General Sir Graeme Lamb argues that NATO is facing a more fundamental choice than is often publicly acknowledged. ‘The choice’ he says, ‘is not to dumb NATO down, nor to attempt to do considerably more with even less. It is to fundamentally re-structure the alliance or disband it. A less than half way house, promising much but able to deliver little’, will only, in effect, re-fight previous wars. These comments are extracted from a chapter published by Yale University Press, noted at the end of this extract.
It is, I suspect, increasingly unlikely that the 28 [now 29 and soon to be 30] member states of NATO, in facing a diverse set of conflicting pressures to their individual nation, will act as one. When core national interests converge then it is still possible to briefly bring collective and forceful focus as we saw following 9/11. But without an obvious and agreed global threat, the underlying reason for a hard-wired organisation capable of a robust collective defence with all its obligations as it was structured in 1949 becomes an elective choice. The result is NATO is no longer a unified force operating with a single will and to which Von Neumann and the Nash Equilibrium game theory can be accurately calculated as a zero sum competition with perfect information. It is rather a plethora of seams and divergences into which an opposing force, be it terrorism, the Taliban, ISIL or a re-emergent Russia, can divide, generate dissent and disagreement amongst alliance members. With the demise of the USSR and the proliferation of new age threats the operating concept, ‘all for one and one for all’ has to be challenged and the need for a single alliance to contest a single massive and measurable threat questioned…
These new age threats do not look like force on force capabilities; they do not operate under a national banner or as part of a military ‘Grand Alliance’; they are complex, obscure at best and invisible at worst and are unlikely to be challenged by the collective defence of NATO forces from which we draw false comfort. Today’s plethora of old and emerging diverse threats are no longer simply met by large standing conventional navies, armies, air-forces and marines be they part of a nations armed forces or a standing alliance or coalition. NATO is such a force and probably knows it…
My premise is not to question the wider utility of NATO nor to challenge what has been achieved since the end of the Cold War but to ask today for what purpose and under which precise and binding legal authority? The question, should not be can NATO adapt? Of course it can and in numerous ways it has, but should and can we afford it? The terrible harmony that underpinned its unwavering military capabilities and its cast iron political will to execute has simply gone. Aneurin Bevan gave a speech before the House of Commons on December 5th 1956 on the Suez crisis against Egypt and need for clarity when going into or preparing for war. “I have been looking through the various objectives and reasons that the government have given to the House of Commons for making war on Egypt, and it really is desirable that when a nation makes war upon another nation it should be quite clear why it does so. It should not keep changing the reasons as time goes on.” NATO did so for 40 years. Since 1991 it has, at best, been just muddling through. The reasons since the fall of the USSR for its continued existence are not driven out of the same earlier 20th century grim political and military determination that saw its birth and as such, it lacks the clarity of purpose, the simple stoic nature of its mission that against all odds it would stand, and fight to the death. So a sort of being useful, helpful organisation that fits more into modern political manoeuvring and slick practise rather than hard-edged military capability, while begging the question what would we replace it with, is hardly a 21st century match. NATO in my opinion is no longer, and has not been fit for a clear and determined purpose these last 23 years.
My intention is not to dismiss NATO as a spent force, a force of its time, now past and no longer relevant. The range of threats we now face are both different and deadly, capable of killing on an industrial scale and changing our way of life. The possibility of major large-scale war is ever present but seemingly not imminent. NATO in its present declining form is affordable but does not attend to the real and potentially devastating new age threats. Without substantial new money NATO cannot adapt to these with the flexibility necessary to remain a step or two ahead of them. The choice is not to dumb NATO down, nor to attempt to do considerably more with even less. It is to fundamentally re-structure the alliance or disband it. A less than half way house, promising much but able to deliver little, attacked by complex multi-faceted adapting new age threats will see our money badly spent and our hopes placed on a NATO based on Cold War battle modelling and preparations already fought. We technically won the Cold War but like so much in history, are preparing to re-fight the next great series of battles with rules, equipment, manpower, doctrine and defence capabilities that have already irreversibly, and forever, changed.
Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb
The author is a former director of UK Special Forces and Commander of the British Field Army. He was Deputy Commander to US General Petraeus in Iraq and key adviser to US General McChrystal in Afghanistan. He is Colonel Commandant of the Special Air Services, a trustee of Walking with the Wounded and is a Senior Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
Extracted from: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization – is NATO a Force Fit for a New Century?, in Ian Shapiro and Adam Tooze, eds., Charter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: Together with Scholarly Commentaries and Essential Historical Documents (Basic Documents in World Politics), New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2018, Chapter 5. Available at: