The Warsaw Summit: NATO Examines Itself, Again

At its Warsaw summit, NATO should try to find better solutions to the problem of burden-sharing and a more sustainable strategy for managing tensions with Russia, writes CFR’s Stephen Sestanovich.

June 30, 2016

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The North Atlantic alliance has over the years experienced identity crises of two different kinds. The first stems from worry that the organization has outlived its usefulness. This form of self-doubt appeared most recently at NATO’s Lisbon summit in 2010, and again at its Chicago meeting in 2012. With memories of the Cold War receding and the “reset” with Russia still going strong (then-President Dmitri Medvedev actually came to Lisbon), the 2010 communiqué found Europe stable, successful, and at peace. Who needed an alliance?

A second kind of identity crisis is all about efficacy. It takes hold when threats are real, but NATO seems too diverse, too divided, and too disorganized to achieve its goals. Anxiety of this type was in evidence at the Wales summit of 2014. Russia had seized Crimea and sent military personnel to support separatism in eastern Ukraine, so no one doubted that NATO was necessary. The only question was whether it could fashion an effective response.

StoltenbergNATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg briefs the media ahead of a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 19, 2016. (Photo: Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

At the upcoming Warsaw summit, which begins on July 8, some will say the alliance has put identity crises behind it. The meeting is a chance for NATO leaders to review the pledges made at Wales and to endorse new plans for implementing them. Given the alliance’s record of the last two years, members have every reason to pat themselves on the back.

"Britain’s vote to leave the European Union—certain to be the main topic of corridor conversation in Warsaw—will only complicate Western decision-making."

Yet amid justified self-congratulation, doubts and divisions will surface at this summit. Some may even detect a third type of identity crisis, one that makes NATO seem, more than anything else, irrelevant to today’s big concerns.  The alliance, after all, has been on the sidelines of efforts to cope with refugees or to roll back the self-proclaimed Islamic State. NATO’s mission in Afghanistan remains troubled (and to many, futile). Britain’s vote to leave the European Union—certain to be the main topic of corridor conversation in Warsaw—will only complicate Western decision-making.

Concerns about relevance will be unavoidable when the leaders of the alliance gather, but these should not derail summit participants from highly relevant problems that they need to, and can, address.  NATO is not fully united in responding to the core European security concerns that brought it into being almost seventy years ago. The alliance needs better solutions to the problem of burden-sharing, and a more sustainable strategy for managing tensions with Russia.

A Record of Achievement

The debate on these issues at Warsaw will reflect the very real successes of the past two years. At their 2014 meeting, alliance leaders sought to reassure member states that NATO security guarantees meant something. To be able to protect threatened allies, especially those in Eastern Europe, in a crisis, the summit adopted a Readiness Action Plan. Its key measures were to triple the size of the NATO Response Force (NRF) to forty thousand troops and to create a “spearhead” unit within the NRF capable of deploying five thousand troops anywhere within the alliance in two to three days. Across NATO, rebuilding strength was the new imperative. The Pentagon’s European Command (EUCOM), which had sent home the last of its heavy-armored vehicles in 2013, began bringing them back in 2015.

Since the Wales summit, NATO efforts to enhance deterrence have focused on creating a credible forward presence in “frontline” states. (As Alexander Vershbow, the former U.S. diplomat who serves as deputy secretary-general of the alliance, puts it, it’s not enough to be able to reinforce. “We need to be there,” he says.) The Warsaw summit is expected to give final approval to the rotational deployment of four multi-national battalions to Poland and the Baltic states. Eight new regional headquarters have also been created in NATO’s east, to oversee the activities of the new forces and to prepare for the deployment of larger ones in an emergency.

Larger, more visible exercises from the Baltic to the Black Seas have been a further part of implementing the Readiness Action Plan. Last year, NATO held a total of three hundred separate exercises. Anakonda-16 in Poland brought together forces from twenty-three nations (including five non-NATO allies, Ukraine among them) in June 2016.  With thirty-one thousand participants, it was the largest-ever alliance exercise in Eastern Europe.

Burden Sharing

All these efforts will be justly hailed at the Warsaw summit. Even so, the meeting will face a nagging question: Is Europe pulling its weight? U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration wants to quadruple funding for the U.S. European Reassurance Initiative, from $800 million to $3.4 billion in 2017. Yet for many Americans—foreign-policymakers included—the “reassurance” project seems increasingly one-sided. The president has called NATO allies "free riders," and presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said the alliance may become “obsolete.” In U.S. public commentary on NATO—and on the Warsaw summit—burden-sharing is once more a contentious topic.

Annoyance with Europe is easy to understand. In 2015, the median level of defense spending by non-U.S. NATO members was 1.18 percent of GDP, compared to 3.62 percent for the United States. To address this imbalance, the Wales summit set 2 percent of GDP as a target level for the military budgets of member-states. (In 2014 only four of them met this goal.) The leaders of the alliance further agreed at Wales that at least 20 percent of defense budgets should be dedicated to new equipment, so that increased spending actually increases capability. (In 2015, twenty members of the alliance failed to meet this standard.)

NATO is forced to focus on this issue now because European members of the alliance for years let economic growth outpace their contributions to the common defense. The end of the Cold War made it easy—and seemingly safe—to ignore military needs.  The global economic crisis of 2008, and sluggish growth thereafter, put further pressure on budgets. In France defense spending dropped more than 4 percent between 2010 and 2015; in Germany, more than 5 percent; in Britain, more than 6 percent; in Italy, by more than a third.  (Although Poland and the three Baltic states increased their budgets by an average of 40 percent in this period, they were lonely exceptions.)

The Ukraine crisis of 2014 began to reverse this trend, but the turnaround has been slow.  Alliance-wide, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, has estimated, the increase in spending will be only 1.5 percent. The impact of past cuts, particularly in troop numbers, remains severe. Since the Cold War, Germany has cut back its army by half. Others have gone further: the ground forces of European NATO as a whole are down 60 percent from the 1990s. No surprise, then, that some of the most important policy reversals have involved increased manpower. Poland now plans to double its army; Germany recently said it would add 11,400 military and civilian personnel.

The challenge for NATO leaders in Warsaw is to sustain pressure for more meaningful contributions, while recognizing the domestic realities of each member state. The alliance has struggled with this problem since its founding, but the imbalance has rarely been quite as stark as it is now. New benchmarks and new mechanisms urgently need discussion. (One recent suggestion is that NATO member parliaments formally endorse the 2 percent pledge.) To head off defeatism and back-biting, the alliance needs credible evidence that members accept the responsibilities of collective defense.)

Managing Tension

Whenever NATO rearms, it has to expect pushback from Moscow. Russia can test the alliance’s commitment to firmer new policies in various ways—through military countermeasures of its own, loud warnings that NATO is pushing Europe toward war, and offers and inducements that try to peel off the more nervous (or cynical) Western governments.

In the past two years, such efforts by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his associates have had meager results. Efforts to divide the West have so far produced no give on sanctions and no readiness to let Moscow interpret the Minsk 2 agreement—the plan that is supposed to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine—by its own lights. Despite Europe’s surprising firmness on Ukraine, a new phase of Russian diplomacy is now at hand, and its aim is to slow down or reverse the alliance’s new military initiatives.

Russian officials regularly denounce Western exercises as excessive and provocative. “No threats in this part of the world whatsoever” justify what NATO is doing, according to foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. (This, even though many recent Russian exercises have been three times as big.) Putin has charged that NATO missile defense facilities in Romania and Poland threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent. (To this oft-made claim, he recently added a wild scenario in which the U.S. secretly replaces defensive interceptors with offensive cruise missiles. “I know how this is done,” he insisted.) Putin has also decried NATO’s “aggressive rhetoric and aggressive actions,” while declaring Russia "ready for dialogue."

NATO governments know, of course, that it is Russia that increased its defense spending 100 percent over the past decade; that pulled out of the Europe-wide treaty on conventional forces (possibly violating the treaty on intermediate range missiles as well); that recently announced a three division build-up of forces on its western border; that has included simulated nuclear weapons use against NATO in its exercises; and that used force against Ukraine.

All the same, Moscow’s strategic combination of sharp elbows and appeals to reason seems to have made headway in some parts of Europe. The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has warned of a renewed, Cold War-style division of Europe, proposed to invite Russia to rejoin the G8, and chided other Western governments for “warmongering.” The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, traveled to St. Petersburg in mid-June to meet with Putin and underscore Europe’s hope “to build bridges.”  At the same meeting the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, underscored his country’s interest in reviving trade.

Though criticized by many, such statements and meetings do not necessarily signal an unraveling of Western policy. As Ronald Reagan himself demonstrated, negotiations and ambitious arms control proposals can help legitimize a tough policy, showing doubters that every effort is being made to find alternatives to confrontation. NATO has made recent use of the same principle, holding the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in two years—and expressing regret afterward that the discussion showed how far apart the two sides remained. (An effort to convene a second meeting before the Warsaw summit apparently failed; it may be held later in July.) Meetings alone, however, have less value than a positive agenda—a set of initiatives that describe what the alliance wants Russia to do.  In the Reagan era, the so-called “zero option,” which required the dismantling of Soviet missiles aimed at Europe, played such a role. Other than the demand to get out of Ukraine, the West has no such initiatives on the table today.

Efforts to open separate channels to Russia do not by themselves show that policy is unraveling, but they do show the potential for it. At the Warsaw summit and after, one of NATO’s key challenges will be to make sure that diplomatic outreach to Moscow sustains support for alliance initiatives instead of undermining it. Well-managed dialogue should increase pressure on Russian to change course.

Back to Basics

"At the Warsaw summit and after, one of NATO’s key challenges will be to make sure that diplomatic outreach to Moscow sustains support for alliance initiatives instead of undermining it."

NATO has reinvigorated itself in the past two years, and the Warsaw summit will celebrate this success. The alliance has bolstered the security of its own members and of Europe as a whole. But, in doing so, it has also re-discovered many of the problems that it faced in the past. In the ups and downs of the Cold War, NATO was rarely free of discord over how to share the burdens of collective defense. And it was rarely free of debate about how to keep tensions with Moscow from boiling over. These are the challenges the alliance will face at the Warsaw summit, and in all likelihood for years to come. For NATO, getting back to basics means coming to grips with its own internal divisions and with a tough, resourceful adversary.

* Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this Expert Brief incorrectly stated NATO defense spending figures for the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Spain.

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