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The NATO Summit: The Long Agenda of One Item

Michael Clarke
RUSI Newsbrief, 2 September 2014
United States, NATO, Ukraine, Americas, Russia, UK, International Institutions, Europe
The NATO summit in Wales will be a watershed moment for the Alliance as it finds itself in pole position to respond to the Russian challenge to European security

As hosts of the first NATO summit in the UK since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first for twenty-four years, the British government has been anxious to make sure the agenda is properly covered. And though this is NATO’s summit and therefore NATO’s agenda, the hosts have some expectations that the agenda should also reflect their own concerns. As such, in the early planning stages, Downing Street was anticipating an agenda that looked at NATO’s interests in the Gulf, at maritime security, at preserving the habits of co-operation developed by ISAF in Afghanistan, and at new approaches to the thorny question of further NATO enlargement. And all of these items are on the agenda, one way or another. But now, in reality, there is actually only one agenda item: NATO and Russia. Indeed, the Ukraine crisis has concentrated many European minds, if not quite yet those of its most important leaders. The problem is not only Ukraine; it goes back at least to 2008 and Russia’s brief war against Georgia. The Ukrainian crisis has not in itself created Europe’s current strategic challenge but it has nevertheless brought NATO to a crossroads.

Certainly, commentary around every NATO summit presents the Alliance as being ‘at a crossroads’. Unknown futures always suggest dramatic choices. But in 2014, NATO faces something qualitatively different to merely an uncertain future. Russia’s President Putin has threatened the principles of European security through subversion on a large scale in a number of countries and by several different means; through the changing of borders by external forces; and now through intervention across Russia’s own borders to support separatists who would divide a large European state.

This is a problem not just for NATO members, but for all of the thirty-four European countries of NATO and the EU combined, and for the handful of neutrals which belong to neither. Indeed, it is a problem for Europe as a whole and not just in terms of regional security. It also affects the economy and political health of the continent in a way that all of its states and multiple institutions will have to address. But events have put NATO in the lead, and however many items are listed on its agenda, the success of this summit will be measured by world opinion regarding how well it responds to the single, state-centred, old-fashioned security challenge that Russia has now presented to the rest of Europe.

The challenge is state-centred and old-fashioned because it reverses the strategic dynamics of the last twenty-five years. Europe’s instabilities since 1989 have been caused by weak states fragmenting along ethnic lines: throughout the former Yugoslavia, in Moldova, Georgia and even, to an extent, Albania. The European powers and their North American allies eventually dealt fairly well with these manifestations of weakness. But now the challenge arises instead from a strong state coalescing its influence along ethnic lines and seeking to recreate a traditional sphere of great-power influence, not just in Eastern Europe but also in Cyprus, Greece and Egypt. This is a challenge of a style and extent that previous generations of European leaders would easily have recognised.

On the other hand, those generations of leaders would not so easily recognise the NATO of today. An alliance of sixteen at the end of the Cold War, it is now one of twenty-eight. It includes two Baltic States – Estonia and Latvia – that contain significant Russian minorities, and one – Lithuania – that still borders a large Russian military base at Kaliningrad. It also includes one member – Romania – which has ethnic homogeneity with crisis-prone Moldova next door, in which a Russian minority in Transnistria has long since requested unification with Moscow. At twenty-eight member states, NATO could hardly be said to be nearly twice as strong a military alliance as it was at sixteen, however; quite the reverse in fact. Political consensus is considerably more difficult to achieve and average defence spending among European members has drifted inexorably down to around 1.3 per cent of national GDPs.

Furthermore, the two most important military contributors to NATO’s security during the Cold War – the US and Germany – are different strategic actors these days. The US may or may not be involved in a meaningful ‘rebalancing’ from Europe and the Middle East towards Asia. But it is apparent that traditional US leadership among its allies and friends in the world is far more conditional than it once was. Many allies are exasperated at US reticence in their respective regions, but the US is determined to not simply underwrite the security of allies that should be capable of defending themselves. During the Cold War, NATO’s political tilts had a strong self-righting mechanism; transatlantic rows frightened NATO’s core members, which rushed to set the relationship straight again. But now transatlantic political rows – over trade policy and sanctions, spying, Internet surveillance and military burden-sharing among the Allies – have a tendency to become cumulative. If the European members of NATO do not step up to the plate, the US is very unlikely to act as a substitute for them.

Germany, meanwhile, expensively unified and at the heart of Europe as France was in previous centuries, has effectively transformed itself in the last twenty-five years into the sort of civilian power for which the rest of Europe had yearned since the 1860s. Notably, the country now tries to use its natural economic influence multilaterally to achieve diplomatic effect and regards the military instruments of policy as a very reluctant last resort. In truth, this transformation has been happening since 1945, but the Cold War and the division of Germany created a long residual role for the German military that Bonn regarded as a distasteful necessity and was more than glad to relinquish. No less than the rest of Europe in earlier years, the German political establishment was yearning to preside over a strong civilian power once it had taken on the challenge of reunification.

So the NATO that assembles for this crucial summit will be one that can no longer base itself around a ready and powerful German military capability, or around a willing American reinforcement of this. These critical military and political elements embodied in Washington and Berlin have not just declined because they have reaped a peace dividend after the Cold War. They have decisively changed because attitudes and strategic visions in those capitals are now structurally different. The NATO that needs to respond to Putin’s stability challenge will not be the old NATO, throwing the gears into reverse and scrabbling back towards a position it occupied two decades ago; it will be a new NATO – politically, militarily and territorially.

This is certainly a challenge but it may be no bad thing. Today, the threat that NATO and EU members face – the threat to European stability itself – comes not from the prospect of a general ground invasion or the need to deter a traditional interstate war, but from acts of military subversion, political destabilisation, energy blackmail and veiled, or not so veiled, threats. The timing of Russia’s takeover of Crimea, as well as the style of Moscow’s policy since the Ukrainian crisis began, indicates that Russia’s leaders see NATO and the EU as organisations that pose a zero-sum strategic challenge; and as powerful, meddlesome and dangerous to Russia’s future freedom of action. But they also display contempt for the leadership embodied in those organisations. There is an assumption that Russian leaders can out-think the West, make the most of Western indecision, control the agenda, and be decisive and effective with firm leadership.

The task for a re-worked NATO, finding itself, at the time of this summit, in pole position to structure Western responses to the Russian challenge, is to reassure the new and more vulnerable Allies that NATO is a meaningful military alliance and to remind Moscow of that in visible ways. Red lines are unfashionable but NATO has to re-establish with facts on the ground that its intrinsic red line – the Article V guarantee of collective defence – is still a reality. Declarations will not do. There will be a requirement to recreate, in good working order, enough of NATO’s military heavy metal to both reassure Allies and deter an adversary.

Given the present starting point, this is easier said than done. And it is only one – necessary but not sufficient – part of the response. Beyond this, NATO has to be the forum in which North American and European leaders devise ways to make political subversion along ethnic lines ineffective, and strengthen the magnetic power of European prosperity and stability to encourage real political reform in vulnerable countries to the east. Europe has a good record in influencing both the Baltic and the new Balkan States in this way since the Cold War. But these were all small countries. Now the challenge is to make it work in big ones.

These tasks logically fall also to many other organisations: the EU, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Council for Europe, not to mention the UN, World Bank, World Trade Organization, national-champion corporations and so on. NATO is hardly the crowning organisation to orchestrate a political, economic and security response to Russia’s foreign policy. But it is the organisation that most effectively embodies a single transatlantic forum. It is the organisation that is confronted by the immediate security manifestations of the challenge. And it is the organisation that finds itself meeting this month in an atmosphere of crisis that is different to anything that Europe has seen since 1989.

Alliance leaders can talk all they like about what is happening elsewhere in the world. For the media and for global public opinion, this summit will either mark the emergence of a new NATO or be a big nail in the coffin of the old.

Professor Michael Clarke

Director General, RUSI.


Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

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