July 08, 2016

Not Your Average NATO Summit

By Julianne Smith

Often to the dismay of the policymakers that spend months of their lives preparing for them, NATO summits rarely garner much attention on either side of the Atlantic.  To the extent that the summit is covered in the media, one sees lots of red carpets, hand shaking, and champagne toasts.  For the general public, it’s often hard to see how such a large gathering of world leaders signing communiques with promises of “transformation” and “smart defense” will have any real impact on their daily lives.  Even NATO experts sometimes find the summits disappointing, especially the countless pledges to increase defense spending that have been met for years with inaction.  This year’s NATO summit in Warsaw, though, will be an entirely different affair both in substance and style.  The Alliance is about to demonstrate that it is anything but obsolete.

Taking place in the wake of both the UK’s shattering decision to leave the EU and the recent suicide bombings in Turkey, the summit will be an opportunity for the transatlantic partners to showcase solidarity, unity, and resolve at a time when they need it most.  As a NATO-nik, I am usually reluctant to give NATO members credit just for showing up.  Instead, I prefer to judge summits based on their “deliverables” or concrete policy changes.  But this year is different.  With the entire European project buckling under the weight of Brexit, the historic migration crisis, counter terrorism challenges, a resurgent Russia, and instability close to Europe’s borders, one of the deliverables is the summit itself.  If Brexit has taught us anything, it is that we should not take the liberal order for granted.  Holding the NATO summit now serves as a timely reminder of the values we share and the bonds that keep us together, particularly in the face of so much adversity.    

More importantly, the Warsaw summit will feature policy changes that will bolster the alliance’s ability to tackle threats to its east and south.  After its last summit in Wales in 2014, some members criticized the Alliance for failing to do more to deter Russian aggression.  NATO heard those complaints and spent much of last year looking at ways it could do more.  It wasn’t easy.  Members hold widely disparate views on Russia and have had a hard time determining the right balance between prudent planning and needless escalation.  But in a surprising twist, the Alliance has decided to deploy four multinational battalions to the Baltic States.  That is a bold move for an alliance that tends to err on the side of caution.

In Warsaw NATO will also announce ways in which it is going to do more to address instability across the Middle East.  After considerable debate about the risks involved, the Alliance is going to undertake training and capacity building inside Iraq.  To fully appreciate this new, you need to know that while NATO has considerable experience in training foreign forces, it prefers to do that training away from conflict zones.  By agreeing to more inside Iraq, NATO will have a bigger and bolder impact.  The Alliance has also decided to deploy AWACS as part of the anti-ISIS campaign. These surveillance aircraft will play a helpful role in a conflict that the Alliance has up until now been doing its best to avoid. 

In addition to addressing the threats to its east and south, NATO is going to take the controversial step of welcoming a new member – Montenegro.  Why, one might ask, is adding such a small country so controversial?  Some members opposed the idea for fear of escalating already high tensions with Moscow.  Others argued that the Alliance should focus on its core mission of collective defense and that adding another member would only complicate efforts to do that.  The Alliance overcame those age-old objections and decided to send a clear message that sovereign nations have the right to freely choose their security arrangements and alliances. 

The list of policy changes at this summit won’t stop there.  Expect to hear a lot about “resilience” and how NATO and the European Union are going to finally break through years of paralysis to address Russian hybrid tactics.  Expect to hear that two-thirds of Alliance members have finally stopped the bleeding when it comes to their national defense budgets.  Expect to hear a word or two about NATO’s nuclear policy, a subject the Alliance has downplayed in recent years but is now giving renewed attention in the face of Putin’s nuclear saber rattling.

Are all of these initiatives enough?  Certainly not.  After Warsaw, the Alliance will have to get back to work.  It will need to do more to address instability in Libya.  It will have to ensure its new battalions in the Baltic States are reinforced.  It will have to keep an eye on its mission in Afghanistan.  But at a time when some NATO members and the likes of Donald Trump are calling into question the value of an institution created in 1949, this summit will prove that NATO is an alliance capable of self reflection, rigorous debate, and big muscle movements.