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Commentary | 18 May 2016

Competing Demands: Prioritisation is crucial for the success of the Warsaw NATO Summit

Image of John McColl

John McColl |Former Lieutenant-Governor of Jersey, Former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (Deputy SACEUR)

Afghanistan Middle East NATO Russia-West Relations Transatlantic relations Euro-Atlantic Security

The agenda for the NATO summit scheduled for July in Warsaw will be packed with compelling and competing demands upon Alliance time and resources. The unifying focus of out of area operations in Afghanistan has been replaced by the twin threats of Russia in the East and the risks emanating from Africa and the Middle East. The United States will want to see European member states recommit and follow through on the 2% pledge made at Celtic Manor, whilst the Europeans will wish to see renewed vigour in American leadership. With the exception of Montenegro, the question of enlargement remains hanging in the air with no clear way forward for aspirant nations. Afghanistan, despite the Alliance’s attempts to look the other way, remains unfinished business. With so much at stake prioritisation will be key.

The most significant threat to NATO’s interests and cohesion is Russia, whose actions and capability development indicate an intent to destabilise Europe and divide the transatlantic community. The recent reconvening of the NATO-Russia Council after a two year gap demonstrated how ‘profound and persistent’ the divergent perspectives are, to quote the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This is not a passing phase but rather the new status quo. The dangerous impasse will be with us for the foreseeable future and NATO’s response must be vigorous, balanced and sustainable long term. The Alliance should commit to dialogue and cooperation whenever and wherever interests align. Simultaneously, there is a need to reinforce the deterrent posture agreed in Wales with further defence capabilities and exercise activity in the East. Given the continuation of dangerous ‘close encounters’ on land, sea, and air we need to have in place, and practise, the procedures to contain the fallout or casualties, when, not if, an incident occurs.

NATO needs to demonstrate its relevance to all the members and avoid the scenario when the southern member states, particularly Italy and Turkey, will believe that the Alliance is devoting insufficient attention to the danger posed by the Middle East and North Africa. Whilst the application of NATO instruments to the problems of migrant flows, failed states, extremism and social and economic provision is problematic, imaginative solutions are required. There is clearly scope for reinforcing the current naval presence in the Aegean and greater Mediterranean but reassurance would also flow from deployments of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), and other NATO capabilities to the south. Any action in the south will have to involve improved cooperation between the EU and NATO which has been woefully inadequate to date. High profile pledges towards increased cooperation can be expected in Warsaw, but such gestures lack any substance unless the underlying Turkish/Greek impasse over EU/NATO information sharing is addressed.

The official NATO ‘open doors policy’ for Alliance enlargement remains in place but it is difficult to see how potential candidates such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine can move forward. NATO ministers declined to initiate a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Georgia in December 2015 despite the widely held view that Georgia had undertaken many more reforms than some other, successful applicants. This uncertainty leaves aspirant nations, NATO members, and presumably also Russia, confused. There is a need to identify a clear, transparent, and substantive relationship with countries that wish to be associated with NATO, which would tacitly acknowledge that full membership is not a possibility in the near term.

Given the other pressures bearing down upon them NATO leaders will not wish to be reminded of the reality of the insurgency in Afghanistan. Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) casualties are increasing and unsustainable. The Taliban are resurgent, desertions amongst the ANSF are growing as moral deteriorates. The current situation is the product of a drawdown of NATO forces based upon the internal domestic political pressures of ISAF nations with scant regard for the requirements of the Afghans. The withdrawal of combat forces would have been sustainable had it not been accompanied by the pull-out of critical enablers: attack helicopters, close air support, medivac, UAVs, anti-IED capability, intelligence systems and logistic support. The NATO Resolute Support mission, focussing upon ‘train, advise, assist’, has proven itself inadequate in both size and scope. Discussion in Warsaw will probably focus on how nations can be cajoled into strengthening the inadequate capacity of Resolute Support beyond 2016. This approach reflects the Alliance’s preoccupation with its own internal issues and ‘what the market will bear’ rather than the requirements of the operation. There is a need to take the initiative back from the Taliban and back up the rhetoric of support for President Ashraf Ghani and his beleaguered government with tangible support. The future of Afghanistan hangs in the balance, but can be secured with strong leadership from those around the table in Warsaw. Since the US and the UK have invested more in terms of blood, treasure, and political capital in Afghanistan than any other nations in the Alliance, it is they who should lead this reappraisal of current policy.

All of the NATO activities outlined above come with a significant resource bill. Two years ago at Celtic Manor there was a collective commitment to spend 2% of GDP upon defence over the next ten years, but subsequent delivery has been patchy. In 2014 there were five nations hitting the target and that figure has not improved, and whilst some nations have moved forward slightly, others have actually reduced defence expenditure. A common theme from candidates across the political spectrum in the forthcoming US Presidential election is that they are fed up shouldering a disproportionate amount of the security burden. If the European nations wish the US to remain engaged and provide the leadership so evidently required to meet the multiple challenges ahead, there must be a demonstration of intent from those who are failing to meet their stated commitment. This is an area where the UK leads by example and has political traction which it must utilise for the common good.


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 policy challenges of our time.