NATO at Newport: Back to the Future I


On October 24th 2014 the Defence Studies Department (DSD) marked the launch of its Regional Security Research Centre with a NATO roundtable held at the Defence Academy. The event also marked the start of a new partnership between DSD and the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS) in Oslo. Led by Dr Tracey German and Dr Ellen Hallams from DSD and Associate Professor Paal Hilde, Associate Professor Johannes Ro, and Professors Magnus Petersson and Johannes Ro from IFS, together with Professor Mark Webber from the University of Birmingham and Dr Martin Smith from RMA Sandhurst. The event aimed to bring together academic colleagues, military staff, and students to reflect on the NATO Summit held in Newport, Wales, September 22-24. The analysis that follows provides a summary of the two key themes and issues that emerged from the roundtable: NATO’s ‘homecoming’, and burden-sharing and defence spending. The remaining themes, NATO enlargement and NATO-Russia relations, will be examined in a second post to be published later.

NATO’s ‘Homecoming’

Regardless of events in Ukraine and Crimea, the Newport summit would always have marked a key moment of transition in NATO’s post-Cold War history, as the alliance formally prepared to bring to an end the most complex, protracted and controversial mission in its 65-year history. Prior to Newport, debate on the alliance’s future in a post-ISAF era had coalesced around a growing consensus that NATO would ‘return home’ both in a physical and conceptual sense. Two main drivers may be identified behind the consensus to refocus on alliance fundamentals – collective defence, education and training and defence collaboration. First, a new self-confidence in Russian foreign and security policy became evident from 2007 and was expressed in the August 2008 intervention in Georgia. Sensing a potential threat from the East, several allies on NATO’s eastern periphery called for reassurance measures from NATO. Second, the withdrawal from Afghanistan formally initiated at the 2010 Lisbon Summit also marked the end of a decade in which NATO’s global ambitions had come to exceed the political will of most members. The end of ISAF and retreat from big operations, which over the two decades since the end of the Cold War had become the raison d’être of the Alliance, raised the need to reinvent NATO’s rationale. The first driver provided an obvious response to the question posed by the second: with the end of NATO’s age of big operations, collective defence provided a sound basis for the Alliance’s enduring relevance. The Ukraine crisis in a sense merely reinforced this trend. As late as February 2014, allies faced the prospect of a Wales Summit with no security agreement with Afghanistan and, in the words of a NATO ambassador, ‘the thinnest soup ever’ of other issues. The Ukraine crisis gave NATO a sense of mission and required allies to come up with a response to the new security situation in Europe. This was, in many respects, precisely what Newport delivered: a renewed emphasis on collective defence via the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) alongside other measures including an enhanced cyber-defence policy, a Defence Capacity Building Initiative, a new Defence Planning package, and a commitment to build on the Connected Forces Initiative established at Chicago in 2012, through increased training and exercises. The notion of NATO’s ‘homecoming’ thus has a certain political logic, imbuing the alliance with much-needed strategic focus and shoring up alliance solidarity and cohesion. There was considerable consensus among participants that NATO is indeed ‘coming home,’ not least because NATO does not have the stamina, willpower or ability to do much beyond its periphery. Ongoing instability in the Balkans and the ‘unfinished business’ of NATO enlargement will also likely ensure a focus on regional European security above and beyond global missions ‘over the horizon’ in NATO’s near-term future.

NATO’s new posture of reassurance and readiness was also deemed not to be without pitfalls, however. While providing ‘visible assurance’ to nervous allies in Eastern Europe it is less clear how it resonates with those nations on NATO’s Southern Flank, such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. Looking beyond the immediate future, NATO’s ‘homecoming’ may be viewed as a romanticised construct that plays principally to domestic audiences; while it may create a short-term unifying narrative, the security environment over the next decade may not allow such luxuries. A focus on European security cannot come at the expense of engagement with the alliance’s neighbourhood; indeed, the summit declaration noted that the RAP was also designed to contend with instability on NATO’s southern periphery and a key ‘side-issue’ at Newport was ongoing instability in Syria and Iraq. Herein lies the challenge for NATO: it must remain, at core, a regional alliance but with a global focus that ensures NATO is ready and willing to engage with crises on its periphery. NATO’s decision not to be directly engaged in Syria or Iraq was viewed by some as a fundamental error that raises questions over the alliance’s military utility for contemporary security challenges. For others, what matters is that NATO retains a readiness and ability to deal with potential contingencies should the fighting spill over into Turkey, and that even when there is no consensus within the alliance on a particular issue or mission, it continues to demonstrate its utility and relevance by acting as a basis for forming informal coalitions of the willing. This should not necessarily be regarded as a threat to NATO’s long-term future; for global missions and operations, NATO will likely be one actor among many. Depending on the nature of the crisis at hand, it may lead or coordinate operations through NATO command and control capabilities, as in Afghanistan, or it may opt to facilitate more informal coalitions. The summit declaration saw a tacit acknowledgement of such a trend, endorsing the Framework Nation concept as a means of generating more effective ways of groups of allies developing joint forces and capabilities. Nations such as the US and UK, as well as France and some smaller nations including Denmark and the Netherlands, will also continue to retain a global focus. Thus, while a priority has certainly been accorded to collective defence and cyber security, the question remains as to how NATO can maintain a balance between preparing for global contingencies while prioritising measures aimed at reassuring its eastern allies.


Central to maintaining such a balance will be generating increased defence spending and capabilities. Burden-sharing has long been a thorn in NATO’s side, but in the context of operations in Afghanistan and Libya, as well as the economic crisis and defence downsizing on both sides of the Atlantic, it has taken on added salience. Of particular note at Newport was the summit’s Declaration on the Transatlantic Bond which took the unusual step of committing the alliance to move towards the existing NATO guideline of spending 2% of GDP on defence within a decade. While the 2% spending commitment was welcome, a study for RUSI shows on current spending plans and growth projections the UK’s defence budget (excluding spending on any new operations) is set to fall to an estimated 1.88% of GDP in financial year 2015/16. The UK government’s push for the 2% declaration thus rings alarmingly hollow and even the most ardent NATO optimist has to concede it is a commitment NATO may well not meet. One might even view such a commitment – which remains aspirational given NATO has no enforcement mechanisms – as a backward step given that 10 years ago it was 3%, just one example of rushed initiatives pushed through by a UK government with one eye on public diplomacy. Yet while a modest goal, it represents a step forward for NATO, the first time such an aspiration has been codified, and an important signal to Washington that in the context of America’s own defence cuts and strategic rebalancing, European allies are taking their alliance responsibilities seriously. Should the UK dip below the 2% threshold only three NATO nations (US, Greece, Estonia) will meet the 2% threshold, a damning indictment for an alliance committed to closing the defence spending gap with Washington.

Moreover, the issue for NATO is not only how many nations can meet the 2% target, but how the 2% is spent. In this regard the summit was perhaps a missed opportunity for redefining the metrics by which defence spending is measured; spending 2% of GDP does not automatically translate into capabilities, and as the operation in Libya reinforced, many European allies still lack critical enabling capabilities that continue to foster an unwelcome dependence on Washington. While NATO has its own internal metrics for defence output, public debate continues to hinge upon the 2% threshold. This tends to obscure the underlying issues and reinforces a focus on inputs rather than outputs, yet it serves the political function of responding to persistent critiques from Washington over the past two decades over unequal burden-sharing within the alliance, and which continue – rightly or wrongly – to focus on the 2% threshold. Over the long-term the Newport commitment may do little to meaningfully close the capabilities gap with Washington, but in the short-term it was a much needed dose of political symbolism. It should not be overlooked either that Newport also contained a commitment to spend 20% of GDP on major new equipment and research and development. More optimistically, the 2% threshold might be better viewed as one piece in a wider jigsaw, including the 2012 Connected Forces Initiative, Smart Defence, the RAP and the Framework Nation concept that together demonstrate the beginnings of a more sustained and serious effort by NATO allies to shift the equilibrium within the alliance and generate a more equitable transatlantic bargain.

We would like to thank all the participants who made the roundtable a success and contributed to a wide-ranging debate. For further information on the Regional Security Research Centre visit

Image: A meeting of NATO secretaries of defense convenes during the 26th NATO summit held in Newport, Wales, September 4, 2014. US DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett.

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