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NATO Summit: Emotions Eclipse Systemic Problems

The meeting took place amid a trade war unfolding between the United States and European countries. Its reasons are not in Donald Trump’s specific views and political manners, but in the problems which have remained unsolved for many years, and could not be resolved by Barack Obama signing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement (TTIP).

Although the most recent NATO summit in Brussels did not bring much sensation, many moments of communication between leaders are surprising and puzzling.

In recent years, it became almost obvious that collective structures, integration entities and international institutions are experiencing a difficult period. On the background of the processes in the UN, EU, NAFTA, CIS, etc., NATO looked quite good. However, this summit make one think about the systemic contradictions that have accumulated in the alliance.

The meeting took place amid a trade war unfolding between the United States and European countries. Its reasons are not in Donald Trump’s specific views and political manners, but in the problems which have remained unsolved for many years, and could not be resolved by Barack Obama signing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement (TTIP).

The NATO summit in Brussels was held in a very tense atmosphere. Valdai Club expert Reinhard Krumm, Head of the Regional Office for Cooperation and Peace in Europe (Vienna), Friedrich Ebert Foundation, spoke in an interview with on the future of the North Atlantic alliance, Trump’s tactics before the meeting with the Russian president and prospects for cooperation between the US and Europe.

The summit agenda included the reform of the NATO command system, financial responsibilities of the alliance members, strengthening of the advanced presence on the eastern flank, development of logistics in Europe, measures to strengthen cybersecurity, expansion of NATO-EU cooperation, including the protection of the European borders from the influx of illegal migrants. As expected, the summit concluded with the signing of a Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation (the previous one was signed in Warsaw in 2016). It reflects the coordinated priorities for further development of the alliance and European security, but there is also a very visible lack of consensus on key issues.

There are not many differences in comparison to the Warsaw Declaration. The tasks, outlined in the previous document, were partially transferred to the new Declaration as examples of successful work. However, there are new points that are worth paying attention to.

At the summit, the parties tried to expand the concept of war and the grounds for the use of force. The beginning of this trend was laid in the 1990s, when the violations of human rights and authoritarianism of Slobodan Milosevic became a pretext for joint NATO actions in Yugoslavia. After 9/11, acts of terror began to be regarded as military aggression and the basis for invoking Article 5 of the NATO Charter. Now it is a question of hybrid wars.

In addition to the common intention to strengthen the fight against terrorism, the document focuses on protection against chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear risks, as well as promoting the implementation of a program for peace and security for women.

The Declaration calls for intensification of cooperation with NATO of those EU members which are not members of the alliance (Sweden, Finland, Austria), and it also mentions willingness to encourage non-European NATO members to participate in the EU initiatives.

It was carefully emphasized that “The capabilities developed through the defence initiatives of the EU and NATO should remain coherent, complementary and interoperable. They should be available to both organisations, subject to the sovereign decisions of the countries that own them.” The emphasis on the topic of sovereignty is very important in the context of the “military Schengen” plans and American insistence that European members of the alliance should increase their defense spending. The latter issue was among the most difficult ones, but it is mentioned in the text of the declaration in very implicit and circumvent formulations. This can be considered a collective victory for Europeans, if one pays great importance to the wording of the document. In practical terms, the American pressure is growing, as is the Europeans’ readiness to accept the American conditions.

Quite symbolic is the episode, when Donald Trump suggested that European countries should raise the defense spending twofold, to 4% of GDP. It was a kind of metaphorical reminder of who in the alliance plays the first fiddle. Only if Europeans spend on defense as much as the US, they will be able to count on an equal voice in the alliance, in the opinion of the American president.

Despite the fact that Europeans in their mass agreed to increase military budgets, this issue is unlikely to have a simple solution. The problem of the unevenness of the alliance members’ defense expenditure is connected with the popular myth that European security is provided at the expense of the Americans, and here some explanation is needed. The amount of the US defense spending generally has little relation to security as such. It is more correct to talk about ensuring ambitions, the need for a global presence and projection of power, protecting the US interests throughout the world. Most of Europe does not face such challenges.

At the end of the 1980s – beginning of the 1990s many people, in the East as well as in the West, had a dream – a dream about a world where peace-dividends would benefit most of the people in the world. The decades long Cold War was declared to be over. Even those who had serious doubts about the prospect of an eternal peace à la Immanuel Kant believed in the possibility of the world without a great power confrontation threatening the survival of the humankind.

The summit will be remembered by undisguised contradictions and scandalous intonations. The topic of the “Russian threat” added fuel to the fire on the eve of the Putin-Trump summit and was raised mainly by European representatives who tried to tune Trump for a tough conversation with the Russian president. Chairman of the European Council Donald Tusk said directly: “European soldiers have been fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with American soldiers in Afghanistan. 870 brave European men and women sacrificed their lives, including 40 soldiers from my homeland Poland. Dear Mr President, please remember about this tomorrow, when we meet at the NATO summit, but above all when you meet president Putin in Helsinki. It is always worth knowing: who is your strategic friend? And who is your strategic problem?” These words should not cause surprise. In addition to the widespread belief in Moscow that the US policy negatively affects Russia’s relations with European countries, it should be noted that Europeans are no less afraid of improvement of Russia’s relations with the United States.

The NATO summit did not bring mutual understanding. Irritation against Donald Trump is so great that the German media did not even hesitate to point to presumed mental problems of the US president. It is more convenient for Europeans to imagine that the current split in relations with Americans is connected almost exclusively with Donald Trump. They see the bad relations with Russia as a consequence of Vladimir Putin’s policy, they do not even try to link instability in North Africa and the Middle East to the European Union’s own policy, and the intra-European contradictions (including Brexit) are in fact seen as merely misunderstanding. This is easier than trying to see the entire set of systemic problems that need to be addressed in an international environment, which should be wider than the framework of the EU or NATO.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.