Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly hailed Nato as the “most successful Alliance in history.” But, at their upcoming summit in Madrid, Nato heads of state and government will face serious challenges, from America’s weariness with Europe’s tendency to “trade away” geopolitical differences to tensions over Turkey’s efforts to block Finland and Sweden’s membership bids. Will transactional politics taint this summit – and Nato’s future?
To say that Russia’s war on Ukraine has upended European security and shaken Nato from its stupor is to state the obvious. The relative certainty that defined the world order over the last few decades has given way to great-power conflict and the spectre of nuclear annihilation. Finland and Sweden’s applications for Nato membership represent not only a break from their own traditions of neutrality, but also the end of the post-Cold War era.
Nato’s priorities for the next decade, to be embodied in its next Strategic Concept – set to be adopted at this month’s gathering – are supposed to reflect this new reality. For example, it is expected to mention China for the first time. In another first, all of Nato’s Pacific partners (Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea) will attend the summit, as will Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This is in line with calls – made, for example, by the United Kingdom – to create a more “global Nato” that boosts security in the Indo-Pacific region.
But can Nato’s newfound ambition withstand what increasingly looks like a protracted war of attrition in Ukraine, with the energy-market mayhem and economic turmoil it has engendered? Russia President Vladimir Putin is betting that the answer is “no,” and it might not be a bad bet. Despite bold early announcements by Nato allies, including promises of major defence-spending increases by many European countries, political fissures along the usual fault lines have already emerged.
French diplomatic activism and German dithering have become increasingly intolerable to the US, which is determined not to allow a repeat of the debacle involving Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline (now suspended) that left Germany dependent on Russian supplies.
Alliance members must not allow grandstanding and political horse-trading to take precedence over addressing the real challenges Nato faces, including streamlining a tangled command structure, adjusting its defence and deterrence posture, and resolving military shortfalls and operational challenges. Crucially, Nato must upgrade its tools to reflect the changing nature of warfare, which now is shaped as much by cyberattacks and – as the Ukraine war clearly shows – by disinformation as by guns and tanks.
The first steps toward meeting these imperatives must be made in Madrid. Of course, no single summit or text could resolve Nato’s deficiencies and meet its lofty goals, from reaffirming shared values to enhancing resilience, especially with a conventional conflict raging on its eastern doorstep. But the Madrid summit can – and must – cement Nato’s unity and lay the foundations for a more robust and revitalised Alliance.
As Nato’s main engine, the US has a crucial role to play in delivering this outcome. But European countries must also do their part, mustering the unity, vision, and will to develop its hard-power capabilities. We must do this not in the name of the dream of strategic autonomy, but to enhance Nato’s capabilities and clout. While Europeans are understandably wary of another “America First” leader – whether Donald Trump or an acolyte – coming to power in the US, the fact remains that it is in Europe’s self-interest to help the US reclaim its leading role on the world stage.
Nato has been on life support for years, and reviving it will be no easy feat. But the Alliance’s faculties remain very much intact, and with a concerted effort, it can be truly worthy of Stoltenberg’s praise. While rivals like China might still call it a remnant of the Cold War, they will still think twice – or more often – before challenging it. If Nato leaders fail, however, the West would be put at a serious strategic disadvantage.
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