PULASKI COMMENTARY – R. PSZCZEL: NATO Summit 2021– initial scoresheet

PULASKI COMMENTARY – R. PSZCZEL: NATO Summit 2021– initial scoresheet

Traditionally, NATO summits are the landmark events for the entire organisation – unlike for example in the case of the European Union, they normally take place only every few years and thus the pressure to come up with strategically oriented decisions is very strong (and usually delivered upon). What is the initial scoresheet of the summit held “in the pivotal time for our Alliance” on June 14th, 2021?[1]

Firstly, President Biden has not disappointed. His commitment to NATO was on full display throughout the meeting. His remarks that “collective defence is a sacred obligation” rang true and had a deeper meaning – particularly having the topsy-turvy performances of his predecessor in the back of one’s head. This matters a lot, because the security value (especially in terms of deterrence) of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty rests on the actual and perceived credibility of the pledge from all Allies, but the US in particular. Biden pushed his counterparts on the traditional items of Washington’s agenda – burden sharing, Allied solidarity, and values – as well as new issues such as a need to confront the rising power of China and upping the efforts in the economic and geopolitical race on cutting-edge technologies. Overall, he focused on specific issues that some experts already see as a key element of an emerging “Biden doctrine” – the building of a coalition of democratic states that will stand-up to the systemic challenge posed by autocratic rivals such as China and Russia. In the end, the message was well-received and found a clear echo in the summit’s decisions.

The new US President seemed to behave in a manner befitting a friend and an Ally. He spent a lot of time on the margins of the summit, consulting with individual leaders (vide special meetings with the frontline Baltic countries and a pull-aside with President Duda). This was particularly appreciated before his upcoming summit with President Putin.

Secondly, this summit (the first since 2019 held in person) was well-prepared and cleverly choreographed with regards to politics. Much of the credits for that should go to the Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg. During the event, he played the role of a “motivator-in-chief” with great skill, but even more importantly, he delivered the project that he was tasked with at the last NATO summit – to prepare a set of proposals for reinvigorating the Alliance’s modus-operandi.  This was successfully accomplished with the adoption of the NATO 2030 agenda.[2] It is important to highlight, that creating this concept was not a simple job, bearing in mind the atmosphere just a few years ago. At the time US President Trump was publicly questioning the entire validity of NATO’s collective defence (linking it to inadequate defence expenditure increases by European Allies) and French President Macron having called NATO “braindead.”

In the end, the NATO 2030  package turned out to be a forward-looking set of reform proposals, discussed among decision-makers, consulted with experts and even the young generation. It addresses a varied scope of essential topics, ranging from increased frequency of political consultations, stepped up deterrence, resilience, and capacity building, all the way through to new ideas on sharpening the technical edge available to the Alliance, the role for NATO in global efforts to stem climate change and a bold step for approving new partnership relations in Africa, Asia, as well as Latin America. It seams that Stoltenberg’s diplomatic experience is the real reason thanks to which a  consensus was even possible on the tricky issue of increasing all three parts of NATO’s common-funded budgets (civilian, military, and infrastructure). Even a week before the summit this was by no means assured.

Perhaps in recognition of the Secretary General’s contribution to the NATO 2030 process, the Heads of State and Government (HOSGs) asked him to lead the work on preparing a new Strategic Concept (to replace the current one dating back to 2010).

Thirdly, the adopted summit communique is rich and full of substance.[3] Those elements of NATO’s policy and posture, that did not require new decisions were reiterated with conviction, reconfirming Allied consensus on issues such as the  Open Door policy. This also applies to Art.5 related business, such as deployments on the eastern and southern flanks, the fight against terrorism and the validity of the 2% pledge on defence spending. Dual track policy vis-à-vis Russia – defence and deterrence coupled with a willingness to discuss risk reduction issues and Moscow’s (unfulfilled) responsibilities towards Ukraine – also remained in force.

Very importantly, HOSGs also reached consensus on the updated threat analysis, singling out “systemic competition from assertive and authoritarian powers” and other “challenges (…) from all strategic directions”. Allied leaders did not mince their words on Russia, accusing it of breaching “the values, principles, trust, and commitments” which Moscow signed up to. The language on China was a new departure – stopping short of calling it an adversary, NATO has now decided to acknowledge that China’s growing influence and coercive policies pose a challenge to the Alliance’s security interests, and therefore require defending against. NATO summit’s description of China’s negative role for international stability ties in with the views expressed at the G7 summit a few days earlier, but it goes into more depth and leaves less doubt as to the nature of China’s posture.

What is also important, Allies did not forget the current issues of concern – on the day when the Minsk regime held a shameful press conference with a forced participation of abducted opposition activist and journalist Roman Protasevich – HOSGs issued a united condemnation of President Lukashenka’s brutal violations of human rights within Belarus and several breaches of international law.

The political direction provided at the summit by Allied leaders also goes into significant detail when it comes to a variety of areas fundamental for military and technological modernisation.  Ultimately, this is what credible defence and deterrence rests upon. Recognizing the urgency of efforts needed to stay ahead in the cutting-edge technologies race, some creative projects have been approved. One of them is a go-ahead to establish the Defence Innovation Acceleration for the North Atlantic – maintaining a good tradition when it comes to the somewhat romantic acronym of DIANA. The substance of this initiative is actually very hard-headed. DIANA, backed by the soon-to-be established NATO Innovation Fund, will bring together the expertise of the public and private sectors, including through support for start-ups in domains like: artificial Intelligence, data and computing or even space.

Equally important was a decision to spell out in clear terms that the Alliance has not only adopted a new Comprehensive Cyber Defence policy, but that Allies reserve the right activate Art. 5 for any cyber-attack, as well as any attracts coming from space or even a hybrid one (below military threshold).

All those highlights deserve praise and some careful reading. But one has to be honest and point out some issues which the summit did not resolve or, in majority of cases, kicked down the road. While progress on registering the challenges posed by China is welcome, hard decisions lie ahead – for example: what exact support would Washington want and receive from its European Allies  if events in Southeast Asia move towards a full-scale military confrontation?  The press conference of the French President Macron at the end of the summit was not exactly reassuring in this respect. Will NATO, even with long-term reforms underway, be fully ready to deter an increasingly aggressive Russia? Reiterating Open Door principle is good, but how long can decisions regarding the setting up of a roadmap for Ukraine and Georgia membership be postponed for? A pledge to increase common-funded budget is also a big step, but concrete increases will still have to wait for a few years. Also, while the communique rightly sends positive messages about a political will on both sides of the Atlantic to beef-up the NATO-EU cooperation, next months will provide a valuable reality check as to the willingness of the Europeans to avoid duplicating NATO’s unique framework in the defence field. This is a highly political question, the answer to which is determined by the level of trust in the longevity of the US commitment to European affairs.

For now, NATO should concentrate on implementing summit decisions. Hopefully, there will be no major differences among member states in the interpretation of agreed text (as this has happened before). In the meantime, there is something to look forward to – the next NATO summit that will be hosted by Spain in 2022 (and the subsequent one in Lithuania). For Poles and other Central Eastern Europeans, the memory of the Madrid summit in 1997 is a good one – it was there that the membership invitation was issued to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.

Author: Robert Pszczel, Senior Fellow at Foreign Policy Programme of Casimir Pulaski Foundation

Photo: NATO

[1] “Opening remarks by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander de Croo at the meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the level of Heads of State and Government,” NATO, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/opinions_184957.htm?selectedLocale=en

[2] „NATO 2030,” 2106-factsheet-nato2030-en.pdf

[3] „Brussels Summit Communiqué Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels 14 June 2021,” NATO, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_185000.htm