So, Quo vadis NATO? An equally natural, suitable and, at the same time, difficult question. Natural, because one of the golden rules of managing any organization is the one which imposes the permanent monitoring of its standing, status, and direction of evolution. Suitable, since the organization just celebrated 70 years since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, and difficult because - to paraphrase an old Chinese philosophical saying - we are living interesting times both outside NATO as well as inside the Alliance.
It is worth mentioning that I am an ardent supporter of the Euro-Atlantic idea that sees the American-European defence and security cooperation as the only viable solution for ensuring Romania’s security and the security of the other European countries. As such, any criticism comes only from the desire to improve the functioning of NATO’s decision making and action taking mechanisms.
History shows that any political construct, including political-military organizations such as NATO have, as any mechanism has, a certain type of internal friction that can eat through it. Understanding it is crucial. An inadequate intervention can turn this friction into breaking forces which can weaken the organization to such an extent that it becomes vulnerable to external actions, or can lead to a political implosion. This is why clarity in observation and honesty in analysis are needed. The policy of disillusionment, daydreaming, or refusal to acknowledge errors and fix them, the so called “ostrich policy”, does not help, it only makes matters worse.
Although many have expected a summit, which is a more substantial meeting with several working sessions focusing on matters of highest interest, and therefore “richer” in top level political decisions, consensus was only reached on a “meeting” - a modest meeting with only one work session, even if hosted at an exclusive golf club near London. It would be a mistake not to analyse the meeting in London starting from this point, since everything has significance at this strategic level. I believe that, by accepting a lower tone as far as the meeting format is concerned, there have been implicitly accepted its consequences, at least with respect to the range of the political ambitions regarding the scope and consistency of the debates on subjects of high interest, covering the further adaptation of the Alliance.
Despite the shocking declarations of president Emmanuel Macron, a month before the event, making reference to the so-called “brain-death” of NATO, and despite the harsh remarks of presidents Trump and Erdogan in response to Macron’s, the meeting of the NATO leaders in London was more successful than predicted by some analysts. It was the fourth consecutive summit after 2014, which had on its agenda the Alliance’s long term process of adaptation to the security changes in the security environment, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the illegal occupation of Crimea, as well as the terrorist phenomenon orchestrated by ISIL/Daesh. In the light of the latest, such political gatherings, where declarations had a bluntness hard to explain among friends, the relative lack of criticism during the 29 format meeting and the agreeing of the common Declaration are auspicious.
The text of the Declaration adopted by the North Atlantic Council - made of chiefs of states and heads of governments - has only nine paragraphs, which makes it, to my knowledge one of the most concise documents of its kind.
The first paragraph reminds us of NATO’s first 70 years and marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of what Churchill called, in March 1946, very inspiring as a matter of fact, “the Iron Curtain”. The very essence of NATO is highlighted, that is the guarantor of the security and territorial integrity of its members; it also reiterates NATO’s common values and the Alliance’s keystone - that is represented by the solidarity, unity and cohesion of the allies. Moreover, it reaffirms the commitment to maintaining the trans-Atlantic relationship and to Article 5 of the Treaty that states that an attack against a NATO member will be seen as an attack on all NATO members. None of the above represent new political messages. Making a piece of counterfactual history on the spot, I believe that no one would have been tempted to warn on the future of NATO if this paragraph had been missing from the text of the Declaration, since this language had already been present in other documents, some of them international and of more legal importance.
The second paragraph of the Declaration is grounded in what NATO largely defines as “fair sharing of responsibilities”. The threshold of 2% of the national GDP to go to defence and 20% of the defence budget to be dedicated to purchasing critical armament and military equipment specified by the Defence Investment Pledge that was adopted in Wales in 2014 is also reiterated here, as is the commitment to continue down this road. The positive narrative is maintained by showing that, for the fifth year in a row the defence expenditures of the European allies have increased, reaching over 130 million dollars, as well as by reasserting the allies’ commitment to this upward trend - “we must and will do more”. The use of the strongest modal verb defining obligation - must is interesting, since its use in diplomacy is seldom, with the exception of some ultimate texts. This phrase is used given the insistence of the Administration in Washington to determine the European allies increase their defence budgets, hence eliminating their dependency on US military capabilities.
Beyond the transactional foreign policy of President Donald Trump, the American leadership is more and more aware of the fact that it must increasingly focus on the Far East, where China is exponentially growing as an economic, military and – implicitly – political power, thus perceived by the USA as an adversary. Even more, this political refocusing of the US Administration didn’t come with the current administration, since the first declarations in this respect had been issued by the Obama Administration. One of the natural implications of this shift towards Asia is that the USA, having more strategic priorities, won’t be able to assign the same level of attention and resources to the European theatre, for the security and defence of the European allies. It is obvious that, under the circumstances of Russia’s growing assertiveness, the USA is expecting that their European allies cover the deficit of capabilities identified at NATO level and become more involved in ensuring their own security and defence.
Paragraph three of the Declaration mentions the threats that NATO has to face, explicitly making reference to the aggressiveness of Russia’s actions and to terrorism in all its forms. We ought to notice that terrorism has become more important in the Alliance’s public texts and it should be assumed that the southern allies, which see themselves as the most vulnerable to this threat, would be joined by other allied states that have been victims of terrorist attacks over the past few years. It is also worth mentioning that the international order is being challenged by both state and non-state actors. The Declaration also includes references to cyber and hybrid threats that the Alliance has to face.
When it comes to Russia, it is worth mentioning that not the aggressive Russia is pictured as a threat, but “Russia’s aggressive actions”, two differently nuanced formulation - since diplomacy is the art of nuances - out of which the second is subtler, most likely being the product of a compromise between the Eastern allies - who usually plead for a more categorical language when it comes to defining Russia as a threat - and those who are concerned to avoid a potentially spiralling rhetoric.
The most consistent, both in size and in substance, the fourth paragraph enumerates the most important commitments through which the Alliance understands to fulfil its purpose, in the context of contemporary realities. It is obvious that a new concept emerges which shows that the main idea that NATO operates and acts on is the Alliance’s defensive vocation and its determination to have an omnidirectional approach on all threats (a 360o approach that has become the mantra of NATO’s public declarations following the Warsaw summit in 2016), in order to ensure the security of the Euro-Atlantic area.
Despite President Macron’s appeals for getting closer to Russia, the relationship with this state is explicitly defined by the actions NATO understands “to address in a measured and responsible way” as a reaction to Russia’s deployment of new intermediate-range missiles. Furthermore, the allies reiterate their openness to dialogue with this country and their political willingness to build a productive bilateral relationship, from the moment Russia’s actions will allow it. It is quite understandable, thus, that the dual-track approach regarding the relationship with Russia adopted in Warsaw (in 2016) is still unchanged, NATO aiming to keep open its options to dialogue with Russia and, at the same time, to continue strengthening its military capabilities and adapting its policies.
The Declaration reaffirms well-known aspects regarding the need to improve the readiness of NATO’s forces by increasing their operational and response capacity and by maintaining its nuclear capabilities, which together with those conventional and missile defence represent the pillars of NATO’s credible deterrence and defence. The text also mentions the actions that NATO is willing to take in order to ensure freedom “at sea and in the air”, a focus determined by the existence and strengthening of the systems meant to deny and restrict regional access (A2/AD) that Russia has deployed in Kaliningrad, Crimea, or Syria.
Paragraph five is grounded in the third fundamental task - “security through cooperation”, making reference to the strengthening of NATO’s partnerships and its relationships with the UN and the European Union. Even if it comes up en passant, the continuous long-term commitment to ensuring security and stability in Afghanistan is worth mentioning. The impact of NATO on Afghanistan may not have been what it was initially expected, however, it has been significant and positive. At the same time, the operation in Afghanistan has had positive effects on NATO, leading to the advancement of institutional adaptability, political cohesion, organisational efficiency, and military interoperability.
Paragraph six, which I would take the liberty to call scientific and technical, highlights the importance of keeping an allied advantage in this domain. It acknowledges aspects regarding the necessity to increase the resilience of allied states, including their critical infrastructure, with reference to the 5G communications infrastructure and to the energy security as well. The Declaration brings to attention NATO’s decision to recognize outer space as an operational domain, along with the other four that we already know: land, air, sea and cyber.
Mentioning China for the first time in NATO official documents, a country whose growth and influence present both opportunities and challenges, is one of London’s main pieces of news. The allied analysis regarding China will continue to be a theme on NATO’s long-term agenda, since the country represents, according to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a growing concern for NATO: “This is not about moving NATO into the Pacific, but this is about responding to the fact that China is coming closer to us”.
Paragraph seven makes reference to the strategic direction, showing that the Alliance will launch a complex process of reflection with a view to strengthen NATO’s political dimension, including with regard to consultations. The wording of this paragraph shows that London after 70 years of NATO is perceived as a launch pad for a substantial debate regarding the political dimension of the Alliance, and this is - for my part - the most important news from London.
Where will this debate lead? I hope to a stronger NATO with regard to the unity and solidarity among its allies, because this is the foundation of everything that makes the organization. Or, perhaps to the adoption of a new Strategic Concept, since the current one, dated 2010, is in great need of updating - for example, it describes the security environment of the Euro-Atlantic area as “at peace” and mentions that the cooperation between NATO and Russia “contributes to creating a common space of peace, stability and security”. Although its structure based on three fundamental tasks - collective defence, crises management and security though cooperation - is still valid and should remain unchanged, the strategic value of this concept was drastically narrowed down following the dramatic changes in the security environment after the year 2014. As of now NATO does not have a military rival, a situation which favours the deterrence potential of the organization; however, NATO must maintain this superiority. One should not forget that the military strength of the Alliance comes from the political solidarity of its members. This is why the result of the reflection process detailed in the to-do folder is so important. I believe that the moment of stock-taking and analysis of the future of NATO will lead to a more cohesive and hence stronger Alliance.
Beyond the well phrased and inspired text of the Declaration of the summit, which usually comes out following tough negotiations that last until the day before the event, it is worth mentioning that the allies agreed to continue their military support to Turkey, despite the fact that they vehemently disapproved the Turkish military intervention in the North-East of Syria on October 9th, 2009, and despite the agreement that Turkey later signed with Russia for securing Syria’s northern borders. The offensive, named Operation Peace Spring, targeted Kurdish fighters, the USA’s trustworthy partners in the fight against ISIS and didn’t do anyone any good, much less Turkey. It did not contribute to strengthening the security of the USA, Turkey or any other partner in the region. On the contrary, it led to the deepening of destabilisation of Syria, while 70 Syrian and 20 Turkish civilians died and 300,000 inhabitants of the Aleppo, Hasakah and Raqqa regions were forcibly displaced by the raids of the Turkish Air Forces.
Even though Spain had announced that it would withdraw its Patriot capability from Turkey (deployed at the Incirlik Airbase) in protest against the Turkish offensive across the Syrian border, during the reunion of the (NATO) defence ministers, at the end of October 2019 Madrid reconfirmed, through the voice of the defence minister Margarita Robles, the Spanish commitment to keep its missile batteries in Turkey for another six months. These signs of allied clemency towards Turkey proof the importance of keeping it in the Alliance, first of all due to its geopolitical location which provides NATO a strategic position in the Black and Mediterranean Seas. At the same time, NATO needs Turkey’s strong military - the second in size after the USA’s - in order to successfully face the threats from Russia in Europe, as well as to defend itself against the Iranian and North Korean ballistic missiles. This is the reason NATO did not go beyond the statements of condemnation of the agreement between Erdogan’s government and Putin’s Russia on the acquisition of the S-400 missile system, signed regardless of USA’s strong opposition and defying the danger of American sanctions – which were imposed on Ankara by the Administration in Washington and came into force on the 21st of December 2019.
What inconvenienced the most, though, at the allied level was Ankara’s sustained opposition with respect to the political agreement on the plans to defend and reinforce Poland and the Baltic states in case of conflict, the Turkish officials linking it to the allies agreement to designate the YPG as a terrorist organization and implicitly as a threat to Turkey and NATO. In reaction to leaks in the press across the globe on this sensitive and confidential issue, Turkey renounces its vetoes on these plans, a “face-saving” exercise determined by the need to not be regarded as a difficult ally that hinders the security of other allies. Even though this last crisis inside NATO’s inner sanctum seems to have been diffused - the allies were relieved and President Erdogan was congratulated for his flexibility - it is expected that Ankara’s fight to have the YPG formally designated as a terrorist organisation by the allies continues.
In Conclusion, Where Is NATO Headed?
The outcome of the NATO leaders’ meeting in London has been assessed and will keep on being the subject of introspective analyses, at least for a while. To me, London showed once more the strength and power of the organization. Its strength comes from the fact that its members find it relevant, capable of solving complex security issues and thus necessary. It is obvious that there is political tumult within it, and it can’t be any different between 29 democratic countries united by common values, whose fundamental interests coincide but aren’t always congruent when it comes to how to reach the objectives. In their wisdom, the “founding fathers” of the organization foresaw this possibility, so they came up with the solution provided by Article 4, that of consultations, of dialogue at the round table of the North Atlantic Council, where each voice matters and all allies are equal. Dialogue, mutual understanding and, finally, compromise are the solutions for solving small problems or deep crises. The power that gives NATO endurance doesn’t necessarily lie with its military capabilities, even if NATO is a formidable military power, but with the ability to identify difficulties and to find solutions to overcome them, which makes it the most successful alliance on the planet.
Creating NATO in 1949 was the most natural and logical answer from some rational actors at that difficult moment, when Soviet tanks were deployed in the middle of Europe threatening to occupy the entire continent. The Soviet “stimulus” has determined Western Europe and North America to associate and establish relations, links, cooperation frameworks, which keep the Soviet danger and its communist ideology “on a leash”. The disappearance of this “stimulus”, when the Soviet Union imploded in the early 90’s led to Neo-Kantian ideas and hopes for an end of history and everlasting peace that proved to be unrealistic. As for the Alliance, a certain weakening of its cohesion, as well as a more pronounced assertion of the national interests and objectives and of particular ways to fulfil them was observed. Once again, political logic is at work - a new situation leads to new priorities, new emergencies. Paradoxically, the new internal dynamic has grounded the allied nations more firmly, and together they remained “in business”.
Today’s Russia is more and more aggressive in pursuing its own interests and does not hesitate to use force to attack and occupy sovereign states. Through its policy and actions, although it doesn’t have the strength the Soviet Union once had Russia looks more like the “stimulus” that lead to the creation of NATO at the end of the 40’s. I believe that what happened then will happen now, with the exception that NATO doesn’t need to be created any more, it already exists and has an experience of 70 years. Just like the Soviet Union in the past, Russia pushes the Alliance towards unity, cohesion and solidarity. I believe that the allied states are aware of the advantages that come with their association within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and this is why NATO will continue to be the guarantor of the common action to ensure the security and defence in the North Atlantic area.
There is one significant unknown- China. The exponential growth of China’s activities in Europe and around it has led, over the past few years, to the USA and EU security and defence officials focusing their attention on this country. It looks like they have been awakened by China’s global, multidimensional challenge that includes economic, political, technological, and security aspects. In a document agreed at the level of the European Commission in the beginning of 2019, China is called a “systemic rival”, since some of Beijing’s strategic objectives are: dominating the global high-tech industry through its technological giant Huawei, developing military capabilities that match the USA’s, and connecting a large part of the world’s population through the One Belt One Road initiative. The idea of creating a NATO-China Council has already been set in motion, following the example of so many others that NATO has established in the past –the NATO-Russia Council, and the NATO-Ukraine and NATO-Georgia Commissions. I believe that this idea is worth taking into consideration.
 YPG – People’s Protection Units (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel), the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, is the main military organization of the Kurdish Supreme Committee. They were initially established to defend Kurdish-inhabited areas, and became an important opponent, and later an ally to the USA in the fight against the Islamic State.