WASHINGTON ― The biannual NATO summit, this year held July 11-12 in Brussels, represents the highest-level gathering of the 29 allied nations ― and a chance to firm up any changes or updates to NATO’s mission and operation.
This year’s event is not expected to be transformational, as the 2014 summit followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead, defense leaders have pushed the idea of the summit as a continuation of sorts, looking at how best to tweak and implement the ideas put in place over the last four years. But that doesn’t mean nothing will get done.
“We will talk about our success and what we’ve accomplished, but I think it’s more than a consolidation, I think it is a next step forward,” Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former U.S. senator now serving as America’s ambassador to NATO, told Defense News in May.
But although NATO is an alliance, its members often disagree, and knowing what countries will want from the summit can serve as a preview of potential future fights. Over the last several months, Defense News has collected comments from allied officials about what they will be pushing at the meeting, the first to be held in NATO’s new headquarters. Below is a collection of quotes and summaries based on these statements.
United States of America: The U.S. is expected to firm up exactly what its role will be for the new Atlantic command. That group is going to be based at Norfolk, Virginia, alongside NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, but details such as staffing levels are unclear.
“I think that is an adaptation that is going to have very large consequences for a better, more efficient operation that can assess the risks better and also address them and increase where we need to increase our assets,” Hutchison told Defense News in May.
There will also be an expectation of increased allied contributions to counterterrorism missions, something NATO nations began in February, when Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced a new plan for joint training in Iraq.
And expect President Donald Trump and other officials to continue to hammer NATO nations on increasing their defense spending toward the goal of 2 percent of gross domestic product.
United Kingdom: During the 2016 NATO summit, the U.K. had just gone through the Brexit vote to leave the European Union and was preparing for a change in government, leaving significant uncertainty in its relationship with the other allies. Now on firmer ground, the U.K. is coming in with a few concrete items in mind.
Broadly, said Sarah MacIntosh, the country’s ambassador to NATO, expect the U.K. to join with other allies on strengthening deterrence and defense as well as increasing funding for counterterrorism. Specifically the U.K. is looking to “see more work on early warning indicators so we can see threats earlier before they get to us, on further arrangements on rapid reinforcement when it’s needed, on military mobility so that our forces can move more easily around the Euro-Atlantic area, [reassessing] our resilience to hybrid threats, and more decisions on cyber,” she said during a May 23 event at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
On the cyber issue, MacIntosh noted the U.K. is the only NATO ally to offer its offensive cyber capabilities to the alliance, before indicating her country would welcome others doing the same.
Canada: At the same May 23 event, Canada’s outgoing ambassador to NATO, Kerry Buck, agreed that sending a “strong deterrent measure of unity” to Russia would be a vital part of the summit, with allies reconfirming their commitment to each other. She also stressed the “important message” that NATO is part of a web that includes more than 40 partners spread across the world, and not just a European alliance.
She also said to expect the development of an action plan from the summit on what she called “inclusive security,” a way to bring in more women and minority voices into the NATO discussion, in order to avoid exacerbating sectarian and cultural fights around the globe.
“To me, inclusive security is about legitimacy and the effectiveness of NATO. If NATO doesn’t represent 100 percent of NATO-allied publics, it won’t have that legitimacy,” Buck said.
But Buck seemed to disagree with the American position that nations need to be rushing to the 2 percent threshold of military spending, noting that while not there yet, Canada has still taken part in “every” NATO mission around the globe. “It’s easy to have a very binary discussion around 2 percent, and that is a mistake,” she said.
France: When the French delegation arrives at the NATO summit, they intend to focus on the overarching theme that nuclear deterrence and defense posture must balance five areas of discussion: the concept that collective defense underpins security of the member states, counterterrorism, modernization of the alliance, cooperation between the EU and NATO, and burden-sharing between the two sides of the Atlantic, the defense ministry told Defense News.
The minister will note that France is a “solid and committed ally,” and that the pledges made at the NATO summits in Wales in 2014, Warsaw in 2016 and in Brussels last year need to be consolidated. The minister will also note the importance of preserving “robustness,” solidarity and a united NATO response to challenges in the east as well as the south of Europe, while maintaining a balance between dialogue and firmness, the ministry said.
France will also note that recent European initiatives contributed to improving collective defense, part of the principle of fair burden-sharing.
Germany: For Germany, the Brussels summit will be a chance to work through the particulars of the alliance’s new Joint Support and Enabling Command, which will be located in the southern German city of Ulm. The outfit is slated to be the hub for coordinating military equipment movements throughout NATO countries in Europe.
The issue of sharpening NATO’s defenses while doing the same for the EU is also high on the priority list for the Berlin delegation. U.S. officials likely will be eager to hear assurances that there will be no conflict between the two lines of effort.
The Germans likely will have their hands full trying to counter the assertion that they are failing to pay enough for the common defense. The topic is known to aggravate Trump, who wants Germany to annually invest 2 percent of its GDP in the German armed forces by 2024, as agreed by all of NATO. Defense leaders in Berlin have said they want to get to 1.5 percent, but the current budget trajectory still falls short of even that target.
“We will increase our defense spending and continue to take responsibility,” a Defence Ministry spokesman wrote in an email to Defense News. The summit will show whether that answer will fly with other NATO members.
Speaking on the first day of a June meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Stoltenberg announced that "all allies have stopped the cuts, all have started to increase and the majority of allies have put forward plans on how to meet the 2 percent, or spend 2 percent on defense, by 2024.”
“I welcome the fact that Germany has stopped cuts, Germany has started to increase and also the plans to increase German defense spending by 80 percent over a decade,” he specifically noted.
Norway: During a 2017 visit to Norway, officials told Defense News they were increasingly concerned about Russia’s activities in the Atlantic, and indicated a push for some sort of renewal of the old Atlantic-focused NATO command structure would be of interest to them.
So with the creation of Atlantic Command expected to be finalized at the summit, Frank Bakke-Jensen, Norway’s defense minister, should be feeling pretty good.
During a March interview with Defense News in Washington, Bakke-Jensen said it is “important to take NATO back to the Atlantic, to focus on the north Atlantic, it’s also important for us. And we think the new command structure will suit us well.”
“It’s important for us to have a command structure looking into the communication lines through the Atlantic,” he said.
Estonia: Jüri Luik, Estonia’s minister of defense, told a March 8 crowd at the Center for International and Strategic Studies that his country would use the summit to push other nations on speeding up the arrival of forces to the Baltic region in case of an invasion.
“We very much hope the new NATO summit in July will focus on issues of reinforcement, follow-up forces, speed of deployments,” Luik said. “We can say reinforcements ― in a broad sense ― will be the key deliverable from our point of view, from the July summit.”
Unsurprisingly, Estonia would welcome a stronger presence from NATO allies as well, with the minister noting: “Speed in the key here, but also the numbers. Without having sufficient numbers of forces that are ready to rapidly react in case of crisis, our deterrence and defense posture will not suffice.”
One big hurdle for quickly getting forces to the front line comes back to an issue of military mobility. Currently, not all NATO nations have agreements with other allies to allow military forces to quickly move through their borders.
“That is why we would also support to committing to military mobility pledge at summit, to have allies shorten their diplomatic” procedures by pledging to give permission to border crossings within five days, Luik said.
Lithuania: Lithuania is well-aware that it is on the front line of any potential conflict with Russia, and so the Baltic nation will arrive at the summit with the goal of pushing for more: more allied forces inside its border, more information shared among allies and more regional exercises.
As a result, Lithuania will be very interested in any potential discussion of a Baltic command within NATO ― or anything that would increase resources in and around the region. They will also be supportive of finding solutions to the military mobility challenge, as the government in Vilnius views the quick deployment of allied forces into its country ― in case of conflict with Russia ― as an existential matter.
One area of concern and focus from Lithuanian officials, shared during an April visit to Copenhagen arranged by the Atlantic Council and conducted under Chatham House rules, is a desire to push the NATO air-policing mission toward more of an air-defense mission. (Defense News accepted travel and accommodations during the trip.)
At the least, Lithuania hopes to get clearance for allied nations to begin training for air defense over its skies, something not allowed under the air-policing mission.
Denmark: Like NATO itself, Denmark is in the midst of transforming its military back from one focusing heavily on counterinsurgency operations and toward the era of great power conflict. Denmark recently reached a new defense agreement that will see the nation raise its defense spending by 20 percent by 2023, but the nation will still not have reached the 2 percent target, leaving it at 1.3 percent of GDP.
During Defense News’ June visit to Copenhagen, there was frustration that the focus on hitting 2 percent GDP means one of America’s most active allies will continue to be beaten up by the Trump administration.
At the same time, there is optimism that the alliance’s decision to focus on military mobility and the creation of the new Atlantic Command will help position NATO for future requirements. And there may be some discussions on the sideline of the meeting focused on the question of whether a Baltic command is also needed.
Sweden and Finland: Although not NATO members, Sweden and Finland have been invited to the summit as close working partners and will attend at least one formal dinner, while also being active on the sidelines of the meeting.
During a May 8 interview with Defense News, Finnish Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö laughed when asked what his country wanted to see at the summit, noting that Finland will be there as a guest. But Niinistö acknowledged an interest in the command structure, as well as an appreciation for his country to take part in the discussions.
“We are looking forward to taking part in the Resolute Support mission, and the political dialogue all in all is important for us,” he said. “We just hope that we can take part in these summits in the future and have this important political dialogue together and to be partners in NATO, enhanced-opportunities partners. That is good for our defense capabilities.”
Expect Finland to also work to downplay concerns from non-EU nations about the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation initiative on security and defense, of which the U.S. has been vocally critical since its creation late last year.
Pierre Tran in Paris, Sebastian Sprenger in Cologne, Germany, and Martin Banks in Brussels contributed to this report.
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.