The Five Most Contentious Issues on the Road to Warsaw
The 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw will take place in a distressing period with multiple security crises in the European neighborhood as well as risks of political division within the Alliance. Yet, in the midst of an outstanding series of challenges, the transatlantic partnership has also shown its unique resistance and provided reasons for optimism. For instance, the United States, Canada, and European allies have been able to resist Moscow’s strategic objectives to divide transatlantic unity and weaken the European project when it destabilized Ukraine. Russia gambled that it could exploit Europe’s weaknesses: the ongoing effects of the euro crisis, the increasing influx of asylum seekers into Europe and the United States, energy security and dependence on Russian gas, and the increasing influence of populist parties in European countries who respond to these threats and the uncertain future of the U.K. in the EU, Germany’s strategic restraint, and the U.S. rebalancing toward Asia. Russia’s strategy has not been successful, however, since the allies have managed to reach constructive agreements on sanctions on the Russian economy and continue to coordinate their approach to the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, at the same time building up state resilience to emerging hybrid threats. This illustrates the strength of the Alliance, as transatlantic partners continue to rely primarily on each other to achieve their strategic goals.
Transatlantic partners continue to rely primarily on each other to achieve their strategic goals.
In this context, the Warsaw Summit will play a major role in pushing participants toward consolidating the foundations laid in 2014 in Wales and completing the Alliance’s adaptation to its new strategic environment. In this brief, we argue that four challenges will be particularly decisive for the Warsaw Summit’s outcomes: burden-sharing, NATO’s political role, divergent threat perceptions, and expectations. In addition to these four critical and contentious challenges, there is one well-known issue may be underplayed in the debates: EU-NATO cooperation. Extra attention is particularly needed here. Indeed, the nature of the security challenges faced by the Alliance today and the need for improved strategic communication at the transatlantic level require more specific listing of EU’s and NATO’s complementary assets. The contemporary strategic environment provides a unique opportunity to encourage more ambitious cooperation between the two organizations.
1. (Un)Sustainability of the Current Transatlantic Burden-Sharing
While the recent U.S. policy shifts have raised concerns on the other side of the Atlantic, the United States will not stop investing in the transatlantic partnership. It is based on a unique relationship of trust between the United States, Canada, and their European allies, and the U.S. public understands and values the historic bond that link transatlantic partners. U.S. leadership continues to be very involved in finding solutions to European security challenges and common concerns regarding the future of the European neighborhoods. The transatlantic relationship is still the cornerstone of the international order, and the United States is committed to protecting it.
Nonetheless, political and financial constraints will continue to limit U.S. engagement in European security and NATO in the short and mid-term. The legacy of the Afghanistan and Iraq interventions and the economic crisis has reduced the U.S. appetite for costly military interventions. In parallel, the economic development of East and South Asia will attract U.S. investments and strategic focus in the 21st century. Questions over the efficiency of military tools and limited resources frame the terms of the transatlantic strategic partnership, and neither the Ukrainian crisis, the Russian intervention in Syria, nor the Paris attacks of November 13 constitute a game-changer from the U.S. perspective.
The U.S. commitment toward Europe’s security will therefore persist, but Europeans will have more responsibilities in their own defense. While the United States has partially rebalanced in Europe, committing more of a presence and offering assurances that a NATO enhanced rapid reaction force could be deployed to counter any Article 5 aggression, European partners continue to rely on their soft power assets (development aid, diplomacy, economic tools) to achieve their foreign policy objectives. On the diplomatic front, French and German leadership in Ukraine has been critical, but the United States remains the main security provider in Central and Eastern Europe. For Washington, the current division of labor, with the United States remaining responsible for the bulk of the military burden and Europe not addressing this concern, is not sustainable. This asymmetry has limited the scope of responses to new security challenges, which require the right mix of both soft and hard power. It is important to preserve NATO’s military superiority — the Alliance represents 55 percent of global defense expenditures — by investing in (advanced) hard power capabilities. Without proper investments, the technological gap between the United States and Europe may increase. Continued joint trainings and live exercises are also central to the credibility of NATO’s reassurance and deterrence measures.
European allies need to move away from what is perceived in Washington as unhelpful assumptions about the U.S. role in Europe’s security.
Most European countries expect Washington to approach the defense spending issue in a more nuanced way, and take into account other key aspects — beyond military assurance — that defense budgets do not reflect, such as national resilience against hybrid warfare, the soft power tools that the EU commits to failed-state situations, or the fact that some have spent significant resources deploying their troops in sub-Saharan Africa or as part of the coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS). However, the pressure coming from traditional hardliners in the U.S. Congress will remain strong and become increasingly audible as we approach the Warsaw Summit and discuss the implementation of the Wales spending pledge. European allies need to move away from what is perceived in Washington as unhelpful assumptions about the U.S. role in Europe’s security. Because the United States responded quickly to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Crimea, European allies may have assumed that the “United States was back” and that they could let go of their commitments. For this reason, the 2 percent GDP goal remains an important means of pressure for Washington.
2. Divergence on the Role of NATO as Political and Communication Platforms
NATO’s relevance and efficiency stem from its pragmatic and flexible approach to security crises, but this approach is ill-suited as a platform for theoretical debates. The debates about the East and South division, or about whether NATO troops should be made permanent in the East and Baltic region, do not necessarily reinforce transatlantic solidarity. NATO is a remarkable problem-solving tool for its member states when it works on concrete issues. The use of NATO as a political platform, however, remains controversial among transatlantic partners. While some countries prefer to emphasize the military nature of the alliance, others would like to debate more strategic and political issues between NATO members, including issues that require risk assessment and planning. How bad could the refugee crisis get? What would a NATO mission look like in Yemen if the situation gets worse? What do we want the future of Ukraine to look like? What kind of relationship do we want with Russia?
While some Allies may agree that NATO was probably not the best forum to discuss these strategic issues because of the technocratic dimension of the discussions held within NATO, U.S. officials have suggested revamping NATO’s ministerial meetings by ensuring that their agendas allow for making important decisions about the future of the Alliance and also creating incentives for open information-sharing. NATO’s strength lies in its ability to implement the security policies necessary to achieve its strategic objectives. While a few member states, notably France, consider the EU a more appropriate framework for these strategic discussions, the creation of a new, smaller and more efficient forum within NATO is also up for debate. This lack of agreement hinders coordination between partners. For instance, the different models of intervention, illustrated by the operations in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, need to be discussed at the transatlantic level, but it is not clear which institutional vehicle should be used. Clarifying the strategic and political role of NATO and building the necessary fora to address the issues that cannot be resolved by the Alliance is essential for a functioning partnership.
Internal divisions fostered by the rise of Euroskeptic and radicalized political parties directly threaten the future of the transatlantic partnership.
Moreover, the transatlantic partnership is challenged by deep internal ideological divisions, including regarding the role of NATO as an instrument of public diplomacy. The question of counter-propaganda may, however, be crucial as we approach January 2016 and the renewal of European sanctions against Russia. Some European countries want to roll back sanctions if Russia is less active in Syria and Ukraine. This could lead to fragmentation in the EU and in the transatlantic alliance. Indeed, internal divisions fostered by the rise of Euroskeptic and radicalized political parties directly threaten the future of the transatlantic partnership. The propaganda of revisionist powers such as Russia and ISIS fuel and are fueled by these extremist national movements, which in turn weaken European unity. At a time when more cohesion and solidarity is needed to build transatlantic resilience, national initiatives, such as a possible Brexit, call into question the stability of this partnership.
3. Addressing Transatlantic Perception Gaps
Facing issues ranging from the migrant crisis to the annexation of Crimea, Alliance frontline countries now spread from the Mediterranean to the Baltic States and the Black Sea. Nordic countries such as Norway and Iceland are also facing a “Northern flank” with growing competition in the Arctic region and concern regarding Russian activities in the Baltic Sea.
The increasing fluidity of the geopolitical context makes prioritizing threats a very complex process, especially given the diverging threat perceptions between Allies. Eastern countries are focused on Russian actions, while countries closer to the Southern border of Europe see a real, existential threat coming from Syria and the refugee crisis. Transatlantic allies do agree, however, that a geographical division of labor in the Alliance would be a threat to NATO’s unity.
The number of crises in the European neighborhoods requires a comprehensive response. Transatlantic powers simply cannot be made to choose between the Eastern and Southern challenges. The compounding effect of security issues in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and the Sahel region cannot be overestimated, and each crisis must be stabilized. The divergence of priorities between partners needs to be overcome rapidly. The refugee crisis can help reconcile competing interests between the “Eastern flank” and “Southern flank” as it directly and immediately affects European populations. Some countries have shown commitment in both the East and South. For instance, France is militarily engaged in the Sahel, Iraq, and Syria, but it has also reinforced its air presence in the Baltic area through cooperation with Norway. Italy, despite an acute refugee crisis, has led an eight-month Baltic air policing mission and has offered to lead the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) on a rotational basis. Denmark and Norway have also acted as central players on three different fronts: East, North, and South.
Similarly, the question of the future enlargement of the Alliance is affected by strong perception gaps. There is a general consensus that transatlantic partners cannot afford to adopt an inward-looking perspective, as it would worsen the power vacuum in the European neighborhood. However, some disagreements remain among member states regarding NATO’s enlargement policy. For the United States and some European allies such as Germany and France, the integration of Montenegro would constitute a first signal that NATO is not overwhelmed by surrounding security issues. France also maintains that keeping the door open to Ukraine will inevitably lead to Russian reactions, and that NATO allies will have to be ready to engage in escalation there.
The question of cooperation with the Alliance’s neighbors is all the more relevant today as the aggravation of the refugee crisis has become an existential challenge for the transatlantic partnership. Although it is not primarily a security issue, there are certainly security implications that cannot be overlooked and that may restructure European budgets. It has triggered increased tensions between European Allies and called solidarity among partners into question. The United States needs to understand both the priority given to this crisis by European policymakers and its implications on European strategies in the Middle East and North Africa.
4. Managing Strategic Expectations Toward NATO
The Warsaw Summit will not trigger a philosophical revolution but instead focus on capabilities and threats.
The story of NATO is one of deep and slow changes. Despite significant budget cuts, it remains the strongest military alliance in the world, and its conventional superiority deters any direct military actions against its members. The credibility of Article 5 has not been damaged by Russian foreign policy in Ukraine, but rather confirmed it. Similarly, while NATO solidarity is often unsatisfying in a crisis situation because its reaction time is limited, it is useful in the long term to protect the core interests of the transatlantic partners. In this context, reinforcing meetings in the framework of Article 4, whereby Allies can “consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened,” could strengthen solidarity and give Allies another avenue through which to share security assessments. This is especially important given that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan, which was the cornerstone of NATO collective efforts in the 2000s, will soon come to an end even as minds are focused elsewhere on the short-term divisive crises in the neighborhoods. The evolution of the Alliance will be incremental; the Warsaw Summit will not trigger a philosophical revolution but instead focus on capabilities and threats. Transatlantic partners must account for NATO’s strategic culture in their expectations of the Alliance. Otherwise its apparently slow process may lead to frustrations and disappointments.
Similarly, the limits of NATO’s scope of action should also be assessed on the road to the Warsaw Summit. The challenge posed by hybrid warfare tactics, although it includes a strong military component, cannot be dealt with by NATO alone and requires a more comprehensive transatlantic response. Transatlantic resilience is based on the political, economic, and normative power of transatlantic partners and the EU as much as on their defense capabilities. The multiple crises in the Middle East and North Africa stem from fundamental political instability, and a strategy to address them cannot rely primarily on the use of NATO forces. That said, operations outside NATO such as the French-led operation in Mali have shown positive results and proved that alternative frameworks can be successful. The discussions of NATO’s limits should be held internally, not publicly, as the Alliance tends to over-communicate its weaknesses and divisions.
Finally, the geographic scope of NATO’s responsibilities should also be discussed. For instance, whereas the Eastern and Southern European neighborhoods are at the heart of NATO’s reflection for the future of the Alliance, transatlantic engagement in Afghanistan remains an open question. The longest operation in NATO’s history has failed to provide the conditions for a secure and stable Afghanistan. The Warsaw Summit is likely to continue the shift toward collective defense that began at the Wales Summit in 2014, but the future of NATO crisis management operations should also be addressed. NATO’s challenges are global by nature, even though this belief is not shared by all allies, and the priority given to collective defense does not overshadow the Alliance’s responsibilities beyond its immediate neighborhoods. There is now an identified need to do more on maritime capabilities, to confront Russia in Syria and in the East but also given the tensions in the South China Sea. There is a broader need for the Alliance to conceptualize its threats and have clear escalation and de-escalation doctrines.
These four issues are the overarching contentious issues on the road to Warsaw. The current debates on the future of NATO largely address these challenges as priorities for the success of the forthcoming summit. However, there is a fifth issue that is just as critical, but that remains generally under-recognized at the transatlantic level. Given the acute multiple pressures facing Europe currently, now is the moment to make progress on this particular issue.
5. The Need for Enhanced EU-NATO Cooperation
The need to improve the EU-NATO relationship is both a well-worn issue and particularly prescient in the current transatlantic strategic environment. The relevance of institutional cooperation is highlighted by three worrying trends in the transatlantic partnership.
Transatlantic security has tended to become highly transactional.
First, transatlantic security has tended to become highly transactional, which weakens the credibility of the Alliance. In times of crisis, each country is tempted to think of its relationship with partners in terms of individual costs and benefits, rather than emphasizing collective interests and common values. Transatlantic security cooperation is not a given, and the Warsaw summit should push for more, including a way to coordinate with the EU on security matters. The promotion of cooperation principles by the transatlantic strategic community and policymakers remains essential in order to face contemporary political, economic, and security threats. As the Alliance faces increasingly complex security challenges, enhancing EU-NATO cooperation should be a priority. The pervasive use of hybrid warfare tactics in the Ukrainian conflict constitutes the most outstanding illustration of this need. Indeed, hybrid warfare tactics and cyber threats require strengthening transatlantic resilience, which can only be achieved by effective coordination of the EU and NATO’s complementary strengths.
In May 2015, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini committed to increasing the cooperation between the two organizations in order to address this specific security challenge. This effort should be pursued and reaffirmed in Warsaw. Similarly, the handling of failed states in the European neighborhoods, for instance in the aftermath of the 2011 Libya operation, provides unique opportunities for the two institutions to cooperate and use their political, economic, police, and military tools in a coordinated manner. Recent crises have highlighted the transatlantic partners lack of ability to anticipate and design relevant responses to strategic challenges. EU-NATO cooperation is paramount to improving the scenario-planning work of both the United States and European powers.
Second, transatlantic security cooperation suffers from misunderstandings and mixed messages, and the EU has a role to play in fostering a constructive dialogue with the United States. Indeed, Europe’s internal divisions stem from a lack of clear leadership among European powers, as Germany, France, and the U.K. all seem headed in different directions and sometimes appear to disagree on the fundamentals of the European project. Washington’s political leadership in defining converging interests and opportunities for the transatlantic partnership could help overcome any future European blockage, but it is not clear whether Europeans would be comfortable with this. The consistent and credible reassurance measures taken by the United States in Central and Eastern Europe are crucial to preventing any further European priority gap between frontline countries of the Eastern front and the Southern front. On the other hand, Europeans need to be able to express common and clear expectations to Washington on the future of NATO and the European project, and the EU appears to be the sole vehicle for a coordinated European message. These expectations also need to be realistic, as U.S. engagement in European security cannot be the same as it was in the 1990s in scope and nature. In return, any such plan requires clarity on the part of the United States as to the nature of their long-term strategic priorities and the way they plan future engagement in Europe and the Middle East and their cooperation with the European Union. The question of the continued “global responsibility” of the United States is very timely.
The transatlantic partnership needs to change its mindset about security issues in order to adapt to contemporary threats.
Finally, the transatlantic partnership needs to change its mindset about security issues in order to adapt to contemporary threats, and NATO alone cannot lead this process. Transatlantic allies agree that they need to learn anew to think in geopolitical terms when dealing with Russia. The United States and Europe emphasize the need to “play by the same rules” as the players that challenge them on the global stage, which includes the understanding and use of geopolitics as a framework for strategic interests. Recent Russian operations in Eastern Europe and in Syria have highlighted the failure of transatlantic powers to anticipate Moscow’s foreign policy. The use of military force has also been particularly destabilizing for the transatlantic normative framework, especially for the EU’s normative model and the NATO structure and forces that have arguably, since 1989, not been prepared for (or have even thought through) the challenges that it faces today in its European neighborhoods. The NATO Warsaw Summit will be an opportunity to send a clear message to Russia by extending the implementation of reassurance policies decided in Wales, and by demonstrating increased military preparedness and enhanced capabilities, despite decreasing defense budgets in Europe. The key message is that transatlantic powers have been able to undergo the necessary adaptation in order to adequately answer the dual challenges they are faced with.
The question of EU-NATO cooperation is neither new nor completely absent from strategic debates, but it is particularly relevant in the contemporary security environment and, more worryingly, often neglected as the political will to take on structural blockages is missing. If not overcome, the political obstacles to effective and advantageous institutional cooperation could prevent the transatlantic partnership from finding the appropriate responses to current security challenges. The 2016 Warsaw Summit provides the Alliance with an opportunity to put this issue on the front burner, since the EU has also engaged in the drafting process of the EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy. The unique complexity of today’s strategic threats requires, more than ever, the use of all transatlantic political, economic and military tools, and a better coordination of efforts between NATO and the EU.
 The arguments presented in this policy brief are partly based on the NATO Ambassadorial Roundtable, organized by The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC on October 9, 2015, in partnership with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The group, composed of ambassadors to the United States from NATO Allied countries, senior U.S. government officials, and transatlantic scholars and experts, discussed transatlantic foreign and security policy priorities and identified potential divides among member states that could lead to sub-optimal policies, while aiming to frame the basics of shared policies and the necessary steps forward to prepare the 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit.