The Comprehensive Approach Initiative: Future Options for NATO

By Friis Arne Petersen and Hans Binnendijk Defense Horizons 58

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Sept. 1, 2007 — DOWNLOAD PDF

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Experience has shown that conflict resolution requires the application of all elements of national and international power— political, diplomatic, economic, financial, informational, social, and commercial, as well as military. To resolve conflicts or crises, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should adopt a Comprehensive Approach that would enable the collaborative engagement of all requisite civil and military elements of international power to end hostilities, restore order, commence reconstruction, and begin to address a conflict’s root causes. NATO can provide the military element for a comprehensive approach. Many other national, international, and nongovernmental actors can provide the civilian elements. 

In May 2007, the Royal Danish Embassy in Washington, DC, and the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University held an informal workshop of experts from across the Alliance to explore options for creating an international comprehensive approach to postconflict stabilization and reconstruction. This paper is the product of that workshop and subsequent collaborations. It endeavors to describe the major requirements for conflict resolution, what NATO has learned from its post–Cold War experiences to date in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and how a more effective program of international civil and military engagement can be put in place. 

Much work remains to be done to flesh out the initiative, but already it is clear that military efforts in the field must be complemented throughout any operation by nonmilitary means that bring to bear the expert civil competencies of other actors, both national and international. In the Balkans and Afghanistan, NATO engaged with other actors belatedly through ad hoc, situational arrangements. Not knowing in advance what roles and which participants will eventually come into play results in longer and more costly conflict resolution in terms of lives, treasure, and ultimate effectiveness.  

The adage that “NATO works in practice better than in theory” has become a convenient excuse for not reaching muchneeded comprehensive agreements on civil-military cooperation, from the top levels down to face-to-face relationships in the field. More than enough operational experience has been gained to indicate that it is past time to replace expedient constructs with systemic, institutionalized procedures for cooperation on what, as is widely agreed, must be accomplished quickly and effectively. 

The last remaining core task of NATO transformation is to link the Alliance’s military capabilities effectively with the indispensable nonmilitary elements of power essential to successful conflict resolution. Failure to finish that work hampers and at times frustrates success in the field by operational personnel, civilians, and military across all organizations who are simply trying to get the job done.

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