NATO in Wales: What to expect at this week’s summit

By Steve Saideman

The first thing to know about any NATO summit is that it is much like a conference for an academic — an event that creates an artificial deadline that forces people to finish their papers. The Wales Summit, like preceding summits, mostly recognizes the work done by diplomats in Brussels and policy-makers in the national capitals in the months leading up to the summit. Most of the statements and speeches and papers will have been thoroughly vetted by each member, making most of the event rather boring.

The Wales Summit, to be held this Thursday and Friday, will be more interesting than the average because its agenda will almost certainly be quite different from what was anticipated at the end of the previous summit. Russia/Ukraine is now at the top of the list, forcing NATO to come up with a stance. Still, most of the summit will follow from the tried and true NATO playbook.

Every member’s leader will get to make a speech. The media will focus almost all of the coverage on the speeches by the leader of their country and that of President Obama. This time, unlike nearly any other summit, there will be probably more attention paid to the statements by the leaders of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These “frontline” states are far more concerned about Russia’s gambits in Ukraine than most of the members with only Canada perhaps providing strident statements.

The meeting will “bless” a series of documents and communiques. The relevance of these will become more apparent over time as their language gets inserted into many, if not most, NATO related decisions. During my year in the Pentagon in 2001-2002, we inserted the same contradictory words into every Balkans-related document based on the President’s speech at the previous summits: “In together, out together” and “We must hasten the day that the conditions are set for NATO to depart.” Of course, these are open to reinterpretation and thus not so binding. NATO left Bosnia, replaced by the European Union Force, which meant that only the U.S., Canada and a few others left Bosnia, and most of the European members of NATO swapped out their NATO badges for EU badges. So much for “in together, out together.”

Unlike recent summits, Russia will not be present or at least not in the same way. The NATO-Russia Council is no longer going to complement the regular NATO meetings. However, the meetings will focus on Russia. There will be some attempts to bridge the divisions among the allies about how to respond to the events in Ukraine. In the lead-up to the summit, Germany was resisting the long-term basing of NATO troops in Poland and the Baltics as it was seen as provocative and escalatory. However, Russia seems to be already be provoked as it continues its invasion of Ukraine.

So, the “deliverables” that will be the output of this meeting may still be in flux, unlike the ordinary NATO summit. German leaders had said that they would be more flexible if Russia invaded Ukraine. Well, we are there now. So, I am now expecting some kind of announcement about basing of NATO troops, whether that is permanent or semi-permanent or infinitely recurring is not yet clear.

The key deliverable that is already being discussed is the NATO Rapid Reaction Force with Canada apparently committing a battalion. The idea is to create a 10,000-troop force ready to deploy in very short notice. I am eagerly awaiting the actual documents because I have no clue as to how this unit would operate. The problem is that unless the military head of NATO, the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe [SACEUR], is pre-delegated authority to deploy this force, the permanent representatives from each member would have to meet and authorize the deployment. This can happen quickly if each permanent representative has authority to make the decision, but they often have to consult back and forth with their leaders back home.

More importantly, the obstacles to multilateral military cooperation that David Auerswald and I identify in our book must be overcome ahead of time. Countries do not give up control of their troops even when they hand them over to NATO command. They often impose a series of restrictions or caveats on how these forces can be used, which often makes them impossible to use quickly or flexibly. So, either the pool of forces to be included in the Rapid Reaction Force will come from countries that tend to impose only minimal restrictions (U.S., Canada, UK, Denmark and sometimes France) or countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Germany will have to get pre-approval from their legislatures. Unless this challenge is resolved one way or another, I simply find the concept of a rapid reaction force to be almost entirely theoretical. In this, NATO may be making the classic mistake of confusing hope with a plan. Without working through the difficulties of multilateral military cooperation, the Rapid Reaction Force is more likely to be a wish than a reality.

So, as the Summit occurs at the end of this week, focus not so much on the pre-baked statements and the hectoring of Russia, but on the details of the proposals. Who is in the Rapid Reaction Force? Who is not? Who will be basing their troops in eastern parts of the alliance? Who will not? As always, getting agreement is hard, but getting participation is much more difficult.

This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and its international-affairs hub  OpenCanada.

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