July 12, 2023

CNAS Responds: 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius

From July 11-12th, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) met in Vilnius, Lithuania to address pressing challenges faced by the alliance, enhance NATO's deterrence and defense capabilities, and foster closer ties between Ukraine and the alliance. Following the summit, CNAS experts analyzed the potential impact of the summit and the strength of the alliance generally.

All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, email Alexa Whaley at [email protected].

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Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer

NATO aimed to get Sweden in, hold Ukraine up, and push Russia out. With Turkish agreement, the allies accomplished their first goal. Ukraine remains alive and fighting. And with the NATO-supplied counteroffensive, the third remains a work in uncertain progress. The imperative to aid Kyiv and demonstrate unity rightly subsumed disagreement about when and how Ukraine should join NATO.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is Turkey's apparent shifts. President Erdogan supported Sweden's NATO bid at long last, though he has already backtracked a bit. He expressed support for Ukrainian membership in the alliance and allowed President Zelenskyy to bring home five former Azov fighters, over Russian objections. He reiterated Turkey's ambition to join the European Union, however distant that goal might remain today.

A bigger NATO, an enduring Ukraine, and a Turkey coming in from the cold is not a bad summit outcome. Time will tell how well these accomplishments hold.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program

The NATO Summit in Vilnius has been bitter-sweet. It was bitter because it was a missed opportunity for anchoring Ukraine more firmly in the West. The language in the NATO communique barely went further than the promise of eventual membership that alliance made to Ukraine at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. This was a missed opportunity to signal a more robust commitment to Ukraine and its future in the alliance. Ukraine itself recognizes that it cannot join NATO while the war is ongoing, but after 16 months of fighting against Russia’s invasion, the Alliance should have been able to deliver greater clarity and resolve.

However, there is a lot to be positive about. Sweden now has a green light for NATO membership. The Allies agreed that the 2% of GDP target for defense spending is a floor rather than a ceiling. NATO unveiled its regional defense planning. Even on Ukraine, the direction of travel, while slow, is positive. Although not fully reflected in the NATO Communique, it is clear that the ground has shifted in support of Ukraine’s NATO membership—it is no longer a question of if, but rather when. The United States appears especially isolated in its caution on the issue. However, it is plausible that the outcome in Vilnius simply reflects the Administration’s preference for incremental change, rather than sudden movements that they fear will provoke a Russian response. Just as the US has slowly ratcheted up its military support for Ukraine, one could interpret Vilnius as another US attempt at boiling the Kremlin frog—a small positive step that can pave the way for a more significant step at next year’s Washington Summit. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg has acknowledged that Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO. We now have a year to make this more of a reality.

Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

This week’s NATO Summit in Vilnius highlighted how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has galvanized cooperation between like-minded European and Indo-Pacific nations to meet global challenges and preserve a stable, rules-based order in both Europe and Asia. The attendance of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea (for the second year in a row) demonstrates that security in these major regions of the world are increasingly intertwined and that European and Indo-Pacific nations alike are taking a broader view of their security interests and seeking to expand cross-continental defense partnerships.

NATO nations welcome support from the four Indo-Pacific nations for Ukraine and see value in bringing the Asian partners closer into their fold to challenge rising Chinese aggression. The NATO Communique calls out the challenges China poses for NATO, specifically highlighting Beijing’s “malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and misinformation” and efforts to control critical infrastructure and strategic supply chains. It also references increased China-Russia collaboration that is aimed at undermining global stability.

For their part, South Korea and Japan are seeking increased NATO attention to the threat from North Korea and its continued ballistic missile provocations, including North Korea’s testing of a long-range missile that landed in the Sea of Japan on the opening day of the NATO summit. The overall deterioration in Japan’s security environment from Chinese, Russian, and North Korean provocations over the last few years has even led to consideration of the opening of a NATO liaison office in Tokyo, although Paris has raised objections to the idea. Still, the momentum for binding NATO to like-minded Indo-Pacific democratic partners is likely to only expand in coming years.

Carisa Nietsche, Associate Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

While the war in Ukraine dominated the agenda at the summit, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) rose on the alliance's agenda. China's failure to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a signal to the alliance of the persistent challenges posed by the PRC, and the Vilnius Summit reflected this new reality. In recent years, NATO began mentioning China in its communications, including the 2019 communiqué, the 2022 Strategic Concept, and in last year’s Madrid Summit declaration. The leaders of the “Asia-Pacific Four” – Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand – first participated in the Madrid Summit and also attended the Vilnius Summit.

However, the Vilnius Summit communiqué goes a great deal further than past ones to assert the challenges posed by China and to chart the first steps for the alliance to address these challenges. China was mentioned a staggering 14 times in the Vilnius Summit communiqué compared to one mention in last year's Madrid Summit declaration. The statement carefully balances the need to address challenges posed by the PRC with the need for engagement with the PRC. This framing is consistent with the EU’s “Holy Trinity” approach to China – simultaneously defining China as a partner, economic competitor, and systemic rival. This framing was likely necessary to get agreement on the communiqué text from all 31 NATO allies – each of whom has a distinct China policy. For the first time, the statement highlights specific PRC practices and policies that undermine the alliance’s security, interests, and values. Specifically, the statement calls out China’s deepening partnership with Russia, use of economic leverage to create strategic dependencies, and aim to control critical infrastructure and supply chains. Importantly, the Vilnius Summit communiqué establishes a solid foundation on which NATO can continue to build to identify and address those challenges posed by the PRC that threaten to fracture alliance unity, challenge Euro-Atlantic security, and undermine the rules-based international order.

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All CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange one, contact Alexa Whaley at awhaley@cnas.org.

Authors

  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor

    Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program

    Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She works on national security challenges facing the United States and Eur...

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is a foreign policy and national security expert with over 20 years of service in...

  • Carisa Nietsche

    Associate Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Carisa Nietsche is an Associate Fellow for the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She specializes in Europe-China relations, transatlantic technology policy, and threats ...