Here are five difficult issues for the NATO summit

What next after Russia’s ‘containment’, how to keep America engaged with Europe and which country joins next are just a few of them, writes Andrew Dorman.

The World Today Published 2 June 2023 Updated 22 November 2023 3 minute READ

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has reminded many of the central importance of NATO for the defence of Europe. The alliance’s next meeting, scheduled to be held in Vilnius in July, will be the first Finland attends as a full member and potentially the last before Sweden joins.

Both bring capable and credible forces to this collective defence organization. Both were formally neutral states during the Cold War and joining NATO was a direct consequence of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

While the Russian action may have re-invigorated a more or less united Nato, it has not been plain sailing. Russia’s invasion has also shone a light on issues that NATO’s leaders have sought to defer rather than tackle for more than a decade, and the ‘too difficult’ jar is overflowing. Here are some of these issues to watch out for in July:

1. Moving beyond containment of Russia

Perhaps the most challenging issue is deciding what the collective political end state should be. Inevitably, in the first few months after Russia’s invasion policy was reactionary and focused on the short term.

While NATO’s leaders have avoided using the word ‘containment’, the alliance has de facto moved to a containment strategy. Its members continue to supply Ukraine with arms which are steadily increasing in terms of range and capability. At the same time the NATO military machine is making steady progress in agreeing new structures to counter Russia.

Will we hear news that the next NATO Secretary-General will be the first woman appointed to the post?

Containment as a policy, however, can only be a means to some form of political end state. The problem lies in agreeing what that end state might look like. Is the reality that regime change in Russia is the only middle- to long-term solution for the NATO members, which is something that can never be publicly articulated? What would be the acceptable alternative?

What we can expect to be announced after the Vilnius meeting are measures that can be publicly agreed. For instance, will we hear news that the next Secretary-General will be the first woman appointed to the post and that she will come from a state that borders Russia and which joined the alliance after the end of the Cold War?

Other announcements might include further sanctions and military commitments to the defence of NATO’s eastern borders. This could include the resurrection of Cold War-era AFNorth headquarters to cover Scandinavia and northern Europe.

2. US commitment to Europe’s defence

With the current focus on Russia, it is easy to forget about NATO’s wider global role. Within NATO there is a divide between those who see it focused on the European continent and those who see it as the bastion of wider western democratic security.

Whoever wins the next presidential election, America is likely to focus more on the challenge of China than the defence of Europe

Which is why President Joe Biden’s election was met by relief among Nato members. His predecessor had questioned the value of the alliance and whether the US should honour the Article V commitment that an attack on one is an attack on all. Some hope the Trump presidency was simply an aberration that will not be repeated.

The challenge for NATO is more profound. Irrespective of who wins the next presidential elections, America is likely to focus more on the challenge posed by China than the defence of Europe. The US cannot ignore what it sees as China’s challenge to the international order that America helped create and which preserves its interests.

While some have viewed French President Emmanuel Macron’s calls for greater European independence as the continuation of French policy dating back to Charles de Gaulle, the long-term commitment of America to the defence of the Europe cannot be guaranteed. Expect to see ongoing rhetoric about burden-sharing but little substantive change.

3. The nuclear commitment

At its heart, NATO remains underpinned by the nuclear guarantee provided largely by the US but also Britain. Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling has refocused minds on this. Three issues stand out.

First, NATO’s other nuclear power, France, continues to exclude its nuclear forces from the alliance. If Europe is going to become more independent, then a question hangs over the relationship of French nuclear forces to Europe’s defence.

Putin’s nuclear threats exposed the limited nuclear options Britain can provide NATO

Second, Britain’s capability has been reduced since the end of the Cold War with the result that it is the only permanent Security Council member with a single delivery system. This means that it can provide NATO with only limited nuclear options, something clearly exposed in Putin’s threat to deploy tactical nuclear weapons.

The British government is in the process of replacing its Trident ballistic missile carrying submarines with a similar number of boats in the 2030s, but Whitehall is avoiding any discussion about whether this needs to change.

Third, NATO’s own air-delivery capability is based on NATO allies maintaining aircraft that can carry US-supplied freefall nuclear bombs. This comes with credibility issues. Plans to modernize this system over the past two decades have been repeatedly deferred.

The replacement of the existing aircraft with fifth generation stealth aircraft by most states is under way, but the lack of a stand-off capability is a concern. It is unclear whether Russia’s actions have provided enough political impetus to address the credibility of the capability.

4. The future of enlargement

Since the post-Cold War enlargement in 1999, there have been waves of expansion. These involved most of the Central and Eastern Europe states apart from a few neutrals and some of the Balkan states. In the light of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the future of enlargement is even more critical. Two issues stand out.

Ukraine is a war zone, which makes the question of its NATO membership problematic 

First, the logic of containment would suggest that NATO should be looking to draw potential states into its sphere of influence and out of Russia’s. In this regard Moldova is the most obvious and contentious candidate.

Second, there remains the question of Ukraine and Georgia, both of which have sought NATO membership. Given that the former is now a war zone that is clearly problematic. Georgia is also difficult as regards its relative geographical isolation from other NATO members apart from Turkey.   

5. Global NATO

Linked to America’s commitment to European security has been the idea of Global NATO. For some of NATO’s European members, such as Britain, China is increasingly being viewed as a challenge. As a result, they have been supportive of the move for NATO’s partnership with Japan, South Korea and Australia. Some more reticent about this extended role, such as Germany, have started to deploy naval assets to the Indo-Pacific but others remain opposed.

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The need to preserve America’s commitment to Europe, however, reinforces the importance of Global NATO as a means of maintaining its Article V guarantee by not making the US choose between a Pacific and Atlantic focus.

It is easy to argue that NATO’s Vilnius summit will be challenging. There is much for its leaders to consider and previous summits have seen many cans kicked down the road. It will be interesting to note if NATO members are now prepared to address the tricky issues or whether they will continue the policies of fudge and delay.