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The Warsaw summit and the NATO christmas tree

NATO summits are like Christmas presents: high on promise, disappointing on opening writes Julian Lindley-French. The 2016 meeting in Warsaw was little different. Shortly before the summit, which took place on July 8–9, I was in the Polish capital to launch my latest report “NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2016” for the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation, a Polish think tank. My report does not pull any punches. It posed twenty hard-hitting questions, all of which imply one overarching question: Can NATO defend Europe?

Any attempt to answer that question must consider the alliance in terms not of what was agreed on at the summit but of the rapidly changing strategic environment NATO must confront. The Warsaw meeting was in any case a stopping point in a process that was started in September 2014 at the NATO summit in Wales as alliance leaders endeavored to close a yawning gap between ends, ways, and means. In Wales, leaders agreed on a whole raft of packages, pledges, and platforms. Warsaw was very much a reviewing summit to assess just how much progress had been made since 2014 in rendering the alliance fit and credible for the defense of its members in a twenty-first century that threatens to be every bit as turbulent as the twentieth century.

NATO’s essential problem is that a lot of its leaders simply do not want to face up to such a reality. Reading between the lines of the summit communiqué published on July 9, it is clear that there is little agreement among leaders on priorities or choices. Indeed, the very length of the communiqué, which is not much shorter than the Wales summit declaration and reads like toffee fudge, is testament to an alliance that is gathering ever more commitments and engagements. However, there is little sign that alliance members are also willing to stump up the resources and forces needed to credibly realize a sustainable relationship between ends, ways, and means.

Some good work was done in Warsaw. Many of the initiatives launched at the Wales summit were either confirmed or buttressed. NATO is going to talk to Russia as well as deter it with an enhanced forward presence; resilience was this year’s summit buzzword; and both the Distinctive Partnership with and Comprehensive Package of Assistance for Ukraine are to be maintained. Alliance airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) will be used in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State as part of a tailored forward presence, and the Enduring Partnership with Afghanistan was made more enduring.

There was talk of harmonizing the force development, resilience, and strategies to counter hybrid warfare of NATO and the EU. There was also a Cyber Defense Pledge and the establishment of a new Joint Intelligence and Security Division, although the latter smacked of bureaucratic rearrangement dressed up as strategic transformation.

The problem the Warsaw summit faced is that so many of the key leaders present are either about to depart (Britain’s David Cameron and America’s Barack Obama) or face reelection (France’s François Hollande and Germany’s Angela Merkel), a referendum (Italy’s Matteo Renzi), or even EU sanctions (Poland’s Beata Szydło).

There were also two big elephants in the room in Brexit and Trump. Britain’s coming departure from the EU will further undermine European cohesion at a time of near crisis, whatever soothing noises are coming out of London. The prospect of a U.S. president Donald Trump frightens the living daylights out of most European leaders. Whether it is Hillary Clinton or Trump in next year’s White House, neither is likely to accept the writing of another chapter in that great work of European fiction, the NATO Defense Planning Process.

They are certainly not going to accept that in the current strategic climate with the United States under ever-greater pressure, Europeans may take a decade dawdling toward the defense investment pledge agreed on at Wales—to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, of which 20 percent on new equipment. It is telling that only five NATO members meet the 2 percent guideline, while ten member nations meet the 20 percent target for new equipment. The less a state spends on defense, the easier it is to spend 20 percent on new equipment.

Can NATO defend Europe? The answer to that question will be possible only if a proper analysis is undertaken of the threats the alliance faces, from both within and without. That is why the most important decision made at the Warsaw summit was to continue with the “360 degree approach” (as it was called in the communiqué) to projecting stability. If not, then NATO will become ever more like one of those glitzy front-of-store Christmas trees: full of shiny boxes, all of which are empty.

Julian Lindley-French is vice president of the Atlantic Treaty Association in Brussels, senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft in London, and distinguished visiting research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. This article was first published by Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe, which is published under the auspices of Carnegie Europe. More information can be found at

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