Previewing Obama’s European Trip #1: The NATO Summit in Lisbon, November 19-20, 2010

The 28 NATO leaders will gather in Lisbon on November 19-20 for a summit meeting with a full agenda:  the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept, NATO’s nuclear posture, missile defense, Afghanistan and relations with Russia, among other issues.  Many of these issues go to the heart of a larger question that has bedeviled the Alliance since 1991:  What exactly is the enduring purpose of NATO—formed in 1949 to defend Europe against a possible Soviet attack—twenty years after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union?

NATO’s Identity Troubles:  From Competing Missions to Decreasing Defense Capabilities

The past twenty years have witnessed sweeping changes in the European political-security landscape.  Following the demise of the Warsaw Pact, all but one of its former members is a member of NATO today.  Washington’s security focus has shifted from Europe to the broader Middle East (Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan) and the challenge of coping with a rising China.  The European Union has developed its own security tools, but they remain modest.  Moreover, the Russian military is a thin shadow of its Soviet predecessor, while relations between the West and Russia reflect greater degrees of cooperation, tinged with some lingering areas of competition, especially in Europe itself.

If asked to respond to the question of NATO’s primary purpose and identity in 2010, no two Alliance members would offer the same answer.  There are many different visions of what NATO is, and most countries mix parts of these three versions in defining its mission:

Article V NATO”:  Article V of the NATO Treaty states that “the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”  The Central European and Baltic states who joined NATO in 1999-2004 did so because Article V offered an important assurance for their security in the traditional sense against a resurgent and possibly antagonistic Russia.  While these states do not view Russian aggression as a likely prospect, they see it as an outside possibility, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict.  NATO allows them to resist pressure from Moscow better.  Incidentally, this also shapes the way many NATO critics inside Russia view the Alliance.

Post-Cold War NATO”:  Countries such as Germany and France no longer regard Russia as a military threat.  France is currently negotiating to sell helicopter assault ships to the Russian navy, and German Chancellor Merkel, French President Sarkozy and Russian President Medvedev met on October 19 in Deauville, France to discuss new forms of European security cooperation.  Many Western allies see NATO evolving into more of a political organization, and they stress the importance of NATO building bridges to—and forging a cooperative relationship with—Moscow.

Expeditionary NATO”:  The United States regards the European security situation largely in benign terms (one example:  the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty allows for some 4000 U.S. tanks in Europe, but the actual number is currently about 100).  Washington instead has come to see NATO military forces, with their experience in multinational operations, as useful in dealing with problems beyond Europe’s borders.  NATO members make an important contribution to the mission in Afghanistan, where they deploy 40,000 troops alongside U.S. forces.  To a degree, the British share Washington’s expeditionary view, though the Afghanistan experience is sapping virtually all allies’ enthusiasm for large out-of-area operations.

Beyond the question of the primary purpose of NATO, member states differ on the scope of NATO’s “defense” mission—in other words, what Article V precisely should cover, and whether it should be extended to new domains.  Candidate activities for expanding the boundaries of NATO missions include:

  • Missile defense against Iran, as a complement to NATO’s traditional deterrence function;
  • Cyber security, an area of particular vulnerability for an alliance of countries fighting together;
  • The fight against piracy, in which NATO as well as the European Union have both started to be active;
  • Civilian missions and nation-building in failed states, as a proactive form of defense for Western allies;
  • Terrorism, although the civilian-oriented aspects of the fight make NATO a less-than-ideal contributor; and
  • Energy security, albeit unlikely with no obvious energy mandate for NATO and stark differences in vulnerability among member states.

The chief question concerning NATO’s endurance as a defensive alliance may be the weight of the economic crisis, as it threatens defense budgets.  While the Pentagon is headed for merely a budgetary trim, the much smaller European defense budgets—few  of which meet the target cap of 2% of gross domestic product set at the 2002 Prague NATO summit—have already started decreasing and will likely experience further declines in coming years.  One such example is the Spanish defense budget, which was cut by 9% this year alone.  The case of the UK has been much discussed, given the important role British armed forces have played in past operations alongside the U.S. military; the 8% cut announced in October should preserve a relatively robust, if reduced, UK force.  The same will probably be true for France.  Increased French-British cooperation on defense will likely soften the blow of reduced budgets.  But other allies might see their forces hollowed, leading to an even greater transatlantic imbalance in military capabilities.  The growing military gap between the United States and Europe will make it more difficult to fight together, and NATO might have to reconsider the structure of its forces, including its expeditionary forces.

The Strategic Concept:  Bridging the Differences

At their April 2009 summit meeting, NATO leaders were tasked with preparing a new Strategic Concept to guide Alliance policy and take account of the changes since the last concept was adopted in 1999.  One challenge for the Strategic Concept will be to accommodate all these competing visions of NATO and its missions, and resolve, if only temporarily, its identity crisis.

Former Secretary of State Albright led an experts’ group to frame the issues; it published its report in May.  NATO Secretary General Rasmussen prepared a draft Strategic Concept, which NATO representatives have been discussing and revising since late September.  When they gather in Lisbon, one task for Alliance leaders is to approve the concept.

The Strategic Concept will likely reaffirm the importance of Article V as the foundation of the Alliance.  It will note the importance of NATO maintaining credible and deployable forces that can assure allies and defend the Alliance against any aggression, as well as noting the need for NATO to develop capabilities to deal with new threats, such as terrorism, cyber attack, ballistic missiles and proliferation.  The Strategic Concept is unlikely to single out any one country as a potential adversary.  While eschewing the notion of a “global NATO”—several years ago, some had suggested that countries such as Japan and Australia might be invited to join—the concept will address the need for the Alliance to work with a variety of partners to tackle common challenges. 

Beyond these issues, four areas of intense discussion have emerged:  nuclear weapons, missile defense, Afghanistan and engaging Russia.

Nuclear Weapons

According to unclassified reports, the United States continues to deploy some 200 tactical nuclear weapons in five NATO countries. The German government has expressed interest in withdrawing these weapons, and others in Europe have questioned their need.  U.S. nuclear weapons were originally deployed in Europe to offset large Soviet and Warsaw Pact conventional force advantages, but those advantages have long since disappeared.  Few see any plausible military rationale for keeping the weapons in Europe, though others believe there are important political arguments for doing so.

The Strategic Concept will address the issues of NATO nuclear policy and posture, though it likely will not provide a definitive answer.  The debate in Brussels in recent weeks has seen France at one end of the spectrum, wanting to stress the importance of deterrence, and Germany at the other, wanting to emphasize that the Alliance will play a role in nuclear disarmament—taking a cue from President Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009.  The Netherlands, Belgium and Norway incline toward the German position, while Central European and Baltic states are unenthusiastic about altering NATO policy in a way that might diminish the deterrent role of nuclear weapons.

Speaking at a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in April, Secretary of State Clinton laid out five principles to guide the discussion of nuclear weapons and arms control; these appear to be capable of accommodating a range of outcomes.  A primary U.S. aim seems to be avoiding a divisive Alliance fight over the nuclear question.

The Strategic Concept will likely have language reaffirming the deterrent role of NATO nuclear weapons and addressing how the Alliance might contribute to the nuclear arms control and disarmament process.  Many expect that, following the Lisbon summit, NATO will undertake a more detailed look at its nuclear policy and posture.  This study could go beyond nuclear weapons and include a broader set of issues, including the impact of missile defense and long-range conventional strike capabilities.

Missile Defense

Another major issue for Lisbon—and of particular interest to Washington—is missile defense.  The Bush administration originally negotiated bilaterally with Poland and the Czech Republic on deployment of ground-based interceptors and an associated radar site in those two countries, and subsequently at the 2008 Bucharest summit it secured NATO recognition of the contribution that the missile defense system could make to protecting allies.  The Obama administration reconfigured U.S. missile defense plans for Europe in September 2009 when it adopted the “phased adaptive approach” based on the Standard SM-3 missile interceptor. 

NATO already has a program to provide missile defense for troops on the battlefield.  However, to link existing Alliance capabilities to the Standard SM-3 system, such as the German Patriot C interceptor, NATO would have to spend $200-300 million from its common budget over the next decade.  Although some allies are skeptical of the ability of missile defense to protect Europe, Alliance leaders are expected to agree on making missile defense of the whole of NATO territory a core mission. 


Afghanistan is also likely to be a major issue on the Lisbon agenda.  While NATO is unlikely to contribute more combat troops—and the U.S. government is not asking—one issue will be filling the long-standing shortfall of trainers to help bring the Afghan military up to speed.  President Karzai has set the goal of 2014 for the transfer of primary security responsibilities from the United States and NATO to Afghan forces.  More trainers are necessary to achieve that goal.  More broadly, NATO leaders may wish to discuss how to manage this transition over the next four years.  The discussion could be colored by recent reports that President Karzai has begun a dialogue with Taliban leaders.

Beyond such issues, Afghanistan will most certainly cast a shadow over the Alliance. While NATO emerged victorious from the Cold War—without firing a single shot—and from its Balkans interventions, Alliance fortunes in Afghanistan seem decidedly more mixed.  Any negative signal from Washington could create a rush to a hasty exit.  At the very least, this experience has had a sobering effect on those who advocated far-flung expeditionary ambitions for NATO.

Engaging with Russia

Russian President Medvedev will travel to Lisbon to meet with Alliance leaders, raising hopes that new energy can be injected into the NATO-Russia relationship.  NATO and Russia have had a formal association since 1997, but it remains significantly underdeveloped.  While it has recovered from the suspension of the NATO-Russia Council following the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, NATO would like to do more, and have its own “reset” with Moscow, made possible by the American reset and the generally more accommodating attitude of Russia, its so-called “Westpolitik.”

Missile defense cooperation with Russia could be a key question.  While NATO and Russia have cooperated in the past on theater missile defense, the Russians have been slow to engage in broader cooperation that might link U.S., NATO and Russian capabilities to defend Europe, including European Russia.  Much of this reticence stems from a reluctance to be seen as “blessing” U.S. missile defense on the territory of new NATO members, but the Russians have said that they are still considering the question.


Taken together, these issues give Alliance leaders a full agenda for Lisbon.  Their ability to find agreement on the specific questions—and, more broadly, to articulate a vision for NATO that takes account of the three different visions for the Alliance—will provide a strong indication of the Alliance’s ability to adapt and continue to play a preeminent role in dealing with Euro-Atlantic and global security challenges.