London hosts the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Summit of Allied leaders on December 3-4, also marking the organization’s 70th anniversary. At stake at the leaders’ summit is clarity around the future of US engagement with NATO even as Europe appears increasingly divided about its own visions for the alliance. Consensus will be critical as members look to address a series of daunting security challenges not least of which is Russian opportunism, Turkey’s regional intentions, a rising China and new spheres of conflict including technology, cyber and space.
This summit is being held against the backdrop of recent statements by US President Donald Trump that its NATO alliance members continue to fall short on burden sharing. Trump, who is expected at the leaders’ summit, particularly called out Germany in late October on its NATO commitment shortfall, even as the country continues to lay out money for Russian energy resources.
With Trump having reportedly considered withdrawing the US from NATO several times in 2018 (which would be to Russia’s benefit), the Trump administration will be particularly aware of criticism at home that: (1) NATO does not do enough to advance US interests specifically, and (2) the belief that the challenges faced by most NATO countries are remote from the domestic audience’s day-to-day concerns. In fact, the first day of the leaders’ summit includes an official public diplomacy outreach event in central London, likely to address concerns around the level of public support for NATO.
This perception comes despite the fact the only invocation of the lynchpin of the NATO treaty, Article 5 – which commits that an armed attack against one ally in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against all - was by the US following the 9/11 attacks.
The question will be how the Trump administration balances its ‘America First’ foreign policy priorities vis-à-vis NATO and US public opinion with its future engagement with the alliance. This alliance should indeed see other members shoulder a greater portion of the burden relative to the US’s outsized commitments, but is also one that was there when the US needed it after 9/11.
European partners concerned with the predictability of US engagement with NATO are also facing an internal debate over the future of the alliance, caught off guard by French President Emmanuel Macron’s warning of NATO’s ‘brain death’. And while an official agenda for the summit has not been released, at a 20 November meeting, foreign ministers emphasized the need for NATO to demonstrate that it can adapt and modernize as an alliance.
Atop the list of priorities at the upcoming summit is likely to be managing current Russian opportunism. In particular, how to combat a Russia that relies on both military campaigns (including recent examples in Ukraine, Syria and increasingly Libya) and information/interference operations (including misinformation campaigns in the US 2016 elections). Tied into this is the recent decision by NATO foreign ministers to formally recognize space, including protection of satellite and navigation assets, as the fifth operational domain (sitting alongside air, land, sea and cyber).
Additionally, leaders will have to contend with the fallout from Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria in October, following Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops. The incursion targeted Kurdish fighters in the region who had formerly been a key US ally in the counterterrorism fight against the Islamic State in Syria. Lost in the initial attention given to whether the US remains a reliable ally are questions around Turkey’s role in NATO. Joint Turkey-Russia patrolling of the area following a ceasefire, and Turkish purchases of Russian S-400 air defence systems (to the dismay of the US Congress) have further exacerbated the question around the future of Turkey in NATO.
Finally, summit attendees will formally consider for the first time what NATO’s China strategy should look like amidst the country’s rise. Of course, this comes as the on-going trade conflict between the US and China, which has seen the two sides impose tariffs on each other’s goods, drags on with stalled diplomatic efforts to resolve the escalation. Fears around the impact of balkanization of technology will be particularly at the fore of NATO discussions, in light of China’s 5G capability.
The leaders’ meeting will be held just over a week ahead of the United Kingdom’s own 12 December general election. With the UK domestic political environment in flux and a long list of challenges on the agenda, the NATO summit is likely to leave open more questions than it answers.