While this May’s NATO summit is supposed to focus on Afghanistan and making the most out of shrinking defense budgets, several other issues will compete for world leaders’ attention.
The summit, scheduled to take place in Chicago on May 20-21, was originally planned as an “implementation” summit, meant to review progress on a series of goals laid out at the last NATO summit, held in Lisbon in 2010.
However, due to recent geopolitical events, the stakes are higher.
“This year’s summit could not come at a more critical time,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said at an Atlantic Council event March 20 on Capitol Hill. “Faced with a wider and more complex range of challenges than perhaps ever before, NATO needs to define its role in a world where the focus is turning toward the Asia-Pacific.”
A November research paper from the NATO Defense College in Rome said the uprisings in the Arab world, the international financial crisis and the debate over trans-Atlantic burden-sharing have modified the summit’s agenda and “are likely to transform the Chicago event into a summit in its own right.”
Items expected to be on the agenda include: Afghanistan; the Arab Spring and lessons from NATO operations in Libya; Smart Defense; the relationship between NATO and Russia; missile defense; and the future role and relevance of nuclear deterrence.
Each of these is “highly complex and it will be difficult to find consensus or summit ‘deliverables,’” according to the research paper.
However, with the U.S. presidential election campaign shifting into full gear, the Obama administration will be under pressure to produce tangible results, especially a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan that will shape long-term NATO involvement in the country.
It is the first summit in 13 years to be held in the United States.
Shaheen stressed that NATO historically enjoys bipartisan support among Democrats and Republicans. She said she hoped the summit would not become a political football during the presidential election year.
Also fighting for leaders’ attention, even though not on the agenda, will be the issues of Syria, NATO expansion, Iran and the broader question of what NATO’s role will be post-Afghanistan.
First and foremost on the agenda is Afghanistan, with the goal to more fully define the security transition from NATO forces to Afghan security forces.
In addition to defining the strategy that will guide operations between now and 2014, NATO needs to find consensus on a post-2014 relationship with Afghanistan and its government, Shaheen said.
NATO countries need to hash out the long-term financial commitment to Afghanistan, along with the organization’s physical presence on the ground.
Speaking at the same event in Washington as Shaheen, former Republican Sen. John Warner said “this forthcoming summit will have to resolve — is it 2014, is it 2013 and who’s going to do what?”
One of the most “impactful” achievements that could come out of the summit would be the completion of a NATO strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said. It could change the narrative in the country from one of “abandonment” to one of “international commitment,” he added.
“Reaching some type of strategic partnership agreement with [Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s] government and having that be a key point from the outcome of the summit would be a tremendous success and we’re not at all certain that that’s going to happen as we look ahead,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who led U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
This partnership agreement is central to what happens after 2014 and “if that doesn’t come together soon, I foresee problems there,” he said.
Also high on the agenda will be the NATO “Smart Defense” initiative, an effort to better pool and coordinate defense spending and capabilities amid shrinking budgets.
Both Shaheen and McCain warned that Smart Defense should not be used as an excuse or as political cover for a “continued lack of defense spending by our European allies.”
Shaheen said operations in Libya only highlighted NATO’s overreliance on U.S. firepower and Europe’s underinvestment in defense capabilities.
Ian Brzezinski, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said one could argue that making Smart Defense a credible initiative could be a measure of the summit’s success, because it is directly tied to NATO’s ability to operate today and tomorrow.
Unfortunately, NATO is often better at creating initiatives than at implementing them, Walter Slocombe, former undersecretary of defense for policy during the Clinton administration, said.
Part of Smart Defense is allowing certain NATO members to excel in niche capabilities to avoid creating unnecessary redundancies within the alliance.
Barno said that as NATO moves down this path it has to make sure it does not remove the baseline or price of admission to join the alliance and participate in operations.
McCain, an outspoken advocate for a U.S.-led intervention in Syria, said it was shameful that NATO has done nothing while the government of Bashar al-Assad continues to violently suppress civil unrest in the country.
“Is it now the policy of NATO that we will stand by as rulers kill their people by the thousands and our alliance won’t even discuss what we might do to help stop them?” McCain said. “This is shameful.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said that NATO has no plan to intervene in Syria and that he does not envision one taking shape.
While NATO strongly condemns the violence there, the alliance believes that a regional solution to the problem in Syria is the best way forward, Rasmussen told reporters in Washington in February. Currently, the topic is not on the official agenda for the Chicago summit.
For McCain, this strategy falls short of what he sees as NATO’s commitments.
“Shame on us and shame on the alliance if we neglect our responsibilities to support brave peoples who are struggling and dying in an unfair fight for the same values that are at the heart of our alliance,” he said.
McCain said he’d also like to see NATO members use the opportunity in Chicago to discuss growing the alliance to include countries such as Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Georgia.
“We hear it said that this will not be an expansion summit,” McCain said. “That is regrettable. We must make it clear to all of these countries, and any other country in Europe that wants to be a part of NATO and can meet the criteria, that the path to membership is open to them.”
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking at the same event, said it should be remembered that NATO is not a gift, but a responsibility. New partners need to add to the strength of the alliance and not detract from it, she said.
Countries looking to join NATO are often very supportive and willing to do things for the alliance, but once they are accepted they begin to question whether they should spend the money, Albright said. Even so, the door should be left open to those who want to join, she added.
“My understanding is that a lot of attention is going to be paid to aspirants in Chicago,” Albright said.
The relationship between NATO and Russia is rocky, with occasional steps forward alternating with setbacks.
Russia continues to view NATO expansion and the U.S.-led effort to build a missile shield in Europe as threatening.
Now, with Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency, and the accusations of voter fraud that surrounded his win, NATO is once again assessing the next chapter in the relationship.
Warner said he thinks “a little cooling-off period is now in order.”
According to news reports, Rasmussen has confirmed Putin will be unable to attend the May summit due to a “busy domestic political calendar.” He is scheduled to be inaugurated as president May 7.
However, Putin is expected to attend the G-8 meeting being held May 18 and 19 at Camp David in Maryland.