NATO is preparing for its next summit meeting in Chicago in May, and unlike EU summits that take place almost monthly NATO’s still have a touch of the exceptional. This helps explain the inflationary use of the term “historic” to describe them, notably the Lisbon summit of November 2010 that was said to be “the most important in NATO’s history”.
Chicago has for some time seemed an exception to this rule, having been initially billed as an “implementation summit” at which the alliance’s political leaders could assess the progress of the ambitious work programme agreed on in Lisbon to speed up NATO’s efforts to adapt to the 21st century.
But four political developments since late 2010 have modified the international security agenda, and are likely to transform Chicago into a high-profile summit in its own right. First, the revolutions in the Arab world and NATO’s military intervention in Libya have refocused the alliance’s attention on the Middle East and to Northern Africa. Second, the international financial crisis is set to have an incalculable impact on NATO members’ defence budgets. Third, the subliminal debate on transatlantic burden sharing and solidarity within the alliance has again been brought to the fore by the speech of outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Brussels last June, at Europe’s World’s associated think tank, the Security and Defence Agenda (SDA). Finally, it is the first NATO summit to be held in the United States in 13 years, and takes place not only in an election year but in President Obama’s home town. The Obama Administration is therefore particularly interested in summit “deliverables”, meaning outcomes and agreements that can be announced as major successes.
Given these circumstances, NATO members agreed on six agenda items for the summit – four of which were discussed in Lisbon with two more related to recent developments. All six go to the foundations of the alliance, are highly complex and difficult to resolve.
The foremost of the long-standing agenda items will certainly be Afghanistan, where NATO has decided to withdraw its combat forces by 2014. NATO therefore needs to train enough Afghan military and police security forces to take over full responsibility for stability in the country. It nevertheless needs to make it clear that international support for Afghanistan will continue after 2014, and to find the necessary public support for this ongoing commitment NATO needs to convey the message that its long-standing mission there has been a success, despite all the sacrifices. A positive assessment along these lines could be based on three facts: that the ultimate goal of destroying Al-Qaeda as a strategically active terrorist group operating from Afghanistan has been achieved. Second, that much has been accomplished in terms of state structures, children in school, women in jobs, medical care and newly-built infrastructure. And lastly that Afghanistan has been a success for the alliance’s cohesion because despite the high blood toll NATO has been able to remain fully engaged in the region while maintaining the unity of all its members.
Next on the list at Chicago is the by now almost traditional issue of the NATO-Russia relationship. Despite efforts on both sides this remains a bumpy one. NATO’s eastern European member states still harbour concerns about Russia, while Moscow’s often harsh words and deeds vis-à-vis neighbours or former allies do little to alleviate historic fears of Russia. And as Russia’s long-expected internal modernisation has become stuck, it is likely to become progressively weaker both economically and militarily, so that Moscow may be tempted to compensate by becoming increasingly assertive and pushy on the international scene.
All these worrisome trends and contradictions seem to be encapsulated in what some see as the showcase project of the NATO-Russian relationship – a common missile defence system. Moscow insists on a truly common project in which both sides would jointly decide on whether or not to intercept an incoming missile, and it clearly does so because it knows perfectly that this would be far too great a step for NATO, and especially for its eastern European members. Washington, meanwhile, is promoting the idea of co-operation with Russia on missile defence based on assurances that Russia would be treated as an equal partner, yet knowing that this cannot in practical terms be the case either militarily or technologically. The bottom line, therefore, is that there seems little chance that the Gordian knot of missile defence co-operation between Russia and NATO can be cut in Chicago.
The third summit item there will be NATO’s internal debate over missile defence. The United States has been pursuing its plans for a national defence against ballistic missiles for some 30 years. In Lisbon, though, the NATO government declared missile defence to be an alliance-wide project. Now the goal is to spur co-operation between the U.S. as key provider of the hardware and the European members of NATO. Washington has already begun to build up a missile defence capability based on ship-based assets in the Mediterranean which will eventually cover all the NATO countries. Some of the European allies have offered their territory for the deployment of additional radar stations and interceptors at a later stage of the project, while others have offered to integrate their sensors and radars into a NATO-wide system.
To achieve a truly NATO-wide missile defence system in which the U.S. would grant its partners a say in decision-making, the Europeans will have to do more than just providing cost-neutral contributions. Washington will increasingly be pushing for a much fairer cost-sharing structure. But such a reasonable and understandable request is set to collide head-on with harsh defence budget cuts in all the NATO countries. In short, whatever well-intentioned summit vows are made in Chicago, missile defence will remain for a long time a purely American effort.
The fourth topic also has its roots in NATO’s Lisbon summit of late 2010 and concerns the alliance’s attempt to find a new consensus on the role of nuclear weapons. The core of the nuclear question, namely how to deter whom with what, has been papered over for a long time with empty communiqué language. Sharp differences within NATO no longer permit such negligence. Some NATO members insist on U.S. nuclear weapons being withdrawn from European soil, while others see these weapons as an essential symbol of America’s security commitments. President Obama has set the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, yet meanwhile Iran seems on the verge of becoming the latest state to be armed with nuclear weapons.
Under the cumbersome title of its “Deterrence and Defence Posture Review”, NATO is trying to square the circle of defence, deterrence and arms control, but so far it has made no headway. The different positions on the role of nuclear weapons have not been bridged, and it seems doubtful that the allies will find any meaningful consensus in time for its Chicago summit.
The first new, post-Lisbon topic on the summit agenda will be what NATO Secretary General Rasmussen calls “Smart Defence”. Since there seems no hope for increasing defence expenditures, existing budgets – according to Rasmussen – need to be spent in smarter ways. Instead of planning and procuring individually, the 28 NATO members should try to pool their efforts and to share costly military hardware as much as possible. This idea of pooling and sharing is neither new nor revolutionary, but has never been much implemented. NATO countries and their defence equipment companies instead compete among themselves with various types of tank, aircraft or electronic devices.
And although the smart defence idea is eminently reasonable, it tends to collide with some harsh political realities. The major allies in NATO all support pooling and sharing rhetorically, but whenever it comes to providing their military assets for common operations they tend to hold back – either for domestic reasons or because their government lacks the support of parliament. This sort of opting out happened most recently with the Libya operation and not only erodes NATO’s cohesion but also renders smart defence impracticable. No NATO country will be ready to do without certain military components if it cannot be absolutely sure that its allies will provide their part of the shared equipment in case of need. Smart defence might therefore work in certain cases, where allies have similar military structures and cultures like France and the United Kingdom, but that means it can be no panacea for NATO’s overall budgetary shortcomings.
Looking for more positive outcomes on the Chicago agenda, there are the on-going developments in the Arab world. Although it is still not possible to predict the fruits of the Arab spring – what some call the “Arabellion” – NATO still has reasons for optimism. With the Libya mission, the alliance proved its ability to act and definitively improved its image in North Africa. In Chicago, NATO will agree a major political declaration offering further support to the region – so far as it is requested by those countries.
These six agenda items mean the Chicago summiteers will have a plateful of tricky issues to deal with. And their major difference and contradictions mean the results – the deliverables – may not be very palatable. It’s necessarily a bad thing, though, because reinventing NATO is a long-term process that generally progresses in small steps only.
Karl-Heinz Kamp is the Research Director of the NATO Defence College in Rome. email@example.com.
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