Despite Rhetoric, NATO Summit Offers Real Substance

Blog | July 25, 2018

On the surface, NATO summits normally are considered routine publicity affairs, characterized by leaders of member states reaffirming security commitments followed by the standard ceremonial photograph. But this year’s summit that took place on July 10-11 in Brussels was different, primarily due to the approach and rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump. However, when looking beyond the immediate headline-making stories surrounding the summit, one will unearth a more substantial analysis on the future trajectory of NATO and its objectives. The range of polices agreed to by NATO member states illustrate that Trump’s “NATO is obsolete” assertion could not be further from the truth.

Unabashed in expressing his criticism of NATO, Trump has often vocalized his disdain for the 69-year old alliance and has not been shy in seizing any opportunity to question the institution’s worth to American foreign policy. Chief among Trump’s concerns is the debate surrounding member states’ commitment to contribute at least two percent of their respective GDP to defense spending.

Trump kicked off this year’s summit by immediately berating current NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a breakfast meeting on member states falling short of their financial pledges, particularly, Germany. In a truly unprecedented fashion, Trump also accused Germany of being “a captive of Russia,” due to its dependence on importing Russian natural gas via the Nord Stream II project.

Trump’s abrasive tone continued again into the second day, amid reports the President threatened to pull out of the alliance altogether, over the issue of defense spending. After emergency meetings, the President emerged claiming NATO will spend “like never before” and that members had committed to increase spending by over 40 billion USD “more quickly,” before finally reaffirming, “I believe in NATO.”

Defined Agenda…And Forward-Looking Results

Nevertheless, amongst all the media controversies and fanfare, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this summit offered a plethora of new initiatives that will shape our future understanding of NATO and its prerogatives. As the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made clear in his closing press conference, the summit had seen member states commit to raising the readiness of forces, increase their ability to move forces across the Atlantic and Europe, modernize its command structure and set up a new cyber operations center.

Former Italian Ambassador to NATO, Stefano Stefanini, echoed this sentiment by commending the summit as “one of the most successful” for its substance, and former Obama administration official, Derek Chollet, praised the concrete progress made during meetings.

So, what exactly was achieved?

The standout policy stemming from the summit was the alliance’s agreement to U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ “30-30-30-30” plan. Mattis presented the initiative to NATO members last month in time for last week’s summit. The plan is expected to further synchronize military capabilities and will consist of NATO maintaining 30 land battalions, 30 air fighter squadrons and 30 ships ready for combat deployment in 30 days. Underscoring the plan’s rationale is the need to mobilize forces quickly in case of any prospective threats on NATO’s eastern flank, particularly Poland and the Baltic states.

Moscow’s digital interference in the electoral process of several NATO allies, most notably the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, also emerged as a significant item of agreement in countering “disinformation.” Following the Warsaw summit two years prior, NATO further prioritized greater investment in cybersecurity with the creation of two new bodies: a cyber operations center at its Belgium headquarters and a “Joint Force Command” based in Norfolk, Virginia. The alliance also reiterated the importance of this relatively new domain in the summit’s 79 point declaration, which pledged to “continue to adapt to the evolving cyber threat landscape.”

Regarding allies further east, Stoltenberg reaffirmed NATO’s support for Georgia and Ukraine—both countries went into the summit hoping to gain clear commitments on their sovereign integrity concerning Russia, as well as possible ascension into the alliance. The secretary general also marked the beginning of ascension talks with the Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in an official ceremony.

Terrorism, the Middle East and Afghanistan

In its quest to fight terrorism, NATO leaders also decided to boost contributions across several regions. NATO’s new information hub in Naples, Italy will shape future policy based on the analysis of multiple interlinking issues (drought, famine, corruption human trafficking) affecting the Middle East and Africa. Along the Baltic coast, Denmark, Latvia and Estonia will head a new command structure with the United Kingdom, Canada and Lithuania signing on as contributory countries. In Iraq, Canada will oversee NATO’s new training mission. The alliance will make efforts to increase training its troops and military academy in Baghdad with non-NATO member Australia also volunteering to set up a Blackhawk helicopter fleet. The academy is set to be staffed with hundreds of trainers, with Canada making up the bulk.

After the final meetings concerning Afghanistan, Stoltenberg announced NATO would commit to funding the Afghan Security forces to the tune of around 1 billion USD a year until 2024. During his final press conference, he mapped out NATO’s future engagement in three specific areas: special operations, air forces and control and command capabilities. All three areas have important overlaps, which will prove vital in finally bringing the Afghan conflict to an end. Strong commitments towards Afghanistan were always expected and were largely foretold by British Prime Minister Theresa May confirming the UK planned to send a further 440 troops in non-combat roles two days before the meetings in Brussels.

All Bases Covered: Old and New

Interestingly, beyond the initial rhetoric and contrary to popular analysis that Trump prefers to shun multilateralism, he has effectively agreed to expand the alliance to 30 members and left the door open for others in the future. Furthermore, the scope and detail of the above initiatives demonstrate this Brussels summit was different from previous years. Far from being the more routine spectacle we have come to associate with NATO summits, member states made great strides in driving initiatives to address a multitude of issues both within the alliance’s traditional remit (Russia) and beyond (Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan and cyber). Therefore, despite Trump’s theatrics, there are encouraging signs NATO not only remains solid in its foundations but is pursuing new avenues to create greater harmony amongst its members and integrate its collective defense capabilities to prepare accordingly for tomorrow’s security challenges.

Charles Elkins is a program assistant for the Afghanistan Reconnected Program of the EastWest Institute. He is based in Brussels. 

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute.

Image: "Press Conference by the President of the" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by NATO