Shifting Ally Tectonics: The Road to the 2018 NATO Summit

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Written by Samantha Thorne

Brussels, Belgium—Following a volatile G7 Summit, the world anxiously awaits the NATO Summit this week and its revelations about current ally dynamics. As Russia has pervaded North American-European discourse through a Trump conduit—specifically in regards to comments of Russia’s G7 membership and a scheduled Trump-Putin meeting—allies worry that the American President may prioritize an aggressive Russia over long-standing NATO relationships. Such uneasiness will play a role in this year’s summit and the future of the Alliance.

At the 2018 NATO Summit, Allies plan to tackle issues related to burden-sharing and the growing threat of terrorism as security tectonics continue to shift the global landscape. Following Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s statements, the Alliance will address strengthening NATO forces’ readiness, improving EU-NATO relations and maintaining its “dual-track” approach of strong defense and meaningful dialogue with Russia. How the contemporary Trump-Putin relationship will shape NATO going forward is uncertain. Some parties view such interactions as a G7 déjà vu and a threat to the Alliance, while others perceive the two leaders’ July 16 meeting as consistent with NATO’s stance of defense and dialogue with Russia.

2017 NATO Summit—Looking Back

In an effort to pay homage to the Alliance’s past contributions while recognizing its role in the modern era, NATO leaders, specifically Chancellor Merkel and President Trump, dedicated the Berlin Wall and 9/11 Article 5 memorials on the grounds of the new NATO headquarters—a “21st century headquarters for a 21st century Alliance.” As the 2017 Summit followed the Manchester terrorist attack, an air of solemnity encapsulated the meeting, adding gravity to discussions focused on making the North Atlantic region and rest of the world more safe and peaceful.

Intrigue surrounded the summit when President Trump did not explicitly state that the U.S. upholds Article 5, the Three Musketeer “one for all, all for one” clause of collective defense. However, Secretary General Stoltenberg predicated that actions speak louder than words and that the United States has proven its support for collective defense through its military budget and NATO involvement. President Trump later offered his support of Article 5 in May of 2018.

Last year’s summit highlighted fairer burden-sharing across the Alliance. Stoltenberg and Trump in particular prioritized defense spending and the 2014 Defense Investment Pledge with its call on NATO members to fulfill its 2-20 rule of spending two percent of national GDP on defense, with 20 percent of that allocated towards equipment. By discussing development plans, the Alliance questioned how its members would share the burden of military spending, invest additional funding in key military capabilities and also how they would contribute to NATO missions and operations.

Leaders outlined measures to combat terrorism through support of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The summit confirmed NATO as a full member of the Coalition while noting that its membership does not imply that NATO will engage in combat. Stoltenberg asserted that NATO will improve the Coalition’s airspace management using AWACS surveillance planes, arguing that collective Alliance actions will provide more information, flying hours and air-to-air refueling.

The summit also addressed counter terrorism initiatives related to military training.  Alliance leaders confirmed the continuance of NATO training missions in Afghanistan and Iraqi forces training. Ally nations were tasked with increasing troop contributions to further the cause. Additional summit plans included improving NATO’s new Intelligence Division, fully utilizing the Alliance’s Special Operations Headquarters and instituting a southern hub at NATO’s Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy. The Alliance welcomed Montenegro’s membership and designated a senior NATO official to implement the meeting’s action plan.

Pressure for NATO allies to increase defense spending took center stage both during and after the Summit. However, it is important to note that the act of calling on Allies to increase their defense spending outlays is not new; President Trump’s delivery was. In response, some Allies, including Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau, asserted that there are many metrics other than military spending that can evaluate a nation’s contribution to the Alliance. The Secretary General, however, argued that the two percent goal is reasonable and vital to an increasingly perilous world.

“If we are decreasing defense spending in times with reduced tensions, we have to be able to increase defense spending when tensions are going up; and now tensions have gone up,” Stoltenberg stated.

 2018 NATO Summit—Moving Forward 

This year’s NATO Summit will prioritize strengthening the Alliance’s deterrence and defense. The summit aims to address long-term NATO goals, which include promoting global stability, fighting terrorism and enhancing the Alliance’s strategic partnerships. Other agenda items relate to garnering more fair burden-sharing and modernizing the Alliance. Cyberspace and hybrid threats will also be pressing topics as 21st century complexities assail the 21st century Alliance.

In the fight against terrorism, this week’s Summit will emphasize a NATO Readiness Initiative referred to as the “Four Thirties.” It aims to have 30 mechanized battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 combat vessels ready within 30 days or less by 2020. The summit will build upon the June NATO Defense Ministers meeting in launching a new training mission in Iraq and extending funding for Afghan forces into 2024. Efforts to strengthen military partners and further NATO’s support for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS will also be discussed.

In regards to NATO’s goal to strengthen its EU relationship, a recent Friends of Europe report discusses the implications that Brexit will have on NATO and the European Union defense cooperation. As British officers have traditionally served as the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR)—a right-hand position to NATO’s American military commander—since the position’s inception in 1951, EU leaders argue that losing that influential position “could be one of the casualties of Brexit.” The British refute this statement of losing their position however, highlighting their historic and substantial role within the NATO Alliance. Great Britain will play a significant role in how NATO-EU relations pan out moving forward.

Defense spending and its relation to burden-sharing remains a pressing topic going into the summit. This past year, allies made efforts to increase their military budgets. From 2016 to 2017, Canada registered a .13 percent increase in GDP spending towards defense, with Germany increasing its outlays by .04 percent, and Spain raising defense spending from .81 to .92 percent. Following the Secretary General’s 2017 Annual Report, “defense spending among European Allies and Canada increased by 4.87% from 2016 to 2017, with an additional cumulative spending increase of USD 46 billion for the period from 2015 to 2017.”

Whether or not this progress will satisfy NATO leadership and President Trump will affect the summit’s proceedings. According to Reuters, Canada and European nations spent an average of 1.45 percent of GDP on defense outlays in 2017, paling in comparison to the United States’ 3.57 percent. Though the United States has traditionally been tasked with greater defense spending in international organizations because of the size of the American economy and military, there is significant room for NATO spending to improve and achieve the 2-20 goal associated with the Defense Investment Pledge. Many allies worry that budget shortcomings could spark Trump backlash simulating G7 tariff arguments and the communiqué fallout.

As Presidents Trump and Putin have scheduled a summit for July 16 in Helsinki, Finland, Allies wonder what it signifies for the NATO Summit. Will the back-to-back meeting structure mirror the G7 fallout and ensuing North Korean amiability? Will Trump prioritize Russia over NATO? Allies fear that President Trump will confront NATO members on their slow increases in defense spending while adopting a friendlier tone with President Putin. Trump’s transactional approach to international relations and a similar G7-NATO summit timeline of international allied summits preceding bilateral discussions with hardline leaders have built into this fear.

A hopeful strain of Trump-NATO theories forecast that the U.S. president could capitalize on both defense spending progress and his scheduled summit with Russia. Specifically, Trump could commend the allies’ progress, push for further military spending and voice NATO concerns to the Russian president and increase dialogue between both parties as the threat of Russia in the Baltics has consistently permeated NATO operations since its genesis. However, as recent statements from White House spokesman Hogan Gidley reveal, President Trump will maintain his stance of America not being “the world’s piggy bank.” How the other allies will react or how this approach will play out remains to be seen.

What’s Next

The 2018 NATO Summit is surrounded by uncertainties, mainly concerning defense spending and Russia. The key question remains: has the United States’ historical role in supranational organizations regressed in favor of a more isolationist status prior to World War II? Recent information reinforce the global community’s belief that President Trump is leading a charge against global institutions and multilateralism. Both multilateralism and fair-burden sharing have been the cornerstone to securing an increasingly unsafe and complex world. The 2018 NATO Summit will play host to these tough conversations as allies seek to shape the future of global discourse and security.