Seasoned observers of NATO might be forgiven for approaching alliance summits with a refrain of ‘here we go again’ ringing loudly in our ears. Such cynicism might at least in part be explained by the perpetuation of a dominant narrative that has had NATO in a constant state of ‘crisis’ ever since the end of the Cold War, with each summit since Rome in 1991 framed as coming at a ‘pivotal’ moment for the alliance. In such a narrative, each ‘crisis’ is worse than the one that preceded it, each summit the latest opportunity to pull the alliance back from the brink. Yet peering through the fog of crisis that envelopes NATO, one can discern that in many instances summits have provided an important means of adjusting the alliance to a constantly shifting security environment. Indeed, to paint a picture of NATO summits as vacuous exercises in statesmanship would be to miss the point entirely; they are a source of NATO’s lifeblood, the very means by which transatlantic unity – the glue that binds NATO together – is reaffirmed and upheld.
Setting aside – temporarily – events in the Crimea and Ukraine, the Newport summit would always have marked a key moment of transition in NATO’s post-Cold War history, as the alliance formally prepares to bring to an end the most complex, protracted and controversial mission in its 65-year history. Debate on the alliance’s future in a post-Afghan era has coalesced around a growing consensus that NATO would ‘return home’ both in a physical and conceptual sense, the retreat from Afghanistan accompanied by a refocusing on alliance fundamentals – collective defence, education and training and defence collaboration – after a decade in which NATO’s global ambitions had appeared not only to exceed its military capabilities, but also the political will of many members.
This was the argument outlined in a July 2014 article in International Affairs I co-authored with Mark Webber and Martin Smith. In that article, we argue that the twin motors that have sustained the alliance in the post-Cold War period are in need of repair. Those twin motors we describe as NATO’s core principles of purpose – operations, enlargement, partnerships, transatlantic unity, and its role as security provider – and principles of function – American leadership, allied trust and cohesion, burden-sharing and credibility – the diplomatic, political and military processes that have been necessary to keep NATO a functioning and effective alliance. We suggested that while NATO’s operational activism and expansion had been key drivers of the alliance’s post-Cold War adaptation, by 2014 NATO was reaching the limits of both its operational activity and its willingness and ability to take in new members. In addition, the transatlantic bargain that has underpinned NATO since 1949 appears increasingly strained; American leadership of NATO in the 21st century is no longer a given and members are divided over basic questions of strategy and purpose.
The Three ‘R’s (Readiness, Reassurance, Renewal)
None of this should be read as evidence that NATO is in mortal ‘decline.’ Indeed, we argue that NATO is extraordinarily resilient. Its decade-long ISAF mission might have pushed the alliance to its limits, but it weathered the storm. NATO’s value to the US is also likely to endure; cooperating with allies in a multilateral framework brings legitimacy and credibility to US global leadership, while a strong NATO in a stable Europe is in America’s vital interests. Still, we argued that the wear and tear sustained by the alliance over the past two decades required a renewed focus at Newport in three key areas: readiness, reassurance and renewal.
In an era of austerity and war-weariness, readiness has a political logic; NATO can preserve its capacity to mount operations but at the same time prioritise core areas of common interest – collective defence, cyber-defence, training and education. NATO’s new readiness posture was indeed confirmed at Newport, the alliance unveiling a Readiness Action Plan (RAP) at the heart of which is a spearhead unit within the NATO Response Force (NRF) designed to act as a high readiness force able to deploy at short notice. Other tangible measures included an enhanced cyber-defence plan and Defence Capacity Building Initiative. In this regard, pre-summit rhetoric was at least followed by concrete steps. It was perhaps inevitable that the summit would be overshadowed by events in the Ukraine; the transition from Afghanistan appeared something of a side-show, even though much uncertainty remains over the future of Operation Resolute Support. NATO yet may be sucked back into its own Afghan quagmire, but for now at least, it is breathing a collective sigh of relief that a very long war is over.
Still, Russia’s actions in annexing the Crimea imbued the readiness agenda with a sense of urgency, to say the least. Moreover, readiness is also inextricably linked with the reassurance of nervous allies in Eastern Europe. Yet reassurance too has a long-term logic and relevance for NATO, as a means of addressing some of the wider challenges of intra-alliance cohesion and transatlantic commitment, and reaffirming NATO’s core role as security provider. Reassurance measures were already in evidence prior to Newport – an enhanced US troop presence in Eastern Europe, an increased maritime presence in the Black Sea, reinforcements to NATO’s Baltic air policing mission – and in an important affirmation of the US commitment to NATO in June 2014 President Obama announced a $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative to fund training and exercises with NATO allies in the region.
Together, reassurance and readiness can be seen as providing the foundations for NATO’s renewal, reaffirming NATO’s role as the core organization for the security and defence of the West as well as a wider sense of solidarity among members – a solidarity arguably lost amidst the traumas of Afghanistan and Iraq. It was notable that the summit’s Declaration on the Transatlantic Bond was more direct and forceful than previous communiques, not only reaffirming transatlantic unity but committing the alliance to move towards the existing NATO guideline of spending 2% of GDP on defence within a decade.
To be sure, an emphasis on readiness, reassurance and renewal is not without pitfalls or dangers. NATO leaders faced a precarious juggling act at Newport. While the RAP was clearly intended to provide ‘visible reassurance,’ alliance leaders have refused thus far to agree to Poland’s request for a permanent troop presence committing only to an increased rotation of NATO and US troops through NATO’s Polish HQ. The summit declaration left no-one in any doubt that NATO views Russian actions as a gross violation of international law and a fundamental threat to the peace and security of Europe as a whole; it denounced Moscow for ‘breaking the trust at the core of our cooperation,’ but still left the door ajar for future cooperation. NATO’s support for Ukraine as a key partner was also reaffirmed; for now at least Ukraine remains a partner – without the collective defence shield full membership would bring – but the question of membership remains a thorn in the alliance’s side that could yet cause much pain.
Whether or not the Ukraine crisis is a ‘game-changer’ for NATO remains to be seen; history will be the judge of that. It may well be another addition to the lineage of events that have shaped NATO’s post-Cold War history and it has certainly given the alliance a sense of purpose and direction it had lost. But NATO does not have the luxury of standing still to contemplate the future. As we argued, ‘its business is too important to afford it such respite. The challenge, therefore, is for NATO to service its motors while they are still running.’ Viewed in that light it is plausible to argue NATO’s Newport Summit was a modest success that will no doubt take its place in the long history of NATO summitry, and which future scholars might well judge as marking the beginning of the next era in NATO’s post-Cold War evolution.
The views expressed in this post are mine alone and should not be ascribed to my co-authors.