Anxious Anticipation Ahead of NATO Brussels Summit
Photo Credit: NATO
The Sober State of Transatlantic Relations
The drama built around this year's NATO summit will come in two acts. The first is the gathering itself on July 11–12, 2018 in the Alliance's brand-new headquarters in Brussels. The second will follow shortly after, on July 16, when President Donald Trump meets President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. The shock that is anticipated during Act One has been coming for a long time, while the potential shock from Act Two is the subject of wild speculation. A double whammy could seriously damage NATO, plunge the transatlantic relationship into deeper turmoil, and unsettle the European part of Pax Americana beyond recognition.
In official NATO parlance, the summit will be about military readiness, the Alliance's uber-topic since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and that year's summit in Wales. Announcements will be made about how the readiness of the member states' armed forces has improved since then, and how NATO's high-readiness contingency forces have upped their capabilities. NATO will also announce progress on military mobility, another recent obsession since post-Crimea probes revealed that moving the Alliance's troops from where they are to where they would likely be needed, should its Eastern Flank need reinforcing, would be too slow to make a strategic difference. Mobility also plays a big role in a second field of reform: the Alliance's command structure. Two new commands will be added, in the United States (Joint Force Command in Norfolk, Virginia) and Germany (Joint Support and Enabling Command in Ulm, Baden-Württemberg). The latter’s main task will be to ensure that the flow of military assets across NATO's widespread terrain improves markedly in the coming years.
However, the summit will really be about one thing only: burden-sharing, probably the oldest evergreen in NATO's political debates, which is expected to reach a moment of reckoning this year. President Trump has made the question of whether Allies spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense the defining issue of his security and defense agenda. Not all member states will live up to their 2014 pledge to do so by 2024, and he has made it clear that his ire will fall on those who do not. Germany is high on the watch list but so are other countries. The big question is how the showdown will play out around the table when Trump raises the issue. The military complacency of some Allies and Trump's view of the Alliance exclusively through the 2 percent prism could lead to a hot drama that threatens to leave NATO gravely damaged and Alliance trust and solidarity compromised when Western cohesion is needed more than at any time since 1990.
Even greater damage could be done at the Trump–Putin meeting four days later. Among European Allies, but also in a staunchly Russia-critical U.S. Congress, suspicion about why the president wanted to meet with his counterpart now is rampant. Observers are fearful that the notoriously unpredictable and diplomatically idiosyncratic Trump might sell out NATO security interests by agreeing to some deal with Putin, whom he seems to admire and covet as a personal friend. With Trump showing very little interest in the fragility of Europe's strategic equilibrium and in the United States’ decisive role in it, anxiety about him throwing NATO’s European members under the bus — wittingly or unwittingly — runs high. Should such fears prove justified, expect the European security architecture to become seriously unhinged, maybe to a historic degree. Also expect a massive domestic backlash in the United States where Congress will not sit idly while the president plays nice with Putin.
This is an anxiously anticipated moment in transatlantic security. Tensions run high and it is unclear whether enough of the old transatlantic consensus can survive. Strategic adjustment on a grand scale is under way, and the Brussels Summit could become a historic moment of the unsavory kind.
Avoiding “Unstrategic Rupture”
The administration of President Donald Trump, far from being convinced by recent developments in European defense budgets and initiatives, will come to the NATO Brussels Summit with a clear and consistent belief that the United States is being taken advantage of by free riders that do not contribute enough to the Alliance’s collective defense. The president’s disruptive approach with NATO Allies has been described as a “reset” of the liberal order by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and as a “strategic renovation” by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell. However, Trump’s confrontational and divisive approach vis à vis the EU, is leading to “unstrategic rupture” within the transatlantic relationship, and it makes it harder for European Allies to follow and trust U.S. leadership.
In this context, France sees an opportunity to push for European “strategic autonomy,” the political, operational, and industrial capacity to act militarily without U.S. support if necessary. In fact, European countries have no choice but to hedge and enhance their defense capabilities while seeking ways to preserve the transatlantic link. The Brussels Summit will require providing realistic answers to the lack of readiness and to the capability gap of European militaries. Success will therefore depend on the ability of Europeans to articulate a constructive and coherent discourse on the link between transatlantic defense and their recent cooperation initiatives.
An important discussion about European defense cooperation and its role in supporting NATO’s goals and burden-sharing needs to happen during the summit. Europeans should use the occasion to make the case that their latest initiatives strengthen transatlantic deterrence and can complement the work of the Alliance. The U.S. concerns and criticisms heard at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year cannot remain unanswered.
With the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense, Permanent Structures Cooperation (PESCO), and the European Defense Force, the EU has developed tools that are meant to improve capability building efficiently. The French-led European Intervention Initiative has been designed to strengthen operational cooperation and readiness. All these have been conceived to complement NATO and to make European countries stronger defense actors, and therefore better partners for the United States. Only time will tell whether they can deliver on this goal, but the Brussels Summit provides them an opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings about their objectives.
In Brussels, NATO’s secretary general and the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission will sign a new NATO–EU joint communiqué, and significant progress in the domain of military mobility is expected. The question of mobility is seen as a potential success story for the EU–NATO strategic partnership, as the dedicated PESCO project has given a new momentum to the issue and a more formal role to the EU in it. A difficult discussion about the 2 percent defense spending target will not be avoided, but a more comprehensive dialogue on the way European countries can pull more weight within NATO and become more serious security actors by deepening their cooperation should not be missed.
Building Inclusive Security
Imagine the upcoming Brussels Summit with interventions of heads of state and government, military leaders, and senior officials including men and women, young and old, and with diverse ethnic and regional backgrounds. But, as the security community does not reflect the population of NATO countries, this is still not the case.
It is not only the increasingly complex and difficult security environment NATO is facing, with its new emerging challenges, which demands a new approach toward security including women, the younger generation, and ethnic minorities. Research shows that diverse teams are more successful and make better decisions. To achieve such an operational benefit, it is crucial for NATO, its member states, and its partners — and, alongside them, institutions from defense companies to public policy institutions and the media — to engage with populations most widely to become more efficient and attractive employers. Only by doing so can the best and diverse talent available be recruited and retained to build highest-performing teams around security matters.
A first step toward inclusive security can be achieved by changing the framing of the issue. Diversity and gender equality is often regarded as a “soft” issue, just like human rights. By focusing on the operational advantages diversity offers, such as increased effectiveness and attractiveness, the issue could gain more prominence on the political agenda and broader support. To achieve this, diversity needs to be not only addressed as a matter of principle but also as a way toward more secure societies and a more effective NATO.
Achieving inclusive security requires more inclusive practices. Gender is not a women’s issue, it is a leadership issue, involving both men and women. NATO members should be incentivized to adapt their nominating procedure in ways that ensure a more diverse pool of candidates for NATO’s general operations and military missions. Other useful practices would be monitoring and accountability of the NATO leadership to encourage action to create more efficiency and attractiveness, instead of mere words. Most importantly, change toward a culture that encourages diversity and inclusion needs to take place in NATO’s headquarters and command structures, in different national ministries, and in military bases.
While heads of state and government, high-ranking military leaders, and senior officials engage in discussions on the future of the alliance during the Brussels Summit, they should not forget the broader community. To make security and defense field truly inclusive, and to benefit from the advantages this offers, more action is required.
Strengthening the Eastern Flank
When it comes to NATO summits, the measure of success for Poland, Romania, and most other countries of the Alliance’s Eastern Flank is how they further the ability to deter Russia effectively. NATO made very real progress in this respect at the Wales Summit in 2014 and the Warsaw Summit in 2016, when it was decided to establish an Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic states and Poland, consisting of four battalion groups.
Much remains to be done by NATO to strengthen its Eastern Flank militarily, though. The key objective for the Brussels Summit in military terms for the countries concerned will be ability to effectively reinforce the east via greater readiness and mobility of forces throughout the Alliance. A key element of that is the 4x30 initiative, which calls for NATO to have 30 mechanized battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 combat vessels ready for deployment within 30 days or less by 2020. Improving force mobility through a “military Schengen” is the other side of the same coin. Readiness and mobility are key for NATO to have sufficient forces in a theatre in case of a conflict. Reinforcement strategy is the piece of the puzzle that is required to turn the “trip-wire” strategy agreed at Warsaw Summit into viable deterrence.
However, it is not the military deliverables from the Brussels Summit that will be key for deterring Russia; what is paramount is unity among the Allies, and especially transatlantic unity, in the face of huge tensions around burden sharing in security and also around trade. A repeat of the acrimony of the recent G7 summit in Canada would be hugely detrimental, especially if it is followed by a cordial summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on July 16. In the end, NATO’s ability to deter potential adversaries comes from its political cohesion and unity.
Paying More Attention to the Black Sea
Following its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia initiated a process of intense militarization of the peninsula, in the process changing the military landscape of the region. Not only has it deployed heavy weaponry there, it has also created an effective anti-access/area denial zone on land and sea. Russia is also pursuing an intense modernization of its Sevastopol-based Black Sea fleet, which has changed the maritime military scene and projected greater threats to littoral states. NATO has responded to this new regional landscape with measures meant to protect and reassure its members on the Eastern Flank, and to deter Russia’s further aggression. Most of these measures, though, focus on terrestrial and air security. Despite an increase in naval military exercises, attention to maritime security in the Black Sea lags behind as decisions on new or heightened measures have either not been agreed upon among the NATO littoral states or been seen as too provocative for Russia. In the current context, with a U.S. administration increasingly distant from its European partners and a U.S. president perhaps contemplating a realignment with Russia, the Black Sea states have ever more reasons to worry about a military balance that will continue to tilt toward the latter in the region while the United States will reduce its military footprint there.
Given Russia’s interest in the BIack Sea and the meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin a few days following the summit, it is unlikely that increased military measures in the region will be adopted, or even discussed in Brussels. Littoral NATO members should still pursue the inclusion of a mention of the Black Sea in the summit’s final statement and strive for a few, modest actions. These include striving for closer cooperation and alignment among littoral states that are NATO members and partners, possibly initiating a Black Sea consultation format; maintaining Turkey’s interest in Black Sea issues despite its southern focus; suggesting the creation of a NATO Center of Excellence in Maritime Security in Constanta, a venue that should be to the liking of the Trump administration given Romania’s fulfillment of the 2 percent defense spending pledge; and enlisting support of other members on the Eastern Flank in keeping the Black Sea on the agenda of the summit and of the Alliance in general. These actions may be more symbolic than the vigorous ones needed to restore the military balance in the Black Sea, yet this summit may well be all about symbols and small actions.
Deterring Attacks on Democracy
The Brussels Summit comes at a time when NATO and many of its member states are under attack, facing an assault not on their territory but on the democratic institutions that are the foundation of the Alliance itself. The centrality of defending democracy is reflected in the preamble of the Washington Treaty, which states that NATO’s members “are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Asymmetric tactics — including information operations, cyber-attacks, malign financial influence, economic coercion, and subversion of political and social groups — are used by adversaries not just to undermine individual democratic states but also to sow discord in NATO. Within the organization, however, the issue has largely been seen through the lens of strategic communications or cybersecurity, and much of the response has consisted of establishing centers of excellence that are removed from political decision-making. Responding meaningfully to these crosscutting tactics requires political will from the top, whole-of-government efforts, and a united transatlantic response.
This should start with a clear statement from NATO leaders that attacks on democracy, including elections, represent a threat to the Alliance. NATO can build on the agreement at the recent G7 to establish a mechanism for sharing information on threats and best practices, and for coordination with the private sector, particularly tech companies. Given the nature of the threats, coordination with the EU will be essential. The two institutions should build on their agreement at the 2016 Warsaw Summit to enhance cooperation on hybrid and cyber threats by establishing a joint NATO–EU task force on these issues to better coordinate activity that falls across their respective bureaucracies.
The attacks that have been witnessed exploit the internal vulnerabilities of our societies, and in some cases illiberal forces within NATO member states contribute as much if not more than external threats to the erosion of democracy. The fact that President Trump will meet with President Putin, and the uncertainty about whether he will even raise Russia’s use of diverse tools to attack the Alliance’s democracies on this occasion, only complicate the dynamics of this issue. But this also provides an opportunity for leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who have been outspoken on this question, to press for meaningful steps by NATO to defend against and deter the threat. We should all hope they step up to the plate.
NATO has always found it difficult to articulate an explicit strategy looking south, and to address challenges emanating from the Mediterranean and Africa. Challenges in the east, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, where several NATO members face potentially existential threats, have received the lion’s share of attention. But for most members, risks on Europe’s Southern Flank are a bigger and more immediate worry, in particular because of their concerns over terrorism, spillovers from open-ended conflicts, and uncontrolled migration. U.S. concerns are also part of this equation, as the Trump administration continues to view contributions by member states to counterterrorism as a key measure of NATO’s relevance.
There is a growing consensus that NATO needs a more focused approach to security in the south, as well as security partnerships around the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and increasingly in Africa. Several of the planned themes and deliverables of the Brussels Summit are meant to address this need, including new programs for defense capacity building across the Mediterranean, and a potential NATO training mission in Iraq. The summit should also give additional impetus and definition to the “hub” for the south recently established at Joint Force Command in Naples. The aim of enhanced NATO–EU cooperation has special relevance to “projecting stability” southward, given the mix of hard and soft, conventional and unconventional problems characteristic of the region. The situation in Turkey also has security implications for NATO’s strategy for the south and, together with the Black Sea, the country is where NATO’s eastern and southern challenges come together. The Brussels Summit is unlikely to spell revolutionary change in NATO’s southern strategy but it is very likely to advance debate and policy in this politically sensitive area.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.