Making social science accessible

22 Aug 2023

UK in the world

Sten Rynning explores changing approaches to NATO leadership over the years, highlighting that frequent summits have become the norm – perhaps to the detriment of long-term thinking and a compelling narrative.

NATO’s Vilnius summit of July of this year offered a fair share of political drama. The summit pushed Sweden past Turkey’s objections to alliance membership, whereas Ukraine was told to continue to wait in the wings. The summit also struck a compromise on how NATO allies can best resource the alliance’s forward defense at the eastern frontier. It was high politics and big money, and the drama, the summit promised, will continue at new summits in 2024 and 2025 – first in Washington and then in the Netherlands.

Unnoticed amid all this is the way in which summitry has become NATO’s run of the mill: first tense preparations, then summit drama and compromise, and then on to the next summit. NATO’s pace of summitry picked up speed with the end of the Cold War. Counting the upcoming summits in 2024 and 2025, NATO will have held 30 summits in 1989-2025. During the Cold War, NATO held only 8 summits.

In addition, the pace seems to be quickening. In 1989-1999, NATO held 8 summits. In 2000-2009, NATO held another 8 summits. In 2010-2019, NATO held only 7 summits, but in the 2020s, it will already by 2025 have held 7 summits. True, these recent summits include two emergency sessions provoked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but still, it is a remarkably high pace. All things considered, in the 2020s, NATO will likely hold at least 10 summits.

This shift in summitry pace from the Cold War to the post-Cold War era, and then the continued and increasing reliance on summitry, in several ways highlights the centrality of politics and ideas to NATO’s functioning. Essentially, if allies can coalesce around a reigning idea, they do not need as much summitry. There is a lot to this story, which I explore in depth elsewhere. Worth considering is whether this high pace of summitry is good or bad.

Summits are powerful in that they bring together heads of state and government and command the world’s attention. Moreover, summits cannot be seen to fail. The chiefs must radiate consensus and purpose. Summits therefore force compromise in the preparatory phases. Britain’s NATO ambassador in the early 1980s, Sir Clive Rose, wrote in the context of a NATO 1982 summit that ‘the preparatory work is equal in value to the Summit meeting itself’ since it is here that allies make ‘genuine’ efforts to get to agreement. This point is as valid today as it was back then.

Moreover, a string of summits can help allies navigate geopolitical upheaval. Calling in the big boys, so to speak, is a way to get the alliance back on track. This is what NATO did during the Cold War. Of NATO’s eight Cold War summits, four took place in the 1970s (1974, 1975, 1977 and 1978). The tectonic plates of world politics were shifting, and NATO needed the chiefs to come together on a new allied approach to defense and détente.

Remarkably, NATO then went back to business as usual. It had a lot going on: nuclear deployments, Star Wars, freedom vs. stability and public anxiety. But NATO did not really do summits. There was a quick meet-and-greet summit in 1982 to welcome President Reagan to the alliance. And there was a quick summit in 1985 to coordinate views on superpower negotiations. But it was not until 1988 that NATO held a comprehensive summit and then in anticipation of geopolitical upheaval – the end of the Cold War. Until then, NATO dealt with turbulence by policy community (regular foreign and defense ministerial meetings supported by HQ staff and leadership), not summitry centred on the political chiefs.

After the Cold War, NATO never went back to business as usual. Summits were here to stay. One would of course expect the chiefs to coalesce in order to deal with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks, and Russia’s war on Ukraine. But there is no let up. Summitry has become a NATO staple, and the pace now quickens.

It is in the nature of summits to be dramatic. Conflicts are played up until, by apparently heroic intervention on the part of some leaders, they are resolved. Summitry grandstanding is an art, therefore, and all Heads of State and Government engage in it. Presidents Trump and Erdogan are among those who most recently have excelled in the artform. And it can be testing for alliance cohesion. President Trump became such a loose cannon that NATO’s 2019 summit was downgraded to a quick ‘Leaders’ Meeting’ taking place in December, well after the alliance’s 70th anniversary in April.

Still, NATO’s trend of summitry has continued and goes beyond any one personage. Attention and drama, it seems, becomes the chiefs. The question is what it does to the alliance. For all the attention they bestow on the alliance, summits may also detract from its ability to set its political compass and steer by big ideas. Policy sprawl seems to be taking the place of security architecture ideas. Three questions follow.

The first is whether NATO Heads of State and Government would not be better able to take a long view of things if they are less often involved in NATO business. There is at least reason to think that frequent summits tempt heads of state and government to become policy advocates and horse-traders. They should rather think of themselves as strategic guides or compass setters.

A related question is whether frequent summits does not encourage the ‘NATO machinery’ – the Headquarters with its policy leadership and policy staff – to plan for the short term (i.e., the next summit). Policy planning used to be a classical discipline of thinking ahead. Frequents summits shorten this horizon to mere months.

A final question is whether NATO would not be better able to communicate its raison d’être if the chiefs focused more stringently on the big issues. Frequent summits produce such diverse policy and compromises that it becomes hard to tell a compelling story.

Striking a sinister note, French premier Georges Clemenceau once remarked that cemeteries are full of indispensable people. On a somewhat lighter note, NATO’s historical record would suggest that the constant involvement of NATO Heads of State and Government in NATO business is not indispensable. Which leader, though, would have the courage to say so?

By Sten Rynning, Director, Danish Institute for Advanced Study, and Professor of War Studies, University of Southern Denmark. 

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