Which challenges and discourses will dominate NATO’s future strategic concept? New FES/PRIF Study maps three alternatives visions for the evolution of the Atlantic alliance. | Photo: flickr, © NATO | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Three futures for NATO: New FES/PRIF backgrounder for the 2021 NATO summit

Today, NATO‘s Heads of State and Government are meeting in Brussels for a summit that is expected to set the course for the rejuvenation of the Atlantic alliance. Leaders will discuss the report of the NATO Expert Group, kick off the process for developing a New Strategic Concept, and signal a closing of transatlantic ranks. Against this background, the new FES/PRIF Report “Three visions for NATO” offers a glimpse behind the headlines. It maps expert debates about the future of the alliance across and within NATO member states and identifies three alternative “futures” for the evolution of the alliance.

NATO is at a crossroads – yet again. After years of internal turmoil and self-doubt, the alliance is in the process of re-forming and re-inventing itself. At the London summit commemorating NATO’s 70th anniversary in 2019, the Heads of States and Governments asked NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to initiate a forward-looking reform process. At the summit in June 2021, NATO members will take stock of the state of this NATO 2030 process and authorize work on a new strategic concept. NATO’s current strategic concept dates back to 2010 and was drafted in a completely different geopolitical environment. Adaptation is thus inevitable. But because this always bears the risk of maladaptation, it is imperative to accompany this reform process with critical analyses and discussions that engage not just a small expert community, but also policymakers in governments and parliaments, as well as the general public across NATO’s member states.

FES/PRIF Report “Three visions for NATO”

With the study “Three visions for NATO”, we aim to provide the basis for such an informed discussion. By summarizing and comparing expert discourses on key questions regarding NATO’s future across a broad spectrum of key member (and selected non-member) states, we seek to promote both a deeper understanding of the issues at stake and a better mutual understanding of diverging geographical, historical and political perspectives on these issues. At the same time, by mapping and juxtaposing national visions of NATO, we delineate a space of political possibilities, giving rise to different “futures” that could result from the ongoing reform process.

The list of challenges that NATO is facing is exceedingly long and includes a prioritization of threats, a revision of its internal architecture, and a determination of its character. Is it an alliance based more on values or on interests; is it a flexible organization that manages the diversity of its member states; or is it a tightly knit alliance that obliges all its member states to sing from the same hymn sheet?

The prioritization of threats includes not only the “who” but also the “how”. Is Russia still the major threat? And is the Russian threat primarily military or asymmetrical and directed against the political stability of Western states? Is rising China an emerging threat or a multi-faceted security risk? To what extent do threats emanating from the “South” call for increased NATO’s attention? Do they originate primarily from state failure and economic problems or from terrorism and the encroachment of extra-regional powers? And what does the withdrawal from the very costly and rather unsuccessful 20 year long security assistance mission in Afghanistan imply for the future of military interventions?

NATO’s response to these threats is also contested. Should NATO focus on Russia and its traditional core task of collective defence? Should it rather respond to China by expanding its geographical scope and its partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region? Or should it expand its functional scope and focus, for example, on critical infrastructure, or on stabilization and societal resilience more generally?

Adding to this list of external challenges are increasing internal divisions and uncertainties. Will the United States shift its attention and capabilities away from Europe as the conflict with China intensifies? If so, should European member states start to compensate the relocation both politically and militarily? And how should NATO react to authoritarian tendencies in some member states and to the growing heterogeneity of interests and outlooks?

Mapping NATO debates in member and non-member states

The FES/PRIF study maps and compares expert discourses on these questions within NATO, as well as in selected member states, and in Russian and Ukraine. Given recent debates about a crisis of the liberal order and a decay of its institutions, a first key finding is that NATO is here to stay. A majority of experts in all member states and from different political orientations are convinced that NATO serves the interests of their countries. A second finding concerns the widespread conviction that NATO is in need of reform. However, experts in different countries disagree on the scope and direction of reforms and our mapping of discourses point to three ideal-typical futures of NATO, each of which entails specific opportunities and risks.

The first vision is the least expansive and follows the formula “NATO classic plus”. In this future, NATO would go back to basics and focus on the core task of collective defence. As the “plus” in the formula indicates, NATO would not only address the risk of a Russian conventional or nuclear attack, but also threats of hybrid warfare, cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns. The first vision has particularly strong support among Eastern European member states, but also has some vocal advocates in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and France.

The second vision, “NATO with a Global Outlook” would expand the geographical and functional scope of the alliance. In this vision, the primary global dynamic on NATO’s current agenda is the ongoing power shift towards China. To address it, NATO will have to expand geographically by working with partners in the Indo-Pacific region and functionally by dealing among others with critical infrastructure, supply chains and internet security. This vision is being pushed most vigorously by US government officials and US think tanks, but it is also supported as a quid pro quo for an enduring American presence by experts in East European countries.

The third vision is that of a NATO Generation Z. In this vision, the alliance would expand the definition of security and its own competences even wider to tackle an array of non-traditional threats. This includes the projection of stability across its Southern flank, on one hand, and societal resilience against climate change, pandemics and asymmetrical interference, such as disinformation campaigns, on the other. This vision finds support among experts in Southern European member states but has recently been gaining sup-port also in the United States and Western European NATO member states.


Dembinski, Matthias/Fehl, Caroline (eds.) (2021): Three Visions for NATO. Mapping National Debates on the Future of the Atlantic Alliance. Berlin: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

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Matthias Dembinski
Matthias Dembinski ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter im Programmbereich Internationale Institutionen und Projektleiter an der HSFK. Er forscht zu Fragen von Gerechtigkeit in den internationalen Beziehungen, regionalen Sicherheitsorganisationen und humanitären Interventionen. Sein regionaler Schwerpunkt ist Westeuropa.
Caroline Fehl

Caroline Fehl

Caroline Fehl is Senior Research Fellow at the PRIF Research Department “International Security”. Her research focuses on international norms, institutions and organizations in the fields of arms control, humanitarian law and international criminal justice. | Twitter: @CarolineFehl

Matthias Dembinski

Matthias Dembinski ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter im Programmbereich Internationale Institutionen und Projektleiter an der HSFK. Er forscht zu Fragen von Gerechtigkeit in den internationalen Beziehungen, regionalen Sicherheitsorganisationen und humanitären Interventionen. Sein regionaler Schwerpunkt ist Westeuropa.

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