Perusing through the official reports on NATO’s most recent meeting in Brussels, there was certainly no shortage of mixed messages.
The official narrative on what the meeting was supposed to accomplish was outlining NATO’s objectives for the coming years. Speaking on the first day of the conference, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “The decisions we have made today show that Europe and North America are working together. NATO is delivering and we are determined to keep our almost one billion citizens safe and secure.”
In truth, there were some pretty respectable accomplishments during the two-day get-together.
At the Ready
One thing officials tackled was the essential issue of force deployment capacity, namely when and how units would fight in the event of a conflict. The twenty-nine allied leaders took a series of measures to continue NATO’s adaptation to a “more demanding security environment.” The new “readiness initiative” delineated thirty mechanized battalions, thirty air squadrons and thirty combat vessels to be on standby for use within thirty days.
Iraq and the Middle East
Member states decided to launch a new NATO training mission in Iraq, with several hundred trainers. Canada took the responsibility of spearheading the effort to assist Baghdad. Assistance to Jordan and Tunisia in dealing with jihadists threats will also be increased.
The long worked-on task of establishing a NATO Southern base of operations was finally brought about. The new operations hub, which will be in Naples, Italy, will be a vital launching point for monitoring and for more offensive missions in the Mediterranean and the surrounding regions. In a way, the establishment of the Naples base was in tandem with NATO’s commitment to North African security. As jihadists seek to entrench themselves more in that region, NATO forces will play an important role in assisting local governments in repelling that threat. This movement has already gained significant traction, with Spain volunteering to lead the assistance mission to Tunis. Its advisory role will extend to fields as diverse as cyber-defense, deactivation of explosive devices, management of economic resources, and the instruction of the Tunisian military in special operations.
The Cyber Sphere
Another example of NATO branching out was the expansion of its cyber operations. A welcomed development considering the increasing importance of the cyber realm, not just in nation-to-nation conflict, but in promoting radicalism and militancy the world over. In this regard, NATO seems to have taken a signal from the US military structure which elevated the status of its cyber resources to the level of a full, unified command nearly a year ago. A new Cyber Operations Centre for NATO will be created at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium. The ops center will aim to draw on national cyber resources to bolster on the ground missions, defend the digital sphere, and keep updated on emerging threats.
Perhaps the most important accomplishment of the most recent NATO summit was the commitment by members to up their national spending when it comes to defense. Eight allies pledged to devote at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. A majority of NATO members have plans to do so by 2024. In fact, last year saw the biggest increase in defense spending by NATO countries since the end of the Cold War.
With all the successes that seem to have taken place during and leading up to the July summit, why is there an overwhelming sense emanating from the international press then, that the meeting was fraught with tension?
To be honest, the media was highlighting an actual reality. The problem is, that in the alarmist-leaning milieu that the media operates in today, most, if not all, outlets failed to capture the nuanced reality of what happened in Brussels in a balanced way.
The atmosphere of strife that reporters correctly pointed to was brought about by “gorilla in the room” Donald Trump, who came to the summit with a very specific agenda in mind.
As an extension of his broader “America first” tagline, Trump ran his bid for the White House based largely on a series of assorted claims as to how America was being screwed over by the world. One of the bigger topics was of course NATO, where Trump pointed to the massive disparity in defense spending of the United States compared to other NATO countries. Indeed, America invests nearly three times as much in military expenditures than all other NATO members combined ($686 billion compared to $271 billion). Trump’s demand seemed pretty straightforward: It’s time for Europe to share the load a bit more evenly.
Trump wanted to drive this theme home at Brussels, and it seems he got the message across. The pledge by most countries to increase their defense budgets was likely a direct result of the implicit threats of Trump taking steps to move away from NATO, perhaps even pulling out of the treaty all together. By the end of the event, the same Trump who had started out the meeting critical and full of rebuke, said that the summit had made a “tremendous amount of progress,” concluding that he “believes in NATO” and that quitting the treaty was “unnecessary” to consider.
So yes, Trump barked. His borderline erratic behavior flipped the summit’s schedule on its head (several meetings between the US and other world leaders were canceled, and an entire session on Afghanistan was scrapped). But in the end, everyone more or less got what they wanted. Trump walked away with a pledge for more mutual support. The Europeans were reassured that Trump was not going to abandon them. Perhaps with time, the world will even come to view the meeting in a positive light and consider the actual milestones that the participants were able to tackle.
Now that member states survived the meeting, the real question they will have to face is not containing the unpredictable Trump, but laying out the reason for their own existence.
One may answer that in light of all the progress from the recent summit, the raison d’être of the organization is clear. However, while it’s true NATO provides a framework for effective security cooperation, which is clearly very important, is it necessary to have a massive alliance infrastructure to accomplish this? In short, the question remains: Is NATO in any way fulfilling its original mandate as a global treaty? Ironically, Trump’s complaints about defense spending disparity highlight this issue.
NATO was devised in order to mitigate Russia’s expansion in the wake of WWII. Back then, it was certainly in America’s interests to foot the bill to protect a weakened Europe against aggressive communist encroachments. Now, things are different. Europe is in a much better place than it was in 1949. The threat of a Russian invasion of, say… eastern Germany for instance, is not really feasible. In this new reality, America should expect to have the costs spread around a bit. But if the reality is different, why is there a need for a NATO at all?
There still may be need for a unified Western bulwark in Europe. This need was actually underscored by one of the lesser-mentioned developments from the past week. On July 11, the first day of the summit, NATO members formally invited Macedonia to join the treaty. Macedonia’s acceptance of this invite extended NATO’s reach into the Balkans— in defiance of Russia. Years ago, the ex-Yugoslavian nation was firmly under the influence of Russia, but now it has switched sides.
Macedonia mimics a repeat of a similar incident from two years ago. In June 2016, Montenegro became the 29th member of NATO. The announcement came amid strong objections from Russia. Preceding Montenegro’s initiation into NATO, Russia had begun to step up efforts to destabilize several nations in the Western Balkans. Montenegrin officials charged fourteen people in connection with an alleged Russia-backed plot to take over parliament during the October 2016 parliamentary elections and assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. Now it’s Macedonia’s turn to come under Western protection.
The original deterrent of NATO may be obsolete. The famed Article 5 of the Treaty—requiring all member countries to come to the aid of any other member under attack—was never invoked during the Cold War. That would have to wait until 2001—September 11th to be precise. However, the “soft” measures of bringing countries into the sphere of Western influence, backed by the possibility of military intervention in case of attack, seems to be NATO’s 21st century method for keeping Russia at bay.