19 July 2018

The NATO summit- Expectations vs results

Ştefan Oprea

This year’s Head of State and Governments NATO Summit was held in a moment of major complexity in the international relations and represented the debut of a tense diplomacy week at an international level

Image source: Mediafax

As the NATO analysis is still in process, in order to make some conclusions about what happened, what influence will the previous bilateral summit in Helsinki will have, how much of the final statement in Brussels will actually have practical consequences, it is normal to ask ourselves which were the intentions of this reunion or the members states ones, how many and which of these were actually made in the document.

On 11th-12th of July, in Brussels, at the new Alliance’s head office, was held the 29th NATO summit. During its history as an alliance, at all the Head of State and Governments reunions, the debated themes and subjects, through the adopted decisions, had the aim to maintain NATO at its highest strong level in the world, as a military Alliance, having the purpose to consolidate North-Atlantic’s region defence.

But this year, the summit was held in a tense moment regarding the transatlantic relation, all generated by president Trump’s decisions related to aluminum and steel taxes, withdrawing US from the nuclear Treaty with Iran, and least but not last, his unfriendly statement addressed to some of the Alliance’s members regarding the insufficient funds for the military spending.

Having the stress of a possible deterioration of the transatlantic relations, NATO’s leaders waited for the first meeting with president Trump to see how the works of the 29th NATO summit will be processed. Not after a long time, the results started to come out.

One the day before the reunion (10th of July), the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, at the press conference organized after signing the EU-NATO common declaration, said to Trump: “America does not have and will not have a better ally than Europa. Today, the Europeans spend for defence a lot more than Russia, and quite the same as China. And I think there is no doubt, Mr. President, that this is an investment in the common America and European defence.”

During his landing in Brussels, president Trump addressed a message asking himself, rhetorically, if “the NATO allies will pay US back the costs for defence”.

In the morning of the summit day (11th of July), at the breakfast with NATO’s General Secretary, president Trump makes another shocking statement: Germany is “Russia’s prisoner” due to Russian petrol and gases imports and to its participation at building the Nord Stream 2 conduit, when this one had a small contribution at the European defence. The German chancellor’s answer was: “Germany does a lot for NATO”… “Germany is the second big forces provider, our biggest military capacity part is offered to NATO and currently we have a strong commitment to Afghanistan. What I mean is that we are also defending US interests.”

The 2018 NATO summit began under this tense atmosphere, suggesting to be Alliance’s most complex reunion ever.

Therefore, the military spending issues become the main subject of first day’s debates. President Trump’s imperative demands regarding their assumed commitments in this direction and the unofficial message for the 28 members to commit themselves with a 4% from GDP, to maintain the military capabilities, astonished the Alliance’s national leaders, as well as the General Secretary of NATO.

Currently, 6 members (Greece, Great Britain, France, Poland, Romania and Estonia) have reached this level, Lithuania and Lithonia established as deadline the end of the year, and the other countries will reach this objective until 2024.

The German chancellor’s attempts, Angela Merkel, after president Trump’s critics, to reason that she can augment the military spending over 1, 5% from GDP until 2024 (Germany is, by far, the second biggest net sharer at NATO’s integrated command structure, hosts NATO’s air Commission, at Ramstein air base- biggest in Europe, which along with Aviano air base in Italy, represent the NATO nucleus for the Alliance’s air defence), as well as that Germany will host in Ulm city, the new NATO’s Logistic Command Centre, she could not convince president Trump to reduce the pressure of accomplishing this objective, seen as vital for Alliance’s security and power.

Even if the debate debut was tense, and approaching the 4% limit from GDP demanded explicative positions coming from France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and from the NATO General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, to retake the Alliance’s member’s decision of respecting the assumed commitment, in 2014, by spending 2% of GDP for defence, later the atmosphere became calmer and cooperative.

At the end of the day, NATO’s General Secretary, was saying: “…we all agree that North America and Europe are safer than ever”. Teaching the last month’s G-7 lesson, the final statement was approved and immediately published, without waiting the second day’s works process.

All in the same key was the private dinner of the Alliance’s leaders, the atmosphere being opened and constructive. All of these showed that the second day of the summit can be calmly and quietly processed, and the Alliance’s leaders thought that what was hard already passed.

Thursday’s agenda (12th of June), which consisted in Head of State and Governments reunion with Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the meeting with the partner and potentially partner nations at the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, seemed to offer less reasons for a new confrontation with Trump.

Still, it was not like that. President Trump had another agenda for the second day, which astonished everyone. His bilateral meetings were cancelled, and the summit’s works, almost compromised. The American president demand for a new discussion about defence spending was a priority comparing to that day’s agenda, forcing NATO’s General Secretary to organize an urgent session (rarely happened in Alliance’s schedule). Georgia and Ukraine’s presidents were invited to leave the meeting room, as these are not NATO members. Later, the initial agenda was retaken, in a shorter time, and president Trump entered in a press conference.

At the press conference, he applauded the summit’s success, NATO, and insisted that his relation with the NATO leaders is a good one and these agreed to increase the spending (something that later the European leaders disagreed with). “NATO is a fine- tunes machine… The alliance is much stronger than it was two days ago”, stated president Trump at the end of the summit. Either way, this was the atmosphere at the NATO summit in Brussels.

Without considering this statement conflicts, the member states took a series of political decisions that made stronger the alliance’s capacity of accomplishing its missions.

The US and its European allies established to improve their military capacities, to do more in Iraq and across Europe’s south border, to optimize NATO’s capacity in taking decision during crisis. They invited Nord Macedonia to join the Alliance and retook their common position regarding Russia and the commitments regarding collective defence.

Unfortunately the NATO summit did not put an end on the insecurity regarding the transatlantic relation between the US and Europe. The supplementary deployment of some forces and the defence spending augmentation does not mean that much when Alliance’s bases are shaken up. President Trump’s statement: “I can withdraw US from NATO without Congress’s approval, but I do not think that is necessary”, can be considered as a start moment for the different preferences regarding the security architecture, in the US and Europe. If we add that the Alliance’s members are facing issues regarding the common management of their own national security priorities, we realize that Russia’s “revisionist” pressure against Europe and the migration from the Middle East are fundamentally contributing at this relation breach. All of these became obvious, even if, in the final statement, the NATO leaders underlined their concerns regarding the common values and security and stated again that Russia broke the international order by enclosing Crimea.

The allies concerns are that president Trump’s statements to not undermine the intense efforts to project NATO’s solidarity, so their attention was at Helsinki, where president Trump was about to meet the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, for a first official summit, on 16th of July.

The controversial statements continued also during the time spent in Scotland, between 12th and 15 of July, when president Trump had a meeting with Queen Elisabeth II. During the same days, Moscow’s irritation was increasing, after 12 agents from the Russian military information services were accused by the US Justice Department for being involved in the electoral process.

On 16th of July, in Helsinki, the Trump-Putin presidents meeting was going to be “hot” under Finland’s shinny sun. The statements debut seem to be promising, especially that it started with a bad move. At the meeting with Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, the American president applauded the NATO summit for its constructive results and that the Alliance is stronger than ever (but Finland is not a NATO member).

The limited group of the meeting between the US president and the Russian Federation one, adds a doses of mystery to this re-launching process of the relation between the two countries. But what about the other countries? (The rest of the world)

Considering that, on global subjects, as Syria, Ukraine, Crimea, the allies position are divergent comparing to Russia’s, and if we add the sanction problem against Russia (that US is a part of), it is normal that the world countries, especially the European ones, to look carefully and with concerns the tête-à-tête discussion results. We must mention that president Trump was previously called by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and they discussed the subjects approached at the last week’s NATO summit, including the evolutions in Syria. At the end of the talk, president Erdogan wished both leaders good luck.

Without knowing the bilateral discussions content, from the two presidents’ press conference came out some concerning aspects. At odds with the statements made during the NATO summit, president Trump did not say a bad word about Russia (not even about the issue regarding Russia’s interference in US electoral campaign). In these circumstances, NATO’s concerns regarding Russia’s actions in Crimea, the Baltic States and Middle East became essential.

Considering only the press conference, we can deduce that the US maintains its position regarding Russia’s illegality by enclosing Crimea and regarding the East Ukraine conflict. From this point of view, the measures and actions regarding the discouragement and NATO’s east flank defence, remain a transatlantic concern. Related to the untouchable values that are assuring Alliance’s unity- mutual commitment and trust- the evidences show that there is the possibility of a major prejudice appearance.

Although there is a remarkable resistance regarding president Trump’s rhetoric, the European leaders will have to identify the methods and actions that could reduce the current vulnerabilities, defence spending, and not least, the inconsistencies regarding the participation at Nord Stream 2 building project.  From this perspective, Germany will have a primordial role.

Despite the fact that in Helsinki there were no approaches which can modify the agreed commitments from the NATO summit in Brussels, for the European allies, president Trump’s decision to not confront president Putin on common defence subjects, but only wanting a bilateral relations refreshment, can be a signal for a new perspective over the transatlantic relation. From this angle, such attitude can encourage some European states, which have a different opinion than the majority of the allies, related to the sanctions against Russia, to adopt the same position as president Trump. According to the already mentioned principle, that Russia is not an enemy, but a competitor, the way to “competition” with the political and military enemy is open.

The repercussions over the transatlantic Alliance’s unity are obvious.