Making social science accessible

18 Jul 2023

Europe

UK in the world

Mark Webber takes stock of last week’s NATO Summit, arguing that, while the meeting was productive, the alliance needs to do more to outline Ukraine’s path to future membership.

Did the outcome of last week’s NATO summit live up to the hype?

The meeting certainly started well with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan withdrawing his objections to Sweden’s entry into the alliance. It also ended on a high with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg referring to the meeting’s ‘historic’ importance. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described it as a ‘landmark.’

A cynic might point out that last July’s summit in Madrid was equally ‘transformative’, as indeed, was the ‘pivotal’ gathering of NATO leaders in Brussels in June 2021.

NATO summits aren’t meant to be routine. The grind of diplomatic compromise and detailed policymaking is left to permanent representatives at NATO HQ and preparatory meetings of foreign and defence ministers. Summits provide a high-level stocktake – the meeting declaration being a strategic and political conspectus of where NATO stands on the security issues of the day (with portentous language to match).

Perhaps more importantly, the point of summits is to signal resolve and solidarity among the allies. Putting leaders together in the middle of the most consequential war in Europe since 1945 was bound to test that premise. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky complained that the communiqué’s ‘vague wording’ on the prospects of NATO membership for his embattled country was ‘absurd’. UK defence secretary Ben Wallace retorted that Ukraine needed to show ‘gratitude’ for the huge amounts of arms it was receiving to ward off Russian occupation.

That tiff was soon over. Wallace was ticked off by Sunak and issued what was, in effect, an apology. Zelensky went on to applaud the ‘success’ of the summit and said he understood ‘that Ukraine cannot become a member of NATO while the war is ongoing’ (the main reason why Washington, backed by Berlin, wanted to tone down the communiqué’s language).

Zelensky’s initial complaint did, however, have some merit. At Vilnius, the allies loudly proclaimed that ‘Ukraine’s future is in NATO’. But that was a formulation that had changed little since NATO’s Bucharest declaration of 2008. The bureaucratic hurdle of a Membership Action Plan (MAP) was removed, a step that paralleled the experience of Finland whose membership was fast tracked in 2022. But in place of a MAP for Ukraine a frustratingly opaque reference was inserted at Vilnius to unspecified ‘conditions’ the country still needed to meet. Some observers likened this to being placed in diplomatic purgatory.

At the summit a new NATO-Ukraine Council met for the first time, with Zelensky in attendance. But that too was less than it seemed. Replacing the moribund NATO-Ukraine Commission, the Council is meant to serve as a ‘crisis-consultation mechanism.’ Exactly how – or indeed, why – was not made clear. Ukraine is already integrated into the Ukraine Defence Contact Group (the main multilateral body for coordinating assistance to Ukraine) and sits on a number of working groups with NATO under the terms of the Comprehensive Assistance Package (an initiative in existence since 2016). It was thus easy to reach the conclusion that the new Council was more diplomatic performance than a serious effort at progressing allied support.

Greater movement was evident on the side-lines of the summit. On day one, a coalition of eleven NATO allies (that included the UK) announced they would train Ukrainian pilots to fly (as yet undelivered) F-16 fighter jets.  Emmanuel Macron declared that France would provide Ukraine with long-range SCALP missiles. A G7 statement agreed to ‘formalize’ these overlapping ‘bilateral security commitments and arrangements.’ Like NATO’s own communiqué this too was imprecise and vulnerable to future cavilling. Yet it contained far tougher language than NATO could manage – to defend Ukraine and to deter ‘Russian aggression in the future.’ Further, the G7 position was catalytic. NATO’s four Nordic states (plus Sweden) immediately issued a statement in support, as did the governments of Czechia, the Netherlands, and Spain.

This patchwork of agreements and announcements tells us something important about NATO. The alliance is too big and too cumbersome to effectively coordinate a coalition war effort in support of a partner. Consensus decision-making simply gets in the way. NATO also lacks any supranational authority. Decisions on how and with what to arm Ukraine are thus left to individual allies or informal coalitions.

NATO’s more substantive contribution in the face of Russian belligerence has been to take care of the collective defence of its own members. The Vilnius summit signed off on new ‘regional defence plans’, the most comprehensive guidance for dealing with the Russian threat since the end of the Cold War. Although detail was lacking these plans will shape the NATO Force Model already agreed at Madrid, as well as a new Allied Reaction Force.

The alliance also reaffirmed the 2014 defence investment pledge. That directs the allies to spend at least 2% of GDP on their armed forces. NATO lacks powers of enforcement here but the political pressure to meet the target is intense. In 2014, only three allies (Greece, the US and the UK) were up to the mark. NATO data for 2023 shows that eleven members were over the threshold. More impressively, all the allies (except Iceland, a country with no armed forces) now meet a related NATO target to spend at least 20% of defence budgets on new equipment.

And, easily missed in a long communiqué, NATO agreed to launch a new Defence Production Action Plan, a Virtual Cyber Incident Support Capability, and a new centre to monitor threats (mainly from Russia) to undersea cables. New NATO centres of excellence on space and climate change were also welcomed.

Overall, then, the summit was productive, if not necessarily historic. At Vilnius, allied leaders re-committed to collective defence. They were less emphatic in extending that privilege to Ukraine. But if NATO is serious in standing up to Russia, then Ukraine, the country on Europe’s frontline and possessed of the continent’s most battle-hardened militaries, deserves a clearer route to membership.

An invitation and a format of accession can only realistically follow once Russia is vanquished. No one can foresee when that point will be reached or what it will look like. But allied leaders will need to decide soon what part the alliance will play in Ukraine’s long-term security future. If they don’t, NATO’s relevance as Europe’s principal defence body will increasingly be open to question.

By Mark Webber, Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham.

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