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Getting the House in Order: Reinvigorating NATO’s Strategic Concept for the Multipolar Order

Getting the house in order: Reinvigorating NATO's Strategic Concept for the multipolar order


With US President Joe Biden’s new administration in office and the emerging multipolar order, it is time to update NATO’s Strategic Concept. With an American president that champions multilateralism back in the White House and growing nationalism and populism among NATO members, a new consensus is needed that reinvigorates the Alliance. As such, this article will argue that NATO’s Strategic Concept should focus on a return to a multilateral system in the transatlantic region. In particular, NATO members should focus their diplomatic tools and instruments of power on the region’s sovereignty and democracy, ensuring its members’ stability, endurance, and legitimacy. This article will also articulate the strategy NATO command, its leaders, and all members will have to utilize in order to produce the best possible avenue for the Alliance to operate within the new global order. I contend that through ​institutions of regionalism​, a concept I will explore in detail throughout this paper, NATO’s new Strategic Concept can be legitimized and offer more sweeping opportunities for bridging all members into a multilateral approach that protects their democratic processes and state sovereignty, along with elevating all NATO members’—Small, Middle, and Great Powers—positions and statuses in the multipolar order.


By Andrew Erskine


In outlining his priorities for a new US foreign policy, US President-elect Joe Biden announced that from day one, he would restore the historic partnerships that had generated the “Long Peace” Western nations had enjoyed since the end of the Second World War. A long-time believer in multilateralism, Biden has asserted that under his administration, the United States will lead in the effort to reimagine the future of multilateral partnerships.[i] In particular, to combat the foreign policy misadventures of his predecessor—President Donald Trump—Biden desires the restoration of NATO as a principal pillar of not only US foreign and defence policy but also as a pillar of liberal democratic security and cooperation.

Biden’s focus on NATO is significant as the coming decade will witness the finalization of the global order’s transformation from a unipolar and liberal rules-based system to a multipolar and, to an extent, realist system, where Great Power competition has revived old and new rivalries for hegemonic authority and legitimacy as well as the erosion of allied and friendly democratic governments. What is more, the threats that will plague this new multipolar order are twofold. First, the threats will take on familiar forms in Great Power rivalries, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, ethnic and religious conflicts, and climate change. Perhaps more important, however, are the non-traditional threats arising from new and innovative global partnerships, platforms, and interests—cybersecurity, intellectual, and digital property theft—along with forgotten threats that ignore hegemonic powers, borders, and ideological narratives as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. As this shows, the emerging global order will need to combat threats coming from all sides, thereby requiring greater, sweeping multilateral cooperation and coordinated responses—where else better to start than with NATO and the transatlantic region.

The article seeks to identify NATO’s conceptual problem, detailing the factors that have made the Alliance and its members stagnant and confused in their strategic orientation towards transatlantic security and defense. Second, the article will anticipate President Biden’s policy decisions to restore NATO as the principal multilateral example of cooperation and collaboration among Western democratic governments. Lastly, the article will articulate NATO’s need to reinvigorate its Strategic Concept as a multilateral system focusing on the transatlantic region and the state actors that reside in it. In particular, the article argues for NATO members to focus their diplomatic tools and instruments of power on the region’s sovereignty and democracy, ensuring its members’ stability, endurance, and legitimacy through the concept of institutions of regionalism. This concept will allow NATO and its members to operate more strategically in the multipolar order, along with offering more sweeping opportunities for bridging all members into a multilateral approach that protects their democratic processes and state sovereignty.


NATO’s Conceptual Problem

The founding mission of NATO remains relatively unchanged from the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty: “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law...to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area...and to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security.” With the bipolarity of the Cold War and the physical and ideological division of Europe, NATO was successful in implementing and operating this mission. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the beginnings of the American unipolar moment, NATO continued its mission by incorporating countries from the former Soviet bloc into the Alliance—culminating in NATO’s use and successful operations in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.

With the reconstruction of European geopolitical unity complete, NATO was observed as an Alliance that brought together countries with similar liberal-democratic values and interests that would be used to combat global problems.[ii] Such observations enforced the Alliance’s inkling to support and extend American hegemony in the liberal rules-based order. I contend that the use of NATO during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan—the first and only time Article V was invoked—and NATO’s participation in the 2011 military intervention of Libya caused a paradigm shift in its Strategic Concept.

Instead of maintaining an independent degree of autonomy in its role of protecting the transatlantic region, I contend that NATO and its members yielded significant authority to the United States in their foreign policy pursuit to extend and protect their hegemonic authority and legitimacy in the liberal rules-based order. These ‘external strains’ caused massive blowbacks to NATO’s reputation and legitimacy in safeguarding transatlantic sovereignty and democracy as ‘revisionist’ powers, like Russia, Iran, and China—then an emerging Great Power—regarded NATO’s actions as a supplementary to US foreign policy.[iii] Having this association with the United States, NATO members became and continue to be targeted in Great Power competition as authoritarian and ‘revisionist’ powers undermine membership unity, cohesion, and dependency. For instance, Chinese and Russian cyber espionage and disinformation campaigns have become part of daily life for NATO members.

These actions have also caused ‘internal strains’ resulting in NATO members questioning the transatlantic relationship, mission, and commitments. An explicit example arrives from the American presidency of Donald Trump, who questioned NATO’s purpose in US foreign policy and repeatedly spoke of withdrawing from the Alliance.[iv] In particular, Trump had double downed on the commitments of Allies’, often calling out members for not reaching the defence spending mandate of two-percent of GDP and accusing some members of free-riding off of America’s military might. Although concerns from an American president are longstanding, it was Trump’s approach of specifying certain members as deficient in paying its dues to NATO that shocked many of the Alliance’s members—as was the case when Trump called Germany ‘delinquents.’[v]

The deliberate and condescending language used by President Trump—referring to historic and key Allies as though they were second- or third-class members—effectively removed any validity or seriousness to NATO’s defence spending issue. For instance, according to former UK Secretary of State Michael Fallon (2014–2017), the fact that “half of the Alliance, 16 of the 29 countries, don’t even spend 1.5 percent of GDP, let alone 2 percent” was agreed upon during the 2014 NATO Summit held in Wales.[vi] But instead of having constructive discussions on the defence spending issue facing NATO, the remarks arriving from President Trump heightened disunity and a growing disillusionment of NATO’s purpose in transatlantic security.


The above graphs are from NATO’s “2019 Secretary General’s Annual Report” that collects defence expenditure data from each member’s defence ministry.[vii]


These accusations and frequent undermining comments by President Trump caused some European allies to worry about US commitments to the transatlantic region. For instance, Trump’s unilateral move to redeploy 6,400 US troops from Germany to Poland illustrated Trump’s focus on prioritizing the “America First” strategy when dealing with transatlantic military operations, troop manoeuvrability, and perceived threats. Such worries have led to France’s President Emmanuel Macron calling for an EU version of NATO and proclaiming that the Alliance system was experiencing “brain death.”[viii]

With more significant focus from NATO’s top-tier powers attempting to satisfy Trump, a political void was created in the Alliance’s mission for transatlantic security and defence of its “principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law” as Small and Middle European Powers elected populist and nationalist leaders that promised new avenues to explore in the effort to advance and attain their countries’ national interests. For instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has focused his attention on denouncing migrants, Muslims, the EU, and even going further in praising Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illiberal state.[ix] Such domestic shifts have resulted in Hungary adopting an increasingly pro-Russian foreign policy—criticizing EU and US sanctions on Russia resulting from its 2014 invasion of Ukraine.[x]

In 2010, NATO produced its latest Strategic Concept document, which described the Alliance as a “unique community of values committed to the principles of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” along with announcing three new objectives—collective defence, crisis management, and cooperative security.[xi] Although the 2010 Strategic Concept attempted to bring forward a new ‘concept’ for the Alliance, the political and security landscape of 2010 no longer reflects the global order of the 2020s and 2030s. Thus, rather than being observed as a merely tactical or optical problem, NATO’s paradigm shift must be seen as a strategic issue requiring a reflective analysis of where NATO stands within its commitments to the transatlantic region and methods of boosting its members to recommit their political, economic, and military capabilities to the central mission enshrined in its founding treaty.[xii]


President Biden & NATO

During the 2019 NATO Summit in London, NATO members acknowledged that they needed to fortify the Alliance’s unity, cohesion, and efficiency in advancing its political and military principles.[xiii] Along with noting the significance of threats from Russia, China, and other ‘revisionist’ powers and non-traditional threats, members remarked that internal dangers were of paramount concern.[xiv] With such inward attention on the Alliance, it is perfect timing for Joe Biden to showcase his championing of multilateralism.

According to President Biden, “NATO is at the very heart of US national security, and it is the bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal.”[xv] Biden is expected to lead extensive efforts to reimagine NATO within the multipolar order. With the focus back on NATO, a Biden presidency will attempt to explore a US foreign policy that closes the ‘loopholes’ that corrupt, undermine, and distrust transatlantic democracies through a US-led diplomacy strategy that will build and nurture historic relationships.[xvi] Nevertheless, Biden must be aware and focus significant attention on reaffirming NATO as a transatlantic organization that ensures the stability, endurance, and legitimacy of its members’ sovereignty, territorial integrity, and institutions of democracy, and not as an organization that will rebuild American Great Power hegemony over its allies, partners, and the global order.

Acknowledging that American hegemonic leadership is not perfect—having made diplomatic and strategic missteps and mistakes—Biden will need to draw upon the full array of power that NATO and multilateralism together offer.[xvii] What is more, Biden must not make his predecessors’ mistakes—particularly those of George W. Bush and Barack Obama—by inciting NATO’s military capabilities to solve global and American hegemonic problems. If Biden observes NATO as the “bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal,” he must press its existence as a solely regional organization that enables the Alliance to become an example of how multilateralism and democratic governments work together towards peace, stability, and the rule of law, along with combating traditional and non-traditional threats.

By conducting such a foreign policy, Biden can build upon the relationships and workings of NATO to identify common issue areas that affect the transatlantic community—issues of concern belonging to Small, Middle, and Great Powers—that will translate to greater global recognition and a more prestigious reputation for NATO. In turn, this may incentivize a collective reinventing of democratic allies, partners, and friends beyond the transatlantic region, exhibiting the worth that the values and principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law offer.


NATO & Institutions of Regionalism

NATO, as a transregional military organization, is well established in that its members acknowledge and attribute their security and defence to global and conventional threats. Although there are arguments that NATO should build up its military preparedness on its Southern flank and better cooperate with the EU on security policies, I contend that NATO and its members should focus their diplomatic tools and instruments of power on reinforcing and reinvigorating Article II of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits members to “strengthen their free institutions.”[xviii] After all, NATO is more successful in its agenda-setting and operational objectives when it is more unified through the common characteristics of its members—particularly their institutions of democracy and the fellowship in the rule of law.

To accomplish this daunting task, I propose that NATO’s strategic command and its members incorporate institutions of regionalism into the Alliance’s Strategic Concept as it pertains to Article II. As a result of the unipolarity of the Pax Americana, the reputation of multilateralism has been strained. According to Professor James Caporaso, a professor of international political economy and international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, this strained reputation, in part, is due to multilateralism and its broad definition. In response, Caporaso developed two unique and distinct definitions for multilateralism, namely multilateral institutions and institutions of multilateralism. For our purpose, Caporaso’s definition on institutions of multilateralism is vital, as they are less formal and regularly used to bring together relevant groupsstate actors that share one or more objective goals in the pursuit of their national interests and global legitimacy.[xix]

Taking inspiration from Caporaso’s institutions of multilateralism, I developed institutions of regionalism to function as a complementary mechanism to formal multilateral organizations as they concentrate on regional peripheries—regional organizations constructed “from within” and “from below,” rather than “from outside” and “from above”—that generate greater consensus and representation of members’ interests to the multilateral organization.[xx] Implementing such institutions within a large and complex alliance system like NATO will permit members to further institutionalize relations that fulfil various political, civil, and security interests. With more comprehensive experience and awareness of membership rules, norms, and structures, these institutions of regionalism will signal how all members can engage and manage their international self-interests, goals, and values within NATO, along with generating wider political cohesion and unity in the Alliance’s institutions of democracy and the rule of law.[xxi]

As it so happens, there have been such recommendations made in the “NATO 2030: United for a New Era” document published in November 2020. For instance, the document suggests that NATO members are considering establishing a Centre for Excellence for Democratic Resilience.[xxii] This political and diplomatic tool would be “dedicated to providing support to individual allies, upon request, for strengthening societal resilience to resist interference from hostile external actors in the functioning of their democratic institutions and processes.”[xxiii] The document goes further and calls for more significant transatlantic consultation through the North Atlantic Council that will strengthen the Alliance in a systemic, credible, and robust manner as it will call upon the foreign ministers of NATO member states to make periodic appraisals of the political health and development of the organization.[xxiv]

Like the organizations above, more member-centric institutions of regionalism are significant for NATO’s political unity and cohesion as it directs attention and encourages discussions on specific and real transatlantic security and defence issues by establishing joint institutions. For instance, the Alliance should be encouraged to establish NATO+1 regional organizations that persuade NATO to specifically target one particular state member to host a summit on an outstanding or specific transatlantic security and defence concern. From this I argue that these institutions will stimulate populist and nationalist leaders in Europe to approach NATO with more intrigue, as it will build connections to the transatlantic community for securing discussions on issue areas that are vital to these states’ national interests.[xxv] This political avenue will incentivize NATO members—like Poland and Hungary—to feel as though they are full-fledged members and perhaps lead them to focus their political and military outlooks back to the democratic-orientated West.

With the outlook of these Small and Middle European Powers reverting to the democratic West, there is ample opportunity for the top-tier powers of NATO to regain transatlantic credibility and support for their roles, status, and repertoires as the leaders of democracy and multilateralism. I contend that in the emerging multipolar order, the top-tier powers are no longer primarily concerned with the possession of large amounts of crude material power, but rather with notions of global legitimacy and hegemonic authority—powerful notions for the post-Trump United States and the post-Brexit United Kingdom.[xxvi]

By establishing more organizations under the guidance of institutions of regionalism, NATO can collectively move forward in its operation as a military alliance that is unshakeable in its commitments to all members and the common values that are outlined in the North Atlantic Treaty.[xxvii] Such organizations will focus members on staying united and fortified within the Strategic Concept of the Alliance while also providing robust platforms of plurality that will bridge the concerns of lower-tier powers to the forefront of transatlantic security and defence policy-making processes, in return for promoting and ensuring the stability and endurance of the institutions of democracy and the rule of law. With NATO generating greater intergovernmentalism, top-tier powers, like the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, can use the successfulness of NATO’s political unity and policy cohesion as definitive proof of the workings democracy and the rule of law have for interstate relations, recertifying themselves and NATO as a legitimate power centre that pools and delegates its resources and capabilities in the pursuit of managing the risks and threats emerging out of the multipolar order.

In conclusion, if NATO and its members desire a more stable and enduring transatlantic relationship, there needs to be a push in recognizing the paradigm shift of NATO’s Strategic Concept. Outlined in this article are recommendations for possible avenues for NATO leaders and members to reinvigorate the Alliance within the multipolar order. Although the appeal and temptation for states to engage in illiberal and autocratic rule or protectionist and nationalist policies remain potent in the transatlantic community, NATO holds the best possibility for the region to overcome the global threats facing the international order. After all, no one transatlantic state has the power or ability to compete against all of the Alliance.


About the Author

Andrew Erskine is a master’s candidate at the University of Prince Edward Island, PEI, Canada, and the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid, Spain, studying global affairs with a concentration in global and regional orders, hegemony and polarity. His master’s thesis, “​Middle Powers what art thou? Remodeling Middle Power Concepts and Roles in the Multipolar Order,” is currently being finalized and focuses on contributing a new and updated theoretical approach in defining what factors make up a Middle Power. Andrew also has particular scholarly interests in Canadian security and defence policy, US foreign policy, and the history of European warfare, 1500–1945. Andrew works as a junior-intern policy analyst with the Executive Council Office of Prince Edward Island, Canada, and the Department of Veteran Affairs, Canada.



[i] “The Power of America’s Example: The Biden Plan for Leading the Democratic World to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century,” Biden for President, accessed January 11, 2021, https://joebiden.com/americanleadership/.

[ii] Magnus Petersson, “NATO’s Territorial Defense: The Global Approach and the Regional Approach,” in NATO and the Crisis in the International Order, ed. Magnus Petersson (London: Routledge, 2018), 102.

[iii] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO 2030: United for a New Era (Brussels: NATO Headquarters, 2020), https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/176155.htm, 5.

[iv] Michael Crowley, “Allies and Former US Officials Fear Trump Could Seek NATO Exit in a Second Term,” The New York Times, September 2, 2020, accessed January 8, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/03/us/politics/trump-nato-withdraw.html.

[v] “Trump: What does the US contribute to NATO in Europe?” BBC, July 30, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-44717074.

[vi] Holly Ellyatt, “Trump’s NATO criticism is ‘valid,’ Europe isn’t spending enough on defense UK ex-minister says,” CNBC, July 11, 2018, accessed January 29, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/11/trumps-nato-criticism-is-valid-europe-isnt-spending-enough-on-def.html.

[vii] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Secretary General’s Annual Report 2019 (Brussels: NATO Headquarters, 2019), https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2020/3/pdf_publications/sgar19-en.pdf, 39.

[viii] Benjamin Haddad, “Emmanuel Marcon’s New Strategy Disruption,” Foreign Policy, December 11, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/12/11/nato-eu-emmanuel-macrons-new-strategy-is-being-a-jerk/.

[ix] Rob Berschinski, “The Threat Within NATO: An alliance built on democratic ideals is seeing the rise of strongmen in its midst,” The Atlantic, April 7, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/04/nato-hungary-authoritarianism/557459/.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] “Strategic Concepts,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, accessed January 11, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_56626.htm#.

[xii] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO 2030, 10.

[xiii] Pierre Morcos, “NATO in 2030: Charting a New Path for the Transatlantic Alliance,” CSIS, accessed January 5, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/nato-2030-charting-new-path-transatlantic-alliance.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Joseph R. Biden, “Why American Must Lead Again: Rescuing US Foreign Policy after Trump,” Foreign Affairs, January 23, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Pierre Morcos, NATO in 2030.

[xix] Ibid., 625.

[xx] Andrew Erskine, “Middle Powers what art thou? Remodelling Middle Power Concepts and Roles for the Multipolar Order,” (Masters diss., University of Prince Edward Island, 2020), 54.

[xxi] Ibid., 54.

[xxii] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO 2030,14.

[xxiii] Ibid., 14.

[xxiv] Ibid., 14.

[xxv] Andrew Erskine, “Middle Powers what art thou?” 54.

[xxvi] Ibid, 53.

[xxvii] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO 2030, 20.


This publication was co-sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.     

Monday, 1 February, 2021 - 09:00