May 26, 2024

A Giant Leap for NATO

As I mentioned not too long ago, the 73-year-old alliance faced both a historic opportunity and a potential peril at the NATO summit in Spain. For the Madrid summit on June 29-30 to be successful, the 30 participating leaders needed to demonstrate cohesion and clarity of purpose. The Russians would interpret any public disagreements or repackaging of existing policies as a sign of weakness and likely escalate their aggression as a result.

The summit has concluded, and now that the dust has started to settle, it can be said that, in the main, the summit delivered. Many, but not all, of the measures needed to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin were taken jointly by President Biden and the other NATO leaders. This will improve the safety and stability of the entire transatlantic community, including the United States.

To cap off this remarkable unity, Turkey unexpectedly signed the trilateral memorandum that led to an invitation for Finland and Sweden to join NATO. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and others had been working feverishly to prevent the summit from being overshadowed by Turkish President Erdogan’s objections to Finnish and Swedish membership, which seemed likely at the time. This would have given the Russians a huge propaganda victory. But fate would not have it that way. It appears the United States has dangled some incentives in front of Turkey in order to convince Finland and Sweden to join NATO. Despite not being official yet, the likely accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO is cause for celebration, especially given that their joining the alliance was only a remote possibility just a few months ago.

During the summit, NATO also updated its mission statement for the first time in 12 years by adopting a new Strategic Concept outlining the organization’s key purposes and tasks going forward. The document expresses the alliance’s new geostrategic reality, saying:

The norms and principles that helped establish a reliable and predictable security system in Europe have been disregarded by the Russian Federation. Attacks on Allies’ independence and territory are always possible and must be taken seriously. The larger security environment is characterised by strategic competition, pervasive instability, and frequent shocks.

This is in stark contrast to NATO’s stance toward Russia in its 2010 Strategic Concept, when “a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia” was still a real possibility.

Aligned leader statements, the summit declaration, and the new Strategic Concept all highlight the importance of collective defence. To be more precise, they all but parrot the Strategic Concept’s message directed squarely at Moscow: “While NATO is a defensive Alliance, no one should doubt our strength and resolve to defend every inch of Allied territory, preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all Allies, and prevail against any aggressor.”

To back up its words, the alliance announced that the NATO Response Force would be increased from its current 40,000 to 300,000 military personnel, and that prepositioned weapons and equipment stockpiles would also continue to grow. For the first time since the Cold War, we will have pre-assigned forces to defend specific Allies, so that we can reinforce much faster if needed,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg of the expansion of the Response Force. Some allies, including Germany, have already made commitments; the country has offered 15,000 soldiers, and the United Kingdom has offered a Carrier Strike Group.

As a direct result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO established an Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) consisting of four multinational battalions in each of the Baltic states and Poland. These massive troop movements on NATO’s eastern flank are meant to discourage any potential enemies from targeting the alliance’s weakest members. The alliance announced the formation of four additional EFP battalions this March in Brussels in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. These battalions will be based in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.

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All four of the new multinational battlegroups are fully operational. Also, NATO has recently announced that each EFP battlegroup will be expanded to a brigade-level force, bringing the total number of soldiers in each to between 3,000 and 5,000. Increases in Enhanced Forward Presence contributions have been promised or announced by a number of countries. For instance, with a total of over 1,600 troops, the United Kingdom has more than doubled the size of its deployment to Estonia as part of the EFP battlegroup. At the beginning of June, Germany declared that an additional 500 troops would be stationed in Lithuania as part of the German-led EFP battalion, bringing the total number of German troops in Lithuania to 1500, up from 500 before the war broke out.

Alliance members from allies participate in the battlegroups. Greece, Portugal, and Turkey are the only NATO members that do not contribute to an EFP battalion, and that’s excluding the three Baltic states that host EFP battalions to bolster their own forces. Additionally, Portugal regularly contributes forces, most recently by temporarily deploying troops to the NATO battlegroups in both Lithuania and Romania.

In addition, the United States announced a large number of new deployments to Europe in time for the summit. Two F-35 squadrons will be stationed in the United Kingdom, a permanent headquarters for the United States Army’s European Command (V Corps) will be established in Poland (to provide command and control “focused on synchronising U.S. Army, allied, and partner nation tactical formations operating in Europe”), a new rotational brigade combat team will be sent to Romania, rotational deployments to the Baltics will be bolstered to include “armoured, aviation, air defence, and

Meanwhile, members of NATO have increased their spending on defence. For example, in 2022, Slovakia will become one of the ten NATO members that spends at least 2% of GDP on defence. Furthermore, a growing number of nations have publicly committed to increasing their share to 2% within the next few years.

Allies are not just increasing their military pensions with these funds; rather, they are investing in actual capabilities. In fact, 17 more countries than in 2014 meet the second NATO benchmark of allocating 20% or more of defence expenditures to major new capabilities.

NATO also removed its rose-colored glasses with regards to China in Madrid, stating in its new Strategic Concept that “The People’s Republic of China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security, and values,” and adding that “the deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interlock with our interests.” China was completely left out of the version from 2010.

As a result, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that, for the first time ever, the leaders of allies in the Pacific theater—Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea—attended a NATO summit. The rising challenge of China (now firmly on NATO’s radar) and the need to counter Russia with a united front, including the engagement of allies in Asia, suggest that we can expect to see similar participation of Asian allies in future alliance summits, likely starting with the next meeting in 2023 in Lithuania.

Plenty of Work to Be Done

It’s unclear how much of a success the Madrid summit really was, even though it should be hailed as such. Putting into action the choices made is crucial. Will the alliance, for instance, be able to recruit 240,000 new soldiers for its response force? How far will it go in maintaining the rate of growth in allied defence spending? Fewer than a third of member states are spending 2% of their GDP on defence at the present time, despite significant improvements.

It’s possible that gaining membership could still be a snag even with Finland and Sweden. The memorandum inviting the two countries to apply for membership, for instance, was written in such a way that they could do so without taking on any particularly onerous responsibilities within the alliance. As the agreement was being signed, Turkey’s leader, Erdogan, added new conditions, saying, “The key thing is for promises to come true” and “we will monitor the enforcement of the elements in the memorandum and will take our steps accordingly.”

The announcement that the Biden administration would back the sale of F-16 upgrade kits to Turkey (which they had previously endorsed) and the sale of new F-16 fighter jets to Turkey were suspiciously timed. However, despite President Biden’s optimism, approval from Congress for the sales is far from guaranteed.

The proof of the summit’s promised support for Ukraine, which was a major topic of discussion, will be in the eating. Russia’s war in Ukraine shows no signs of ending, and it’s not clear that the West will be able or willing to keep providing vital support for Ukraine in the long run. NATO members’ long-term resolve to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine will be tested by domestic economic pressures and dwindling munitions and weapon stocks (as well as weakened defence industrial bases that are necessary to backfill them).

Finally, the nearly alliance-wide participation in the formation of four new NATO battlegroups is a huge win, but the forces themselves remain a tripwire rather than the core of an adequate defence. NATO has been stuck on the tripwire concept in Eastern Europe and has yet to develop a force posture of deterrence with widespread and, more importantly, effective alliance-wide participation. NATO members may have created dangerous uncertainty about the alliance’s commitment by failing to seize this historic opportunity.

Successfully continuing to flesh out promises made at its Brussels gathering this past spring, NATO in Madrid strengthened deterrence in Eastern Europe, thereby decreasing the likelihood of a spillover conflict from Russia’s war against Ukraine. This is in the best interest of the United States. The onus is now on the United States and its allies to carry out the decisions made in Madrid and eliminate any remaining doubts about the alliance’s determination to resist outside aggression and protect every square inch of its territory.

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