WASHINGTON — When the leaders of the 29 NATO nations gather in London at the start of December, the focus will nominally be on a celebration of the past and a look to the future. But analysts agree that as much as the event is billed as NATO’s 70th birthday, politics could make the situation feel more like a funeral.

At a Nov. 14 event hosted by the Atlantic Council, supporters of NATO such as Lithuanian defense minister Raimundas Karoblis said the London meeting needs to “reconfirm alliance unity, cohesion… as well as to find political, moral and resource investments.” But there was little optimism in the crowd that the meeting will be able to transcend the political moment.

The focus, NATO watchers agree, will be on three presidents who have shaken the alliance in recent years. U.S. President Donald Trump began his criticisms of NATO while still campaigning for office, and during the last meeting of NATO leaders hinted at possibly leaving the alliance. The decisions by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey to buy a Russian air defense system against the wishes of NATO, as well as to move forces into Syria, has led to open questions about whether Turkey remains a viable NATO ally. And most recently, comments from French President Emmanuel Macron shocked allies with critical comments about NATO in an interview with the Economist, where he complained of “brain death” in the alliance.

All those issues — not to mention the U.K.’s own election just days later, which could have major reverberations in Britain’s relations with its European allies — means “this could get a little ugly, and all the positive agenda items [planned] could get drowned out by the noise,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former NATO deputy secretary general and American ambassador.

Added Richard Hooker, a former director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council, “I think the timing of the leaders meeting is unfortunate. There’s a convergence of controversies and events that are going on right now… I’m not optimistic that it’s going to go smoothly, or that there are going to be a lot of smiles.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., expressed concern that anytime NATO “shows its dysfunction,” it makes it harder for members of Congress to secure funding for the alliance through efforts like the European Deterrence Initiative.

“So ideally, I’d love for everyone to get together, talk about some future roles, talk about successes they’ve had, but this would be the time for stability and for having some level of friendly conversations,” said Gallego, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “No drama. I think this is one of the few times that we should hope that everything is really, really boring, because boring is safe."

A look to the future

With the politics being what they are, expect the London event to focus into a safer space of discussing the alliance’s technological edge versus both Russia and, in the future, China.

Edward Ferguson, a former British ambassador now serving as minister counsellor for defence at the U.K. embassy, said he expects “an agreement to increase our tools to prepare, defend and deter against hybrid threats, by strengthening resilience, improving indicators and warnings." He did not go into further details on what that might look like.

Ferguson also indicated that the NATO leaders will formally acknowledge space as a fifth domain of warfare for the alliance, following up on the 2016 pronouncement of cyber as a warfare domain. Also expect an emphasis on how the alliance invests in artificial intelligence and lots of talk about 5G networks and how to make sure those lines of communication remain secure going forward.

Military mobility will also be a major topic of discussion, predicted Marta Kepe, an analyst with the RAND Corporation. She hopes to see “more development, more understanding and awareness of the role of non-military part of Europe, encouragement from private-public partnerships, either through NATO-EU relationships or through other frameworks” when it comes to mobility issues. That also involves greater communications between NATO and the EU on those projects.

That NATO will continue to push on the need to modernize even amidst the politics does provide some optimism for its supporters, perhaps best summed up by Hooker when he said “Taking the long view, I have a lot of confidence and optimism. It’ll be all right.”

But he added: “I’m glad I won’t be in London.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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