News | Dec. 21, 2022

Priorities for NATO Partnerships in an Era of Strategic Competition

By Lisa Aronsson and Brett Swaney Strategic Perspectives 40

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Executive Summary

Strategic Perspectives 37

The Joseph Biden administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) establishes the People’s Republic of China as the “pacing challenge” and a priority for the United States, followed by Russia’s “acute” threat in Europe.1 The NDS also emphasizes the importance of working with allies and partners to address these threats and reinforce deterrence. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the most institutionalized and capable of U.S. alliances, aspires to play a role in addressing both the threat from Russia in Europe and the longerterm global security implications of China’s rise. With a position of leadership in NATO, the United States has an opportunity to help shape the Alliance for this strategic competition at a critical juncture in NATO history.

NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept, a once-in-a-decade occurrence, updated the Alliance’s core tasks—defense and deterrence, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security— to reflect this era of strategic competition.2 The war in Ukraine has dramatically changed the security environment in Europe and demands that NATO renew its focus on defense and deterrence, while also preserving and updating its other core tasks. The third core task, cooperative security, which includes NATO’s open door policy and partnerships, is the subject of this paper. Cooperative security is essential for NATO to address the potential for prolonged conflict with Russia, China’s rise, and transboundary challenges, such as emerging technologies or climate change. It is also through NATO partnerships that the United States can strengthen coordination among its allies and partners in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific region.

Since 2014, NATO has paid relatively little strategic attention to partnerships with nonmember states around the world. After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, NATO sharpened its focus on reassuring vulnerable member states in northeast Europe and restoring its capacity for collective defense. It was clear that Ukraine, a partner state, did not warrant the same level of protection as the Allies. Also, as NATO wound down out-of-area operations, some scholars believed the Alliance and its operational partner states in Afghanistan, for example, might go their separate ways and focus on their own regional security. NATO’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan in April 2021 undermined the Alliance’s partnership with that state and with its operational partners, too. Since then, the United States and other Allies have increasingly sidestepped NATO to work in more flexible formats, raising questions about the role of NATO as a platform for cooperation.

As the NATO 2022 Strategic Concept is implemented, the United States will have an opportunity to help set priorities for partnerships and adapt them to address competition with Russia and China across multiple theaters and domains. Many European Allies are not only focused on Russia but also, increasingly, concerned about the implications of China’s rise for their own security and for the rules-based order. European perspectives on China have hardened considerably in the last 2 years because of Beijing’s military modernization, investments in European critical infrastructure, assertive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, human rights abuses, and growing cooperation with Russia. Yet many depend on trade with China, want to maintain some channels for cooperation, and resist policies that openly refer to China as an adversary.

NATO will never be a global alliance, but its new strategy reflects an awareness that allied security depends not only on addressing Russia’s threat to Europe but also, increasingly, on China’s rise a series of transboundary challenges such as emerging technologies and climate change. Under the core task of cooperative security, NATO partnerships offer a means of expanding the Alliance’s global approach to security while strengthening its military and political dimensions. For the United States, these partnerships offer an opportunity to strengthen the sinews of cooperation among its most capable partners in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific, bolstering deterrence and resilience. Partnerships must serve NATO’s interests, but because cooperation is voluntary, partner perspectives also matter.

This study evaluates how select NATO partner states in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region see the strategic value of cooperating with as the Alliance adapts for strategic competition, and it assesses the prospects for future cooperation. Through interviews with government officials from partners in two regions, including at the ambassador and deputy chief of mission (DCM) levels, through a focus group discussion among DCMs from European neutral states, and through a through review of documents pertaining to NATO partnership activities, this paper finds that NATO partnerships offer significant strategic value for partners and that value depends on U.S. leadership and commitment to the Alliance. It depends on NATO’s centrality for transatlantic consultations and its role in setting international norms and standards for modern militaries. Partners also value capacity-building and interoperability, science and technology (S&T) cooperation, and political consultations on topics of international concern.

Collectively, this study’s findings demonstrate that the Biden administration has already taken steps to ensure that NATO remains an important platform for coordination among U.S. allies and partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region. The United States should advocate for partnership policies that strengthen NATO’s capacity-building programs, which have tangibly strengthened Ukraine’s resilience, for example. NATO should expand S&T cooperation with select partners on emerging and disruptive technologies and consider partnerships as a component of its overarching strategy to preserve NATO’s technological edge. To be sure, the United States will always seek flexible formats for cooperation, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States or the Australia–United Kingdom– U.S. trilateral security pact, but it should not lose sight of NATO and its core task of cooperative security as a tool for adapting the U.S. system of alliances for a new era of strategic competition.

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1 “Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy,” Department of Defense, March 28, 2022, available at <>.

2 NATO 2022 Strategic Concept, Madrid Summit (Brussels: North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO], June 29, 2022), available at < pdf/290622-strategic-concept.pdf>.