After four years of “America First,” Washington’s return to a more cooperative tone has allies across the North Atlantic Treaty Organization breathing a collective sigh of relief. The shift comes at a pivotal moment, as members reassess strategic priorities in Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s NATO 2030 process, which aims to reshape the alliance and prepare the allies for future challenges.
But beyond the Biden administration’s changed style, geopolitical realities remain largely the same. Resources for defense budgets across allied capitals are stretched. As the pandemic rages on and economies struggle to recover, the picture is likely to worsen.
In this context, NATO will have to rely more on capable allies, as the U.S. will continue to ask more from European NATO members. As the alliance seeks a more global focus and to become more politically united in a resource-scarce environment, active engagement with partners will be key.
Steps in this regard are already underway. NATO partner countries Finland and Sweden were again invited to join February’s NATO Defense Ministers meeting after joining last December’s Foreign Ministers meeting, alongside other Asia-Pacific partners and the European Union. And at the recent Munich Security Conference, Stoltenberg once again emphasized the role of key partners of the alliance as NATO adapts.
But to achieve more progress, NATO should reassess the way it engages partner countries. Many of NATO’s partnership mechanisms are outdated and inefficient in meeting today’s threats. Collective regional frameworks like the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, for instance, have atrophied, as NATO has prioritized bilateral and trilateral partnership engagement. This dynamic raises questions about the efficacy and purpose of key elements in NATO’s partnership policy. The consequence is increased pessimism among allies and partners, given the lack of results in existing partnership mechanisms.
NATO can learn from its own partnership history, as well as other cooperative formats. Regional groupings connecting allies and partners outside of NATO like the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO), the Northern Group, and the Nordic-Baltic 8 help to address collective gaps. Similarly, broader ad-hoc efforts like the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), which facilitates a common strategic culture and strengthens interoperability among Europe’s most militarily capable powers for more flexible and rapid coalition-building in potential crises, are meant to strengthen security across Europe while also avoiding political roadblocks caused by larger institutions (the EU’s multi-body governance structure) or more rigid decision-making processes (NATO’s consensus model). But at the same time, they can create redundancies and compete with NATO, further diminishing the resolve of an increasingly fragmented alliance.
To address this reality, NATO should rethink its partnerships policy and align it more closely with its strategic interests. While NATO currently offers a broad set of engagement opportunities for its 40 partners, it often fails to define clear goals of cooperation. Partner countries are often in the driver’s seat when it comes to defining partnership goals. This, at times, fails to intersect with NATO priorities and creates inefficiencies or dashed expectations of what NATO’s partnership mechanisms can accomplish. A clear example is the underutilization of NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, which was launched in 2004 to offer a disparate set of Middle Eastern countries the opportunity to cooperate with NATO on regional security issues.
If NATO wants to remain the primary forum for security cooperation in the Euro-Atlantic space, it needs to learn from the shortcomings of its current approach. This includes assessing outdated regional frameworks and the inefficiencies caused by an overreliance on bilateral partnership engagement. Looking at the broader environment, NATO should create more flexible and dynamic approaches to engage partners. As the alliance thinks about a partnership policy for 2030 and beyond, it must therefore walk a thin line between streamlining partnership efforts while avoiding a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach.
Most importantly, NATO will have to provide better guidance on what it wants from partners—and how to get there. Here, NATO should look beyond regional partnership formats and bilateral and trilateral groupings. NATO will have to find new ways to convene allies and partners in a manner that is inclusive, yet agile, and sufficiently comprehensive, yet focused.
An interest and issue-based approach bringing together allies and partners with shared priorities could help, especially when it comes to political consultation on cooperative security tasks. As we argue in greater depth in a recent policy paper, this could include partnership dialogue on key issues impacting NATO and its partners, including the China challenge, pandemics, and the weaponization of space. NATO should make a special effort to engage partners with valuable expertise who can share lessons learned in each of these areas and help inform NATO’s decision-making. This should include more in-depth consultations and collaboration with key allies beyond Europe, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.
NATO’s partnership policy must also remain flexible and willing to retire or reform outdated, institutionalized formats, rather than just adding on new formats as new issues arise. Given limited resources, individual allies will likely have to play a bigger role in managing engagement with partners. Past efforts like the Framework Nations Concept (FNC) – in which large European nations like Germany led capabilities and operational clusters inside NATO, can serve as a model for issue-based groupings led by individual allies to advance political consultation and capacity building.
But these formats will have to have a clearer purpose and process than before. While efforts should not be deliberatively exclusive, ambition should be prioritized over inclusiveness. That means that participation in such groupings should be conditioned on active contributions and meeting of targets, to avoid a loss of momentum and tendency toward a lowest-common-denominator policy.
As NATO considers an updated strategic concept, consulting with allies and partners to create a smarter, goal-oriented partnership policy will be important. Given the challenges facing NATO allies and partners, cooperative security should remain a core task. But in contrast to the 2010 strategic concept, which was heavily influenced by the experience of multinational out-of-area missions in Afghanistan and counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and in the Indian Ocean, political consultations and capacity building efforts that tackle global challenges will become even more important in the near- to medium term.
The changed tone of the new U.S. administration has relieved many in the alliance. But as NATO’s largest ally focuses more on domestic issues and challenges in the Asia-Pacific, more will be required of other members and partners in Europe. While America may be back, as Biden continues to stress, it will take a broad cast of NATO allies and partners to meet the complex challenges ahead.