Issue 15 - Article 3

NATO's Strategic Concept

June 5, 2003
Humanitarian Practice Network

NATO’s 5Oth anniversary in April would have gone largely unnoticed had it not been for the fact that, at the time, NATO was involved in Operation Allied Force, a bombing campaign against Serbia to stop the repression in Kosovo that had generated fierce public debate, including in NATO member states. Those supporting NATO action pointed to a decade of aggressive Serb nationalism, the intransigency of Milosevic’s regime, and the need to protect the rights of the Albanian Kosovars. Those criticising it did so on the grounds that NATO’s action had not been authorised by the UN Security Council, that it was an ‘aggressive’ act against a sovereign state, and that the bombing did not limit itself to military targets but destroyed Serbia’s economic infrastructure, causing serious civilian casualties in the process. Simmering under the surface were other issues: had all diplomatic means been truly exhausted before the bombing started. Did the Kosovar’s not suffer greater repression and loss than if the Kosovo Verification Mission had been reinforced. Was the use of force justified and effective in obtaining compliance with international norms of good behaviour?

There are no easy answers, but one thing is clear: conflict prevention and management have always been the justification for NATO’s existence, but with its more prominent involvement in the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts NATO is appearing as a new player on the humanitarian scene, and bringing with it a new dimension to ‘peace-support operations’.

The end of the cold war has changed the global strategic landscape, and these changes have been reflected in NATO’s strategic concepts of 1991 and 1999. Key components of the 1999 Strategic Concept ( are: a broad security concept; a Euro-Atlantic focus; collaboration with other like-minded international organisations; dialogue and ‘partnership’ with states that can affect the security of NATO members; and arms control.

For NATO, security is not only a matter of defence capability but also of political, economic, social and environmental stability, development and prosperity (article 25). As west and east Europe are seeking to re-establish ties, the North Atlantic focus is evolving to an ever broader ‘Euro-Atlantic focus’. The primary aim of NATO is to maintain the security, freedom and stability of its members in this geographical zone. But instability at the periphery can affect its members, for example, through the spill-over of war, large scale refugee flows, the disruption of vital resource flows, terrorism or organised crime (article 24). NATO feels this justifies deployment outside NATO territory as part of a crisis prevention or crisis response operation, or to support other international organisations – notably the UN and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – with operations to preserve international peace and security (article 48).

NATO recognises the ‘primary’ but not the exclusive role of the UN Security Council in maintaining international peace and security (article 15). The UN, the OSCE and the Western European Union (a military association) are privileged partners for NATO to achieve its aim. But NATO, through ‘dialogue’ and ‘partnership’ arrangements, is also engaged with Russia, the Ukraine and a number of non-NATO Mediterranean states (article 36-38). NATO is open to enlargement under two conditions: that prospective new members are willing and able to assume the responsibilities and obligations of membership, and that their inclusion serves the overall political and strategic interests of the alliance (article 39). Finally, NATO is committed to arms control, although it discusses its efforts in this regard with reference to nuclear non-proliferation and the destruction of chemical and biological weapons (articles 40, 56, 57) and not with reference to light weapon proliferation. Such a justification skates on thin ice: the US, UK and France are among the world’s largest arms exporters; Belgium (NATO member), the Czech Republic and the Ukraine (partners and aspiring members) are crossroads for the international semi-legal and illegal arms trade, and the US has not signed the Ottawa Convention banning landmines.

NATO and key members have claimed that Operation Allied Force over Kosovo achieved all of its objectives ( For the humanitarian community there remain, however, four main areas of debate:

  1. humanitarian militarism: can a military crisis response be argued on ‘humanitarian’ grounds?
  2. military humanitarianism: should military troops get involved in humanitarian assistance?
  3. civil-military cooperation: how do civilian and military organisations relate to each other and collaborate?
  4. international humanitarian law: does the end justifies the means?

Operation Allied Force did not do as much damage to Serbia’s military capability as NATO claimed, but it did destroy much of Serbia’s economic infrastructure. This mainly impacts on civilians. Moreover, NATO used cluster munitions that are untargetted and are now causing casualties in the very Albanian Kosovar community it was supposed to protect. Finally, there have been strong allegations that US forces at least fired depleted uranium ammunition. This is an armour piercing, but also chemically toxic and radio-active heavy metal.

See, from the US, The National Gulf War Resource Centre at and, in the UK, the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium at or and


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