NATO Leaders Meet: An Interesting Agenda Awaits
Leaders from across the NATO alliance gather in London this week – their first such meeting since Brussels in July last year for an event that could play out in several ways. They will have much to celebrate, but also some difficult issues to work through.
Celebrations will dominate the first part of the event, as leaders mark seventy years since the organization was founded. Queen Elizabeth II will host the leaders to toast the anniversary – now aged at 93, Her Majesty and President Trump will be the only attendees older than the Alliance itself.
In 1949, the original twelve members of NATO, with General Eisenhower as their initial Supreme Allied Commander, had used London as the base for their first headquarters. The Alliance now includes several former members of the Warsaw Pact; the President of one of those, Stevo Pendarovski of North Macedonia, will attend the London meeting with special observer status, as his country prepares to become the 30th member early in the New Year.
But it is the second day of the gathering, 4 December, when the more difficult issues will be on the table. In a single, protracted session, at the exclusive Grove Hotel north-west of London, the leaders will work through a full agenda.
Burden-sharing, a topic that has disrupted some other recent events, may not be quite as dominant this time. Eight countries now meet the 2014 target to spend 2% of their GDP on defense, and a further eleven have set out plans to get there by 2024. Some of the remaining ten will receive more ire from President Trump – who has just announced he will reduce the U.S. contribution to NATO’s operating costs from its current 22% share - but is hoped there may be enough progress on cost-sharing overall for discussion to move on to other issues.
Most important of these will be the NATO Readiness Initiative (NRI). Agreed last year in Brussels, it is intended to deter future Russian landgrabs, of the sort seen in Crimea. It calls for 30 major navy ships, 30 battalions, and 30 kinetic air squadrons to be on call at 30 days’ notice. Gaps remain, notably on air and sea contributions, and the leaders will review progress with a critical eye.
NATO will also track progress on the 2016 Cyber Defense Pledge, whereby members promised to harden their national systems against attack. Plans for the new NATO Cyber-Space Operations Centre in Belgium, due to be up and running in four years, will also be scrutinized, along with the offensive cyber capabilities of ten member states, which have now made available to the whole of NATO.
Artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons, quantum computing, and hypersonic missiles will be discussed. NATO leaders will consider an Emerging and Disruptive Technologies Roadmap, aimed at keeping the Alliance ahead in all these areas.
Similarly, leaders are expected to affirm the importance of space and are expected to declare it the fifth operational domain (alongside land, sea, air and cyber-space). This would allow military considerations involving space to be more fully tied into NATO’s deterrence and defense planning.
Meanwhile, some issues not formally on the agenda may yet become prominent as the leaders interact, both with each other and with the media. These include Turkey: President Erdogan has been calling for international political support as his troops move into northern Syria – and clash with the predominantly Kurdish fighters who defeated ISIS. NATO allies are divided on whether to take a tough line with their eastern-most member or to adopt a softer approach that draws Turkey away from its evolving relationship with Putin’s Russia, from whom Ankara recently bought surface-to-air missiles.
Afghanistan, where NATO’s Resolute Support Mission relies on U.S. involvement, may also draw attention. Peace talks the Taliban have restarted. If President Trump, in Kabul for Thanksgiving, opts for a full American withdrawal, then most of the 38 other troop contributing nations, dependent on U.S. logistical enablers, may be forced to depart too.
Finally, questions about the future of the Alliance itself may feature. The occasion of the seventieth anniversary will certainly encourage several of the leaders to ponder further on the next seven decades, but these reflections are unlikely to generate key decisions at the London meeting.
NATO certainly has much to celebrate for its first seventy years: it has seen off the Soviet Union and brought in several countries whose militaries used to be marshaled against it from behind the Iron Curtain. It enacted its 'all-for-one, one-for-all' Article V commitment the day after 9/11, and has directed operations in Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere.
The London meeting will allow NATO's leaders to take stock of these achievements while ensuring the Alliance remains on track to defend its members into the future.
Iain King is the author of five books spanning military and foreign affairs, and is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies