That NATO Summit discord, in context

The recent NATO summit in the UK filled the headlines for a few days. What was the summit really all about ?

Arguments about low defence spending amongst some members, about perceived military weakness relative to Russia in the Baltic States, spilled out. There was even an apparent threat from Turkey to delay progress on the Baltic States issue until the rest of NATO accepted that Kurdish defence forces in Syria are ‘terrorists’.

After 70 years of NATO, the irreconcilable discord dominated.

The underlying problem is that members do not agree any more on what exactly NATO is for.   What is worse is that its members are in a kind of gridlock; there is little leadership on mutual interests, lots of taboo topics, and sticking plasters everywhere.

Spending spats are really disagreements about control; some members being reluctant to extend spending until there is more equal status in NATO decision-making.

The history is key.  NATO was never part of any ‘grand plan’ at the outset. Its formation & development after WW2 was something of an accident.  NATO’s origins lie with the 1947 Dunkirk Treaty between France and the UK, and then the Brussels Treaty Organisation (BTO) in 1948 which brought in the Benelux Countries, creating the Western Union (WU) with US support. The WU was precursor both to NATO and to EU defence cooperation.

This was all at a time when the US was returning to its pre-war isolationist policy, and a repeat of German aggression was the main concern.

However, fears about the Soviets led to a shift in US policy. A new organisation NATO was created in 1949 to address, in concept, the need for future Europe-US anti-Soviet military cooperation alongside the Western Union in Europe.

The shock of communist aggression in Korea in 1950 resulted in NATO’s rapid development and finally killed US isolationism. During the Korean war, the personnel and infrastructure of the forces arm of the WU were quietly transferred to NATO.

The BTO was modified in 1954 to bring in Germany and Italy, renaming the WU as the Western European Union (WEU).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and COMECON in 1989-1991 the WEU was folded into the EU European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) and was disbanded, but NATO continued in its previous form, expanding membership to former COMECON and Yugoslav countries.

Throughout the history of NATO and EU security policy, post-Korea, there were always two consistent themes;  the US trying to consolidate European defence against Russia, and the fragmentation of defence in Europe.

NATO’s operations in former Yugoslavia and Libya were US-led and Anglo-French-led respectively. The only time that NATO mutual defence provisions have been invoked is in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in 2001;  despite the fact that Western cooperation was already established with ISAF, the attacks were not made by Afghanistan as a nation-state … and Afghanistan is nowhere near the North Atlantic.

For two decades it has looked like the US trying to find something for NATO to do, to keep it alive, rather than addressing consensus on its focus.

The 2014 Russian occupation of Crimea and the conflict in the Donbass did not result in European-US defence unity or reinvigorate NATO’s purpose either. It did however create a sense of vulnerability in the defence of the Baltic States.

Mistrust of US hegemonic ambitions inhibit more effective European-US defence joint capability. Russia, and China will continue to take advantage of this until these Trans-Atlantic issues are addressed.

The UK does not share this mistrust. Outwith EU security structures after a potential Brexit, the UK’s ability to help solve the ‘effectiveness’ problem and strengthen defence is diminished.

Thus Brexit may make it more likely that NATO will not survive in its current form. The most likely long-term-but-painful outcome will look like pre-1950; an EU-led organisation for European territorial defence, an organisation for global ‘Western’ defence of allies, and a global US  organisation for the defence of the USA.

More discomfort today in addressing known underlying problems, however, will in aggregate be less painful.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Jonathan Coulter 6th Dec '19 - 12:47pm

    Thanks Paul Reynolds, I found this a very helpful summary of the situation

  • Laurence Cox 6th Dec '19 - 2:03pm

    A good summary. One factor that it doesn’t really cover is the issue of money. This NATO publication shows how the vast majority of NATO countries fall well below the 2% GDP figure that was agreed many years ago.

    Not surprisingly, many in the USA think that EU countries are getting their defence on the cheap by relying on NATO and this attitude is something that did not start with Trump, but was also a feature of the Obama administration.

    An EU-led defence association will probably have to spend nearer 3% than 2% GDP on its own defence.

  • I agree with much of the above, including the comment about the lack of spending by many EU countries.

    In some ways it is the lack of a major conventional threat that has led to NATO’s apparent lack of purpose and since it is partly meant to be a deterrent, it is a casualty of its own success.

    I think I would rather have NATO than not have it. There are many problems to be addressed such as the changing position of Turkey, a united policy on Russia and of course the funding which quite rightly make the US threaten to pull out.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Dec '19 - 6:11pm

    Fact: The North Atlantic Treaty Area has been extended to outer space.
    (James Bond got there first.)
    Quick Quiz: In which year did the Roman Empire go to war with the Chinese Empire?

  • Denis Mollison 6th Dec '19 - 6:47pm

    Am I the only one who is uncomfortable with the drive to increase “defence” spending by Nato countries? That US military spending is 3-4 % is as much due to the huge influence of their military-industrial lobby as to genuine defence needs.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Dec '19 - 7:25pm

    Paul Reynolds | Fri 6th December 2019 – 11:59 am
    The NATO area now includes space.

  • @Denis – The drive as you describe it is to get EU countries to at last pay their fair share as NATO members. For years they have reneged on their promises to spend just 2%. They have enjoyed NATO protection for years while ignoring the obligations to which they signed up.

    The US pays much more anyway and Trump is rightly pointing out that other countries do not deserve a free ride. The following link exposes the extent to which the US and UK are being exploited.

  • Denis Mollison 6th Dec '19 - 10:32pm

    @Peter – I agree that expenditures should be more equal. But what I’m suggesting is that rather than other countries spending more, the US should spend less on “defence”. I use the quotation marks because the US has been more or less continuously at war somewhere in the world since 1941, and many of these conflicts have involved US aggression rather than defence. And the problem is self-reinforcing: a large military industrial sector produces political pressure to use its products, leading to more wars, and more “need” for a large military industrial sector.

    At the most dangerous end, there has been minimal progress in recent years on nuclear disarmament. In retrospect, it is astonishing how close Reagan and Gorbachev came to agreeing nuclear disarmament – and I believe the US military industry played a key role in preventing them reaching such an agreement.

  • We know that in reality the nature of war is changing. There is no doubt that Russia is busy using the internet to interfere in the workings of elections in the US and in the U.K. we need a debate on what defence means in the modern age.
    It is interesting that the workings of NATO are given less attention than the workings of the EU. But then the EU is a democratic international organisation and NATO is not.

  • @Jonathan Fryer – Your final sentence is extremely important. We don’t hear much about China’s involvement in Africa and Asia but it is involved in a massive way. Strategically, China has a long term view and consistency of government and political objectives. She also has the money and workforce to “invade” an entire continent at the basic infrastructure level. This proceeds on a massive scale quietly and methodically.

    Western democracies underestimate China’s foreign policy at their peril.

  • Paul Reynolds 7th Dec '19 - 6:02pm

    Thank you for the excellent and thought-provoking comments.

    The reform aim when it comes to NATO is to improve the effectiveness of European territorial defence, ‘Western’ defence globally, and collective security-political problem-solving capacity in both cases. By effectiveness it is meant deterrent effects, ability to defend kinetically against attack, and integation with political & other aims, plus cost-effectiveness. In practice it also means a degree of integration with the defence of the USA, (eg missile defence) whose capacity outstrips other NATO members many times.

    In this context the % of GDP spending arguments, and the issue of China and global reach, are one and the same. European partners including the UK have concerns about the stuctures. An organisation essentially set up under US auspices to defend North Atlantic states against the Soviet threat, cannot unreformed defend ‘the West’ against rising Chinese military capacity, BRI, and its parallel hegemonic ambitions. Significant recasting of ‘Western defence’ is overdue. However, any recasting cannot be imposed by the US … with UK support. A broader consensus is needed. At the outset this means the governance concerns and elements of mistrust in Europe have to be addressed if a logical process of recasting is to get off the starting blocks, and subsequently include Japan, Australia and other allies. NATO in Afghanistan is definitely not a model for NATO around China, and the scope and reach of NATO is not just something that can be extended or shrunk according to the perceptions of the day in Washington DC. A more solid and lasting basis is needed, perhaps unsurprisingly.

  • Tom Harney – ”There is no doubt that Russia is busy using the internet to interfere in the workings of elections in the US and in the U.K.”

    It suits the Military-Industrial-Media Complex (MIMC) as Eisenhower’s first draft reportedly had it before he shortened it to the more familiar Military-Industrial-Complex (MIC) for there to be a suitably scary enemy of presumed infinite capacity and evilness to justify ridiculous levels of (immensely profitable) military spending, much of it on weapons of dubious utility like the F35.

    So, lots of allegations endlessly repeated in the press, but little or no actual evidence. It makes no sense for a country with an economy arguably somewhere between Australia South Korea in size to take on the US and most of Europe.

    Meanwhile, the undoubted interference in UK elections by plutocrats, some of them foreigners with media empires, gets no publicity whatsoever since the media curiously (or perhaps not!) simply don’t report such concerns.

    Incidentally, Brexiteers for whom ‘sovereignty’ is a big driver should ask themselves how much sovereignty we have even now with the limited counterbalance of the EU when we are, ahem, ‘constrained’ to buy junk like the F35.

  • David Evershed 8th Dec '19 - 2:29am

    The purpose of NATO is as a mutual defence structure. An attack on any one NATO country requires its defence by all the NATO countries. This helps us sleep more soundly in our beds at night.

  • @ David Evershed 8th Dec ’19 – 2:29am
    The purpose of NATO is as a mutual defence structure. An attack on any one NATO country requires its defence by all the NATO countries. This helps us sleep more soundly in our beds at night.

    Posting at 2.29 am tells me that you’re not a very sound sleeper, David.

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