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Commentary | 19 June 2017

Assessing the NATO Heads of State and Government Meeting

Image of Tom McKane

Tom McKane |Former Director General for Strategy and Security Policy, Ministry of Defence

Defence NATO Security Euro-Atlantic Security

With NATO Summit Meetings taking place at roughly 18 months intervals, it would be too much to expect that every one of them will be brimming with significance. But the recent meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government on May 25th may come to be seen as significant for all the wrong reasons.

It appears to have been intended to be a moment when the strength of the trans-Atlantic alliance would be reconfirmed following the election of President Trump. But if solidarity was the name of the game, someone appears to have forgotten to inform the US President. Far from reinforcing cohesion, the President’s public remarks in Brussels preceding the meeting were notable chiefly for the absence of any confirmation of the US’s Article 5 commitment to the defence of its European allies, as well as the stress he placed on the failure of 23 out of 28 allies to meet the 2% of GDP target for defence spending. Chancellor Merkel’s comments in Berlin three days later that “the times when we could totally rely on others are to some extent over, as I have experienced in the past few days”, were telling.

Yet, curiously, the President’s speech came less than a month after SACEUR, in testimony to a Senate committee, said that EUCOM had shifted from a posture of security cooperation and engagement to one of deterrence and defence, and only days before a request to increase the 2018 budget for the US’s European Reassurance Initiative from $3.4Bn to $4.7Bn. Thus, at the same time as the President was casting doubt on the US commitment to the defence of Europe, on the ground the scale of the US commitment is increasing. The President could have used this fact to add to the moral pressure on the European allies to contribute more to defence, as well as adding to the deterrent effect of his remarks.

The two items on the agenda for the meeting were the fight against terrorism and burden sharing. These reflected President Trump’s priorities, but the lack of emphasis on collective defence and deterrence was a missed opportunity to sustain the theme established at Wales and continued at Warsaw. The absence of a communiqué contributed to the impression that the brief meeting lacked substance and made it more difficult to gauge what progress had been made in implementing the commitments made at the previous two summits. Perhaps it was sensible not to ramp up the rhetoric on defence against threats from the East. Strong defence coupled with openness to dialogue is the right policy. But more should have been made of the progress in reinforcing the Alliance’s borders in order to enhance deterrence. And it was curious in the extreme that the Alliance’s leaders had nothing to say about the continuing stalemate in Ukraine.

At the concluding press conference, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the meeting had been a powerful reminder of NATO solidarity and the importance of the common fight against terrorism. He described the agreement that NATO would become a full member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS as a strong signal of NATO’s commitment to fight global terrorism. Given that all 28 allies are already members of that coalition, it is difficult to see what practical effect this will have. The Secretary General highlighted the ability to take part in political deliberations, including on the coordination of training and capacity building. But, since the coalition includes many states which are not NATO members and is not being led by the Alliance, the practical impact of this initiative is likely to be extremely modest and could even be counterproductive if it has the effect of putting off other potential partners. Without knowing the detail of the increased contribution by the NATO AWACS force, it is difficult to assess its value, other than to acknowledge that any additional contribution is better than none.

The decision to develop annual national plans setting out how the member states intend to meet the 2014 investment pledge, deliver the military capabilities the Alliance requires and contribute to NATO missions sounds promising. We are told that the first set of reports are to be made by the end of this year, in time for NATO Defence Ministers to consider them in February 2018. It will be instructive to see how the new initiative fares. If it has the effect of driving the allies to meet the 2% target, it will have served a useful purpose. However, as the Secretary General acknowledged, it is not just a question of how much is spent but also how it is spent. If the new initiative adds bite to the existing annual capability planning cycle, it would be an added boon. NATO’s defence planning processes are more shrouded in secrecy than is either necessary or useful. This restricts rational debate about how best to maximise military output on an Alliance-wide basis. The more transparency surrounding the new initiative, the more effective it is likely to be.

The overall effect of the meeting was to sharpen differences between the US and its European allies, rather than reinforce Alliance solidarity. Any modest benefit from the focus on counterterrorism was more than offset by the fresh impetus provided to speculation about the US commitment to Article 5. On the other hand, if the combination of President Trump’s undiplomatic language and the development of annual plans on the 2% target galvanises the European allies to spend more and spend more effectively, some good will have come of the gathering.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.