More to this week's NATO summit than Trump’s antics

Despite the US taking centre stage, Stéfanie von Hlatky argues the meeting served to reinforce priorities and identify some, though not all, of NATO’s challenges. 

By: /
July 13, 2018
Trump NATO
US President Donald Trump arrives to hold a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

The highly anticipated NATO Summit held this week in Brussels has resulted in a succinct communiqué heavily focused on Russia and the alliance’s renewed deterrence and defence efforts.

We continue to believe that a partnership between NATO and Russia, based on respect for international law and commitments…would be of strategic value. But we cannot and will not compromise on the principles on which our alliance and security in Europe and North America rest,” the document reads.  

With United States President Donald Trump’s bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin set for Monday in Helsinki, the unambiguously stern language of the communiqué should be reassuring to NATO allies on the Eastern flank. But not much attention has been dedicated to the communiqué in the news. Once again, Trump stole the show.

Two things that Trump said have monopolized media coverage this week. The first was his bizarre attack on Germany during his bilateral breakfast meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, where Trump criticized the country for what he considered to be contradictory behaviour toward Russia. He tweeted out the jab for effect, an example of toxic diplomacy at its finest.

The second was Trump’s attempt to move the burden-sharing goalposts by suggesting that allies should increase their defence spending to four percent of their GDP, an increase from the two percent that had been suggested previously. To be fair, burden sharing is an enduring theme for the alliance, but it has not overshadowed summit discussions in such a divisive way before.

In reality, this summit should have been a good news story and this was repeated several times by Stoltenberg, in addition to being highlighted in the communiqué: “All Allies have started to increase the amount they spend on defence in real terms and some two-thirds of Allies have national plans in place to spend 2% of their Gross Domestic Product on defence by 2024.”

Canada notwithstanding, many allies are on track to meet their two percent goal by the set deadline. It’s just not fast enough for Trump. The positive trend in defence spending started in 2014, a development we can attribute to both the rise of ISIS and the worsening of relations with Russia. The greater emphasis placed on respecting the two percent guideline, however, can be credited to Trump, and this is probably something he can legitimately take credit for (of course, he is claiming he has achieved much more).

Indeed, the language about burden sharing in the 2014 Wales Summit communiqué was much softer, it referred to an “aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade with a view to meeting their NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO's capability shortfalls” compared to the “unwavering commitment” to the two percent goal we see in the new Brussels communiqué.

The communiqué itself was surprisingly succinct, a document that is shorter than the two previous summits, but still comprehensive. It uses stern language to describe Russia’s transgressions in great detail. Specifically, NATO finds Russia to be in breach of the 1997 Basic Document of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, the 2002 Rome Declaration, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. NATO also condemns Russia’s hybrid threats and “malicious cyber activities” and finds it responsible for the Salisbury nerve agent attack as well as the downing of flight MH-17.

"The communiqué was surprisingly succinct... but still comprehensive; it uses stern language to describe Russia’s transgressions in great detail."

In addition, the communiqué calls on Russia to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova. Similar to the Warsaw communiqué, NATO states that, “in cases of hybrid warfare, the Council could decide to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, as in the case of armed attack.” The tone of the statement makes clear that NATO and Russia are far from reconciling but dialogue through the NATO-Russia Council remains, despite the halt in practical cooperation.

The implication of the ongoing political tensions with Russia boils down to NATO boosting its deterrence and defence posture by improving military mobility and readiness. The NATO Readiness Initiative is at the heart of those efforts, as NATO is developing the ability to deploy 30 battalions, 30 squadrons and 30 war ships within 30 days (this is referred to as the Four 30s). While Enhanced Forward Presence — the existing battlegroups stationed in the Baltics and Poland — will continue (with Canada signing on in Latvia for four more years), there is an acknowledgment that rapid deployment of additional troops is vital to the credibility of deterrence on the Eastern flank.

In terms of nuclear deterrence, the language used in this week’s document is almost identical to the Warsaw statement, except that one could argue that nuclear weapons now feature more prominently in NATO’s deterrence posture. While the new communiqué is prudent in this regard, the notable addition is in direct response to Russia: “Given the deteriorating security environment in Europe, a credible and united nuclear Alliance is essential.” New language on nuclear weapons policy is always significant.

The other big theme of the communiqué is counterterrorism. One can think back to Trump’s first visit to NATO headquarters last year, when he criticized his allies for not doing enough on counter-terrorism, despite their longstanding involvement in Afghanistan. NATO’s contributions include its role in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and its training and capacity building efforts in the Middle East and North Africa, including a new training mission in Iraq (which Canada has now offered to command).

In addition to providing updates on missions, a number of familiar items and themes can also be found in the communiqué: NATO-EU cooperation, partnerships, the women, peace and security agenda, cyber defence, missile defence, and command structure reforms. On this last point, two new commands were announced: the Joint Force Command Norfolk headquarters and the Joint Support and Enabling Command in Germany.

As in previous years, there is a section on disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation, but this year, NATO had to make its distaste for the nuclear ban treaty clear: “NATO does not support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture, risks undermining the NPT, is inconsistent with the Alliance’s nuclear deterrence policy and will not enhance any country’s security.” One can also read praise for denuclearization efforts in North Korea. On Iran, the 2016 Warsaw communiqué praised the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but the 2018 communiqué does not mention the JCPOA and focuses more broadly on the missile threat Iran poses and compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

After reading through the communiqué, the very first paragraphs still ring hollow. The text states that, “the security of our nations and the rules-based international order are being challenged.” While this statement refers to external threats, it is obvious that the rules-based order is also being undermined from within. This is the key challenge for NATO and one which it is ill-equipped to tackle, given its consensus decision-making rules. We all know which countries are causing this tension — the United States and Turkey come to mind the fastest. To the extent that threats south of the Mediterranean will remain a major security challenge, the alliance needs Turkey. It has a capable military and is very strategically located. Turkey has been very obstructionist, however, and complicates NATO decision-making routinely.

As far as the United States is concerned, allies have chosen to tolerate Trump’s antics and cajole “the stable genius.” It makes many people cringe, but it seems necessary. So long as NATO can stay focused on pursuing the objectives set out in the communiqué while protecting alliance cohesion, it will outlive Trump.