Dread and angst must be haunting the corridors of Europe’s foreign and defence ministries. The NATO Heads of State and Government will meet over 11 to 12 July 2018 in Brussels and the question of the communique will already be weighing heavy on ministers, advisers and officials. NATO is a consensus decision-making body but the prospects of an agreed communique seem slight at this stage. NATO has been the spine of the Western alliance and the liberal international order. Discord among its members can only benefit states interested in weakening the bonds holding the current order in place.
The NATO Secretary General believes the meeting will ‘further strengthen the bond between Europe and North America on which our Alliance is founded’. In the context of increasingly adversarial relations between the US and other prominent members of NATO this seems problematic.
Brussels will see a number of new leaders since 2016 meeting in Warsaw. President Trump is the most dramatic substitution. President Macron also will come for the first time with his ambitious project for ‘rebuilding of a sovereign, united and democratic Europe’. Prime Minister May will come trailing her post-Brexit security concerns. Italy’s new Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, and Pedro Sánchez, the new Spanish Prime Minister, both will come as largely unknown quantities.
Chancellor Merkel will return with her European leadership status weakened. Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan will be back strengthened and with a fractious and unpredictable European relationship. Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau will come nursing the disparaging remarks hurled at him by the US Administration following the G7 meeting.
As a backdrop to this meeting; the Trump administration has initiated a trade war with his European allies and Canada, unilaterally withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear deal, and transferred the US embassy to Jerusalem threatening the two state solution. All of which the major European powers oppose. The President has indicated Russia was somehow justified in annexing Crimea and that Russia should be accepted back into the international community without changing its behaviour. The atmosphere should be tense.
Those officials contemplating a Brussels communique acceptable to all the members will be focussed on Russia, Iran, and defence spending. What is and what is not said in the communique will be interpreted by other nations, and the domestic media, as an indication of the health of transatlantic relations and the shared outlook of the allies.
At the Warsaw meeting Russia featured prominently. The communique condemned ‘the ongoing illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, which we do not and will not recognise and which we call on Russia to reverse’. Appropriate punitive actions against Russia including the application of sanctions were unanimously supported.
But such strong wording is unlikely to be agreed by President Trump given his apparent backsliding on sanctions and his views on the legitimacy of the Crimea annexation. Since the last meeting President Erdogan has flexed Turkey’s military muscle across the border into Syria and has joined with Russia and Iran in planning Syria’s future. On the other hand, the UK is unlikely to be accommodating on Russia given the recent nerve agent attacks.
Even the European NATO members are now divided over continuing Russian sanctions. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has repeatedly advocated lifting the sanctions. Both Italian coalition partners, the Five Star Movement and the League, have expressed strong anti-NATO and pro-Russian positions previously and, in Canada, the Italian Prime Minster Conte joined President Trump in supporting Russia’s return to a G8.
The prospects for consensus on Iran are even less promising. At Warsaw the members stated, ‘We commend the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the E3/EU+3 and Iran, signed on 14 July 2015, and its ongoing implementation since 16 January 2016’. China and Russia, the other JCPOA signatories, and Iran will be watching closely for signs of any wavering in the European commitment to the deal. But it is inconceivable that President Trump would accede to any positive references to Iran or the deal. Equally, the Europeans are unlikely to concede that the deal cannot be resurrected without the US.
Defence spending is a touchstone issue for President Trump. Only the UK of the larger European states achieved the pledged 2 percent of GDP spending on Defence in 2017. France managed 1.79 percent, Germany 1.24 percent, Turkey 1.48 percent, Italy 1.12 percent, and Spain 0.92 percent and Canada also spent just 1.29 percent of GDP on defence. These states comprise the bulk of non-US NATO capability.
However, the impetus towards greater cooperation, coordination and interoperability on European defence is also building. Although still early days, progress towards effective interoperability, capability development, readiness, and unity of command across 23 sovereign European nations under permanent structured cooperation (PeSCO) is underway. The Europeans maintain that PeSCO is compatible with NATO but if the alliance begins to fracture they might begin to see it as an alternative. Three quarters of EU citizens support a common European defence and security policy. The Europeans may not in a mood to listen to US criticisms on defence.
How the communique deals with terrorism, immigration, or overall Middle East security is another set of conundrums. But among the European members themselves, as well as across the Atlantic there are wide and growing differences on these matters.
Officials experienced in these international summits will know that often consensus can be achieved by clever drafting that papers over the cracks, as long as the will is there. At Brussels in July, however, it appears the differences won’t be about emphasis but reflective of two diametrically opposed views on how the international system should work—an aggressive unilateralist position that is transactional and calculates strategic goods by dollars and self-interest versus a view stressing multilateral coordination and cooperation and agreed rules and norms of behaviour.
This NATO communique could be the harbinger of the breaking of the alliance. This is the dread haunting the corridors of Europe’s foreign and defence ministries.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.