For NATO, a Big Step Forward

NATO’s just-completed Madrid summit largely delivered. However, questions on follow-through linger

A new unity. NATO heads of state pose for a group photo in Madrid, on June 29, 2022. Image Credit: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/ AFP

As I recently noted, the NATO summit in Spain presented both a historic opportunity and a potential peril for the 73-year-old alliance. The 30 leaders who met in Madrid on June 29-30 needed to show unity and clarity of purpose for the meeting to be a success. Public fissures or a mere repackaging of half-measures would undoubtedly be read by Russia as weakness, inviting further aggression.

Now that the summit is over and the dust has begun to settle, it’s possible to say that, by and large, the summit delivered. President Biden and the other NATO leaders came together to take many, though not all, of the steps necessary to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The transatlantic community, including the United States, will be stronger and more secure as a result.

There was remarkable unity, capped by Turkey dropping its de facto veto of Finnish and Swedish NATO accession with the surprise signing of the trilateral memorandum that led to an invitation to the two Scandinavian countries to join the alliance. In the leadup to the summit, despite feverish efforts by the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and others, it seemed likely that Turkish President Erdogan’s objections to Finnish and Swedish membership would cast a pall over the gathering, and hand the Russian’s a huge propaganda victory. That, however, was not to be. Thanks to some likely carrots offered by the U.S. to Turkey, Finland and Sweden are now poised to become the 31st and 32nd NATO members. While far from official, the likelihood of Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO is a cause for celebration especially since their joining the alliance had only been a remote possibility just a few months ago.

Making nice. Turkey’s Erdogan and America’s Biden shake hands at the NATO summit in Madrid, on June 29, 2022. Image Credit: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

At the summit, NATO also adopted a new Strategic Concept, a document that details the alliance’s key purpose and tasks going forward and its first mission update in 12 years. The document reflects the new geostrategic reality facing the alliance, stating:

The Russian Federation has violated the norms and principles that contributed to a stable and predictable European security order. We cannot discount the possibility of an attack against Allies’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Strategic competition, pervasive instability and recurrent shocks define our broader security environment.

This differs substantially from the treatment of Russia in the 2010 Strategic Concept ,when NATO still saw the possibility for “a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia.”

The new Strategic Concept, along with the summit declaration and the statements of the allied leaders, also stress collective defense. Specifically, they all reiterate, nearly verbatim, the message of the Strategic Concept, aimed squarely at Moscow: “While NATO is a defensive Alliance, no one should doubt our strength and resolve to defend every inch of Allied territory, preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all Allies and prevail against any aggressor.”

The alliance also took actions to back up its words, announcing the expansion of the NATO Response Force from its current 40,000 military personnel to 300,000, as well as continued growth in prepositioned weapons and equipment stockpiles. The NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg noted of the Response Force expansion, “For the first time since the Cold War, we will have pre-assigned forces to defend specific Allies so that we can reinforce much faster if needed.” In fact, some allies have already stepped up, with Germany pledging 15,000 soldiers and the U.K. offering a Carrier Strike Group.

In response to Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO created an Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) of four multinational battalions in each of the Baltic states and Poland. These large deployments of forces at the edge of NATO’s eastern flank are intended to deter any attacks against the alliance’s most vulnerable members. This March in Brussels, following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the alliance announced the creation of four additional EFP battalions, one each stationed in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

The four new multinational battlegroups are already up and running. Moreover, NATO recently announced each EFP battlegroup would be increased to a brigade-level force; a doubling of their size to between 3,000-5,000 soldiers apiece. Some countries have already announced increases to their Enhanced Forward Presence contributions. For instance, the United Kingdom has roughly doubled its deployment to the EFP battlegroup in Estonia to over 1,600 troops. In early June, Germany announced that a further 500 troops would be stationed in Lithuania, as part of the German-led EFP battalion, increasing its footprint there to 1500 troops, up from 500 before the war began.

The battlegroups have alliance-wide participation. Today, putting aside the three Baltic states that host EFP battalions to bolster their own forces, Greece, Portugal and Turkey are the only NATO members that do not contribute to an EFP battalion. What’s more, Portugal frequently contributes forces, including recently temporarily deploying troops to the NATO battlegroups in both Lithuania and Romania.

On top of this and in conjunction with the summit, the U.S. announced a raft of new European deployments. These include two F-35 squadrons to be based in the U.K.; the establishment in Poland of the permanent V Corps headquarters (to provide command and control “focused on synchronizing U.S. Army, allied, and partner nation tactical formations operating in Europe”); a new rotational brigade combat team deploying to Romania; enhanced rotational deployments to the Baltics, which will include “armored, aviation, air defense, and special operations forces”; the forward stationing of an “an air defense artillery brigade headquarters, a short-range air defense battalion, a combat sustainment support battalion headquarters, and an engineer brigade headquarters” in Germany, as well as a short-range air defense battery in Italy.

Meanwhile, NATO countries continue to make greater defense investments. In 2022, for instance, Slovakia will join the list of countries that spend the 2% of GDP or more on defense (there are 9 total) required of NATO members. And many more member states have pledged to reach the 2% threshold in the coming years.

With this additional spending, allies are not merely padding military pensions, they’re investing in real capabilities. Indeed, all but six member states now meet the second NATO benchmark to invest 20% or more of defense expenditures in major new capabilities, 17 more than did in 2014.

In Madrid, NATO also took off its rose-colored glasses regarding China, declaring in the new Strategic Concept that “The People’s Republic of China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values,” and warning, “The deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.” In the 2010 iteration, China was not even mentioned.

It is perhaps then no surprise that the leaders of allies in the Pacific theater, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea participated for the first time in a NATO summit. The need to counter Russia with a united front including the engagement of allies in Asia, coupled with the rising challenge of China (now firmly on NATO’s radar) means it’s likely we will see similar participation of Asian allies in future alliance summits, probably beginning at the next meeting in 2023 in Lithuania.

Much Left To Be Done

Even though the Madrid summit should largely be billed as a success, how much of a success remains to be seen. Much depends on implementing the decisions just taken. For instance, will the alliance reach its goal of finding 240,000 new troops for its response force? And will it continue its progress on increasing allied defense spending? Despite significant improvements, fewer than one-third of member states are currently spending 2% of their GDP on defense.

Even Finnish and Swedish accession could still be a sticky wicket. For instance, the language of the memorandum inviting the two countries to apply for membership was vague enough to allow them to join the alliance without having many actual responsibilities. This possibility is on Turkey’s mind because the ink on the agreement was barely dry before Erdogan created new caveats for the two countries, saying: “The key thing is for promises to come true,” and “we will monitor the enforcement of the elements in the memorandum and will take our steps accordingly.”

Turkey’s about-face on Swedish and Finnish membership was suspiciously timed to the announcement of Biden administration support not only for the sale of F-16 upgrade kits to Turkey (which they had previously endorsed), but also the sale of new F-16 fighter jets. At the same time, while President Biden may be confident of congressional approval for the sales, it is far from assured.

And on support for Ukraine, which not surprisingly was a focus of the summit, the proof will be in the pudding. Russia’s war in Ukraine shows no sign of abating, and the ability and willingness of the West to continue its essential support for Ukraine long term is not guaranteed. Domestic economic pressures, coupled with increasingly drawn down munitions and weapons stocks (as well as atrophied defense industrial bases that are necessary to backfill them), will combine to test the long-term resolve of NATO members to stand shoulder to should with Ukraine as Russia’s war there rages on.

Finally, while the standing up of the four new NATO battlegroups with nearly alliance-wide participation is a big positive, the forces remain a tripwire rather than the core of an adequate defense. So far, NATO has failed to move beyond a tripwire concept in Eastern Europe and toward a force posture of deterrence with broad and, more importantly, robust participation across the alliance. In failing to do so, NATO members missed a historic opportunity and may have left room for dangerous ambiguity as to the alliance’s resolve.

In Madrid, NATO successfully continued to flesh out promises made at its Brussels gathering this past spring, strengthening deterrence in Eastern Europe—and in turn, making a spillover conflict from the Russian war against Ukraine less likely, an outcome squarely in U.S. national interest. Now it remains for the U.S. and its allies to fulfill the decisions made in Madrid and close down avenues of ambiguity regarding NATO resolve to stand up to aggressors and defend every inch of its territory.

Submit a Letter to the Editor
Submit your letter
Subscribe to our newsletter