Washington — Seasoned NATO observers know to expect few surprises when Chicago hosts the first NATO summit on U.S. soil in 13 years. After an ambitious effort at Lisbon in 2010 ushered in NATO’s new strategic concept, Chicago was always meant to be more about implementation than big or new ideas. Indeed, preoccupation with other things — e.g., the ongoing impact of the financial crisis, the effect of electoral cycles, and evident disagreement between allies on a few fundamental issues — dampens expectations for the “deliverables” to be announced in Chicago.
Measured expectations are understandable. This is a summit that must go smoothly and, thus difficult issues may be deferred. NATO member states wish to demonstrate collectively that the most successful military alliance in history is evolving to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Collective defense, enshrined in Article 5, which mandates that an attack on one is an attack on the whole, remains the cornerstone of this understanding. Likewise, in the wake of its strategic rebalancing to Asia, the United States will look to reassure its European allies that NATO remains the “indispensable alliance.’” Meanwhile the same European allies will seek to reassure the United States that they have understood its insistence on the need for more and better burden sharing.
Discussions at the summit will focus on three key areas — revitalizing NATO’s defence capabilities, continuing the process of transition in Afghanistan, and strengthening NATO’s valuable partnerships not only in Europe, but across the globe.
Smart Defense is a key component to NATO’s plan for revitalizing its capabilities. According to this concept, member states commit to share resources and capabilities and to collaborate on future acquisitions aimed at eliminating unnecessary duplication and expense. Around 20 Smart Defense projects will be announced in Chicago, but questions will remain of how “new” or how “shared” these programs really are. For example, both the expansion of Baltic Air Policing and development of Allied Ground Surveillance were galvanized by the Smart Defense initiative, and both are welcome, yet some may argue these are hardly “new” initiatives. The Alliance will also announce “interim operational capability” for Ballistic Missile Defense, but the challenge will be maintaining European financial contributions to what will remain substantively a U.S. project.
The key question is whether the announcements in Chicago will indicate a change in NATO’s mindset. Can this new formulation of cooperative defense, burden sharing, and interoperability succeed where earlier, similar initiatives have stagnated? Can the Alliance find ways around longstanding concerns, including over important issues of national versus alliance interests?
On the second day of the summit, 22 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) partners will join the 28 NATO members for discussions on Afghanistan, NATO’s top operational priority. The discussions will focus on five key issues: NATO’s shift to a supporting role in 2013; training and financial support for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF); partnership with Afghanistan beyond 2014; and reconciliation and long-term international support for security, economic, and development commitments to Afghanistan. Once more, the messages will be clear, but the details less so. Most immediately, the pre-election promises of the incoming French President Francois Hollande have already required some careful backpedaling to avoid upsetting NATO’s principle of “in together, out together.” And there are more elections to come. Pakistan’s invitation to Chicago also signals a possible warming of this key relationship. But more difficult conversations will be left for the Tokyo Donors Conference on Afghanistan in July.
There has been clear progress in Afghanistan, where, 75 percent of the population is now under the protection of Afghan-led security forces; moreover Afghan forces now lead about 40 percent of conventional and special operations missions. The U.S. strategic partnership agreement and other bilateral pacts have informed Afghans that they will not be abandoned, but that considerable challenges remain, not least receiving the financial commitments that will be required of cash-strapped allies.
Although Chicago is not intended to be an enlargement summit, there will be a meeting of those states aspiring to be part of NATO intended to signal that the door remains open and that nations should be free to choose their own alliances. Expect careful choreography attempting to disguise differences between member states on the pace and nature of any expansion.
Also expect the Alliance to go to considerable lengths to acknowledge how important partnerships beyond the 28 nations have been — not just for operations in Afghanistan, but especially in Libya, where for the first time Arab nations placed their military forces under the NATO command and control umbrella. With an eye towards the future, some nations, the United States in particular, will urge the Alliance to envision NATO as the hub of a global network of partnerships.
Some Alliance members will seek in the post-2014 period to retrench because of global austerity, instead confining NATO’s focus to missions “in area” while deferring “out of area” operations. This would be a mistake. Indeed, the debate over NATO’s relevance after the Chicago Summit will confront a different reality: there is no more “out of area.” Rather, future challenges confronting NATO will most likely emanate from the instability well beyond its familiar field of vision.
Mark Jacobson is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow in Washington, DC, and Sarah Raine is a Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow in Berlin, both with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.