Commentary: NATO meets in a world reordered by Russian aggression and Chinese ambition
Russian belligerence, "systemic challenges" posed by China and whether to offer Ukraine a pathway to NATO membership are issues on the table of the Madrid summit in June, says this professor.
BIRMINGHAM, England: Leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 30 nations meet in Madrid at the end of June for what Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has dubbed a “historic and transformative” summit.
The war in Ukraine provides the backdrop, but preparations for the meeting began well before the Russian invasion. The conflict will focus minds all the more.
The most substantive item on the agenda is an updating of NATO’s key Strategic Concept – which sets the alliance’s values and strategic objectives for the next decade.
The current version, adopted in 2010, has served NATO well – but it was based on premises that no longer apply. Then, the global war on terror and NATO’s role in expeditionary operations as far afield as Afghanistan were what determined its purpose.
Now, according to deputy secretary-general Mircea Geoana, speaking at a conference in Copenhagen on Jun 10, NATO is more preoccupied with a new era of what he referred to as great power competition – focusing on Russia and China.
THREE PRIORITIES OF THE NATO SUMMIT
It seems certain that a new document will be adopted. Russian belligerence has helped forge agreement, as has a growing appreciation of the “systemic challenges” posed by China.
The multiple challenges of NATO’s security environment mean the document will pay attention to many other issues. Some will be quite separate from Russia and China – climate change, global health and terrorism among them.
But others – hybrid and asymmetric threats, the militarisation of space, cyber security and the geostrategic importance of the Arctic and Asia-Pacific – will be intimately connected to calculations concerning Moscow and Beijing.
Three items of summit business illustrate this prioritisation. First, a decision will be taken in Madrid on “the scale and design of [NATO’s] future posture” across the whole spectrum of defence.
This was prefigured at a meeting of NATO defence ministers in mid-June and builds upon practical measures taken since February to reinforce the defence of the eastern allies.
Expect in parallel, second, some strong language on sustaining national defence budgets.
Third, the summit will be attended by leaders from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea – a clear signal that NATO is moving (politically, at least) towards coalition-building against China.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT UKRAINE?
The highlight of the Madrid summit will be an address by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. NATO is also likely to endorse a comprehensive assistance package to train and equip the Ukrainian armed forces. This is less significant than it sounds, as NATO had agreed on a similar programme back in 2016.
Extending it is clearly beneficial to the war effort, but the package should not be confused with the provision of arms to Ukraine. That is a matter for the allies individually, not NATO.
Any coordination which has occurred appears to have been ad hoc. Politically, this has been achieved through the US-led Ukraine Defence Contact Group and, at a technical level, via the International Donors’ Coordination Cell, located at the American Patch Barracks in Stuttgart.
The biggest contributions NATO could make to the cause of Ukrainian self-defence are currently off the table.
A NATO-enforced “no-fly zone” over Ukraine (comparable to allied operations in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s) has been ruled out in London and Washington for fear of provoking Moscow.
A maritime operation to break the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports, meanwhile, would likely be vetoed by Turkey, given its sensitivities on the naval balance of forces in the Black Sea.
Offering Ukraine a clear pathway to NATO membership is also not in sight. Russia has used Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as one pretext for its invasion of the country.
The alliance has rightly rejected Russia’s attempt to impose a geopolitical veto over Ukraine’s national security choices. But NATO remains divided on exactly how and when Ukraine should be brought in.
Poland has long made the argument that Ukraine should be given a Membership Action Plan (MAP). Sceptics such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Schultz oppose the initiative. Tellingly, the idea currently also finds no favour in Washington.
Ukraine’s leadership, meanwhile, has become increasingly disillusioned. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently said that only a “miracle” would see Ukraine obtain a clear path to membership in Madrid.
Ukraine’s predicament has not been helped by an argument over another enlargement decision. Finland and Sweden presented their applications for NATO membership in May.
A formal invitation to join the alliance looked certain to be issued at the Madrid summit – until the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his opposition on the grounds that the two countries support Kurdish separatism.
So NATO’s “open door” on enlargement, for now, remains shut – not just for Ukraine, but for NATO’s Nordic aspirants as well.
REVITALISED NATO STILL HAS SHORTCOMINGS
A year ago, NATO was experiencing one of its periodic existential crises following the “ignominious” retreat from Afghanistan. But the alliance has seemingly been revived by the war in Ukraine. The allies will be keen to parade a spirit of firmness and resolve at Madrid.
But there are limits. Whatever the justness of Ukraine’s cause, NATO – as Stoltenberg has implied – is better suited to defending its treaty-based allies than coming to the aid of a non-member such as Ukraine.
Deterring Russian encroachments on NATO’s territory has emerged as the principal mission of the alliance. The urgency of that task means other important issues have not been given the attention they deserve in the run-up to Madrid.
With the allies preoccupied with Russia and Ukraine, there has been little discussion of some of NATO’s long-standing internal challenges: The sustainability of US leadership and the pitfalls of consensus decision-making (evidenced in Turkey’s stance on Finland and Sweden).
NATO’s tangled and cumbersome command structure and the still-underdeveloped relationship with the European Union also need to be addressed. It seems unlikely that any of these issues will be meaningfully discussed in Madrid.
Mark Webber is a Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.