NATO Leaders Meeting: Is the Alliance in good shape?

It should be more or less a celebratory summit in London, they even don’t call this event a summit, its NATO Leaders meeting, but what do you expect from the Alliance gathering in terms of discussions? And while one of the aims is to show unity, having in one room Presidents Trump, Macron and Erdogan (and the others, of course), probably won’t add too much to unity, will it? Read few comments.

Stanley SloanNonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council of the United States, Visiting Scholar in Political Science, Middlebury College

As we contemplate the gathering of NATO leaders in London, those of us who believe that transatlantic security cooperation and its core institution, NATO, still serve US, Canadian and European interests well are holding our collective breath. With three prominent leaders – American President Trump, French President Macron, and Turkish President Erdoğan – all having assaulted the alliance, each in his own way, the meeting holds the potential of becoming a circular firing squad. None of these leaders has a credible alternative that would work as well for their national interests, or that of the collective. Each has his own unilateral perspective that is fatally flawed and risks weakening if not destroying the alliance.

The good news is that national delegations and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg’s staff undoubtedly are hard at work preparing a communique reaffirming NATO’s continued relevance. The problem, of course, is that Trump has made it clear that he does not believe the alliance serves US (or his personal) interests, Macron has gratuitously declared the alliance “brain dead,” and Erdoğan is playing footsies with Putin’s Russia as well as pursuing his own autocratic path. It is hard to imagine the session will come off with no verbal assaults on the alliance.

The one major outcome expected according to some reports is agreement on appointing a “wisemen” committee – or perhaps wise men and women committee – that would assess the current political health of the alliance. The idea was advanced by German Foreign Minister Maas in response to Macron’s critique. The goal of such an exercise presumably would be to recommend improvements, most notably in the willingness of the allies to consult with each other before taking actions that affect the interests of other allies. Such a decision would fit into a distinguished tradition that began with the 1956 Report of the Three Wise Men and was continued most notably by the 1967 Harmel Report. Both of those Cold War exercises came at a time when NATO political unity was perceived as shaky and were intended to right the ship. Both responded effectively to the challenges at hand. It is amazing, in fact, that the Harmel formula for a NATO strategy of defense, deterrence and détente with the Soviet Union still seems relevant today, despite how dramatically the strategic environment changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The alliance would benefit from a clear statement of commitments to the alliance as well as to its reform that would be intended to be the product of a “new Harmel exercise.” The question is whether it is dangerous to start such a project with NATO skeptic/enemy Trump still in office in the United States. I would recommend waiting. I warned at the beginning of the Trump administration that the alliance should wait out the Trump presidency before drafting a new strategic concept, and fortunately the allies took this cautious path, apparently agreeing that the risks outweighed the need for a new concept. But the pressure to “do something” that responds to NATO’s current crisis of confidence may be irresistible. In that case, I not only hold my breathe in anticipation of the London meeting but also will cross my fingers for the alliance in its wake.

Charly Salonius-PasternakSenior Research Fellow, The Global Security Research Programme, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs

I have low expectations of the London meeting, in terms of grand unifying statements or ‘to do’ lists (Like Wales or Warsaw). What could be accomplished, is some kind of watered down statement, which acknowledges all Allies working together to address a range of security challenges into the 21st century.

Trump clearly doesn’t see overarching purpose or need for NATO, Macron does but wants to push increased European capabilities, and Erdogan knows that NATO is ‘stuck’ with him, so he is free to try to hold (for example) defence planning in one direction hostage to his/Turkish specific interests.  So, all three of them have said or behaved in ways which have caused many furrowed brows within NATO and in national capitals, but for different reasons. For this reason, it would seem that SG Stoltenberg must try to ensure everyone gets enough, so as to not be tempted to ‘blow up’ the meeting with a very public and destructive row.

Lorenzo NannettiInternational Affairs Analyst

I guess that aside from possible small decisions, it will be more of the same kind of debate/confrontation we have seen in the recent past. It will be an equilibrium between the need to maintain a show of unity, as you have correctly noted, and the tendency of individuals to highlight their positions. I don’t think the presence of Erdogan will stir much trouble, considering he has already met Trump recently, so the two may mostly go along well. And regarding Macron’s position, he might be isolated: Merkel has already stated that Europe needs and can do more on defense, but that NATO is still vital to European defense (and I agree, EU doesn’t have the firepower to match an hypothetical lack of US presence and won’t reach adequate levels anytime soon even in the best scenarios, which are unlikely). Under these premises, I don’t see anyone trying to “break” the meeting: even Macron may just re-state the need for EU to have a larger role but not press the matter much further. In theory, this is just what Trump and the US want (more EU effort, more EU spending on defense), but there’s a big difference: US wants Europe to spend more in US military hardware programs and remain on a short leash regarding actual command and projection capabilities, while France wants to Europe to focus on own programs and have more independence. Probably both are too extreme.

In general, things may heat up during the meeting only if anyone’s ego shows up openly.

My bet is there will be statements about unity but every observer will just note the fact the differences remain and won’t get better soon.

Gianluca PastoriAssociate Professor, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano

Today NATO is facing many problems. Secretary General Stoltenberg recently admitted that, on Syria, there are ‘different views’ among the allies, and this is only one aspect. President Macron is extremely critical toward the Alliance and, despite their wording, there is some truth in his criticisms. Turkey is increasingly close to Russia, especially after the purchase of the S-400 missile system, and increasingly at odds with the US on in F-35 issue. On this background, it is quite difficult that the London meeting could be more than a formal gathering. I don’t think that cleavages will openly emerge, but it seems me a clue that, while in 1999 and 2009 the fiftieth and sixtieth anniversary of the Alliance were celebrated with the due pomp, this seventieth anniversary is passing almost unnoticed. In my opinion, the main problem is that the alliance, currently, has no real leaders. The US are increasingly reluctant to maintain this role, and this state of thing is the product of long-term dynamics, not only of President Trump’s worldview. At the same time, no European country is willing — and, probably, ready — to replace them, preferring to promote the emergence of other, smaller and probably more tightly-connected structures, as France seems willing to do with its proposals for the creation of a ‘real European army’ whose relations with NATO are still not totally clear.

Artur GruszczakNational Security Department, Jagiellonian University in Krakow

I have no great expectations. To the contrary, I am afraid the London summit is going to turn into a rather disappointing stage performance of too many soloists who will make the Alliance’s voice a cacophony. No long-term plausible strategic blueprints will be accorded and no vision of a new NATO capable to handle effectively plenty of current security issues is going to be outlined. On the other hand, the confrontation of heads of the leading member states can bring about a fascinating show, or rather a vanity fair, addressed more to the national public that to the North Atlantic community. Macron’s recent provocative statements woke up the Atlanticists, meanwhile Trump’s reply pinched the Europeans here and there. Erdogan seems to be in the spotlight because of the entangled juncture in Syria – and further in the Middle East – and because of his veto in regard to U.S. strategic objectives. It seems that, at the end of the summit, several minor and non-binding issues will be agreed on and included in a final declaration though they will be overwhelmed by bombastic words and empty platitudes about NATO’s unity and indivisibility 70 years after its inception.

Garret MartinProfessorial Lecturer, School of International Service, American University

Considering the recent toxic atmosphere in Transatlantic relations (think Macron’s comments or Turkey’s actions in Syria) and domestic diversions for some key players (elections in the UK and impeachment proceedings in the US), I have very low expectations for the London NATO meeting; and seemingly, so do the organizers of the meeting. We will see a very tight agenda, with only one working session, so to avoid the risks of another blow up, as we saw during the last NATO summit in Brussels in July 2018. The feeling seems to be: survive this meeting and hope for better days ahead.

That said, even if relations at the highest levels are poor at present, that does not mean it should stall all existing initiatives. NATO can and must continue to build on the actions taken since 2014 to improve its capabilities and its military readiness. That means reaffirming its commitment to the so-called “Four 30s” plan, being able to mobilize 30 troop battalions, 30 squadrons of aircraft, and 30 warships within 30 days. Second, that means taking steps, in consultation with the EU, to improve military mobility.

Moreover, even if major breakthroughs are unlikely at London, the Alliance could still lay the seeds for a future rejuvenation. Germany recently suggested convening a ‘group of experts’ to strengthen NATO’s political thinking and that strikes me as a wise idea. That could be the prelude for working toward a new Strategic Concept for the Alliance, to update the last version in 2010.

Raimonds RublovskisFormer Chief of the Strategic Planning Department of the Joint Headquarters of the National Armed Forces of Latvia

1. I would argue that NATO is not in good shape due to increasing tensions among the leading NATO nations on the future of the Alliance, and what should be done in this regard.  Taking into account recent statements and actions of Presidents Trump, Macron and Erdogan, and bearing in mind that those are the leaders of the most powerful NATO nations, it shows clear split among even those three and furthermore, the rest of NATO nations, which are and will be forced to choose the sides within internal NATO discussion, especially, it applies to small NATO members- security consumers.

2. I would argue that the main issues will be following- how to maintain effectiveness and unity of NATO, – How to further develop policies towards Russia, and – how to contain Rising China, Moreover, how to contain Russian- Chinese political and military cooperation

3. Most probably, there will be no serious declarations bearing in mind increasingly different points of views of leading NATO nations – the US, UK, France, Turkey, Germany, and it will certainly make nervous small NATO nations on NATO borders.

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