Can reform and refocus save ‘brain dead’ NATO?

Participants sit in front of the Nato logo during a NATO summit. [EPA/MAURIZIO GAMBARINI]

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 difficulties and diverse views in light of a very complicated external security situation,” Anna Fotyga, former Polish foreign minister and one of NATO’s reflection group experts, told EURACTIV.

Asked about the current disunity among alliance members and whether she is worried if they are there to stay, Fotyga said that the overall tone of the report is optimistic as it “shows that despite difficulties in a variety of periods in the past NATO was able to adapt successfully to overcome tensions and to send a unified message to adversaries”.

“Our mandate, we have to remember, was limited in comparison to earlier reflection processes but usually decisions to launch reflections within NATO were taken in difficult periods,” added Fotyga.

“The signal is positive, we were able to overcome obvious differences, even within the group of experts, this is the strength of this report, that we represent unity”.

In order to improve NATO’s ability to act, the expert group proposed a cluster of recommendations to streamline NATO decision-making, which some see as a series of measures at the expense of unity.

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

Asked whether this would break with NATO’s previous tradition of decision-making, Fotyga said she “strongly disagrees” with such a reading and consensual decision-making would “remain the bedrock of NATO”.

“To the contrary, in some cases, we want to actually to strengthen this mechanism,” Fotyga said, “because we observe that there are instances where, for example, at the highest political level, political decisions have been made and then somehow diluted on the lower level, being it for financial constraints are technical difficulties”.

Increasing the threshold for decisions to be made on the ministerial level would avoid such cases.

One recommendation concerns efforts to make the veto with which Turkey is blocking closer cooperation between NATO and EU to be made more difficult.

EU-NATO cooperation on security

The expert report also suggested closer coordination between NATO and the EU with the idea of joint summits to “restore trust” at the highest level and direct liaison officers in the military staff.

Asked whether the idea of closer cooperation and joint summits is also meant as a measure to keep the EU together at a time when the bloc strives for a more robust independent defence policy, Fotyga said that this was a “rather symbolic gesture” meant to send a “message of unity of the West”.

“In the report the tone about strategic autonomy is quite diplomatic and cautious that within the group, we see possibilities, or let’s say, difficulties eventually undermining NATO cohesion”.

EU lacks defence capabilities to meet 'strategic autonomy' goals

The EU’s first-ever defence review painted a gloomy picture for the bloc’s ability to achieve  ‘strategic autonomy. Experts also believe the EU is not doing enough to address major shortfalls.

“We say we acknowledge ambitions of the EU to develop our own capabilities and in particular, have a strong defence posture to defend the Euro-Atlantic area,” Fotyga said, recalling the favourable US position towards Europe doing more for its own security.

“But I think this should be done in full coordination to avoid duplication or ambitions to alienate,” Fotyga said.

Fotyga also stressed that the idea of ‘Coalitions of the Willing’ is not new but should be favoured where threats don’t touch upon all members.

“It’s quite interesting that the expert group essentially suggested NATO’s version of PESCO, meaning to ‘create a more structured mechanism to support the establishment of coalitions inside existing Alliance structures’ as the report states”, Tania Latici, policy analyst for EU security and defence at European Parliamentary Research Services (EPRS) told EURACTIV.

NATO members have different defence capabilities and often different foreign policy priorities so they do not have to participate in all NATO projects.

“As long as the action does not stand against an Ally’s national security interest, there’s no reason why the Alliance can’t move forward with those willing to contribute,” Latici said, who is one of the NATO2030 Young Leaders.

“If NATO wants to be a 360 degree Alliance, it’s understandable that Allies contribute to different aspects of defence and deterrence, according to their interests and capabilities, but with the backing of the Alliance as a whole,” she added.

Asked whether from an Eastern European perspective there are worries that China could replace Russia as the biggest threat, Fotyga, the only Eastern European member on the expert group, said that this is “absolutely not the case”.

“The report is very strong on Russia, clearly stating that Moscow poses a major military threat to the Euro-Atlantic area,” Fotyga said.

“We define China differently – similar to the European definition – we speak about ‘systemic rivalry’ and confirm what was already provided in previous NATO documents”, she said, adding the experts clearly stated that “in the current situation, China does not pose a military threat to our alliance”.

The Brief, powered by APPLiA – Au revoir, consensus?

The new NATO reform report recommended a more political role for the Western alliance, which is unlikely to go without some resistance in allied capitals. Au revoir, consensus? Not quite.

After French President Emmanuel Macron said NATO was suffering “brain death” …

“China is the most consequential challenger,” Wess Mitchell, a former diplomat who spearheaded the US State Department’s Europe policy in the early days of the Trump administration, told a recent event in Brussels.

According to Mitchell, who co-chaired the reflection group together with former German defence minister Thomas de Maizière, the experts had debated the idea of a consultation council with China but shelved the idea.

“We first need to come to a consensus on how to talk about China, not yet with China – that’s the dialogue that needs to happen,” he said, pointing towards a passage in the report that NATO should “keep open the prospect of political dialogue on shared interests and differences” such as nuclear arms control.

Next steps

The next stage in the process will be for NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to consult with allied capitals and draw up a policy paper that will be presented to NATO leaders at a summit next year.

At the same time, a group of 14 emerging leaders from across the NATO member states has been nominated as NATO 2030 Young Leaders, which are set to provide Stoltenberg with input for NATO’s 2030 reflection process towards the final document.

Asked by EURACTIV in which direction those proposals will go, Latici told EURACTIV that the group is working “on both moonshot ideas as well as actionable recommendations for the future of NATO”.

“What we call the “adult” expert group touched upon many of our ideas and after reading it we, as a group, have challenged ourselves to go beyond that,” she said.

“We want to colour outside the lines a bit and demonstrate that young experts can provide valuable policy content too,” Latici added, saying to expect those inputs early next year.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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