Policy Brief

NATO After the Brussels Summit: Bruised or Emboldened?

September 25, 2018
Photo  credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com

As Allies prepare for the Washington Treaty’s 70th anniversary next April, there is no shortage of operational and strategic challenges facing the Alliance. This is clear from looking at NATO’s most recent summit, which was a disappointment at the political level. Yet, with tensions hanging over the two-day meeting, the summit delivered several concrete measures to enhance deterrence, project stability, and address unconventional threats. It also provided positive signs for NATO’s open-door policy. High-level rhetoric might have taken center stage, but the post-summit declaration demonstrated clear operational headway for the Alliance. The summit's deliverables have the potential to close gaps on the key issues of capabilities and interoperability.

If operational wins are the good news, politics are still the bad news. At the strategic and political levels, challenges loom. Without political cohesion, any operational gains are ultimately in jeopardy. Amid the drama of top-level strife, issues such as diverging threat prioritization and other disagreements challenging Alliance unity received minimal attention. While avoiding these issues may have been intentional, this approach unfortunately moved the alliance no closer to resolving them.

NATO would be wise to use the momentum of the summit’s operational successes to launch serious conversations regarding the political future and identity of the Alliance despite the abundance of easy distractions in today’s political environment. Before the summit, more than a dozen former senior officials and experts joined a call for NATO to conduct a strategic review.[1] While the summit did not produce the specific review task, the post-summit reality reinforces the need to be clearer about the Alliance's purpose in the 21st century. As NATO nears 70, its ability to close capability gaps and create a more cohesive Alliance will be paramount to its longevity.

Brussels Summit Deliverables

Transatlantic headlines over the past two years paint a challenging political picture for NATO today. With questions regarding U.S. leadership, critiques of member state contributions, and continued concerns about the legitimacy of its deterrent posture, NATO is forced to deal with significant internal volatility while confronting rapidly growing external threats.

Considering these challenges, the good news for NATO after the Brussels Summit is that there is, at least, some good news. From an operational perspective, NATO planners accomplished quite a bit in the run-up and at the summit. In politically challenging times, the ability for 29 member states to consolidate around a 79-Point Summit Declaration is an achievement in its own right. In addition to being a positive symbol, the declaration can positively impact day-to-day work across several key NATO areas.

So, what are some of these successes? To start, NATO doubled-down on its core mission of territorial defense. The Brussels Summit affirmed a new “Four Thirties” initiative,[2] which will create 30 mechanized battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 combat vessels, ready for use within 30 days or less. In turn, this effort will bolster the legitimacy of NATO’s conventional deterrent by creating a “follow-on force” capability. While both the Wales and Warsaw summits took significant strides to strengthen NATO’s posture — the former by formalizing the creation of the Very High Readiness Task Force (VJTF) and the latter through establishing the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) — the Four Thirties initiative addresses a gaping reinforcement and readiness challenge facing the Allies.[3] While this is just another step in the right direction, it lends further credibility to NATO’s reinforcement strategy.

In a similar vein, the Brussels Summit advanced NATO’s military mobility efforts, committing Allies to strengthening cross-territorial movement of land, air, and sea forces. More specifically, the Brussels Summit set military mobility goals with concrete timelines, requiring NATO countries to successfully conduct cross-border exercises. Without improvements in this area, bureaucratic and infrastructural hurdles will greatly hamper rapid-force movement and hinder gains made by efforts like the Four Thirties initiative.[4] Consequently, current and former military leaders view further progress on this issue as an essential priority to enable positive changes in Alliance posture.[5] With this in mind, more cooperation between NATO and the EU will be necessary. The fact that both NATO and the EU view military mobility as a central issue is a positive sign — and could provide an opportunity to create synergies across civilian projects in Europe to meet military standards.[6]

Adapting to an evolving security environment, NATO is taking increasingly serious measures to counter unconventional threats from state and non-state actors. As part of that effort, NATO is making operational headway by enhancing and adapting its command structure. The Alliance’s launch of the Cyberspace Operations Center is a welcome first step in centralizing oversight on cyber operations. The Alliance’s establishment of Counter Hybrid Support Teams will also help tailor NATO’s response to hybrid activities — defined as “disinformation, cyber-attacks, economic pressure, deployment of irregular armed groups, and use of regular forces”[7] — affecting its members. However, it is so far unclear how the new cyber operations center will address NATO’s command and control challenge in this domain if member states retain control of the operations they provide.[8] The summit declaration also does not clarify how NATO members will increase intelligence sharing related to cyber, which is tightly controlled by Allies.[9]

The Alliance also formalized two additional new commands to “deal with any military challenge or security threat at any time, from any direction,”[10] including the creation of a Joint Force Support and Enabling Command to serve as a hub for NATO military movement in Europe in the event of a crisis.[11] Member states also created a second new Joint Force Command, which will be based in Norfolk, Virginia. This command will protect lines of communication across the Atlantic. Taken together, these efforts will strengthen transatlantic and intra-European reinforcement capabilities, thereby creating resiliency in NATO’s response to crises.

In addition to bolstering deterrence and defense measures, Alliance leaders approved efforts to sustain the fight to counter violent extremism. Member states extended funding to Afghanistan’s National Defense and Security Forces through 2024, and started new non-combat training missions inside Iraq, as well as defense and capacity building efforts in Tunisia. In practice, several hundred NATO personnel will support efforts to instruct Iraqi forces on countering improvised explosive devices, civil-military planning, armored vehicle maintenance, and military medicine — all training that was previously conducted in Jordan. Canada has offered to command the forces,[12] which could include partner nations Australia,[13] Finland, and Sweden. In turn, these efforts will remain a critical component of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

The Alliance also endorsed one of its most comprehensive measures yet to project stability through its “Package for the South.” As its name suggests, this effort will deter and defend against threats emanating along the Mediterranean. While the Alliance did not reach consensus regarding what those threats are, it nevertheless declared the full capability of its Regional Hub for the South to coordinate security efforts with partners through information sharing and dialogue.[14] The package for the South also bolsters the Mediterranean Dialogue partnership program, which will be central to projecting stability, specifically by institutionalizing informal links through political dialogue.[15] 

While operational achievements abound in the summit’s takeaways, NATO’s positive political takeaways were harder to find.

At the highest level, NATO is committed to integrating security efforts with the European Union. In conjunction with the Brussels Summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and European Council President Donald Tusk signed a joint declaration that outlines areas for enhanced cooperation, among them cybersecurity and hybrid threats.[16] The Alliance will also expand its relationship with the EU and other international organizations as part of an effort to refine its role in energy security. By leveraging common interests rather than focusing on interorganizational competition, this alignment with the European community represents a much-needed political victory. Moreover, the signed agreement between NATO and the European Union is an important step in creating a more complementary defense and deterrence posture. Especially when facing threats like terrorism and cyber-attacks, which not only affect military infrastructure but societies, greater cooperation between NATO as a military alliance and the EU as a political union is critical.

Another bright spot is NATO’s Article 10 — the open-door policy — which received a boost and endorsement for the second consecutive summit. Because of the agreement reached over Macedonia’s long-standing name dispute between Athens and Skopje prior to the Summit, NATO was able to formally invite the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — as Northern Macedonia — to join the Alliance in Brussels. While Macedonia’s name-change will only be official after the referendum on September 30, current developments provide a positive signal for NATO’s open-door policy.

Challenges at the Core of the Alliance

NATO’s recent achievements at the operational level are not to be dismissed, but the current reality demands much more in the political space. Looking at the Brussels Summit, critical questions regarding capabilities development, threat perception, and NATO’s purpose remained underdiscussed or unaddressed due to a political environment that focuses largely on theatrics. This is a real cause for concern, given that these issues can undermine any gains that the Alliance may make from the summit’s ambitious operational output. It is also important to note that such dissonance can call into question NATO’s strategic aim. Without coherence at the highest levels, any gains that the Alliance makes in other spheres could be for naught.

As NATO looks toward its anniversary next April, the list of political hurdles is wide-ranging. First, it must identify a path to comprehensively address the capabilities challenges facing the Alliance. While initiatives like the Four Thirties are important, they only play a part in strengthening the credibility of the Alliance’s reenforcement. They do not replace or guarantee the success of difficult discussions that must take place across the Alliance and in capitals regarding serious and sustained capabilities development.

As European budgets continue to be underfunded, the gap between capabilities and requirements remains problematic. Presenting an annual report on the state of the Armed Forces before the German Parliament in early 2018, Commissioner Hans-Peter Bartels detailed at length the dire state of Germany's armed forces. The report showed that "six of the six German submarines were out of action. At times not a single one of the 14 Airbus A-400M aircraft that have been put into service was flying.”[17] This is an operational problem that has been growing worse since 2015 leading to additional questions about the country’s commitment to NATO’s goals.[18]

No issue made as many headlines ahead, during, and after the summit as defense spending. While there is general agreement that defense spending is lagging, some Allies, like Germany, more adamantly support a broader look at “cash, capabilities, and contributions,”[19] which some argue would more accurately reflect what Allies are putting into NATO.[20] Germany, one of Trump’s primary targets in burden-sharing attacks, pledged to increase its spending to 1.5 percent by 2024,[21] which falls short of Alliance obligations. Using the cash, capabilities, and contributions logic, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has pushed back on claims that Germany does not contribute enough as a NATO member, arguing “you can easily spend 2 percent of your national gross domestic product on defense while at the same time not providing anything to NATO, not participating in missions.”[22] This argument failed to convince President Trump in Brussels, who doubled-down on defense spending demands, asking Allies to spend not 2, but 4 percent of GDP.[23] A broader focus on contributions may help bolster Alliance cohesion and NATO’s aim to project stability abroad,[24] but failing to raise the issue of defense spending would likely perpetuate an untenable status quo for Alliance burden-sharing — an imbalance multiple U.S. administrations have tried to tackle.

Another major political disagreement among NATO Allies relates to Turkey’s relationship with other member states at both the strategic and operational level. This issue is encapsulated in Turkey’s recent decision to purchase S-400 missile batteries from Russia, which is a major cause for concern among NATO Allies. The S-400 is not compatible with the NATO weapons systems, leading to questions regarding interoperability, as well as Turkey’s political considerations and motivations. The contract between Turkey and Russia, which has already been signed, will result in the delivery of an S-400 system in early 2020, with the option to purchase a second.[25] The strength of the Alliance lies in its ability to respond to threats as one unit, and its ability to respond as one unit lies in the interoperability of its forces and equipment. Combined with Ankara’s replacement of NATO officers in the post-coup purge, these issues are eroding Alliance cohesion and driving a wedge between Turkey and many of its NATO Allies. 

While it has been a political boost in the current context, NATO enlargement could pose an additional challenge that Allies are expected to face in the coming years. The resolution of Macedonia’s name dispute and potential membership was the good news story of the Brussels Summit, but future conversations on enlargement beyond the Balkans will be difficult. The open-door policy will now have to fixate largely, and almost solely, on Georgia and Ukraine. Particularly in the case of Georgia — which punches above its weight in cash, contributions, and capabilities — it will be increasingly difficult to make Tbilisi wait patiently at NATO’s door. Divisions will likely appear as these countries move to center-stage on NATO’s Article 10 discussions and look for the Alliance to make good on promises made over a decade ago in Bucharest.

Priority Problems

Perhaps most daunting for the Alliance are the persistent and fundamental differences among member states regarding the Alliance’s primary threats and purpose. This split in opinion was on full-display at a Brussel’s Summit side conference[26] featuring German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.[27] The three speakers shared radically different visions for the Alliance. FM Czaputowicz underscored the need of the Alliance to build up capabilities and political will that focuses on the challenge of “revisionist states”[28] — namely Russia and the military challenge in Eastern Europe. For Poland, the Alliance must stress the importance of transatlantic unity, pursue political and economic policies that reflect this reality, and look at the security of states beyond NATO, particularly Ukraine and Georgia. Contrasting starkly with this focus on conventional deterrence policies and the East, FM Çavuşoğlu urged the Alliance to look more to the “future” and recognize the primary threat of terrorism. For Turkey, solidarity means that NATO can collectively address the challenges emanating from its neighborhood, particularly focusing on its ability to project stability externally. Defense Minister von der Leyen, on the other hand, argued that NATO’s top priority is internal Alliance cohesion — a unity based on values, specifically democracy, rule of law, and primacy of multilateralism.[29]

These varying priorities are not mutually exclusive. An Alliance that is well-financed and equipped can help NATO tackle a range of challenges, both South and East, traditional and non-traditional. Moreover, internal cohesion should be part and parcel of Alliance discussions and operations.

The problem, however, is that divergent priorities are often a product of strong undercurrents within national politics. Germany’s support of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is perceived by Poland to work against the Allies’ interest and efforts to stand-up to an aggressive Russia. There seems little appetite for the German government to acknowledge this concern not only because the project is already underway, but because it plays a large role in securing the country's demand for more sustainable and non-nuclear energy options.[30]

Turkey’s plans to purchase the S-400 systems from Russia are politically problematic for many Allies for similar reasons. However, Turkey is unwavering in what it has described as a “very technical, not political” decision.[31] Moreover, domestic developments in places like Poland and Turkey have caused particular concern for countries like Germany, among others, regarding their commitment to Alliance values.

Beyond these intra-member state disputes, the uncertainty caused by the Trump administration is a serious political challenge to the Alliance. The U.S. president has not hesitated to pursue spontaneous rapprochement with adversaries such as Russia, leaving many member states wondering about the U.S. commitment to NATO. Moreover, perceived political disengagement by the United States creates a leadership challenge within the Alliance.


The Brussels Summit produced a menu of important operational gains for the Alliance during politically difficult times. However, many Summit takeaways are only a first or next step on a longer path to bolster deterrence, project security, and address critical new security threats. For many deliverables — especially cyber resilience — greater political will and eventual action must be mustered at the national level, before it can be coordinated across the Alliance. This is also true for difficult topics like defense spending and capabilities development. As the undercurrent of domestic and transatlantic politics churns, there is a risk that these key issues may be pulled under water.

To avoid stagnation — or a complete stall — in this difficult political context, NATO must set clear parameters and incentives to encourage members and partners to turn the deliverables into tangible action. But it cannot stop there. The Alliance must find a way to create more strategic cohesion and address the high-level political problems. With the U.S. president’s non-traditional approach to diplomacy, this may seem like a daunting task. Creativity and new thinking are required.

Given this reality, the Alliance can choose between two different paths to face its current challenges. It could — as some have suggested — undertake a strategic review process with the aim of creating a new strategic concept. This would force Allies to have more candid discussions about the future direction and purpose of the Alliance. But, at the same time, such efforts may exacerbate the difficult reality currently plaguing NATO politics and open Pandora’s box.

A second option would be to maintain the status quo approach: NATO could continue its focus on accruing operational gains until a more positive political environment emerges in the future. A stronger and more constructive U.S. engagement would be critical in creating the setting that enables NATO to effectively tackle its political challenges. 

The second approach bears an inherent risk. Not only does it accept near-term uncertainty regarding political will and Alliance commitments. It also assumes the current dynamics of transatlantic politics will be short-lived. If this assumption proves incorrect, a negative inter-Alliance climate could lead to a drastic, and potentially irreparable, decay in NATO politics.

The threats currently facing the Alliance seek to exploit differences among allies. To confront these challenges, NATO must act less like a dysfunctional family and more like a strategic alliance with the strategic interest of its members at stake. Moreover, the hard work that many member states are doing to achieve operational gains and develop capabilities will only be as strong as its political commitments. Today, no NATO member is stronger without the Alliance. As threats grow in form and force, this maxim will only gain validity. 



[1]  “Adapting the NATO Alliance Now and Together,” Brookings Institution, July 9, 2018,  https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2018/07/09/adapting-the-nato-all....


[2]  NATO, “NATO Readiness Initiative,” June 2018, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2018_06/20180608_....


[3]  Hans Binnendijk and Anika Binnendijk, “Deterring the Unthinkable: NATO’s Role along the Eastern Flank,” Defense News, November 2, 2017, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2017/11/02/deterring-the-....


[4]  Nicholas Florenza, “NATO Reinforcement Capabilities Hampered by Infrastructure and Transport Limitations,” Jane’s 360, November 1, 2017, http://www.janes.com/article/75375/nato-reinforcement-capabilities-hampe....


[5]  Jen Judson, “Outgoing U.S. Army Europe commander pushes for ‘Military Schengen Zone,’ Defense News, July 28, 2017, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/european-balance-of-power/2017/07/28/out....  


[6]  For more information on the EU’s efforts: “Action Plan on military mobility: EU takes steps towards a Defence Union,” European Commission, March 28, 2018, https://ec.europa.eu/transport/themes/infrastructure/news/2018-03-28-act....


[7]  NATO, “NATO’s Response to Hybrid Threats,” NATO, July 17, 2018, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_156338.htm.


[8]  For more information, see Thomas E. Ricks and Rizwan Ali, “NATO’s Little Noticed but Important New Aggressive Stance on Cyber Weapons,” Foreign Policy, December 7, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/12/07/natos-little-noticed-but-important-...


[9]  Ibid.


[10]  NATO, “Brussels Summit Declaration,” NATO, August 30, 2018, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_156624.htm.


[11]  Bundesministerium der Verteidigung, “Neues Unterstützungskommando der NATO (JSEC) in Ulm,” Bundesministerium der Verteidigung, June 8, 2018,  https://www.bmvg.de/de/aktuelles/neues-unterstuetzungskommando-der-nato-....


[12]  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “Our Shared Global Values,” Session at NATO Engages: A Brussels Summit Dialogue, July 11, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Awvwkaau518.


[13]  Nick Miller, “Australia Pledges New Troops to Iraq, Afghanistan,” The Sydney Morning Herald, July 12, 2018, https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/australia-pledges-new-troops-to-iraq....


[14]  Brooks Tigner, “NATO’s New South-Oriented Security Package Offers Both Appearance and Substance,” IHS Janes Defence Weekly, July 20, 2018, http://www.janes.com/article/81910/nato-s-new-south-oriented-security-pa....


[15]  Ian Lesser, Charlotte Brandsma, Laura Basagni, Bruno Lete, “The Future of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue,” The German Marshall Fund of the United States, June 27, 2018, http://www.gmfus.org/publications/future-natos-mediterranean-dialogue.


[16]  NATO, “NATO and EU Leaders Sign Joint Declaration,” NATO, July 10, 2018, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_156759.htm.


[17] Hans-Peter Bartels, “Presentation of the 59th Annual Report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces,” February 20, 2018, https://www.bundestag.de/resource/blob/561892/11b19b85b8c03373ebb61f8c87....


[18]  Ibid


[19]  Under this line of reasoning, the Alliance measures defense expenditures not only in percentage of GDP, but also equipment, personnel, infrastructure, and an “other” category that could encompass operations and maintenance or for research and development. Jan Techau, “The Politics of 2 Percent: NATO and the Security Vacuum in Europe,” Carnegie Europe, September 2, 2015, http://carnegieeurope.eu/2015/09/02/politics-of-2-percent-nato-and-secur....


[20]  Ibid.


[21]  Reuters Staff, “German Leader, Defense Chief Vow Boost in Military Spending,” Reuters, July 4, 2018.


[22]  Joshua Posaner, “German Defense Minister Strikes Back at NATO on Spending Target,” POLITICO, July 4, 2018, https://www.politico.eu/article/german-defense-minister-ursula-von-der-l....


[23]  Ewen MacAskill and Pippa Crerar, “Donald Trump tells Nato allies to spend 4% of GDP on defence,” The Guardian, July 11, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/11/donald-trump-tells-nato-al....


[24]  When looking at U.S. demands, it is also important to consider that U.S. contributions to NATO are not as outsized as some commentators suggest with a defense budget of 3.6 percent of GDP — only about 25 percent of which go to the defense of Europe according to recent studies. Molly Dinneen and Frank Hoffman, “Examining NATO’s Progress: Common Goals, Shared Burdens,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, July 6, 2018, https://www.fpri.org/article/2018/07/examining-natos-progress-common-goa...


[25]  Burak Ege Bekdil, “’Shaking Hands with the Russians’: Erdogan Sole Decision-Maker on S-400 Deal,” Defense News, July 30, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/space-missile-defense/2018/07/27/shaking....


[26]  The Brussels Summit Side Conference – NATO Engages – was hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Munich Security Conference, the Atlantic Council, and Women in International Security. More information regarding the conference can be found at: https://nato-engages.org/.


[27]  German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, “Framing the Debate: A Shifting Global Order and an Alliance Under Pressure,” Session at NATO Engages: A Brussels Summit Dialogue, July 11, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FoFUR3uqlk.


[28]  Ibid.


[29]  Ibid.


[30]  Darko Janjevic, “Nord Stream 2 Gas Pipeline — What is the Controversy About?” Deutsche Welle, July 7, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/nord-stream-2-gas-pipeline-what-is-the-controversy....


[31] Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, “Framing the Debate: A Shifting Global Order and an Alliance Under Pressure,” Session at NATO Engages: A Brussels Summit Dialogue.