In November, French President Emmanuel Macron told The Economist that NATO so lacked direction that it was suffering “brain death.” The remark drew criticism from both European and U.S. officials, but when the leaders of NATO member states met in London on December 4, Macron’s words served as a catalyst. Indeed, as Macron said after the summit, his comments were like a giant “icebreaker,” making a lot of noise but clearing the way for the alliance to plow forward.

The alliance has much to grapple with. It must contend with a resurgent Russia, a rising China, continuing terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the imperative to keep up with advances in military technology. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, took the occasion of the London meeting to begin a review process, in which the alliance would determine how it will confront the new realities of the twenty-first century.

The moment recalls a similar one in 1966. That year, the French “icebreaker” came from Charles de Gaulle, who withdrew France from the military command structure of NATO, claiming that obligations to NATO impinged on France’s national sovereignty. Pierre Harmel, the Belgian foreign minister, subsequently undertook a consultative review and submitted its findings to NATO’s council of ministers. The Harmel Report of 1967 produced the philosophy that would guide NATO for the next fifty years: the alliance would pursue a “two-track” approach, combining strong military deterrence with a willingness to embrace détente and dialogue with the Soviet Union.

The alliance has faced growing challenges in recent years. In 2014, NATO responded simultaneously to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and to the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq by putting in place quick-response capabilities for Europe and providing airborne warning and control near Syrian air space. But to be nimble in handling today’s threats is not enough. NATO must prepare for the threats of tomorrow, when dynamics may be more complex than those between superpowers in the twentieth century. To plan for such a world will signal that the alliance is far from brain dead. 


Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, NATO has had to adapt to the possibility of future aggression from Moscow. At a 2016 summit in Warsaw, NATO devised four multinational battlegroups totaling around 4,500 soldiers. Just one year later, the alliance deployed these groups to the Baltic states and Poland. The leaders at the London summit agreed to continue building military capabilities that would put the Kremlin on notice that NATO intends to defend itself from any incursion. 

In the years following Russia’s seizure of Crimea, NATO has emphasized such deterrence, while dialogue with Moscow has taken a back seat. “No business as usual” with Russia has become the alliance’s strict policy. The NATO-Russia Council presents one of a few exceptions. Under the aegis of that body, NATO leaders continue to meet with Russian officials, but mostly with the goal of reminding Russia of the gravity of its actions in Ukraine. The meetings are infrequent and do not address immediate problems. 

Some NATO members, including Macron, believe that the time has come for greater détente. Russia is one of the big geostrategic players, the French president asserts, and it cannot be kept away from the table. But not all NATO allies agree. Among the dissenters are Poland, the Baltic states, and—at least up till now—the United States. U.S.-Russian diplomacy shows signs of warming, however. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Washington on December 10 was a possible harbinger of a new American readiness to work with Moscow.

“No business as usual” with Russia has become the alliance’s strict policy.

If NATO chooses Macron’s route and tries to renew relations with Russia, the alliance must be careful lest its actions be construed as rewarding Moscow for aggressive behavior. It will also need to bring its reluctant members on board. The best way to achieve these ends is for NATO to focus its efforts on arms control. After all, every NATO member state has an interest in reducing the nuclear threat.

Earlier this year, for instance, NATO allies consulted closely over Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. After months of hard work and careful consideration of intelligence, member states unanimously agreed that the Russian 9M729 missile was not in compliance with the terms of the treaty. An alliance capable of reaching such a consensus can also develop a shared, positive agenda on arms control policy. NATO could then play a crucial part in future negotiations between Washington and Moscow over tactical nuclear warheads—a long-term goal of the Trump administration. These discussions will need to include NATO allies because some tactical warheads are deployed in member states, and Russia and the United States will need the cooperation of those states in implementing verification measures at nuclear facilities. 


At the London summit, leaders recognized that China’s growing power presents both challenges and opportunities for the alliance. China is not an active military player in NATO’s area of operation, but neither is it a benign Asian partner with which NATO can easily work (like, say, Japan or South Korea). NATO must be ready to coordinate with China when doing so will be mutually beneficial, but it must also weigh the interests of member states against China’s growing global power. 

NATO countries have reason to be ambivalent about China’s rise. On the one hand, Beijing has played a stabilizing role in some areas of international conflict and tension. For example, China helped suppress piracy off the coast of Somalia in 2015, and it was a crucial signatory to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. On the other hand, China has purchased port facilities within NATO’s European member states, and Huawei, a Chinese firm, dominates Europe’s 5G telecommunications market. In the event of a crisis, what might Chinese control over such infrastructure imply for Europe? China is a power that has already entered the alliance’s space, and it deserves NATO’s attention as such.

With regard to China, as with Russia, NATO has a constructive role to play for the benefit of all. For example, China is becoming more involved in international peacekeeping operations. All concerned will benefit if NATO helps train Chinese peacekeepers to protect civilians in armed conflict zones in accordance with the highest international standards. 

A Dutch patrol in Urozgan province, Afghanistan, October 2009
Sven Torfinn / Panos Pictures / Re​dux


No plan for NATO’s future would be complete without a vision for peace in Afghanistan. The alliance leads a mission in that country called Resolute Support, in order to train, advise, and assist Afghan forces. Just in the last month, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative to the country, has taken up negotiations with the Taliban that had earlier stalled. NATO can expect the situation on the ground in Afghanistan to change as a result.

Successful negotiations between the United States and the Taliban could pave the way for a full-fledged peace and reconciliation process. But to get there, the country will first need to hold intra-Afghan talks that bring the Afghan government and the Taliban to the table, and which include minorities and women. NATO has been consulting with Khalilzad and his team, and vice versa, in the effort to reach such a point. 

NATO should define the role it intends to play both in the fight against terrorist groups and in the peace and reconciliation process that will follow the intra-Afghan talks. NATO military leaders are already planning for various eventualities, whether the peace process ends with a drawdown in troop numbers or the continuation of the train, advise, and assist mission. Whatever the terms of the peace, the alliance must consider how it will check the growing strength of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and prevent its spread into new territory such as Central Asia. If NATO is asked to be a guarantor of the peace, it will have to coordinate with interested regional powers—China, Pakistan, Russia, and the Central Asian states—to ensure that the peace deal is implemented. As guarantor, NATO may also have to help build a stable environment for the flow of development assistance from organizations such as the World Bank and the European Union.


For most of its existence, NATO has enjoyed nearly unrivaled global superiority in military technology. The alliance always sought the cutting edge, staying well ahead of its competitors. The United States, with heavy investment, led the way. But that advantage is now in danger, with figures such as Jeff Bezos telling Pentagon leaders that the United States risks falling behind China in the field of space technology.

How can NATO retain the edge that it now risks losing? Member states must take it upon themselves, at the national level, to keep up with innovations. But NATO should nevertheless be prepared to ensure that no member state is left behind. That commitment is most difficult to meet with the smallest NATO countries, some of which don’t have the resources to stay abreast of the latest military advances. But NATO invests in evening out these differences. The Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, for example, convenes all allies in discussing the development and use of new military technologies. Joint weapons acquisition programs developed at NATO headquarters also help member states to acquire new weapons and participate in new technology trends. NATO should continue to drive forward in including as many allies as possible in joint acquisition projects, because that process allows member states to learn by doing in the high-technology arena. 

NATO planners will have to assess new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, to determine what military advantages they may offer, and at what risk. And the alliance will need to devise acquisition procedures that are efficient enough that allies can acquire technology before it becomes obsolete (software is particularly problematic in this regard). Member states bear the brunt of the burden of updating their militaries, but NATO does have the responsibility to bring all allies forward together.


At the heart of the Harmel Report, more than 50 years ago, was a core belief about NATO’s responsibility: as a defensive alliance, NATO existed not just to maintain the status quo but also, as circumstances permitted, to change it. At that time, such an imperative meant that NATO would pursue strong deterrence and defense even while remaining ready for dialogue and détente. The alliance stood prepared to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances.

The Harmel Report is just as relevant today and NATO must view its mission similarly. Among the priorities discussed in London, to which NATO must respond and adapt, are Russia, China, Afghanistan, and technological competition. But the alliance should consider other priorities that were not discussed in London as well. Climate change will create resource scarcity and drive migration. Economic stagnation and lack of jobs in developing countries will bring young people to the street and fuel political radicalization, leading to extremism and terrorism in some cases.

The demands of each day often cloud the long-term view from NATO headquarters. The strategic review process launched in London holds out the promise of cutting through that fog with authoritative priorities for the alliance’s near future. Member states should use the review to help devise a new Strategic Concept, the official document that outlines NATO’s purpose and goals. 

The last Strategic Concept is nearly a decade old, drafted before Russia seized Crimea and ISIS set up its caliphate. The task of getting member states to agree to a new one may be arduous, but NATO can draw from the daily experience of consensus-making, which will help it to forge a new Strategic Concept. With a new document settled, NATO allies can begin to focus on the work ahead.

CORRECTION APPENDED (January 10, 2020)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Zalmay Khalilzad as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. He is actually the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation.

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  • ROSE GOTTEMOELLER was the former Deputy Secretary General of NATO, a post she held from October 2016 to October 2019. She will take up the position of Payne Distinguished Lecturer at Stanford University in January 2020.
  • More By Rose Gottemoeller