NATO’s new “Strategic Concept” (SC), adopted at the summit in Lisbon on November 20, is neither new, nor strategic, nor much of a concept.  The 11-page document avoids issues of high strategy and refrains from conceptual daring.  It is worth pondering mainly for what it does not say.

Its six enumerated goals are largely conventional.  Members will defend one another against attack, “new threats” included.  NATO will prevent crises, manage conflicts, and stabilize postconflict situations, “working closely” with the United Nations and the European Union.  NATO’s “partners around the globe” will be offered “more political engagement with the Alliance, and a substantial role in shaping the NATO-led operations to which they contribute.”  NATO’s goal is “a world without nuclear weapons” (inserted at the insistence of nonnuclear Germany), but “as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear power” (added at the insistence of France).  Membership is open to “all European de­mo­cracies.”

The document’s “Core Tasks and Principles” are pure agitprop: “The Alliance remains an essential source of stability in an unpredictable world”; its member-states “form a unique community of values, committed to the principles of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”  The authors assert that

the Alliance is firmly committed to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and to the Washington Treaty, which affirms the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security.

The SC warns against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other WMD and their means of delivery.  Terrorism is singled out as “a direct threat,” as well as “trans-national illegal activities such as trafficking in arms, narcotics and people,” piracy, and cyber attacks by “foreign militaries and intelligence services, organised criminals, terrorist and/or extremist groups.”  The brief now includes “assessing the impact of emerging security technologies,” as well as a host of environmental issues, including “health risks, climate change, water scarcity and increasing energy needs . . . ”  A truly extraordinary novelty is that each of those “risks” has now become a potential casus belli.

NATO will “further develop doctrine and military capabilities for expeditionary operations,” which hints at the possibility of new out-of-area deployments.  In view of the experience in Afghanistan, however, the readiness of several key European members to take part in similar U.S.-led missions is at best uncertain.

What is the political rationale for the continued existence of NATO’s colossal military structure, when the threat it was created to contain no longer exists?  The SC concedes that “the Euro-Atlantic area is at peace and the threat of a conventional attack against NATO territory is low.”  In other words, NATO’s Cold War area of hostility has all but disappeared.  The SC effectively codifies a shift from NATO’s defense of specific territories to an open-ended readiness to respond to redefined “threats” anywhere in the world.

Terrorism, cyber attacks, arms, drug and people trafficking, etc., are indeed security threats that need to be addressed.  The right tools for doing so are a conceptual approach freed from the shackles of jihad-friendly political correctness, an enhanced Interpol, an efficient intelligence network, and a dozen global SWAT teams.  A military alliance the size of NATO is ill suited to the task, however.  Including such threats in the SC is nonsensical in grand-strategic terms.  It means either that NATO is to become a global social worker on steroids, or that it can be dragged into countless new interventions.

The key strategic issue, NATO’s attitude toward Russia, remains unresolved.  The SC asserts that “NATO poses no threat to Russia,” with which it seeks “a true strategic partnership.”  German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the shift in the relationship as “historic.”  President Barack Obama greeted President Dmitri Medvedev in Lisbon as “my friend and partner” and declared that cooperation on missile defense would turn “a source of past tension into a source of potential cooperation against a shared threat.”  (The identity of that “threat” remained moot, since Turkey had lobbied energetically against the naming of Iran.)

Neville Chamberlain’s return from Munich should provide a lasting warning against diplomatic agreements described as “historic” at the moment of their publication.  In fact Medvedev did no more than agree to further talks and sounded underwhelmed about the “partnership” itself.  It was left to Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, to articulate Moscow’s misgivings: “The NATO gamekeepers invite the Russian bear to go hunting rabbits together.  The bear doesn’t understand: why do they have bear-hunting rifles?”

Analysis in Moscow was less bluntly worded but similar in essence.  Some analysts recalled similar statements before: In 1997 Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which was soon followed—and rendered obsolete—by the Kosovo war in 1999 and NATO’s eastward expansion.

In the Mezhdunarodnaya zhizn, Elena Ponomareva noted on November 21 that Russia was invited to cooperate with NATO in missile-defense development only after the plan was completed in Washington and Brussels.  Russia is expected to provide transit of NATO supplies to and from Afghanistan, but she has no say in shaping the mission itself.  Moscow is asked “to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members,” but no corresponding commitment is made to the relocation of NATO’s missile-defense system away from Russia’s own borders.

Ponomareva’s conclusions are a textbook example of realist analysis:

First, Russia can be talked into shouldering a part of the material burden of the Afghan problem and, moreover, sharing the moral responsibility for its resolution.  Secondly, Russia’s involvement is indispensable to the European missile defense which lacks feasibility without integrating Russia’s radar stations.  Thirdly, Russia as a permanent Security Council member still retains an important role when NATO launches operations requiring the UN approval.  Fourthly, Russia can be instrumental in overcoming NATO’s identity crisis.  Fifthly . . . there is a hope in Brussels to entrain Russia with its influence in international politics to sustain NATO’s expansion.  At the same time, NATO is not going to offer Russia anything practical in return.  The inescapable conclusion is that—in the light of the new NATO concept—a strategic or any other serious partnership between Russia and NATO stands no chance.

Equally matter-of-fact was Alexander Goltsin’s summary in the Moscow Times.  Russia and NATO have serious points of contention that cannot be eliminated simply by signing an “historic” declaration, but Russian and NATO diplomats were evidently told by their respective governments to produce yet another “diplomatic breakthrough” for the Lisbon summit and to ignore all points of contention.  One of them is obvious: NATO ranks first among the external threats listed in Russia’s military doctrine made public earlier this year.  Goltsin suggests that meaningful negotiations would have attempted to ascertain which guarantees Russia would require to stop considering NATO expansion a security threat.  Instead, the two sides discussed only the threats on which they already hold similar positions.  The resulting document refers to the same tired old themes as before:

But the main question—why one side considers the actions of the other to be a significant threat—was left unanswered.

It is the same story with Russia’s possible participation in the European missile defense system . . .

“We either participate in full, exchange information and are responsible for solving this or that problem, or we don’t participate at all,” Medvedev said.  “But if we don’t participate at all, then we for obvious reasons will be forced to protect ourselves.”  In effect, Medvedev is not speaking about Russia’s participation in the European missile defense system but about the terms under which Moscow would cease to consider the system a threat.

As long as Russia sees NATO as an imminent threat, Goltsin concludes, her cooperation with the alliance will be limited, and any conflict—even if it is unrelated to issues of national security—will be expressed in terms of a military confrontation.

For Moscow, one encouraging aspect of the Strategic Concept is its assertion that Ukraine and Georgia are no longer regarded as serious candidates for membership.  That has been obvious in the case of Ukraine since Viktor Yanukovych’s election last February.  Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili went to the summit hoping to be invited, but this will not happen.

Another encouraging aspect is that the financial crisis—of which Ireland provides the latest episode—makes the further reduction of European military budgets inevitable.  Since 2001, the Pentagon’s annual budget has increased by more than two thirds in real terms, from $403 billion to $708 billion, while inflation-adjusted defense spending across Europe fell by nearly two percent each year to just under $300 billion.  Whatever new NATO missions are conjured in Washington, the lack of political will in “Old Europe” to sign on will be coupled with the material inability to do so in a meaningful way.

The Lisbon summit has confirmed that NATO is devoid of a coherent mission and strategic purpose.  Between 1949 and 1991 it was successful in providing security against the threat of a hostile totalitarian power.  Today, it is detrimental to the American interest and irrelevant to the security of our core European allies.  It should not be reformed; it should be abolished.