NATO self-cancelling summit

The Lisbon summit has drawn a line under a fractious period for NATO. But as it reaches out to Russia and withdraws from Afghanistan, the alliance is still struggling to find a new purpose.

NATO’s Lisbon summit has successfully drawn a line under a fractious period in the alliance’s existence. But the very steps needed to achieve this – an end-date for the Afghan intervention, rapprochement with Russia – belie the parallel efforts to assert NATO’s continuing importance and relevance.

In the run-up to the summit transatlantic relations have been strained by European perceptions of diminishing US interest; by American perceptions of diminishing European commitment and by the corrosive effects of the floundering campaign in Afghanistan. A year ago, the alliance seemed locked in a crisis of identity: was its primary purpose to undertake crisis-management operations ‘out-of-area’, or should it re-focus on its core task of guaranteeing the security of Europe? Or would new threats such as cyber or missile attack provide its primary reason for being?

These various circles have been skilfully squared in the new Strategic Concept – — a mercifully short and readable document. It answers the questions about NATO’s point and purpose by simply saying ‘yes, to all of the above’. The mix is garnished with talk of partnerships with other international players, and of reform. The result is well-balanced and plausible, with something for everyone.

That was Day One of the summit. Yet Day Two seemed almost designed to illustrate how hard it will be for NATO to convince anyone (outside the circle of true believers) that it really has an enduring role and purpose.

First came the welcome agreement on a date for the Organisation’s final extrication from the Afghan morass. Despite the noises off about a ‘conditions-based’ exit path, the reality is that the allies are now headed for the exit, ‘ready or not’. Hopefully, the current military surge and intensive training of Afghan forces will leave something relatively stable behind. If not, too bad – we will pull out anyway, with President Karzai, now clearly convinced that his only hope of survival lies in distancing himself from the ‘foreign occupiers’, holding the door open. Thirteen years will have been a decade too long.

The whole sorry business has been profoundly damaging. Recent polling confirms that European public opinion now clearly sees what defence and foreign policy establishments dare not acknowledge – that the campaign has become counter-productive, increasing rather than diminishing the terrorist threat. Alliance solidarity has been mauled, with first the Dutch and now the Canadians and Poles (none of whom have shirked the fight) taking unilateral decisions that enough is enough. Unthinking adherence to Washington’s line has been a tough habit to break; it will not be repeated. And it will be many years before appetites are recovered, on either side of the Atlantic, for further such adventures.

Yet if NATO’s future is not to be as global policeman, Day Two’s friendly encounter with an accommodating President Medvedev also confirmed that the ‘Russian threat’ is no longer a plausible rationale either. Russia will remain a difficult and abrasive neighbour: but as the dramatic Polish/Russian rapprochement of the past year underlines, it can no longer been seen as a convincing military adversary.

All of which leaves the Organisation casting its net ever wider in the trawl for new dangers. The problem is, however, that these new risks are either only partially (cyber attack) or not at all (energy security) the business of a military alliance. Even the real and present danger of nuclear proliferation does not seem to inspire Europeans to rush to man the ramparts, as their lukewarm embrace of missile defence testifies (OK, as long as the Americans are paying the lion’s share and the Russians do not object too strenuously).

NATO remains in business, and more harmoniously so after this well-prepared summit. But it is working itself out of a job. This happy situation may not endure; and all NATO members will want it kept in good repair as insurance against the return of bad times. But talk of revitalisation is misplaced – the medium-term prognosis is for an alliance on tick-over.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.