The NATO summit held in Warsaw July 8-9 was marked by high-level meetings and solemn declarations, sprinkled with a dose of pomp and circumstance. There was substance, too: NATO leaders took important, albeit small, steps to send a message to Vladimir Putin that the alliance is united in its determination to defend all of its members should he ever decide to cross the line. The decision to enhance NATO’s forward presence through persistent rotations of four multinational battalions deployed in the three Baltic States and Poland, a U.S. armored brigade in Europe, and additional NATO assistance to Romania will bolster the alliance’s physical presence along its eastern flank. NATO also promised to increase cooperation with the European Union—an important point for the United States now that the United Kingdom is about to begin the process of leaving the EU. (However, if the past is any guide, the promise of better intelligence sharing and joint exercises should be taken with a grain of salt.)
The old adage that where one stands on an issue depends on where one sits is an especially fitting way to describe the Warsaw summit. From the perspective of the frontline states along NATO’s eastern flank, the deployment of multinational battalions, prepositioning of equipment, and establishment of a new heavy brigade headquarters in Poland to serve as a hub for more soldiers rotating to Europe is nothing short of revolutionary, as it marks the first time that such a number of U.S. troops and equipment will be present in the Baltic States and Poland. Though this U.S. presence still remains limited—merely a tripwire in the event of a conflict—Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, and Warsaw have welcomed and acknowledged its political significance. Still, the larger military imbalances in Central Europe and the Baltics will not be significantly altered after Warsaw, nor will NATO’s deployments change the overall equations between the alliance and Russia when it comes to resources available for Western defense. Today Russia continues to sit on parts of Georgian and Ukrainian territory, while also expanding its A2AD capabilities in the Baltic around the Kaliningrad District and around Crimea, including renewed investment in its Black Sea fleet. In Syria the Russian military has demonstrated that it can conduct a successful limited out-of-area operation without easing pressure off of Europe’s eastern flank. And despite NATO’s reaffirming its commitment to common defense in Warsaw, Moscow continues to push against Europe using money, energy, intelligence, cyberwarfare, and propaganda to pressure frayed intra-European relations, with the ultimate goal of undermining the EU and NATO and creating a new world of bilateral state-to-state relations between Russia and Europe.
The Warsaw summit has not changed the reality that the fundamental limitations of NATO capabilities inherited from a quarter century of de facto disarmament of Europe are only beginning to be addressed, at a time when U.S. priorities in Asia, the Middle East, and a range of transnational threats compete for the country’s shrinking pool of defense dollars. The global demands placed on the U.S. military makes a major new American investment in Europe’s defense unlikely. U.S. global security commitments in combination with resource constraints present the European NATO allies with a direct question: Is the shared public good that NATO offers enough to finally change the politics of defense spending in Europe? On this essential question, Warsaw has offered a second chance to Europe’s political class to do what it failed to after the solemn declarations two years ago in Wales: spend sufficient monies on defense. Indeed, there was a familiarity to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s call for more defense spending delivered in Warsaw—the very message that was a frequent refrain in Stoltenberg’s pre-summit speeches.
In the months to follow, the ceremony and celebrations in Warsaw will soon fade from memory, and what will matter will be the concrete steps NATO takes to give substance to the reassurance measures taken along the frontier. If it is to reverse the post-Cold War decline in capabilities, the alliance has to find the political will to spend money on defense. If the aftermath of the 2014 Wales summit is any guide, a dose of skepticism as to whether Warsaw will change things is in order.
Since 1990, defense spending of the enlarged European NATO has continued to shrink (2015 saw only a small increase, with just four European NATO members meeting the 2% of GDP target) while its membership has grown, deepening the perception in the United Sates that, with precious few exceptions, Europe will continue to free-ride. (Last year the United States contributed 70 percent of NATO’s defense spending). The experience of ISAF has not changed this perception, as European participation in the Afghanistan mission was frequently constrained by national caveats that made the usability of a large part of European NATO forces limited and at times marginal. Declining public support in Western Europe for NATO’s traditional defense role and out-of-area missions aside, the deployability of European NATO forces remains a serious concern, particularly if the model of deterrence proffered for the eastern flank at the Warsaw summit is to have credibility. Even the largest players in European NATO would face problems today if they had to deploy and sustain their forces. This is a problem, for even if the European allies increase in earnest their defense spending—as they have yet again promised in Warsaw—it will take time before this spending is felt across their militaries.
Another symbol of where NATO is today and where it should go is perhaps encapsulated by its new headquarters in Brussels, about to be completed this year. Situated across the street from the old digs, the new structure is an impressive modern building that NATO workers already refer to as the “new campus.” Encompassing 245,000 square meters of office space, it has been designed to evoke “fingers interlaced in a symbolic clasp of unity,” intended to symbolize the changing mission “from opposition and prevention to unification and integration.” With a total estimated cost of 750 million euros (U.S. $829 million), possibly topping out at 1.1 billion euros when factoring in additional costs, the facility purports to offer the alliance a “sustainable and environmentally friendly new headquarters, with low environmental impact and optimized energy consumption.” It is perhaps fitting to think of the “new NATO HQ” as more befitting the kind of vision that Putin all but invalidated when he grabbed Crimea and invaded Ukraine.
Setting aside the question of what the alliance could buy in terms of kit and training with a billion-plus dollars, there is a larger imperative for NATO to think once more in terms of traditional territorial defense functions and the resources that must be committed to buy the urgently needed capabilities. If the alliance wants to see itself as a hand, it should be a hand that can clench into a fist when necessary to fulfill its mutual defense obligations. If the European allies fail to make tangible progress in funding their defense before the next summit, the Warsaw meeting will go down in history as a grand display of unity—and a “second chance” the allies failed to grasp.
The Warsaw NATO summit was important in that it took place during one of the most profound shifts in intra-European politics since the end of the Cold War. Held just weeks after the Brexit vote, it was the first meeting of top Western leaders against the backdrop of an impending systemic change in Europe. It was also significant for NATO to meet in Poland, as it underscored how far the former “Eastern Europe” has traveled since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today after a quarter century of growth, whether one visits Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or the Baltic States, “New Europe” doesn’t feel that “new” anymore, and that’s a good thing. The problem is that an “old Russia” is now back in force, intent on renegotiating Europe’s future. If NATO fails to follow through on the promises made in Warsaw, especially when it comes to sustaining the requisite consensus to act in solidarity should a crisis occur, deterrence will remain elusive and uncertainty along NATO’s eastern flank will deepen.