NATO eyes post-Trump reset as internal challenges loom

Meetings of NATO Ministers of Defence, Brussels - 17-18 February 2021 [NATO 2021]

NATO’s defence ministers on Wednesday (17 February) for the first time discussed Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s reform proposals.  Some members, however, let show they were rather sceptical of the submission.

NATO’s new reform report, compiled by a panel of experts and presented in December, has drawn up recommendations on how the military alliance should tackle new challenges in its backyard.

The proposals include updating NATO’s official master strategy document, its “Strategic Concept”, which could consider growing Chinese military capabilities and Russian strategic competition.

Three particularly stand out: curbing single-country blockages, ‘Coalitions of the Willing’ and more mediation powers for the Secretary-General.

Among other things, it also includes the proposal to fund deterrence and defence measures at least partially from a community budget.

“Strengthening our commitment to deterrence and defence, by providing incentives to Allies to contribute more capabilities, and ensure fairer burden sharing,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

Alliance members would no longer have to bear all the costs themselves if, for example, they participate in the stationing of troops in the Baltic States or air surveillance missions.

The reform proposals, which NATO leaders are expected to consider at a summit in Brussels planned for later this year, potentially June, aim to convince Trump’s successor Joe Biden to strongly back NATO and to mollify allies frustrated with what they say is the alliance’s failure to coordinate at the political level.

Can reform and refocus save 'brain dead' NATO?

NATO’s new reform report presented this week has drawn up recommendations on how the military alliance should tackle new challenges in its backyard. EURACTIV spoke to experts about the report and the next steps.

“We proposed changes to mitigate eventual internal …

French reservations

But according to some NATO diplomats, French minister of armed forces, Florence Parly, had rebuked Stoltenberg for discussing some of his 2030 reform ideas in public before addressing them in a meeting with the allies.

France, which had put the 2030 review process in motion in first place after President Emmanuel Macron said NATO was experiencing “brain death”.

One of the crunch points was Paris being sceptical of the ‘new’ funding scheme idea which would account also for military employments, participation in missions and operations, a NATO diplomat told EURACTIV.

As a country internationally involved in military operations especially outside of NATO, it would therefore probably not benefit much from the new funding system.

In addition, the new regulation could mean that allies have to participate comparatively heavily in operations even if they are politically more critical and have only given their consent for reasons of the alliance’s political coherence.

No US solo runs

It was also the first meeting with the new Biden administrations US Defense Secretary of State, Lloyd Austin, who promised that with the change of power in the White House, the days of American solo efforts would be over.

“The Secretary reaffirmed the President’s message that the United States intends to revitalize our relationship with the NATO Alliance and that our commitment to Article 5 remains ironclad,” the Pentagon’s Press Secretary John F. Kirby said.

“Secretary Austin referred to NATO as the bedrock of enduring trans-Atlantic security and said the Alliance serves as the bulwark of our shared values of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,” he added.

“We must rebuild the lost confidence”, Stoltenberg had said ahead of the meeting.

However, a raft of challenges remain, including bolstering defence budgets and squabbles with NATO member Turkey including over Ankara’s interventions in conflicts in Syria and in Libya, its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

Despite the marked change in tone from Trump, the new US administration looks set to remain firm on pressing other members to do more to share NATO’s financial and military burden.

Afghanistan and Iraq

However, Thursday’s session is set to present a first test to the newly found harmony between the US and European allies as they are set to discuss NATO’s “Resolute Support” training mission in Afghanistan.

The agreement reached with the Taliban by the Trump administration provides for the departure of all foreign troops on 1 May and “no ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary”, Stoltenberg recognised.

However, conditions for troop departure had not yet been met and peace talks for Afghanistan have not made sufficient progress to allow a withdrawal of foreign troops.

The Afghan government and Taliban militants began peace talks in Doha last September, but negotiations have largely stalled.

“We are not yet in a position to speak of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan scheduled for 30 April,” German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said on Wednesday.

Separately, defence ministers are also due to discuss the ramping up of NATO’s training mission in Iraq, with the idea of ​​increasing its strength from 500 to some 5,000.

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