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NATO and the Tale of Two Summits

NATO shows it still knows how to deliver by instituting adaptation and assurance measures after the Wales and Warsaw Summits.

“A refreshed alliance for troubled times,” read the headline of one of Britain’s most prominent newspapers after the completion of the Warsaw Summit in July. Readers might have deduced that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had been able to overcome all of its difficulties. Even for some defense and security affairs pundits, the summit met their expectations and more. This was perhaps a surprise since the summit opened in the wake of Brexit, which shook one of NATO’s most capable allies, eliciting questions on how it could affect the overall alliance.

However, the summit’s outcomes were soon overshadowed by a tragic summer, with the Islamic State-claimed terror attacks in France and Germany, and the failed coup in Turkey. In addition, the harsh statement by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on pre-conditions for the United States’ defense of its major allies provoked some fear and anger, not just in the US but in Europe, as this could be seen as a major breach of the collective defense principle for which NATO stands.

Fit for the Job

As the dust settles two months after the summit, the time is ripe to discuss what was achieved in Warsaw. Where does the alliance stand at a moment when tensions are on the rise again in Ukraine, and while the Islamic State (IS) is still a major concern, thousands of migrants cross the Mediterranean Sea, and Libya continues to find no exit from its chaotic situation? Is NATO fit for the job and still relevant in today’s security environment? What can NATO do, and what does membership provide to its allies that is so precious that aspirant countries, such as Georgia, Macedonia and Ukraine, keep knocking at its door? Two words: Article 5.

Article 5 guarantees mutual assistance and commitment in case of an armed attack on one of the contracting parties and, therefore, remains the main task that holds member nations together as it safeguards their security and protects their sovereignty. Despite all the criticism made about NATO—a complex bureaucracy and decision-making process based on consensus—the organization survived the Cold War, permanently adapting and reinventing itself throughout recent history. Its core values remain fundamentally unchanged—the same values the West calls a “community of freedom, peace, security … including individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.”

Indeed, the collective defense principle was bracketed at a time when NATO nations favored out-of-area and peace support operations in the 1990s and 2000s. In order to focus more on cooperation with partners, the alliance came up with a Strategic Concept unveiled at Lisbon in 2010 that described NATO’s three tasks: collective defense, the core purpose of the alliance; crisis management; and cooperative security.

This happened at a moment when the so-called “peace dividends” had led to a drastic overhaul of the military within the alliance, in some cases relegating the notion of territorial defense to a non-essential status. NATO member states began focusing on expeditionary capabilities and deploying troops beyond their borders to defend allies’ interests, and projecting stability or engaging in dialogue through newly established fora and initiatives, such as the Mediterranean Dialogue or the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. NATO campaigns in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya were thus not always well understood—and maybe not very well explained—and this led to some nations deciding not to support missions, mainly for domestic political reasons and personal agendas.

Wake-Up Call

Then came the Ukraine crisis. Calling it a wake-up call sheds light on how NATO considered its geopolitical environment until 2014. Russia’s aggressiveness and saber-rattling posture surprised the allies, as they believed they could do business with Russia. President Barack Obama’s reset strategy for US-Russia relations, France’s deal with the sell of Mistral-class ships to the Russian Navy, or Germany’s Rheinmetall company proposal to establish a simulation and training complex in Russia were all suspended or cancelled.

The seizure of Crimea was a game changer that deeply transformed the security architecture of Europe. The alliance realized internationally recognized borders could still be violated. Crimea opened many eyes as it revealed the nature of Russia’s oligarchy and its views of geopolitics. It also provided evidence that the Russian elite still viewed power through a 19th-century lens—imposing its hegemony by force or persuasion—whilst NATO members had shifted into a postmodern approach of rationalizing the use of force.

For NATO, this led to a new security dilemma: How could the alliance stand firm on its principles while not shifting back to a Cold War posture or antagonizing Russia? To quote NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: “NATO doesn’t seek confrontation, we don’t want a new Cold War. The Cold War is history, and it should remain history. But we have to be able also in a more challenging security environment to defend and protect all our Allies.”

Addressing two aims that do not seem easily reconcilable was the main task of the Newport Summit in September 2014 and has been the main objective ever since. The allies reprioritized collective defense but without losing sight of the need to adapt to a host of new threats and risks, such as IS or the massive flow of migrants in the Aegean Sea.


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The allies’ response can be summed up in two words: assurance (or reassurance) and adaptation. The first concept belongs to the vocabulary of deterrence and aims at preventing an action by persuading the actor concerned that the cost of such an action will outweigh any resulting benefits. Implicitly, it means also that if the adversary does nothing, no action will be undertaken against him. Recently, reassurance has been used by the US in the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2001, yet applied more generally to all scenarios, conveying the message first and foremost to allies that the United States will be there for them if needed.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the US was the first country to provide reassurance to the Baltic States and beyond, as early as June 2014, with the setting up of the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) to enhance the security of European NATO allies alongside the rapid deployment of forces. At the end of April 2014, the paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team based in Vicenza, Italy, took part in reassurance measures with four companies deployed to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In the south, the US Marines contributed to the Black Sea Rotational Force, training with Romanian, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Bosnian forces.

What made this possible was that the units concerned were either already garrisoned in Europe, or were scheduled for assignment to joint exercises, which were promptly renamed to convey a message. In the meantime, the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), General Philip Breedlove, made a statement where he admitted that NATO had “increased [its] activity in the air, on the sea and on the land; as well, demonstrating [its] capability but also [its] unity in our unshakeable commitment to … common defense.”

Readiness Action Plan

This commitment was not just delimitating a red line that should not be crossed. It also constituted a pledge to European security that NATO allies endorsed at Newport. The decisions taken were twofold. The most discussed and commented outcome was the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) that entails measures to “address both the continuing need for assurance of Allies and the adaptation of the Alliance’s military strategic posture [by] continuous air, land, and maritime presence and meaningful military activity in the eastern part of the Alliance, both on a rotational basis. They will provide the fundamental baseline requirement for assurance and deterrence, and are flexible and scalable in response to the evolving security situation.”

The centerpiece of the RAP is the Very High-Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a brigade-size force with air, special operations forces (SOF) and maritime support that can be deployed virtually anywhere within 72 hours to conduct a wide array of missions and stabilize a nascent crisis. Its visibility grants the VJTF a true political dimension that also reinforces the purely military reassurance measures. But the second outcome was in a way far more significant, as it took the form of a 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) defense spending pledge (including 20% for replacing matériel) to guarantee credible defense.

Thus, the Ukraine crisis seems, at least at first sight, to have slowed down or even practically halted the three-decade-long erosion of financial and human resources in most of the European members of NATO. This possibly marks the start of a renewed emphasis on military spending despite the obvious awareness of how complicated and expensive that is going to be.

From Newport to Warsaw

The road from Newport to Warsaw has been paved with the will to fully implement the decisions taken by heads of state and government. The challenge has been about moving on from political statements to practical application. The objective has been to prove that the allies are determined in their commitments, by military and other means, to defend and protect the alliance’s territory and populations, and that collective defence is a reality. Important steps have been taken to shift from pure reassurance measures to a real deterrence posture, which starts with greater awareness and determination.

The VJTF concept, for instance, has been tested and trained through exercises, across not only the whole NATO command structure, but also throughout numerous military headquarters and units. Sure, these tests happened under political pressure, as it was mandatory to demonstrate that the VJTF would be operationally capable before the Warsaw summit. Yet the challenge was passed with flying colors, as the VJTF was declared fully operationally capable in May 2016.

Military exercises became more frequent and there was an increase in numbers involved. For instance, between September and December 2014, there were over 40 multinational exercises involving larger contingents. And for 2015, 240 battalion-size exercises were planned and conducted despite some specialists criticizing the still important exercise gap between NATO and Russia.


Having high-readiness forces will be of no use if nations have low risk-taking politicians. The recent summit revealed a rift within the alliance. Statements on Russia, for instance, revealed that behind the veneer of external consensus, there is some internal dissent that reflects the current state of the alliance.


What is clear is that the flag had to be waved, if possible with a major show of force. This was the purpose of the NATO multinational exercise Trident Juncture in 2015, involving 36,000 soldiers from Portugal, Spain and Italy, becoming NATO’s largest joint services multinational exercise since the end of the Cold War and rightfully analyzed as such by Russian officials.

Of course, the Warsaw summit was an occasion to showcase the allies’ common will to go beyond their previous commitment. Reenergizing NATO’s readiness could also be seen in the revamping of the NATO Response Force (NRF) and the creation of six—soon to be eight—NATO Forces Integration Units (NFIU) in six countries on the Eastern flank. Additionally, the Multinational Corps Northeast at Szczecin was upgraded to a High Readiness Force Headquarters, with responsibility for the planning of collective defense in northeastern Europe.

New Threat Environment

All these innovations are presented as concrete proof that the alliance is fully aware of the new threat environment, and that its command structure has the capacity to respond accordingly. Eventually, the last brick in this new wall—the deployment of four battalion-sized multinational battle groups in the Baltic States and Poland—was announced for January 2017, thus providing a firm response in case of a Russian invasion.

This “enhanced forward presence,” however, highlights the continuous difficulty of NATO member states’ ability to surge; the generation of two battalions by NATO European allies has proven more difficult than expected. Despite these limitations, one can emphasize that these events mark a changed mindset. Stoltenberg was not wrong when he said in Warsaw that this commitment is an open-ended one that will last “as long as necessary.”

This tour d’horizon would not be sufficient if one was not to assess or discuss some issues that pose additional risks for NATO’s ability to deliver on its commitments. Stating that the alliance is determined is one thing, but the deliverables have to follow and there are some questions that will keep NATO member states busy in the future.

Problems for the foreseeable future include: Afghanistan and the eventual end of the Resolute Support mission there—it seems everybody has forgotten about this war, yet the stability of the country is far from settled; relations between NATO and the European Union, despite the highly significant strategic partnership between the two organizations; Brexit and its impact on NATO, if any; and the multiple elections and polls that might call for a strategic pause—the US presidential election this fall, the 2017 presidential elections in France and the future of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany.

However, what is really at stake is not just NATO having the power or resources to act in different domains, but it is first and foremost about whether NATO nations have the will to act decisively. General Denis Mercier, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT)—one of the two strategic commands of the NATO command structure, the other being Allied Command Operations at SHAPE, under SACEUR—said in August that “high responsiveness relies on two points. On the military side, it relies on the ability to operate very quickly. But it also relies on responsiveness in political decisions.”

Having high-readiness forces will be of no use if nations have low risk-taking politicians. The recent summit revealed a rift within the alliance. Statements on Russia, for instance, revealed that behind the veneer of external consensus, there is some internal dissent that reflects the current state of the alliance.

In a nutshell, what is at stake is not only whether NATO as an alliance is able to deliver, but whether NATO is a credible alliance.

The success in setting up assurance and adaptation measures is only a first step in a long process of transforming NATO and keeping it relevant to facing today’s threats. Of course, adjustments can be made and solutions do not all have to be political in nature. In certain cases, there can be technical or administrative arrangements. What is key, nonetheless, is NATO’s ability to be flexible and adaptive enough to confront an increasingly complex environment of adversaries and threats.

*[Note: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of NATO or the NATO Defense College.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Milanadzic