The NATO Summit


On May 23, the Center for the National Interest hosted a panel discussion in advance of the NATO Summit in Brussels. Speakers included Kurt Volker, executive director of the McCain Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and career diplomat with extensive experience in the State Department and the National Security Council, Alexander Vershbow, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a career diplomat who has served as NATO’s deputy secretary general and U.S. ambassador to NATO and Russia, Paul J. Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest, director of its U.S.-Russia relations program, and a former State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration, and Doug Bandow, senior fellow at the CATO Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. Ambassador John Negroponte, a former Director of National Intelligence and Deputy Secretary of State, moderated. The event was broadcast live on The National Interest’s Facebook page and can be viewed here. A summary of the event can be found below.

The NATO Summit

Four leading experts agreed that only four months into his presidency, Donald Trump—viewed by many European governments as a “disruptive” leader—has already had an impact on NATO, though the future trajectory of the alliance remains uncertain. The NATO summit in Brussels, they said, will likely acknowledge President Trump’s impact by focusing on the American president’s twin priorities of burden-sharing and counterterrorism. Nevertheless, Russia will remain an important subtext to the discussion, as will the Allies’ anxiety over the Trump administration’s commitment to the NATO treaty’s Article Five defense pledge.

Volker noted that context surrounding this Summit has changed, as Europe is now in a stronger position as a whole: the Brexit vote has led to a snap election being called by Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to obtain a strong mandate; Emanuel Macron won the French presidential election by a large margin; and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s electoral prospects have significantly improved in Germany. Furthermore, President Trump has begun developing working relationships with these leaders. Volker argued that the commitment to Article 5 among NATO members remains “in good shape,” though crisis management has deteriorated, as evidenced by the lack of a clear vision and policy when it comes to the crises in Libya, Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan. While NATO enlargement has proceeded with the addition of Montenegro, there are no foreseeable additions on the horizon, though cooperation with key non-NATO partners (Finland, Sweden) has strengthened in recent years. Lastly, Volker noted, resources dedicated to the transformation of NATO capabilities from heavy ground forces to deployable, mobile, sustainable forces are once again on the rise. Vershbow argued that the allies came into 2017 “feeling pretty good about where NATO stood” and the changes implemented since the Wales and Warsaw summits, particularly with the alliance’s enhanced presence in the eastern and southern regions as well as growing defense spending.

Volker and Vershbow agreed that Trump’s emphasis on improving burden-sharing has created momentum within the alliance for increased defense spending. Vershbow emphasized while the trends in burden-sharing are positive, there remains significant room for improvement. He stated that Trump has “put the fear of God in the allies” and “squeezed a little bit more blood from the stone,” accelerating the trend of some members to increase their defense spending to the NATO target of 2% of GDP. According to Vershbow, Allies agreed to present plans by the end of this year to show how and by when they will achieve the 2% threshold. Vershbow predicted that three countries will join the “2% club” next year—Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania—and while Germany will also increase its defense spending from its current 1.2%, Chancellor Merkel will continue to face opposition from the SPD in this regard.

Bandow, on the other hand, argued that different threat perceptions and defense priorities between European allies and the United States render fulfillment of the 2% spending target unlikely. He said it is “hard to believe” that European allies are taking the “Russia threat” seriously based on their current levels of defense spending. If Latvia and Lithuania were so threatened by Russia, he argued, why would they have waited until next year to increase their defense spending to 2% of GDP? Furthermore, he pointed out Germany’s very modest increases so far and expressed doubts about whether Merkel and Macron would actually raise their defense spending due to domestic political considerations.

On the counterterrorism front, Vershbow and Volker agreed that NATO will formally join the anti-ISIS coalition. NATO may boost capacity building for Middle Eastern states, Vershbow said, though allies are reluctant to commit the funds for those capacity programs and want to avoid the “crusader image” by becoming more involved in the region. Bandow expressed reservations about the utility of this policy, as a military alliance would not be the appropriate solution for defeating terrorism, which is not a conventional military threat. Vershbow stated that he believes a “coalition of the willing” may be a more effective solution. Vershbow also stated that Trump may push to link his goals for an “Arab NATO” with NATO’s renewed focus on counterterrorism, positioning the alliance as a mentor/architect for a potential Arab collective defense structure. Volker added that there has been a tentative decision made to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and this will be accompanied by a U.S. request to NATO allies to make their own contributions as well. However, he does not think NATO or the Trump administration have yet fully defined their objectives in Afghanistan yet. He saw continuity with the Obama administration in the sense that they also did not have clear objectives beyond preventing the Afghan government’s short-term collapse.

When it comes to the NATO-Russia relationship, Saunders said that while Russia is not expected to be the primary organizing principle behind this NATO summit, it remains a leading security challenge for many NATO members. With the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and Trump’s expressed interest in a better relationship with Russia, Russia will undoubtedly still be an important subtext of the summit’s discussion, he said. The fundamental problem in the NATO-Russia relationship is that Russia is not satisfied with the European security architecture that grew out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, Saunders said. He stated that Russia wants a greater voice in European security matters, to which Washington and European governments have been opposed. The U.S. has been able to define European security in line with American preferences both institutionally and militarily due to the power disparity between NATO and Russia, he argued. Russia recognizes its relative weakness, said Saunders, and is constantly looking for asymmetrical responses to U.S./NATO’s policies. If we do not reach a mutually satisfactory understanding between NATO and Russia, according to Saunders, this competition will continue indefinitely and undermine U.S. efforts to tackle China’s rise and counterterrorism. Vershbow stated that the allies are more positive about NATO-Russia relations, less so because of tangible deliverables from the relationship than in the sense that the two-track dialogue with Russia has helped to maintain alliance cohesion. Volker disagreed, stating that he has not seen any Russian interest in working with NATO since the mid-2000s and does not expect any positive developments in cooperation going forward.

Saunders argued that it will be difficult to formulate a new NATO-Russia relationship unless the conflict in eastern Ukraine is resolved. The Trump administration, Saunders said, has continued the Obama administration’s approach and does not seem yet to have put forward any new ideas. Volker also highlighted the continuity between the Obama and Trump administrations regarding Ukraine, as NATO continues to pursue a minimalist posture: sanctions remain in place; individual allies provide support to Ukraine; and the Minsk Process is stuck with no feasible replacement in sight. Saunders noted that Russia has been exercising restraint over the past few months as they try to figure out what to expect from the Trump administration, though their behavior may change if the Kremlin leadership comes to the conclusion that an improved relationship with the U.S. is not feasible.

The panelists disagreed about how concerned the European allies are about Trump’s commitment to Article Five. Volker said that 90% of the doubts of NATO’s European allies regarding Trump administration’s approach towards NATO have been dispelled. These doubts were based on candidate Trump’s statements regarding NATO’s relevance, his linkage of allies’ defense spending to Ameirca’s defense, and his perceived friendliness towards Russia. However, the Administration’s actions since coming into office have reversed many of these concerns, Volker argued. Vershbow, on the other hand, argued that while the allies’ worst fears of the Trump administration have not materialized (indeed, the Administration has stuck to a consensus position regarding Ukraine in which sanctions relief and implementation of the Minsk agreements remain linked, for example), Washington’s European allies remained very anxious as to whether Trump’s “conversion” is temporary or enduring. Furthermore, he says, they are concerned that the NATO summit could lead to new strains with the Trump adminsitration, which is why they are trying to script the event as much as possible. While the summit’s likely outcome will “be a positive display of unity,” Vershbow said, it will also produce limited results and leave many questions unanswered not only about U.S. commitment to NATO but also whether other allies are as committed to making NATO more effective going forward.

NATO’s future remains uncertain and there are many questions the alliance must address going forward. Volker said NATO needs to decide whether it wants to pursue an expansionary vision—possibly incorporating Sweden, Norway, and the Balkan states—though the Administration has not yet addressed this issue. He also defended the U.S. interest in further NATO expansion, as the U.S. security and prosperity depend on the expansion of democratic values and free trade. Furthermore, he argued, NATO enlargement inspires countries to enact reforms and makes them contributors to NATO’s defense both militarily and geographically. Vershbow raised the question about whether NATO’s European members are able and willing to use NATO more effectively to address a wider array of challenges, particularly in the Middle East, as the allies remain “deeply reluctant” to deepen engagement in the region—even in the realm of defense capacity building. A lot of work remains, Vershbow says, to make NATO be seen as indispensable for the current U.S. administration as it was for previous ones. “Without a U.S. push…inertia will become the default setting for the allies,” he said. Bandow emphasized the divergence of threat perceptions and preferred remedies among the allies and its potential impact on the alliance’s future.

Bandow questioned whether the U.S. should be pushing to impose its view of defense spending on Europe based on this reality. While the Europeans “want” America to defend them, they do not “need” the U.S. to defend them, Bandow said, as they have the resources, capabilities, and manpower to defend themselves. Should the US have the dominant role in NATO in light of this and the changes in the threat environment since the end of the Cold War? Bandow also highlighted the United States’ challenging financial position—he described the U.S. as being “functionally bankrupt”—and its global commitments elsewhere, thereby questioning the sustainability of the current level of American commitment to NATO. He noted that U.S. unfunded liabilities total more than $200 trillion and the Congressional Budget Office said that absent “responsible changes” on Capitol Hill, the U.S. will have trillion-dollar deficits even in the absence of a financial crisis—a situation that will only be exacerbated by baby boomers retiring. Furthermore, instability in the Middle East and East Asia will likely draw greater American resources and attention going forward. Bandow accordingly calls for a back-up role for the United States in NATO rather than one in which the United States accepts primary responsibility for European security.