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NATO’S Summit: Great on Presentation, Less Good on Substance

Commentary, 29 November 2010
Global Security Issues, International Institutions, Europe
The NATO Summit in Lisbon on 19 November was hailed as a 'tremendous success' by US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. But how much of a consensus was actually reached on the 'headline' issues? And were smaller details glossed over for political expediency?

The NATO Summit in Lisbon on 19 November was hailed as a 'tremendous success' by US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. But how much of a consensus was actually reached on the 'headline' issues? And were smaller details glossed over for political expediency?

By Dr Jonanthan Eyal


A Successful Summit?

Has NATO's Lisbon summit been a success? In purely diplomatic terms, the answer must be yes. But, as always, the devil is in the details and, on that, we are none the wiser.

It is easy to forget that, when Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary general, embarked on the project of drafting a new strategic concept for the alliance, everyone expected an almighty debate about fundamental issues: was NATO's primary purpose to undertake crisis-management operations 'out-of-area', should it re-focus on its 'core' task of guaranteeing the territorial security of Europe, or should it transform itself into a mechanism for managing 'new' threats such as cyber or missile attacks?

The laborious way by which Mr Rasmussen went about drafting the strategic concept added to the cacophony of sounds. But it all ended with a whimper; a mercifully short, very plausible, and eminently readable document which was ready by the time the heads of states and governments landed in Lisbon, and was barely discussed during the summit. The East Europeans did not throw up a tantrum about the 'centrality' of Article 5 in the Washington Treaty, guaranteeing collective defence. The old debate between 'in area' and 'out of area' operations was not rekindled. Russia was offered co-operation and President Medvedev graciously accepted the offer. Existing operations - principally Afghanistan - generated consensus and future threats were duly mentioned. In short, NATO's Lisbon summit has successfully drawn a line under previous debates. It may not be 'NATO 3.0', as politicians would like to claim, with due deference to the 'hip' language of computers and software, but it was certainly a more poised and calm alliance.

Yet the consensus remains fairly superficial; the alliance may no longer be suffering from a crisis of identity, but it is still beset by serious problems.


A Real Consensus on Afghanistan?

Take Afghanistan as an example. 'The direction, starting today, is clear: toward Afghan leadership and Afghan ownership. That is a vision President Karzai has set out, it is a vision we share, and we will make it a reality, starting early next year,' vowed Mr Rasmussen at the end of the summit. However,, despite all the reassuring statements about the existence of a clear plan, the reality remains that there is no consensus about what should be done, and on whether what the alliance is currently doing has any chance of success. On the one hand, there will be an accelerated handover of authority to the Afghan government, indicating that NATO's commitment is clearly-defined and time-limited. But, at the same time, there is also a pledge that NATO will remain on the ground 'as long as it takes', despite the fact that, as every leader who attended the Lisbon summit knew very well, this will not be case.

Of course, everyone genuinely hopes that the current military surge and intensive training of Afghan forces will produce some results. But the question still remains whether the political timetable in the West - including the looming presidential elections in the US - can ever be synchronised with the realities on the ground in Afghanistan. Of course, it would have been too much to ask NATO leaders to contemplate in public the possibility of failure but this is precisely what will have to be contemplated in the year to come. Either way, one conclusion from Afghanistan is already clear: NATO's future will not be that of a global policeman, if only because no country would rush to repeat the Afghanistan experience.


The Question of Russia and NATO's Missile Defence

The most important practical decision taken by the summit - to build a missile defence shield against a potentially nuclear Iran - was also a political compromise. Russia ‑ whose president Dmitry Medvedev attended the gathering ‑ opposes the project, because it sees it as directed against its own military. Turkey, a NATO member, initially refused to support any scheme which singles out Iran as a threat. The alliance skirted around these difficulties by agreeing to build a scaled-down umbrella of rockets and radars centred on bases in Romania, Poland and possibly Turkey, and linked to existing defences. The project - which is supposedly directed against no-one in particular ‑ will take a decade to construct, and may cost only US$ 250 million, a paltry amount compared to previous US plans.

Finally, Russia was invited to participate in the development of the missile defence shield. The Americans tried to portray this as a major achievement for president Obama: 'Previous administrations tried to get a European missile defence system and didn't succeed,' claimed Mr Ivo Daalder, the US ambassador to NATO. But all the details still need to be worked out, the technology is untested, and no diplomat was able to say how Russia would be involved. Furthermore, if the missile defence shield is a serious project, it will have to be advanced much quicker than the current plan, which is supposed to be spread over a decade.

Nor was there much progress on the broader question of relations with Russia. True, there was plenty of talk about future co-operation, and pledges from all sides that the existing structures for dialogue would be 'revitalised'. But the confusion which surrounds Russia's adherence to existing arms control agreements - such as the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty - continues unabated, nobody was prepared to talk in public about Russia's proposals for a new European security conference, and the US president could offer no guarantees that the new START agreement would be ratified by the Senate in Washington. So, although the mood was much better, the results were scant.


Conclusions: Unfinished Business?

A whole host of smaller issues were not addressed. Although there was a cull in the number of the various committees and 'councils' which have proliferated inside the alliance, there was no assessment on whether this would result in a leaner and more efficient organisation. Nor was there any serious debate about the central funding requirements of NATO, or about the defence expenditure of its member-states. All these questions were deemed as either too politically-sensitive or too remote from the main business of the summit, which was to convey the image of an organisations which is no longer bickering, and which knows what it is doing.

As NATO summits go, the Lisbon gathering was clearly well-prepared and trouble-free. The adoption of a new strategic concept is also an achievement: this is only the third such document in the alliance's 61-years existence. Still, none of this is enough to provide real content to NATO's own vow in its new strategic concept: to remain 'the unique and essential transatlantic forum for consultations on all matters that affect the territorial integrity, political independence and security of its members'.

*Please note that the views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not represent the views of RUSI*

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