Nato leaders gather in Warsaw this week at a time of great uncertainty and growing instability. Russia is once again a military threat on the eastern borders. Large migrant flows have reached Europe’s shores. Terrorists have struck the continent’s cities. The EU faces its biggest crisis yet as a result of the British vote to leave the union. The stakes in Warsaw are high — for Nato’s leaders, for Europe’s security, for transatlantic relations.
So what can we expect from the summit?
First, and most importantly, Nato leaders will decide to bolster deterrence of Russian aggression by deploying four combat battalions of 1,000 troops each to the territory of the three Baltic states and Poland. As Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general has said, this decision, represents “the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the cold war”. The battalions, to be led by British, Canadian, German, and US forces, are to be deployed on a rotating but persistent basis. Their presence will send an unmistakable message that an attack on any Nato country is an attack on all.
Second, Nato is likely to announce measures to address some of the most pressing security challenges coming from the south – including terrorists trained and inspired by the Islamist militants of Isis and large-scale migrant flows. While it will stop short of taking the decisive steps to deal with these challenges for which some have called, it may opt to use the Nato-owned and operated airborne early warning and surveillance aircraft to support the US-led collation countering Isis, and it is likely to expand training of security forces in Iraq. It could offer such training to Libyan security forces now battling Isis as well. It is also likely to offer to assist the EU in its efforts to address the migrant flows across the Mediterranean, as is has being doing in the Aegean.
But the alliance is not likely to become the lead actor in countering terrorism or Isis—at least not yet. The most pressing need is to share intelligence about the threat, and Nato’s civilian and military intelligence backbone could provide a means to do so. Yet European governments have been loath to share intelligence, especially in military channels. Warsaw is unlikely to change that. Furthermore, in theory, Nato could take command of the operation countering Isis in Syria, as it did against militants in Afghanistan a decade ago. In practice, there seems little appetite for this on either side of the Atlantic. While terrorist outrages on Nato soil clearly constitute an “armed attack”, none of the European countries that have suffered such events have invoked the collective defence provisions of Nato’s Article 5 — not Paris, not Brussels, not Ankara.
Finally, the Brexit vote shines an unexpected light on the importance of the relationship between Nato and the EU. Relations between these two organisations have been less co-operative than their largely overlapping membership would suggest. Britain’s decision to leave the EU makes such co-operation all the more important, if only to underscore that London remains committed to Europe’s security and prosperity.
Yet the question of enhanced co-operation between Nato and the EU is not a simple one. There has long been a desire in some European countries, as well as in the EU leadership, for stronger defence ties among EU nations — even for setting up a European army. Britain in effect opposed any such efforts; but the Brexit vote has weakened the impact of British opposition. Loud voices across the Atlantic calling the viability of Nato into question also strengthen the argument for greater EU defence co-operation.
The challenge for Nato — and for the EU — is to channel this urge to strengthen Europe’s military ties in ways that strengthen rather than weaken the overall defense capacity of Europe, within and outside Nato. A European army could represent a welcome boost to Nato’s overall defence capabilities. The two can complement each other, as shown by the counter-piracy operations off the Somali coast, peacekeeping in Kosovo and maritime efforts to counter human trafficking in the Aegean. But there is also a danger that European efforts will be less than the sum of the individual parts and thus weaken overall security efforts.
Alliance leaders are unlikely to grapple with the operational details of enhancing co-operation with the EU in Warsaw. But Brexit has placed renewed emphasis on the importance of getting such co-operation right by enhancing the unity and overall capability of the co-operative efforts.
The timing of the Warsaw summit is propitious, coming at a moment when the need to demonstrate that the nations of Europe and North America remain committed to their common security through collective effort and co-operation. In standing up to Russia, meeting the challenge from the south and forging closer relations with the EU, Nato leaders can underscore their commitment to meeting that test.
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. From 2009 to 2013 he was the US permanent representative to Nato