adapt partnerships to ensure they continue to support NATO’s interests. The patchwork of geographic groupings is increasingly incongruent with today’s challenges. The groups have generally failed to promote security cooperation or political consultations at the regional level. They have also inhibited NATO’s ability to set priorities or steer cooperation with partners towards its own objectives. Moreover, the activities that partner states value most—capacity-building and interoperability, or the ability to link up their forces with NATO’s and act coherently—remain underfunded. As NATO reorients to incorporate China into a broader strategic calculus, how can NATO preserve what works for partners and adapt its partnership policies without defaulting to a one-size-fits-all approach?
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Lisa Aronsson is a research fellow, and Brett Swaney is an assistant research fellow, at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.