An Urgent NATO Priority: Preparing to Protect Civilians

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The year is 2030 and Russia’s military and intelligence services have spent months waging a disinformation campaign directed at the citizens of a NATO ally. The campaign has created strife among its target population and has increased civil unrest. Russian government actors proceed to conduct daily cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, causing prolonged electrical blackouts and cutting off access to water and hospitals in major cities, including the capital. Large-scale and coordinated terrorist attacks at ports of entry across the country — including at the largest seaport and the hub of economic activity — have increased fear. These attacks undermine the credibility of the government, which has struggled to provide relief to its citizens or stop the attacks.

A well-equipped and highly trained proxy force, backed by the Russian government, initiates attacks against the NATO ally’s security forces and intense fighting breaks out. The ally’s military is losing ground and violence spills into urban areas near the frontlines. Civilians — citizens of the NATO ally — confront the horrible decision of whether to flee or stay behind. Civilians who take flight, as well as those remaining in place, are targeted by cells of proxy fighters. The impact on the population is purposeful and immense: Harming civilians and civilian infrastructure is integral to the adversary’s strategy.



Should NATO prepare for this scenario? Absolutely. The contingency above is a simplified version of what many who study the future of war are thinking through. In this imagined crisis, the conflict forces civilians to seek protection, even to cross borders to other NATO allies and partners. In turn, allies and partners see that a strong and skilled NATO force is needed to push back the incursion and assist the allied government in protecting its civilians. That could lead the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing body, to enact Article 5, launching plans for a collective defense mission.

For NATO to succeed in the type of hybrid warfare scenario described above, alliance leaders would need to specify protection of civilians as an explicit mission objective. The good news is that the alliance already has a strong basis for doing that successfully, thanks to its existing policy and supporting documents. However, work on policy implementation — building the skills, knowledge, and capabilities to protect civilians — has been insufficient. That’s the clear finding of the research that our team has been conducting since 2019. We’ve convened workshops focused on this issue with more than 100 practitioners, academics, and representatives of militaries and governments, and we presented a series of findings in a March 2021 report authored by our colleague Kathleen Dock.

NATO should take urgent actions now to ensure that it emphasizes protection of civilians as a core capability for future alliance missions — not only “out-of-area” ones, but also any conducted on NATO territory — and it should embrace protection of civilians as a cross-cutting requirement in NATO’s new strategic concept.

Protection of Civilians: NATO’s Existing Efforts 

NATO’s efforts on this issue are a work in progress. At the alliance’s 2016 summit in Warsaw, NATO leaders adopted a landmark protection of civilians policy. It captured decades of lessons and experience, from operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya, and was written broadly to apply to all current and future NATO missions. In particular, the policy broke new ground by calling for the physical protection of civilians against harm caused by belligerents. The policy was the first such document for NATO and laid out the alliance’s approach to protecting civilians, which is built on four key concepts: understanding the human environment; mitigating harm; facilitating access to basic needs; and contributing to a safe and secure environment. The North Atlantic Council committed political support to the policy and, subsequently, NATO proceeded with practical implementation by producing an associated action plan, military concept, and a handbook on the subject.

Yet, as NATO marks the fifth anniversary of the policy’s adoption, continued work to build protection of civilians as a core capability is lagging. The policy is not being used actively to prepare NATO for its future, including missions where civilian protection would be a key objective and for operations in which NATO members might find themselves protecting allied citizens.

For some alliance and member state officials, protection of civilians is seen as rooted in the past and in those previous out-of-area missions where the alliance focused on protecting non-NATO citizens. Others argue that protecting civilians is not a future operational requirement. But, in fact, civilian protection is a challenge that will impact all future missions — especially those that may occur within the borders of NATO allies and partners.

NATO officials have not surveyed those allies and partners to see how they plan to train and implement protecting civilians as a future mission requirement, what they have drafted as national-level guidance, and what is needed to prepare for such missions. Information about these matters is spotty today, and nations do not have an easy mechanism to learn from one another before a coalition is assembled for a specific mission.

The June 2021 NATO summit was a missed opportunity to catalyze further progress on this set of issues. Although NATO leaders took many vital steps to bolster the alliance against future threats, they failed to take additional actions to enhance the alliance’s ability to protect NATO civilians at home.

Toward the Future: Three Critical Steps 

NATO allies and partners should champion, and resource, better implementation of the policy on protecting civilians, both during the drafting of NATO’s new strategic concept and in other future planning.

First, NATO leaders — military and political — should recognize that protecting civilians is relevant for their populations and smart policy for the alliance. The 2021 summit emphasized working toward common purposes and uniting all members in their political commitment to the alliance. Leaders know that commitment will be tested, especially in the context of an operation that may take place within the borders of a NATO ally. In a scenario like this, NATO citizens will effectively become civilians caught in conflict and the alliance will have a duty to protect them. Civilians living within the borders of an ally or partner will expect the alliance to keep them safe — both by refraining from harming them through NATO operations and by protecting them against harm from adversaries. Protecting civilians is a “whole of alliance” endeavor. If it is to be done effectively, it should be a core political commitment and military task.

A robust commitment to protection of civilians also distinguishes NATO allies and partners from opponents who disregard international humanitarian law and human rights principles, or who disregard the rights of their own civilians. In contrast to their likely adversaries, NATO nations strive to uphold a rules-based international order. One key contributor to achieving that goal is signaling the importance of protecting civilians in future operations and supporting further development of military capabilities suited to that task. On the political side of NATO, officials and leaders should have expertise in protection of civilians to help ensure that future mandates set civilian protection as a central goal. Only if that happens will military planners be able to plan effectively.

Second, NATO should build its knowledge, skills, and abilities to protect civilians and treat such protection as an operational goal. Future war experts have researched and identified modes of conflict that will change the character of war, including proxy wars, cyber attacks on military and civilian infrastructure, conflict in densely populated urban areas, disinformation campaigns aimed at eroding social cohesion, and the use of artificial intelligence. Not all of these are new, of course. But trends point to the high likelihood that the United States and other NATO members will find themselves responding to future conflicts that, at the very least, are fought among civilian populations or in which civilians are deliberately targeted. NATO is still not fully prepared to deal with such situations.

To anticipate, plan for, and address civilian insecurity is more than a moral good. It is a requirement of operational success when a population is a strategic target. On the military side, understanding the operational aspects of civilian protection should be folded into doctrine and training and woven throughout various functions, from intelligence to planning, strategy, and leadership. NATO should also establish protection of civilians as an operational requirement and integrate it into work at the headquarters level, including at Allied Command Operations, Allied Command Transformation, and in discussions with allies and partners. In a future crisis, political and military actors will need to work together, so establishing those lines of communication now is essential. Much of the protection of civilians agenda is currently managed by NATO’s Human Security office in Brussels, which lacks the staffing capacity and bureaucratic heft to implement the policy in the future.

Third, protection of civilians should be included in NATO’s next strategic concept as a core political and military capability. The new strategic concept is due to be completed by 2022. Building additional knowledge, skills, and capabilities to safeguard civilians needs to be directed. By crafting a new action plan, building off the one completed in late 2020, the North Atlantic Council could initiate the next phase of this policy agenda by early 2022. High-level policy attention and guidance do not, of course, automatically mean effective implementation in future conflicts. Implementation will take sustained political support and savvy political leaders who understand how their political and strategic decisions impact those on the ground and the military components meant to implement their mandates. It will also take knowledgeable and well-trained militaries. Just as nations don’t assume that a new group of military trainees will innately know how to use advanced artillery effectively, neither can NATO assume that new personnel will know how to protect civilians. That intention should be captured in doctrine, and trained and exercised, just like other core military missions.

It’s Time for Additional Policy Action

By including the protection of civilians in its strategic concept, and by recognizing the broad importance of protecting civilians to the alliance, NATO will meet multiple goals. It will prepare for future missions that its allies and partners may face. It will establish NATO as committed to the security of civilians in conflict, a value that will help unite the alliance and distinguish it from many of its adversaries. And it will build on the good work that it has started and that needs a push in order to move aspirational goals into operational capability.

Together, these proactive measures will ensure that NATO sees protecting civilians as a core task for future alliance missions, not only out-of-area ones but also any that occur in the territory of allies and partners. As the old proverb says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” NATO can take more strides now to enable it to protect civilians in future conflicts.



Victoria K. Holt is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. Her areas of expertise focus on issues relating to international security and multilateral tools, including peace operations and conflict prevention, the United Nations and U.N. Security Council, protection of civilians, crisis regions, and U.S. policymaking. Prior to joining Stimson, Holt was the deputy assistant secretary of state for international security in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, serving from 2009 to early 2017.  

Marla B. Keenan is an adjunct senior fellow at the Stimson Center. Her areas of expertise focus on issues relating to international security, including human rights in armed conflict, protection of civilians, civilian harm tracking and analysis, and civil-military relations in armed conflict. Marla is also an International Security Program senior fellow at New America, working to strengthen partnerships between non-governmental organizations and academic institutions on applied research in armed conflict, and a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Sgt. Patrik Orcutt)

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