Comprehensively Limited: NATO’s Disconnected Approach to Security


At the May 2010 NATO Summit, the Allies endorsed a “Strategic Concept” that centered on a “comprehensive” approach to crisis response. Recognizing the limitations of a purely military approach to problem solving, the new doctrine emphasized comprehensiveness in an effort to coordinate political, civilian and military resources in addressing the full range of issues that might arise in a crisis. The then NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, declared: “The comprehensive approach not only makes sense – it is necessary.” The irony, however, is that while NATO may be focused on a comprehensive approach involving military, civilian and political collaboration, its approach to its own sphere of responsibility – the military – is not itself truly “comprehensive”.

To adapt a quip often attributed to Mark Twain: when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. It is perhaps equally true, however, that if you believe that a hammer can only be used to nail up picture hooks, you fail to recognize its utility for a much wider range of tasks. Maritime security within NATO, despite being discussed as part of the Alliance’s “comprehensive capability,” seems to be falling victim to that doubly limited vision.   In other words, NATO seems to believe a) that all maritime problems should be solved solely with maritime forces, b) that maritime forces have a limited role to play in addressing problems that are not themselves “maritime” and c) that a “comprehensive” approach involves cooperation between NATO and other entities, but not internal cooperation among different capabilities within NATO itself.

The September 2014 NATO Summit Declaration asserted that “The geopolitical and economic importance of the maritime domain in the 21st century continues to grow.” While the significance of the maritime domain is undisputed, the Alliance Maritime Strategy nevertheless betrays a flawed understanding of the nature of the maritime domain. It notes: “70% of the Earth is covered in water; 80% of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of the coast; 90% of the world’s commerce is seaborne and 75% of trade passes through a few, vulnerable, canals and international straits.” What it fails to mention, however, is that 100 percent of the world’s human population lives on land. As most maritime security problems are man-made, they are therefore inextricably linked to activities that occur on and people who live on land. For example, many expert bodies – from the International Maritime Organization to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime to academic experts on the subject – will say that piracy is a land-based problem with maritime symptoms. No maritime security problem can be comprehensively addressed without engaging its land-based components. It follows then that NATO cannot comprehensively address such maritime security problems without involving its land-based capabilities. Yet the Alliance Maritime Strategy hardly mentions NATO’s land forces and seems to have a different understanding of what “comprehensively” addressing a problem means.

The conceptual separation between land and maritime forces within NATO is counterproductive to the Alliance’s ability to deliver truly “comprehensive” defense and security capabilities. At the tactical level, the divisions among the different forms of security – land, maritime, etc. – are so great that NATO maritime forces cannot even step onshore to change a light bulb in a maritime navigational aid. While issues of sovereignty and legal jurisdiction could be claimed as the justification for such marked division, there is a rigid and debilitating mentality that supports it. If land and maritime capabilities are not able to work together in a fully coordinated and synchronized fashion, fully resolving maritime security problems will never be possible. While joint training certainly occurs and interoperability is publicly embraced, there seems to be an underlying sense that the various NATO capabilities exist only as distinct components rather than a truly integrated unit.

Based on its communications, NATO furthermore seems to view maritime security (and other specific areas like cybersecurity) as lesser forms of security. There is Alliance security on the one hand, and maritime security on the other. The likes of maritime security and cybersecurity can merely contribute to Alliance security; they are not genuinely integral and inseparable parts of it. Paragraph 71 of the 2014 Summit Declaration does note that NATO must strengthen “the Alliance’s maritime capabilities, which should not be seen in isolation but as an integral part of NATO’s larger toolbox to safeguard the Alliance’s interests.” Unfortunately, however, NATO’s public outreach and professed policy suggest that while those tools might all sit in the same box, they do not all get used appropriately.

Such limited thinking under the false heading of comprehensiveness stifles strategic, and in turn, operational and tactical creativity. NATO cannot discern an effective solution to a complex problem if it has oversimplified its own internal capability. If maritime problems are only solved with maritime forces, it can be assumed that land problems are likely to be seen through a similarly narrow lens. The Alliance Maritime Strategy does note: “Although the primary focus of crisis response operations is usually on land, maritime forces can play a critical enabling role in arms embargo and interdiction operations, maritime precision strike in support of ground operations, the flexible deployment of amphibious forces for ground operations, logistic and relief support, surveillance and reconnaissance as well as offering opportunities to minimise footprints ashore by exploiting possibilities to base operations and logistic support at sea.” While it is good to see recognition that maritime forces can support land-based operations, this list of activities is disappointingly unimaginative. It also is implicitly exhaustive – in other words, there is no indication that these are just a few examples of what maritime forces can do.

If NATO is ever required to engage in a full-scale land war, creative and effective use of maritime capabilities may be the advantage that leads to an Allied victory. Cajoling support from a fishing community to aid in countering the maritime movement of money or critical information – tactics employed by less rigid, more creative enemies – could, for example, be more effective than amphibious landings or rocket attacks from a warship. Similarly, aggressive displays of force by NATO warships could provide sufficient distraction to accomplish more discreet military or political objectives. This is not to say that military leaders within NATO have not considered these sorts of options; but structural constraints could impinge on the ability to implement them. If NATO does not adapt its understanding of a comprehensive approach to mean both external and internal comprehensiveness, it may ultimately have only its rigid thinking and divided capabilities to blame for future setbacks.

NATO is now at an important juncture. The resurgence of Russia as a perceived threat to the North Atlantic Community means that the original foundations of the Alliance have renewed relevance and the effective functioning of the Organization is at a premium. As it proceeds to reinvigorate its Standing Naval Forces and implement the Alliance Maritime Strategy, NATO must not fall victim to rigid and limited thinking. As the former Secretary General said, a comprehensive approach truly is necessary. But the understanding of comprehensiveness must apply to NATO’s military capabilities, not just to its relationship with other international, regional and national bodies. The spectrum of possibilities born of creatively using a comprehensively integrated military force would greatly strengthen NATO and help ensure the continued success of the Alliance.


Dr. Ian Ralby is Founder and Executive Director of I.R. Consilium through which he and his team work with governments and organizations on solving complex security-related problems. He has worked extensively with governments in West Africa, the Caribbean, and the Balkans among others.  He holds a BA in Modern Languages and Linguistics and an MA in Intercultural Communication from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; a JD from William & Mary Law School; and both an MPhil in International Relations and a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge.