Was the recent NATO Summit in Wales a success? As with any such question, the answer depends heavily on the expectations of the respondent as well as the political perspective in which the answer is set. If the most important goal of the summit was to maintain solidarity among NATO members, the meeting was a great success. But the long-term judgment will be determined by the outcomes sought or hoped for in the final decisions of the allied leaders.
The United States, for its part, while not abandoning the “Asia pivot,” found itself called on to put together a strong allied front on both European and Middle Eastern security challenges.
Perhaps the most important strategic observation about the summit is that the alliance now explicitly regards threats to the security and territorial integrity of individual allies — not just attacks — as causes for possible collective action. NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept set the ground for this shift when it conflated the pledge that an attack on one ally would be regarded as an attack on all — as described in Article 5 — with the less well-known terms of Article 4. Article 4 commits the allies to consult with each other “whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” [emphasis added]
The allies have thus made clear that a threat is now sufficient enough to agree on a collective response, including the possible use of military force. The “Wales Declaration on the Transatlantic Bond” details the affirmation by 28 NATO leaders that “should the security of any Ally be threatened we will act together and decisively, as set out in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.” This language brings the “threat” coverage of Article 4 into the collective defense coverage of Article 5.
In keeping with this declaration, the allies produced responses to the challenges posed by Russian aggression against Europe, as a “major challenge to Euro-Atlantic security,” and by the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) whose “barbaric attacks” pose a “grave threat to the Iraqi people, to the Syrian people, to the wider region, and to our nations.” [emphasis added]
As expected, the allies elevated the role of cyber defense in NATO’s strategy. According to the summit communiqué, “Cyber attacks can reach a threshold that threatens national and Euro-Atlantic prosperity, security, and stability. … We affirm therefore that cyber defence is part of NATO’s core task of collective defence.” NATO members will have to agree to invoke Article 5, and primary responsibility for cyber defense will rest initially with each nation, but NATO cooperation will be intensified.
At a time when NATO is ending its combat role in Afghanistan, the members took on new roles in promising to provide a variety of assistance to its “distinctive partner” Ukraine and to cooperate in attempting to defeat ISIL. Neither areas are at the moment official NATO missions, and the most significant actions in both areas will likely come from individual allies.
Members did not repeat the 2008 pledge that Ukraine would eventually become a NATO member, even though they did so for Georgia; however, they did pledge that NATO’s door to qualified applicants remained open. Still, the allies offered strong rhetorical support for Ukraine and condemned Russia’s “illegal and illegitimate” annexation of Crimea and its aggression in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions.
Allied leaders left Wales with approved plans for increased defense cooperation with Ukraine, as well as with confirmation that individual allies could begin providing lethal arms to Ukraine. No NATO country has acknowledged the intent to provide lethal arms, but Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has said that he expects such help. Such assistance, which might not be provided through normal arms sales channels, would be designed to help Ukraine defend against Russian-supported separatists as well as regular Russian forces, which now, according to NATO, are attacking Ukrainian government forces from locations inside Ukraine and from firing positions just across the border in Russia.
To reassure those allies most immediately threatened by Russia’s aggressive posture, the allies laid plans for a continuing (not permanent) NATO presence in Poland and the Baltic states. In addition to allied forces rotating through this region bordering Russia for collective defense exercises and monitoring, members said they would establish a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) that would be able to deploy a few days after a request from a member state.
Whether or not the VJTF can reassure allies in the region will depend on the commitment of sufficient, capable, and ready forces. Perhaps more important will be the question of whether the United States will contribute units to the force. NATO’s still-existing Response Force, established in 2002, was seen by the Bush administration largely as a way to get the Europeans to take on more responsibility for their own defense — a burden-sharing lever. However, the absence of serious U.S. participation in the force was a major factor limiting its credibility and effectiveness.
The leaders gave political support to a smaller group of allies — a coalition of the willing of sorts — that intend to provide new military assistance to local forces in Egypt and Syria combatting ISIL. While none of the allies involved intend to put “boots on the ground,” several of the European allies, Canada, and the United States already have begun providing lethal military capabilities as well as humanitarian assistance, including small but important capabilities on the ground. These allies bring with them the sense of common purpose and military interoperability that they would not have if they were not already working together inside NATO.
While the external challenges to allied security were the headline grabbers, the leaders took a series of steps intended to address the internal alliance issues that grow out of the perpetual burden-sharing issue. NATO hasrecommended that allies spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense. Only the United States, United Kingdom, Estonia and Greece spend at or over that level, and in the context of Europe’s recession and a perception of diminishing threats to European security, governments have found it politically difficult to increase defense spending. In Wales, the allies pledged to try to meet this goal over the next decade. This qualified commitment is perhaps of dubious value, but allied leaders also agreed to increase defense investment and military/industrial cooperation, both seen as critical to future European defense efforts. They also pledged to measure national contributions in terms of military output — not only how much is spent, but also whether or not it is spent productively. What countries actually produce in capabilities is in many ways much more important than the 2% goal, but such measures are not nearly as simple a measure of commitment to the alliance.
On paper, the summit agreements are impressive, and illustrate how the combination of Russian aggressive behavior and the threat from ISIL in Iraq have produced at least a veneer of allied cohesion and common purpose. At a time when pressure seems to be growing on the United States to remove its small force of residual nuclear weapons from European bases, the perception of a new Russian threat and President Vladimir Putin’s implicit nuclear threats in the context of the Ukraine crisis led the allies to observe that “As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” The appearance of unity does hide differences among the allies on how far sanctions against Russia can and should be pressed and about how significant defense improvements can be made at a time when European economies are still struggling to achieve even small growth margins.
On the leadership front, the U.K.’s host Prime Minister David Cameron struck a strong chord before and at the summit. President Barack Obama sought to lead from the front, rather than from behind, and both the optics and the outcomes of the meeting suggested that American leadership facilitated a solid summit outcome.
The real tests are yet to come. In the near term, few allies will find strong domestic support for substantial increases in defense spending unless the situations with Russia and ISIL increase threat perceptions dramatically. Whether Putin will back down in Ukraine to permit some kind of political settlement seems uncertain. NATO’s support for Ukraine combined with Putin’s goal of, one way or the other, bringing Ukraine back into the Russian orbit could lead to a widened conflict in Central Europe. Will NATO unity stand up in such a case? In spite of these difficult questions, the Wales summit made a clear statement in support of Ukraine, in opposition to ISIL, and in favor of strengthening the alliance. It at least sets the stage for the next act in the struggles between “the West” and the opponents of the values and interests it represents.
Stanley R. Sloan is a former Senior Specialist in International Security Policy at the Congressional Research Service. He currently teaches courses on American power and transatlantic relations at Middlebury College in Vermont and is an Associate Fellow at the Austrian Institute of European and Security Policy.