What’s The Whole NATO Summit About?: A Primer

After the recent decision to move the upcoming G8 conference from Chicago to Camp David in Maryland, there has been a great emphasis on the NATO Summit. But if your watching the news, the discussion is more likely directed outside of the Summit – protests. Even a lecture organized at Harper College to discuss the G8 and NATO Summits, fell into this same trap. Lots of talk about the protests and not a single minute devoted to what NATO will be discussing. So I have organized this blog post into two parts: an introduction to NATO and analysis of the three topics to be covered at the summit.

Introduction to NATO

Map of NATO’s 28 member countries. Courtesy of Wikipedia’s author Addicted04

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, is a political and military alliance of 28 countries in North America and Europe. It was founded in 1949 to enhance mutual security. Soon after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union began to place much of Eastern Europe into what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to as “an iron curtain.” To better protect Western Europe, NATO ensured a collective defense between all the members. The most profound element of the pact, the Washington Treaty, is Article 5, which states:

…an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all..

Then, NATO as a group would retaliate against the perpetrating country. The implication during the Cold War was clear. If the Russians invaded any Western European country, they would face a united front of all of free Europe and, most important given its military and nuclear might, the United States. Perhaps a sign of how effective this alliance was, Article 5 was never invoked during the Cold War. The Soviet Union eventually fell without a single bullet.

Post-Cold War, NATO kept its military alliance but added a stronger political or ideological component. They now felt it was partly their goal to promote democracy. Take the recent NATO bombings of Libya. Libyan leader Muammar Gauddafi had recently ended his nuclear weapons program and was generally appearing more Western leaning. In pure military terms, he was less of a threat to NATO.  Yet, when rebel groups who purportedly in the name of democracy and human rights began to gain some effective control of Eastern Libya, NATO intervened with seven months of air strikes to help seal the deal.

To learn more about NATO, I highly recommend their interactive site: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/what_is_nato.htm

NATO Summit: Finishing Up Old Challenges, Only to Face New Ones

As for this May’s Summit in Chicago, NATO representatives from the member countries will gather to discuss two main topics: transitioning out of the war in Afghanistan and adapting the organization to new challenges.

Preventing Another ‘Fall of Saigon’

This war began over ten years ago when Taliban-led Afghanistan granted safe-haven to Al Qaeda terrorist leaders including September 11th mastermind Osama Bin Laden.  In response, NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history. While the United States has the largest contingent in Afghanistan, other NATO countries have also sent troops. Current troop contributions can be found here: http://www.isaf.nato.int/troop-numbers-and-contributions/index.php .They in turn are all part of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, under the command of American General John R. Allen. Slowly, the forces have been working to train the Afghan military and police. Once trained, it should be possible to transition power from ISAF to local forces. That is what the Obama Administration and other nations hope to accomplish by 2014 – when American troops are scheduled to leave the region. If this transition does not go well, then the civilian government may be to weak. The Taliban may well then regain physical control of the country.

But there is a second half of the transition: long-term aid and on-the-ground presence. Currently, aid is absolutely crucial to the viability of the Afghan state. The World Bank notes that 47 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product comes from foreign aid distributions, which is incredibly high by interenational standards! For just the Afghan military, it is estimated that it will require $1.8 billion every year! But it goes straight to the macro-level. Your entire economy will have to adjust to an entirely different composition – this will take time. Just ask Gary, Indiana. It has suffered from decades of declining steel-production with only minimal reorientation of the economy!

This is why Karl-Heinz Kamp of the NATO Defense College suggested that the Summit would be a great opportunity to “debunk this myth” that Afghanistan will need no further attention after 2014. He notes that even if local forces are transitioned properly, it will be of little use when both legal structures and the judiciary are far from ready. Interestingly, the most talk about military involvement after 2014 has come from Canada.

No doubt the Summit will also be used to by world leaders to pat each other on the back for NATO’s successes so far. It is an election year both here and in many other member countries.

Planning for Just About Everything Else

Since NATO’s last major summit, there has been a huge amount of timult and change. Arab Spring has advanced democracy over much of the Middle East. For NATO, this brings up the question of how and when to support democratic efforts with force as they did in Libya (see above).

During the same time, Russia has become more autocratic and volatile. This just as NATO is expected to complete their Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR). In the shadow of this behemoth are our European allies – many will want a preliminary missile shield or other forms of deterence to be adopted at the Summit.

Finally, there will be the bigger question of the role of NATO in the US-Europe relationship. The Obama administration has decided to remove two brigades stationed in Europe. Some over-eager critics will argue that this marks the end of the special US-NATO relationship, but really it has a lot more to do with a common challenge on both sides of the Atlantic – budget deficit reductions. The American move is part of a larger plan to reduce nearly half a trillion from the Department of Defense budgets over the next decade. Faced with the European Debt Crisis, most European countries are doing the same. There will be the question of how NATO can continue to ensure security with less money. The difficult but correct answer will be that they will need to cooperate more. This can obviously be challenging given each military’s bureaucratic nature, and the risk of intelligence breaches.

If this post has whetted your apetite, there are some great events happening in the Chicago that you might want to check out:

Get to Know NATO – May 2nd

Madeleine Albright: What’s Prague’s Past Means for NATO’s Future – May 2nd

The Apex of Influence: How Summit Meetings Build Multilateral Cooperation – May 10th & 11th

So, what do you all think about the Summit? Will all these leaders bring answers to all these questions? Or will it just be a bunch of photo-ops? Alternatively, will the protests outside overshadow the hardwork inside?!


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