international analysis and commentary

Warsaw: NATO’s vital, lame duck summit

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US President Barack Obama said that NATO’s Warsaw Summit was the most important such gathering of Alliance heads of state and government since the end of the Cold War. It was also his last. This juxtaposition between importance and “lame duckness” just about summed up the Warsaw Summit Communiqué; widening commitments, static or at best marginally enhanced forces and resources.

Shiny empty boxes

First, importance. NATO’s Warsaw Summit, which took place on July 8-9, came at a time when the last vestiges of hope, evident at the September 2014 Wales Summit, that Russia could be persuaded to desist from its aggressive tendencies have vanished. The center-piece of the two-day summit was enhanced forward presence, with the the commitment of major powers such as the US, UK, Germany and others to send troops to the Baltic States and Poland as part of a rotating Baltic tripwire force. There was also much talk about the “360 Degree Adaptation” of the Alliance to ensure not only a credible defense and deterrence posture in the east, but that NATO can also act in support of allies in the south against ISIS via “tailored forward presence”, and in renewed partnership with the EU, to help prevent the infiltration by ISIS of the irregular migration flows now coming mainly from a fragile North Africa. NATO leaders also moved to demonstrate political cohesion in the wake of Brexit, to establish a report card on soft defense spending, with some boosts given to a full spectrum of forces via enhanced exercising and cyber-defense.

Warsaw was always going to be a summit that re-confirmed many of the numerous things agreed at the Wales Summit of September 2014, in Newport – which the Warsaw Summit Communiqué largely repeated. Indeed, one only has to read the long list of pledges and commitments in the Wales Summit Declaration to realize that much of the strategic heavy-lifting (or heavy-talking) was done in Newport: Alliance Maritime Strategy; Assurance Measures; Berlin Partnership Policy; Defence & Related Security Capacity-Building Initiative; Comprehensive Partnership Interoperability Initiative; Connected Forces Initiative redux; Defence Education Enhancement Programme; Defence Investment Pledge; Defence Planning Package; Distinctive Partnership with Ukraine; Enhanced Cyber-Defence Policy; Enhanced Exercise Programme; the full spectrum of threats to be met by a full spectrum of capabilities; Framework Nation Concept; Fundamental Baseline for Assurance and Deterrence; Hybrid Warfare Pledge; Interoperability Platforms; NATO Ballistic Missile Defence; NATO-Iraq Partnership; Open Door and Montenegrin Membership; Partnership Interoperability Initiative; Professional Development Programme; Regional Focus; the Wales Summit Declaration on Afghanistan; and of course the Readiness Action Plan, which led to the creation of the 5000 strong Spearhead Force; and yet more security sector reform pretty much everywhere. This is not to mention the various “reform programs” such as the NATO Industry Cyber Partnership et al.

It would be nice if NATO leaders created one overarching pledge entitled the, “Stop Talking and Get On With it Pledge!” It has always been a mystery to this author how NATO nations have become masters of strategic alchemy; inventing ever more forces, with ever more acronyms, from ever smaller militaries. Hopefully, that will change soon. If not NATO will become one gigantic store front Christmas tree onto which a huge number of shiny boxes are hung to make it look nice, all of which are empty.

For all that, the importance of the core confirmation of the Warsaw Summit should not be underestimated: the de facto permanent stationing of NATO forces in the Eastern Alliance. It is certainly this decision that has the Moscow propaganda machine most exercised, and which together with the further development of NATO Ballistic Missile Defense, Russia will surely use to justify more intimidating military snap exercises. In fact, Russia has some 120,000 troops that could at any moment threaten the Baltic States and Poland, against a planned NATO deployment of some 5,000 troops. Moreover, while an Alliance Missile Defense might stop a first generation nuclear-tipped missile from a first generation Middle Eastern arsenal, it would not stop Russia from assured first or second strike given the size and capability of Moscow’s nuclear arsenal.

A “lame-duckness” that matters 

Second, “lame-duckness”. This was the last NATO Summit for many of the leaders present in Warsaw, and could be the next-to-last for quite a few of them, even if they do not know or do not want to know it. After perhaps one of the greatest political miscalculations in British history, Prime Minister David Cameron is just about to step down. The authority and prestige of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has been badly damaged by her disastrous 2015 “we can do this” open door to a systemic mass movement of people into Europe. She will also face federal elections in September 2017. President François Hollande of France also faces re-election in May 2017, and is currently grappling with the worst approval ratings of any French leader since the Battle of Waterloo. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is about to face a major banking crisis with the rest of Europe offering little to no solidarity, and will also face a referendum on constitutional reform in October which will be a popularity contest that he could well lose. Poland has a government the EU seems determined to de-elect, or at least put judges in charge under the pretense that law takes precedent over democracy (and people wondered by the Brits went for the Brexit door), and Spain has just re-elected yet another instable government.

However, it was the impending departure of President Obama that hung over Warsaw like a Yorkshire mist; soaking everyone whilst preventing them from seeing anything clearly. President Obama has been a friend of sorts to NATO’s European allies. He created a lot of initiatives and acronyms, he even spent some money via the $1 million European Reassurance Initiative fund, and he made the obligatory noises about burden-sharing. However, he put very little real pressure on the European allies to turn words into action. This enabled the Europeans to go on playing their favorite game; talking endlessly about “Europe” but actually doing very little about it.

That state of affairs could well be about to change. Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is elected President of the United States in November, the Americans will demand much more of their allies. US debt is fast approaching an eye-watering $20 trillion, US military commitments are fast overstretching an already taut US force, and the American public and political class are not in the mood for more European free-riding.

Therefore, Warsaw was always a holding summit, a warm-up act for what will happen next year, and the Warsaw Summit Communiqué reflected that. Yes, it injected further political momentum into the decisions taken in Wales and made some adjustments in light of the deteriorating security situation Europe faces. There was agreement that NATO would both talk to Russia and deter it, much talk of resilience, confirmation of the Distinctive Partnership with and the Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine, agreement that Alliance AWACs could be used in the fight against ISIS, a move to reinforce the Enduring Partnership with Afghanistan, harmonization of EU and NATO force development, resiliency and counter-hybrid strategies, and a Cyber Defence Pledge. Equally, the establishment of a new Joint Intelligence and Security Division was interesting if it is more than rearranging bureaucratic deckchairs.

So why should lame-duckness matter to NATO? The whole point of summits is to bring Alliance political leaders together to provide supreme political guidance. If such leaders lack legitimacy, time and/or a combination of both, particularly if they come from the major powers, then there is a danger that NATO itself will lose momentum. Reading between the lines of the Communiqué it is clear there is much that still divides Alliance leaders.

Brexit happened because Europe’s leaders refused to see it coming and because they would not confront reality in a leading EU Member State. For NATO the message is clear; if leaders do not once and for all break out of their “we only recognize as much threat as we can afford syndrome” the reality for the Alliance could soon be far, far worse. Warsaw did what it could.

In reality the July Summit held the line until a new American president is elected who is unlikely to accept the idea most of the NATO allies seek  to meet the defense investment pledge of 2% GDP on defense and 20% on new equipment but only “within a decade”. What matters now is that the “360 Degree Adaptation” (or “approach” in the Communiqué) fast becomes a “360 Degree Strategy” credible in a dangerous 360 Degree strategic environment. Above all, NATO needs the most important pledge of all; a “Let’s Face Reality Pledge.”