European Affairs

NATO SUMMIT IN CHICAGO: MAKING LEMONADE OUT OF LEMONS     Print

Offhand, it’s hard to imagine a less propitious time and place for a NATO summit than the present gathering in Chicago.   From the start, of course, the event has been designed as an election boost for President Obama.   Why else Chicago, halfway through a presidential campaign?   Nobody who hasn’t observed this at close hand can comprehend the complexity and cost of setting up secure accommodations and communications for participants at summits like this. (Chicago was expecting 5000 delegates and their staffs, along with 2000 media.)  But Chicago is Obama’s home town, so Chicago it is.   Having spent $65 millions preparing for the two-day summit, Chicagoans then feared an army of protesters -- the police were braced for 10,000; the protest organizers were promising 50,000 – might repeat the fury that shut down Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting.   But NATO these days apparently lacks the WTO’s allure as a symbol of evil: Sunday’s march in Chicago’s exhausting heat drew single-figure thousands under an engagingly motley array of banners. 

So Monday evening will see the summit pronounced a success. The agenda, like the venue, has been tailored to Obama’s electoral needs.   Success is the theme:   Afghanistan is a success story -- and so is NATO.

The realities, economic and political, are bleaker. When the date for Chicago was agreed to, nobody foresaw Europe would be so beset by the worst financial and political crisis since the Great Depression.   The consequent reality is that the most important meeting took place in Camp David, Maryland, at Saturday’s conclave of the G-8 leaders.   The economic crisis means that defense budgets on both sides of the Atlantic are facing the steepest cuts in a generation.   The Chicago summit will agree on plans for new alliance capabilities. Whether those plans will be funded adequately depends in large measure on how well the G-8 deliver on their efforts to revive western economies.

Two political realities similarly cloud Chicago.   The White House had hoped for a prime-time triumph by President Obama: the announcement of at least some outline of an Afghan settlement with the Taliban.   But the Taliban walked away from the talks in March. Back on NATO’s home-turf, meanwhile, Vladimir Putin -- returned as Russia’s president – gives every sign of wanting still what he wanted in his first terms: Western acceptance of a Russian droit de regard in the affairs of the Baltic and central European states that were liberated by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Chicago will still be the politically necessary “success”, in sum, only at the price of ignoring some problems, and kicking others down the road.

The Obama Administration has organized three “deliverables” from the summit:

it seeks an allied pledge of “enduring commitment” to Afghanistan, and the cash to prove it. Some 50 nations have troops in Afghanistan. (By NATO figures, the U.S. deploys 90,000; the other 49 contribute 39,000.)   Washington wants the allied contingents to stay through the end of 2014, when the Afghan government is supposed to be able to handle security throughout the country.   The Afghan commitment is now so unpopular in Europe that this schedule seems increasingly vulnerable. It could have posed an especial problem for the newest leader in Chicago, French President Francois Hollande, who has just won elections on a pledge to pull out French forces by the end of this year.   But a quiet side-deal was apparently done at Camp David, allowing Hollande to keep his exit pledge --- while agreeing, in return, to have French troops fulfill some other role, most probably a training mission.   In Chicago on Sunday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted yet again that there would be “no rush to the exit” from Afghanistan.   Realistically, Hollande’s side-deal is likely to be the first of many.

Even after 2014, Washington wants the allies to stump up a collective $1.3 billion a year for another decade to fund Afghanistan’s own security forces.   (The U.S. will contribute close to $3 billion a year.)   Those figures too indicate the international war-weariness with Afghanistan.   Current training programs in the country aim to build Afghan security forces totaling just over 350,000 – a force that coalition planners regarded as the barest minimum needed against a weakened but still potent Taliban.   But to fund a 350,000-strong force after 2014 would cost close to $7 billion a year.   Judging there is little hope of raising that from the weary coalition, the Administration plans to reduce those Afghan forces to 230,000, with the more affordable price-tag of $4 billion. Even this is proving tough to sell to European governments facing unemployment rates well into double digits.

The unreality at the core of Chicago’s deliberations about Afghanistan was revealed by two Sunday meetings -- one of which didn’t take place.

President Obama did meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.   The two signed in Kabul last month a pact delineating a supposed “strategic relationship” between the two countries after 2014.   In Chicago – or so U.S. officials briefed on background -- Obama stressed to Karzai the importance of three things: political reform to improve governance; tougher action against corruption; and the need for Karzai to embrace more fully than he has the notion of talks with the Taliban.   If Obama really said those things, the condescension must have tested Karzai’s habitual courtesy.   Because Karzai knows -- and would have assumed that Obama knows too -- that meaningful talks with the Taliban depend upon Pakistan’s giving the Taliban the green light.   There is no evidence Pakistan has done that, and a good deal of evidence to the contrary.   The meeting that did not happen in Chicago was merely another sign of how bad NATO’s relations are with Pakistan.   Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari is in Chicago, invited at the last minute when it looked as Pakistan was ready to raise its ban on NATO supply convoys travelling through the country to Afghanistan.   Pakistan halted the convoys after a confused cross-border fire-fight last November left 24 Pakistani troops dead; but that incident was only the last-straw in sundering a relationship that had been deteriorating for more than a year.   In essence, Pakistan and the US have run out of patience with each other.   When it emerged that Zardari had arrived in Chicago without an agreement to restart NATO convoys, a meeting with President Obama was abruptly cancelled.   Whether this snub will bolster Zardari’s ability – or even his willingness – to push his colleagues in Islamabad to reopen the convoy routes must be uncertain. But that’s how bad relations are.   The fact remains that there isn’t going to be a political settlement in Afghanistan unless and until Pakistan backs one.

The Administration’s second goal in Chicago is what Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon calls “a robust discussion” of NATO’s lagging defense capabilities -- accompanied, Washington hopes, by Europe’s agreement to buy whatever is needed to upgrade them.   The topic is a hardy perennial at NATO gatherings, with an unvarying script: America demands more; the Europeans promise to do better; everyone agrees a plan for reform.   Chicago will be no different.   This time the plan to bolster Europe’s defense procurement is called “Smart Defense”, a catchy slogan for multinational cooperation.

None of Europe’s identified deficiencies is new, though last year’s offensive to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi did reveal their extent.   Some shortcomings stem from NATO’s history. The paucity of European air and sealift and supporting capabilities like aerial refueling reflects, for example, the fact that NATO, for most of its 63 year existence, was not an expeditionary alliance sending thousands of troops halfway around the world.   But it is also true, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last June in his farewell speech in Brussels, that “for all but a handful of allies, defense budgets…have been chronically starved of adequate funding for a long time, with the shortfalls compounding on themselves each year”.   The U.S. devoted 4.77 percent of its GDP to defense in 2010; the European members of NATO allocated 1.58 percent.   NATO’s informal goal is two percent of GDP devoted to defense; in 2010, only four -- the U.K, France, Greece and Turkey -- met that. (All figures are from the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual data compilation.)   Greek defense spending has since been slashed; the U.K. defense budget is now set to decline out to 2015;   while France’s defense spending, which has held steady, is certain to be scrutinized by President Hollande’s incoming government.

Still, 20-or-so projects selected for “Smart Defense” collaborative efforts will be approved in Chicago. Success will be declared. How far “Smart Defense” will actually get must be uncertain.   Defense industrial collaboration is dependent on broader political agreement; and the debilitating sovereign debt crisis in Europe has taken a toll on that. As Professor Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University points out: “The Eurozone crisis has led to a renationalization of political life that is fragmenting Europe’s landscape”.

The only big-ticket project that seems certain to advance is the one dearest to America’s heart and purse: the development of NATO-wide ballistic missile defenses, for which the U.S. is providing, by some calculations, around 85 percent of the funding.   Chicago on Sunday celebrated the expected announcement that the first phase of this project is operational, with U.S. Aegis warships in the Mediterranean and a U.S-supplied radar installed at Turkey’s Kurecik airbase providing what is claimed to be an “interim capability”.   But for many European delegates in Chicago, celebration will be muted by the fact that Russia still opposes the project – with a stridency that has only increased since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency.   Earlier this month, Russia’s chief of the general staff, General Nikolai Makarov, went so far as to threaten war – specifically, pre-emptive strikes against missile defense sites planned in central Europe.

 

Relations with Russia similarly impinge on the third of the Administration’s goals for Chicago: Validation of NATO’s role as a “hub” for security cooperation among nations far removed from Europe.   It’s a logical development from the decade in Afghanistan, where 22 non-NATO countries have partnered with NATO’s 28 members.   (Almost all those non-NATO partners will be in Chicago.)   Whether or not the Afghan expedition is ultimately judged a success, organizing a coalition on that scale -- providing training and even equipment where needed -- has been a remarkable achievement, and it makes sense to build on the experience.   But should NATO expand its membership?   Here the debate starts.   Four European nations --Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Georgia -- are all working to meet NATO’s criteria for membership; and the Administration is keen to see them join.   Russia is determined, however, not to see Georgia join NATO; and Germany, in particular, is loath to challenge Russia on this.

Relations with Russia are similarly the backdrop to two issues that preoccupy European members of NATO – issues so sensitive that they will be handled gingerly in any declarations from Chicago.   Where does the Administration’s announced pivot to Asia leave NATO’s Article Five guarantees?  And what role, if any, should nuclear weapons continue to play in the alliance?

Article Five of NATO’s founding charter says that an attack on one will be regarded as an attack on all.   In practical terms, the U.S. has always been the superpower guarantor of this; and through the Cold War, nuclear weapons were seen as NATO’s ultimate resort.   Now the Administration is dramatically drawing down its conventional forces in Europe; while Germany is leading within NATO a move to have the alliance renounce nuclear weapons.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, laying out the Administration’s new defense strategy in January, said: “We are committed to sustaining a presence [in Europe] that will meet our Article 5 commitments [and] deter aggression…”   But Ian Brzezinski, who had the Europe and NATO portfolio in the Pentagon under President George W Bush, pointed out at a Senate hearing earlier this month that the U.S. commander in Europe, Admiral James Stavridis, had warned publicly that if American forces there were substantially cut back “deterrence and reassurance are at increased risk”.   Brzezinski added: “The fact that U.S. drawdowns in Europe occur in the context of an increasingly assertive Russian foreign policy, rising Russian defense expenditures, and increased Russian military deployments along the country’s western frontiers only adds to a sense of regional consternation.”

Nowhere is this consternation more apparent than in the three Baltic states --- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania --- which joined NATO in 2004.   In that early post-Cold War era, NATO accepted the Balts without significant thought about Article Five: how the three could be defended in the event that Russia might seek to reclaim them.   That ceased to seem so outlandish a notion when Russia’s military mounted in 2009 a major exercise in the Baltic clearly modeled to mimic an invasion of those three isolated NATO members. Duly, there has been military contingency planning in NATO and in EUCOM, the U.S. European command.   A quartet of fighter aircraft from other NATO air forces are now stationed on an airbase in Lithuania.   Administration officials make a point of dating U.S. involvement in these symbolic deployments to February this year – a month, in other words, after the Administration announced its drawdown of forces from Europe.   “This mission demonstrates our commitment to the collective defense of all NATO members,” Pentagon official James Townsend asserted to that same Senate hearing.

But what role should nuclear weapons play in that collective defense?   For a couple of years, NATO members have been engaged in a Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, aiming to figure out what mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities NATO needs.   Their conclusions are due to be presented, quietly, to alliance leaders in Chicago.   NATO has split.   Washington is adamant: “NATO will remain a nuclear alliance as long as nuclear weapons exist,” Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary for arms control in the State Department, reiterated last November.   In Germany, by contrast, public support is swelling once again for NATO’s renunciation of nuclear weapons; some other Europeans, without going that far, would like to see U.S. nuclear weapons removed from their territories.   (The U.S. is credibly said to have 150-200 nuclear bombs stored on airbases in five European countries.)

NATO’s internal debate about the role of nuclear weapons goes back more than fifty years, rekindles at intervals, and is certainly not going to be settled in Chicago.   Instead, the NATO governments will handle the issue in the traditional manner: they will call for further study.   So far the issue hasn’t ignited public attention; but Moscow has too long experience in fanning NATO’s periodic flare-ups over nuclear weapons to pass up this latest opportunity.   The incendiary question is easy to pose:   does the Administration’s decision to remove almost all U.S. conventional combat forces from Europe – as part of its “pivot” to Asia – mean that NATO’s Article Five guarantees will rely more than ever on the nuclear threat ?

 

The issue is an important reminder of a fact that recent Administrations have tended to underestimate.   NATO may have grown into an alliance willing to contemplate deployments far distant from Europe.   But the reality is that only two of its European members -- France and the U.K – have any real appetite for expeditionary missions.   As Secretary Gates pointed out in his Brussels critique, fewer than half of NATO’s European members participated in operations over Libya, as close as the other shore of the Mediterranean.   (Germany was the most notable hold-out.) Overwhelmingly, NATO’s European members want the alliance to remain focused on its founding mission as a regional defensive pact.   And the closer those countries lie to the borders of a resurgent Russia, the more strongly they assert that.     The Administration’s response, of course, is that America’s evolving strategic emphasis on the Asia-Pacific gives “a clear opportunity for our European allies to take on greater responsibility,” in the implacable phrasing of the State Department’s Philip Gordon at a Senate hearing.

Europe’s economic crisis does not encourage hopes that this will happen any time soon. So the Chicago summit will be declared a success – but only by seriously downplaying the stark fiscal and political challenges ahead.