It Will Take More Than a Biden Victory to Solve NATO’s Strategic Malaise


With election day now fewer than 50 days away, optimism is growing in U.S. foreign policy circles that President Donald Trump’s brand of transactional diplomacy and his penchant for dismantling the U.S.-led security order may soon be nearing an end. While a Trump victory could bring the NATO alliance into uncharted territory, the Biden campaign has promised to restore the transatlantic relationship to its pre-Trump condition. Instead of ushering in a return to “normal,” a Biden team should pursue bold reforms that will help prepare the alliance for the reemergence of near-peer adversaries like China. To regain the strategic agility needed to confront state-based threats, kinetic and nonkinetic alike, the transatlantic alliance must shed existing security commitments like stability assistance and counter-terrorism missions. NATO should focus instead on restoring its core competency as a collective defense alliance.



American Restoration?

A Biden victory is widely expected to bring about, if not a complete restoration of the postwar order championed by previous U.S. presidents, then a “quiet reformation” still familiar to the “blob.” Rather than seeking a return to the status quo ante Trump, a potential Biden presidency should use this moment to move away from America’s ambitious post-Cold War strategy of global activism toward a leaner grand strategy focused on deterring and defending against potential existential challengers.

Unsurprisingly, Biden’s vision for the post-Trump era of international relations calls for renewing America’s alliances and embracing Washington’s friends to help set America back on the right path. If the Biden campaign needed a bumper sticker for its foreign policy vision, it would be “Allies matter.” The notion that, under a Biden presidency, America’s shattered relations with its allies and partners would immediately be restored has been a popular refrain within the Biden camp for months. When asked late last year which foreign leader he would call first if he won the U.S. presidential election this November, the presidential candidate responded that he would call a meeting of NATO leadership to “make clear that we’re back.” But it is not enough to simply reembrace America’s allies abroad, like a spurned friend on Facebook.

Doubling down on an “America is back” agenda in an era marked by transformational change risks squandering an opportunity for the Atlantic community to prepare for the return of great-power competition in the coming decades. High on a new administration’s foreign policy overhaul list therefore should be transforming NATO and offloading many of the collective security responsibilities the transatlantic alliance has embraced since the end of the Cold War, such as the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan.

To be sure, there are probably few people in American politics today better situated than the former vice president to carry the message that “America is back” abroad. Along with his own extensive Rolodex of names from his time as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Biden has assembled a “dream team” of Democratic foreign policy advisors, many of whom previously occupied positions in the Obama and Clinton administrations. If elected, Biden is widely expected to borrow a page from the Obama White House’s playbook and travel to Europe early in his administration to signal America’s return on the global stage.

If and when the Biden team embarks on its grand European tour, it seems virtually certain that, beyond the expressions of gratitude for America’s “return” that will surely follow them wherever they go, the delegation can expect to be met with a lengthy list of items requiring their immediate attention. Moreover, appeals for Washington’s assistance are likely to differ from capital to capital, with each NATO ally arguing that their particular issue or concern represents the most pressing challenge and therefore requires the most attention and resources. In Warsaw and the capitals of the Baltic states, the U.S. delegation will hear that, despite a new U.S. rotational troop deployment, a revanchist Russia necessitates additional NATO (but especially U.S.) military commitments along the Eastern flank of the alliance. In Rome, Athens, and Madrid, U.S. policymakers will learn that the Mediterranean countries represent the “soft underbelly” of NATO and that the alliance must do more to project stability along its southern arc of instability. In Ankara, the message will be one of anger directed at what the Erdogan government perceives as NATO’s collective failure to support Turkish actions in Syria and elsewhere. In Paris, the message for the U.S. delegation will be that the alliance must strengthen its counter-terrorism efforts in the Middle East and North Africa, while in Berlin the focus will be on reforming NATO’s nuclear posture and salvaging expiring arms-control agreements. Meanwhile, securing the Arctic and halting the effects of climate change will be at the top of the agenda in Copenhagen and Oslo.

In short, wherever the Biden presidential delegation goes, it will be met with requests that Washington — and with it, the NATO alliance — prioritize everything, thereby fulfilling the old adage that, “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Given the precarious state of international relations today, the temptation to do more is understandably strong. It is easy to understand why, in the present climate of global instability, calls for the transatlantic alliance to reinforce and strengthen its existing commitments while simultaneously adding new mandates, missions, and programs are popular. Rather than adding more items to its already crowded agenda, however, the time has come for not just the United States but also NATO to consider doing less but doing it better.

When More Is Less, and Less Is More

For an alliance that has long prided itself on its commonality of purpose and interests, the truth is that NATO is in danger of losing both. On paper and in public, the members still agree the core purpose of the 71-year-old alliance is deterrence and defense of the North Atlantic region. When internal disagreements are aired publicly, other allies are quick to dispel reports of rifts by pointing out that differences of opinion are nothing new. But unlike during the Cold War, when a single adversary occupied all of the alliance’s attention, today’s security environment — as the allies routinely remind each other — is multifaceted and complex. In an effort to address members’ often disparate security requirements, NATO has taken on additional tasks over the past three decades almost as quickly as it has taken on additional members. The NATO-ization of every security challenge has meant that issues once considered the purview of individual nations or other international organizations — such as migration, terrorism, and foreign security force assistance — are now lumped onto NATO’s agenda under the guise of fulfilling its ambitious (and potentially limitless) post-Cold War mandate of “projecting stability.”

For far too long now, alliance leaders have tasked the NATO military infrastructure with a seemingly impossible undertaking: weighing down the military organization with new responsibilities like peacekeeping and counter-terrorism while simultaneously allowing members to shirk on contributing the resources required to fulfill old and new alliance missions. To date, much of the criticism surrounding NATO’s current strategic deadlock has focused on the resource issue and the strains caused by uneven burden-sharing within the alliance. Far less attention has been paid to the first part of the “ends-means-ways” formulation of strategy, namely NATO’s original purpose. While addressing “means” and “ways” are crucial elements in any strategic enterprise, it is past time the Allies got around to focusing on NATO’s strategic ends once more.

Confronting NATO’s present strategic dilemma will require looking beyond existing strategic documents like the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which proclaimed the signatories’ commitment to the “preservation of peace and security” in the North Atlantic area. As the past three decades of NATO transformation have shown, there is not much that does not fit under the rubric of fostering “peace and security” and consequently cannot be tacked onto the alliance’s agenda. True strategy requires setting (and adhering to) actual goals and priorities, as well as developing plans to achieve them. Although the alliance’s past strategic documents have often sought to define NATO’s evolving strategic purpose with more precision than the founding treaty, the alliance has not adopted a new strategic concept since 2010 for fear that embarking on such an exercise would only further inflame the deep rifts within the alliance that such strategic endeavors are meant to help address.

Officially, NATO members still assert collective defense is the alliance’s primary task, despite the inclusion of two other core tasks — projecting stability and cooperative security/crisis management — in all three of its post-Cold War Strategic Concepts (1991, 1999, 2010). The addition of these latter two core tasks — coupled with members’ differing threat perceptions about what rises to the level of an existential security threat — has clouded the organization’s focus. After three decades of continual adaptation, the danger that the alliance’s original raison d’étre of collective defense gets further downgraded to the point where it risks becoming primus inter pares among NATO’s many other responsibilities is real. As with previous critical junctures in transatlantic relations, it will take American leadership to change NATO’s future course. Come January 2021, a Biden administration should move swiftly to announce its intention to commission a new NATO strategic concept by 2022. Should Trump win, all bets are off.

Defenders of NATO’s post-Cold War emphasis on projecting stability and collective security argue that NATO has a proven track record of crisis management and capacity-building beyond its borders in places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The alliance’s cooperative security track record, however, is hardly stellar. This past June, the NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo entered its 22nd year of operation. Almost 17 years after the alliance’s Integrated Military Command first assumed responsibilities in Afghanistan, the NATO flag continues to fly in Kabul, where some 15,000 allied troops remain as part of NATO’s Resolute Support mission. Nor can the alliance’s intervention in Libya in 2011 be considered a resounding success, judging by the state of affairs there today. That NATO remains engaged in some of these places decades afterward is not an impeachment of the men and women who served in these operations and performed the tasks demanded of them. It is, however, evidence of NATO’s failure to give sufficient consideration to its core strategic purpose.

While one can debate the wisdom of NATO having accumulated such an expansionist security agenda in an era marked by American unipolarity, an all-encompassing approach to security is harder to justify in a time of waning American power. Just as the diminishing threat of great-power competition in the 1990s and early 2000s freed NATO to take on additional security tasks beyond its traditional mission of collective defense, its return should prompt a reexamination to determine whether NATO is still the appropriate entity for handling such tasks.

Another center of excellence, special representative, or office will not fix what ails NATO. As the authors of a recent Heritage Foundation report on “NATO in the 21st Century” put it, it is time for NATO to get “back to the basics.” There are limits to what an international institution — even one as successful as NATO — can accomplish: “When policymakers expect or want NATO to do what it was never designed to do, that is when the Alliance risks failure.”

The launch of NATO Secretary Gen. Jens Stoltenberg’s #NATO2030 reflection process earlier this year to address political reforms within the alliance presented just such an opportunity to tackle these and other big-picture questions. It is still unclear to what extent the pandemic has delayed the work of the group of experts begun last March. The Biden team will have to move quickly if it hopes to help shape the working group’s deliberations, as Stoltenberg is slated to brief members on the path forward for the alliance at the April 2021 Leaders’ Summit.

Back to the Future: Narrowing (Not Broadening) NATO’s Remit

Looking ahead, alliance leaders should consider ways to streamline current NATO missions and tasks so that responsibilities that fall below the threshold of existential challenges can be unloaded onto other multilateral institutions or global partnerships. In addition to bringing an end to the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, alliance leaders should consider getting NATO out of the security assistance and stabilization business altogether. Calls for NATO to look for opportunities to do more in the MENA region should also be rebuffed. Few would dispute that this region poses real security challenges to European states or that these challenges are particularly acute for the southernmost members of the alliance, some of whom might even view migration and refugee flows as rising to the level of existential threats. But while the 21st century challenges to the “stability and well-being” of member states may be numerous and growing, there is only one NATO. A single organization cannot tackle every national security challenge its members face. To remain useful, the alliance must choose which threats to prioritize.

Doing so requires recognizing that not every security issue rises to the level of an existential threat to the alliance. Terrorist attacks were a common occurrence in many West European nations in the 1970s and 1980s, yet NATO did not fundamentally transform its agenda back then because members recognized that the threat posed by the Soviet Union was greater. While neither Russia nor China as yet represents a threat on par with the Soviet Union, NATO should prepare for the possibility that the latter (either alone or in combination with Moscow) could pose an existential challenge to the Atlantic community in the coming decades.

Nor is it evident that NATO was ever the appropriate venue for tackling threats like terrorism in the first place. Effective counter-terrorism requires intelligence-sharing; local policing and counter-radicalization programs; and financial instruments that agencies like Europol, Interpol, the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and others are better equipped to lead than an overstretched military alliance. The same is true when it comes to other activities the transatlantic alliance has added to its roster since 1991, like stabilization missions and security sector reform. In fact, organizations such as the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the European Union provide more appropriate venues for tackling many of the collective security duties the alliance has assumed since the 1990s. As a regional defensive military alliance, NATO’s comparative advantage lies in providing territorial defense against other states or groups of states. This is a comparative advantage that should be preserved, not diluted by the addition of other security tasks. True comparative advantage arises from specialization. Continuing to add more and more security responsibilities to NATO’s already-full plate risks transforming the military alliance into a glorified clearinghouse or administrative apparatus whose sole task is the facilitation of information-sharing rather than the provision of collective defense.

Yes, NATO is better equipped to handle the myriad security problems its members face than any other multilateral security organization in existence today. But the proposition that because NATO has the resources and coordinating mechanisms it should automatically take on the latest mission du jour is what has led to a strategically deadlocked alliance.

Much like the 1990s, the coming decade will be one of transition for NATO. Back then, proponents of alliance reform argued that the only way forward was to enlarge the alliance and take on new responsibilities. Without such reforms, they claimed, NATO would disappear. The choice facing NATO members today is different: not a world without NATO, but a world in which NATO fails to fulfill its intended purpose. Preparing NATO for China’s rise does not mean sending alliance-flagged vessels to the South China Sea. But the reality is, as Stoltenberg put it last December, China is already “coming closer to us.”

Ultimately, NATO possesses few capabilities of its own. Individual allies — and not the alliance itself — retain ownership and control over the military material and personnel assigned to NATO operations and missions. The alliance’s real strength, however, lies in its integrated military command structure. Preserving and protecting the integrated command structure’s organizational bandwidth should be the primary focus in the coming years. Unloading the alliance’s collective security responsibilities onto other international actors would allow alliance military officials to focus on the challenges emanating from China (and, to a far lesser degree, Russia) free of the need to also tackle a host of lower-threshold security concerns, all of which require office space, funding, and personnel billets. Bifurcating collective security tasks from collective defense would also force European leaders once and for all to decide exactly what price they are willing to pay for their own national defense.

The Way Forward

Instead of seeking to tackle every new security challenge of the 21st century, NATO leaders should work to preserve NATO’s core assets and capabilities for the task that it is uniquely suited for: deterring state-based adversaries and defending the territorial integrity of its members. The time when NATO could be both a collective defense and a collective security organization has passed. Amid the reemergence of great-power rivalries, it no longer makes sense to assign NATO’s limited resources to naval operations in support of the refugee crisis as the organization did back in 2016. Or for the alliance to continue to try its hand at stabilizing war-torn nations.

NATO has survived this long by adapting. But unlike in the past, where NATO adaptation has always meant taking on more responsibilities, the reforms needed today are those that involve shedding commitments rather than taking on additional ones. In seeking to reestablish NATO once again as an alliance focused solely on collective defense, and not a collective security organization, the Biden team will need to resist the urge to pick up the phone and call NATO Headquarters whenever a new security challenge emerges, like previous U.S. presidents have done since the end of the Cold War.

Jettisoning the collective security responsibilities the NATO alliance has assumed over the past three decades won’t be easy. Nor does freeing NATO from responsibility for tackling issues like counter-terrorism and instability in the near abroad mean that such threats are not deserving of international cooperative efforts by states. It simply means that going forward, countries committed to these kinds of activities will have to look to organizations and venues other than NATO to address them.

Rather than expend precious resources and continue to use NATO as an instrument to grapple with all manner of cooperative security issues, a Biden administration should instead reorient the alliance’s strategic focus toward the more pressing task of adjusting to China’s rise. Not doing so risks turning NATO into nothing more than a glorified discussion club. To avoid this fate, the Biden team will have to move quickly. At stake is not just alliance unity but NATO’s future utility.



Sara Bjerg Moller is an assistant professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University. 

Image: Gage Skidmore