New direction for NATO must make alliance relevant in current security environment

December 22, 2009

NATO is rethinking its future direction for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a process that could redirect the Cold War alliance toward contemporary security issues like cyberthreats and piracy, and strengthen its commitment to fragile states like Afghanistan, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The study examines five directions the alliance might take as it revises its strategic concept to make the organization relevant in today's security environment. The directions are a refocus on Europe, a new focus on the greater Middle East, a focus on fragile states, a focus on nonstate threats and a global alliance of liberal democracies. The study also examines the possibility of combining two or more of the options.

"NATO will need to stay strong in Europe, but it will have to do more than that," said Christopher Chivvis, the study's author and an international security policy analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "The alliance is in a fight for its existence and will have to combine various roles to stay relevant to both Europe and the United States, but it must also be cautious not to overextend itself."

From its inception in 1949, NATO has offered its members a measure of protection against their common security problems. While those security concerns have changed drastically and become much more complex over time, Chivvis says NATO's members continue to face common threats. These include hybrid threats such as terrorism, cyberthreats, piracy and environmental disasters.

The alliance could be focused regionally, since most threats to allied security originate in the Middle East, or functionally toward operations such as its current effort in Afghanistan, since failed states are "the wellspring of several of the forces that threaten allied security today," Chivvis said.

NATO's members face a host of common security challenges from the Middle East, making the region a logical focal point for the alliance. However, Chivvis says NATO could be an effective tool against nonstate threats if it were willing to commit the resources. Or the alliance could transform itself into an effective tool for the military aspects of coping with state failure. This is an important point when one considers the long-term repercussions if its efforts in Afghanistan should fail.

The report says that NATO's revised strategic concept, a draft of which is expected in spring 2010, offers a chance to rebuild the alliance and create a viable security option for its members for at least the next 10 years to 15 years.

"The differences in strategic vision among its members will make building a common vision for the alliance extremely challenging and some combination of missions will be necessary," Chivvis said. "The optimal strategic concept will allow the organization to be flexible, yet encourage concrete commitments that will diminish further strategic drift."
The study, "Recasting NATO's Strategic Concept: Possible Directions for the United States," can be found at

The study was prepared by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit research organization providing objective analysis and effective solutions that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors around the world. To sign up for RAND e-mail alerts:

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