Year 0 A.D. (after Vilnius)
The NATO Summit in Vilnius on 11-12 July 2023 produced some of the expected results. It reaffirmed the Alliance’s support for Ukraine, and continued the work to coordinate investment in the industrial capacity needed to supply Ukraine in this war of attrition and to ensure the Alliance’s ability to defend itself in the event of conflict. However, Ukraine has not received a clear invitation or roadmap to join NATO, following opposition from the US and Germany, who shy away from direct escalation with Russia and the assumption of a territorial defense obligation that would be triggered the second the accession treaty is signed. Most significant was President Erdogan’s surprise announcement of his approval of Sweden’s entry into the Alliance, shortly after the unrealistic demand he made of resuming Turkey’s EU accession talks. President Erdogan’s unpredictability is due both to his own agenda of advancing Turkey’s regional power and specific security interests and to the recent electoral reconfirmation of his mandate to “make Turkey great again.” It remains to be seen whether Sweden will receive confirmation in the autumn, as Erdogan has indicated. Also, the presence for the second year in a row of the AP4 group (Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand) indicates both the Indo-Pacific direction in which the US would prefer to take NATO and the growing role of the group, especially of South Korea, in the military supply of the Alliance, especially its European partners.
The Vilnius Summit was interpreted (and anticipated) by experts and observers with the backdrop of the 2008 Bucharest Summit. Under the impact of the war in Ukraine and the prospect of its continuation in the long term, unrealistic expectations were generated regarding the continuation of the open door policy towards new members, especially regarding the prospect of Ukraine’s accession. Ukraine left Vilnius with a formula of peer-to-peer cooperation among equals through the NATO-Ukraine Council and ever escalating promises of arms and support, now reaching F-16 aircraft and pilot training. It did not, however, leave with a concrete promise of membership, a time horizon and action plan. The disappointment of the Ukrainian leadership was palpable and vocal, to the likely irritation of the US and Germany, but the diversity of positions on the issue among NATO members (currently divided into three camps - anti, pro-accession but with a defined post-war time horizon, and undecided) ruled out any Ukraine-friendly consensus.
The American paradigm
However, Vilnius must be interpreted as a manifestation of a fundamental change taking place within NATO. It is less the continuation of Bucharest 2008 than the completion of Madrid 2022 and the new Strategic Concept unveiled in June 2022. Vilnius ended with a document that goes beyond a mere joint declaration and is a roadmap for NATO’s future development in the changing world. These positions were foreshadowed by the Strategic Concept, but they were not guaranteed because they depended on the political will of member states. The ambition emanating from Vilnius was driven by the unity generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, by the enthusiasm generated by the accession of Finland and (possibly) Sweden, two states with already significant military and industrial-technological capabilities, and by renewed American leadership. For better or worse, the US has proven itself the indispensable security partner of (especially Eastern) Europe during this period, and the Biden Administration, despite its stuttering, has managed to position itself to capitalize on the opportunity and defer talk of a European Army and (real) strategic autonomy for another generation.
This strong position was also built on the Trump Administration’s actions, from pushing for increased military spending to delivering offensive weapons to Ukraine, but the Trump Administration’s blunt rhetoric produced tense summits in which only new mentions of China suggested the future re-Americanization of NATO and NATO’s recovery from the “braindead” state diagnosed by Mr. Macron.
The new US influence is evidenced by the number of recent statements on the importance of NATO’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific, when European NATO members have either never had or no longer have a strong power projection capability in the region. France itself barely deploys two frigates to patrol the hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of maritime territory in the region, Britain is still in the naval buildup phase after years of neglect, and Germany sees regional involvement in economic, environmental, or human rights terms. It is clear that the US is the driving force behind the new orientation, which would otherwise have been resisted by the Europeans, who have used EU gatherings to designate China as a “systemic rival” and chart a course of competition in technological and economic, not military, terms. The US agenda is also responsible for the AP4’s presence at the summit for the second year in a row. The four countries are close US allies in various bi- and trilateral configurations, both for military and intelligence. South Korea, in particular, stands out as a conventional arms production colossus among the four and a major European supplier of either American or Korean but NATO-compatible technology. Starting with Turkey, which produces South Korean tanks under license under the Altai name, and continuing with the exceptional purchases of Poland and, more recently, Romania, South Korea seems to have been cultivated by the Americans as a preferential supplier from outside the region to European partners (with technical input partly from Japan and raw materials, such as iron and coal, from Australia). The relationship will also be important for the conflict in Ukraine and for European defense, given the crisis of military deindustrialization in European countries, generated by the closure of iron mines, the lethargy of the steel industry, the closure of coal mines (important for metallurgy) and the general trend of premature and poorly targeted decarbonization in Europe.
NATO’s new direction
The Vilnius Summit represents the formal end of NATO’s identity drift over the past three decades, during which NATO has had to redefine its role in a rapidly evolving world order in the post-Cold War era. This period called into question NATO’s identity and purpose in a world that seemed to have moved beyond the bipolar power dynamics of the Cold War. The US as the sole hyperpower and the collapse of the USSR and the reorientation of Russia and China towards mercantilism and globalization seemed to render an Alliance of territorial defense obsolete. It took decades for Germany’s “wandel durch handel” (change through trade) towards Russia and the US towards China to be accepted as political failures. Now we are witnessing the result of a realignment of the security perceptions of most elites in NATO countries. The Vilnius Summit communiqué describes NATO as “the single, essential and indispensable transatlantic forum for consultation, coordination and action on all matters relating to our individual and collective security.” NATO will not only deter aggressive action; it will also defend every member state territory and the one billion citizens of NATO countries. NATO’s strategic outlook has completely changed – the Alliance is no longer just a defensive entity, but is positioning itself as a proactive force ready to meet emerging challenges in a multipolar world. The communiqué highlights a transition to a broader definition of security, which includes the protection of the “global commons” of oceans, space, technology and cyberspace. Great Power competition and strategic (or systemic, if we want a distinctly European flavor) rivalry is reminiscent of the dynamics of the Cold War era, but is distinguished by its multidimensionality and complexity. It is not limited to traditional military, geopolitical or ideological rivalry, but extends to the technological and economic domains.
Thus, the Vilnius Summit Communiqué represents a milestone in the evolution of NATO, which is now positioned as a key player in countering Russia and China in several dimensions and areas of competition, including areas increasingly contested in recent years due to technological advances and changing geopolitical interests – the Arctic, technological issues, cyber, space, etc. According to the release, “NATO’s deterrence and defense posture is based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities, complemented by space, cyber and maritime capabilities.” These interests were foreshadowed by the inclusion of cyberspace as a military operational area in 2016 and outer space in 2019 – “space is an increasingly contested area, marked by irresponsible behavior, malicious activity and the growth of counterspace capabilities by NATO’s potential adversaries and strategic competitors” and “cyberspace is contested at all times as actors increasingly seek to destabilize the Alliance through the use of malign cyber activities and campaigns.”
Another indicator of US influence is the emphasis on the importance of the maritime domain, stating that “the oceans and seas are crucial to protecting the global commons and enhancing our resilience.” The US is the world’s leading maritime power and, with small exceptions such as France and the UK, all other members have maritime interests only in the immediate vicinity of their territory.
The invasion of Ukraine was the catalyst for a series of changes that were waiting “in the wings” within NATO and especially in American strategic thinking about NATO and its global role. American influence is now at an all-time high over economically stagnant Western Europe, whose economic, technological and security dependence on the US has been reinforced by Russia’s actions, which have added an energy dimension (the US being the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas to Europe). The Americans are using this leverage to “cut the Gordian knot” of dissent over NATO’s role in the world, despite the deep skepticism of some European elites, and to pull NATO in a new direction. That direction involves not only greater military spending and a focus on industrial issues and emerging threats, but also a broadening of NATO’s regional reach into the Indo-Pacific. This will sow the seeds of future NATO discontent when the US enters the depressed phase of its political bipolarism or when the China-US conflict appears to escalate into military operations.