Priorities for Central Europe ahead of NATO Brussels Summit
At the 2018 NATO Brussels Summit, Central European states will celebrate between 15 and 20 years of NATO membership. This presents a unique opportunity to analyze the current relations between these countries and NATO, how the Alliance is perceived today, and what future cooperation might look like. Even though Central Europe is often overlooked when it comes to Europe’s overall geopolitics, there are clearly some trends to watch there such as the growth of defense budgets in V4 countries, the influence of Russia in the region, or the complicated democratic situation in some member states. The tendencies in the U.S.–V4 relations are also worth looking at, as they carry a lot of importance, especially since it seems that Washington is more and more engaged, at least certainly in Poland.
In this context, more debate is needed to understand the value and the role of Central Europe in the overall NATO strategy as well as the expectations these countries have from the Alliance and more specifically from the next NATO Summit. Elisabeth Braw, non-resident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security of the Atlantic Council, joined us in Brussels to explore the role of Central European countries in the overall NATO Strategy and their expectations for the next NATO Summit. We asked her about the future of the Alliance.
What is the role of Central Europe in the overall NATO strategy?
All the Central European countries contribute in some form to NATO operations, showing their commitment to the Alliance. Poland has done a remarkable job at essentially modernizing its armed forces and improving their capabilities. It is also playing an important role as the Alliance is focusing more on its Eastern flank. Poland is hosting three large exercises this year as well as a NATO battle group and contributing to another one. Slovakia together with Poland is part of the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), and the Czech Republic will join this year. Both Poland and Czech Republic contribute to NATO air policing and Slovakia and Hungary host NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs).
Central European countries are also involved in training both Afghani and Iraqi armed forces. For example, Czech pilots are training the Afghan air force while the Slovak army is training Iraqi forces. In Afghanistan, currently Czech Republic has 230 soldiers engaged, Hungary around 100, Poland around 240 and Slovakia 34. Another significand example is the NATO mission in Kosovo where there are 385 Hungarians which is an important commitment.
Overall, we can see that even though the commitments are not very large in terms of numbers, there is a wide range of contributions to NATO on multiple levels. In terms of challenges, the biggest one for the Central European countries is the level of their defense spending, which is not what it should be except Poland which spends around 2 percent.
What are the most important security trends to watch in the Central European countries?
The issue of the mission of their armed forces is very relevant, especially since we are moving from an era of expeditionary warfare to territorial defense. Countries in the region are trying to figure out which capabilities they should have and in which direction to develop their armed forces.
At the same time, we are also moving from an era where the United States did the heavy lifting while the rest of the countries specialized in the direction they wanted (for example intelligence or medevac). However, this is no longer good enough, we have to do more for our own security, not just spend more but have a wider range of capabilities. This trend is very important to watch in the Central European Countries.
What is the current and future path of U.S.–V4 relations?
We are seeing two paths here: one that involves Poland and United States and one that contains the other three countries and the United States. Poland has been quite clear that it wants to strengthen bilateral ties with the United States, seeing it as a security guarantee. In the past few years, starting with the Obama administration and continuing after the election of President Trump, the Poles have been very proactive and successful in nurturing these ties. They have put their money where their interests are and recently decided to buy Patriot missile defense, for instance.
The other Central European countries do not have this history of focusing on bilateral ties with the United States and one can see they have not been as active as Poland. In spite of this, it is interesting to notice that the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Europe is Wess Mitchell who has a strong background of focusing on Central and Eastern Europe, which is a very good sign for those countries.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.