The NATO summit held earlier this month in Newport, Wales, the first such gathering of the 28-member alliance since 2012, was dominated by Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine and violence in the Middle East.
The summit’s main outcome was the "Wales Declaration of Transatlantic Bond," a broad affirmation that the alliance recognized and was committed to meeting developing threats.
In concrete terms, the agreed upon measures were modest. Regarding Russia, NATO members approved a Readiness Action Plan that will create a rapid reaction force of about 4,000 NATO troops along with prepositioned equipment that could be deployed within 48 hours.
Such a force would be no match for the quantity of Russian troops they would be likely to face in a conflict region. The intent of the new rapid reaction force was for NATO to signal a willingness to defend against possible threats to smaller member states in the Baltic or Eastern Europe.
What remained unstated was that NATO would not offer military support for Ukraine—at least for now—though its member states do support a new round of sanctions on Russia for its actions there.
Turning to the Middle East and the emergency created by ISIS’s swift occupation this summer of about one third of Iraq, nine NATO nations—led by the United States and joined by France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy—agreed to form a "core alliance" committed, as described by President Obama, to the degradation and ultimate destruction of the jihadist threat.
Prime Minister David Cameron warned that the mission could last as long as three years.
For each crisis, the devil will be in the implementation. NATO has a less-than-stellar record in backing its rhetoric with performance, and even a slight cooling of the Ukraine crisis could become a pretext for slowing or even abandoning the plan for a rapid reaction force. Germany and Italy, among others, do not seek any additional deterioration of relations with Russia for commercial reasons, and likely would not push hard for creation of the force if the crisis abates.
Newer NATO members in the Baltic and Eastern Europe, with long memories of Russian perfidy, doubtless would continue to support the existence of such a force.
Similarly, NATO members pledging to respond to the newest threat to Middle East stability will need to clearly define their roles and responsibilities. That did not occur in Wales and remains to be negotiated.
None of the member states are prepared to put boots on the ground, and the U.S. probably will have to carry out the bulk of air combat operations. Others in the core group likely will scramble to take on other and less demanding missions such as training Iraqi forces—referred to as "capacity building" exercises—and providing surveillance information.
The challenge of matching performance to promise also was on display with NATO’s most significant internal challenge: the financial contributions members are prepared to make in support of the alliance’s mission. For years it has been an open secret that NATO has become, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a "two-tier alliance" in which the United States and United Kingdom alone spent at least two-percent of GDP on defense, the agreed-upon but unenforced NATO standard.
In recent years most European NATO members have suffered through difficult—and, in some cases, nearly catastrophic—periods of economic turmoil, with European leaders reluctant in those circumstances to make the case for increasing defense spending to their publics.
In Wales, the alliance reaffirmed the two-percent defense spending commitment, adding that it would occur over the next decade—a timeline that is hardly a reflection of any sense of urgency.
For the Obama administration, the next few months will demonstrate the extent to which the United States is capable of assembling a cohesive and coordinated plan that unites NATO members in defeating ISIL. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry have been making the diplomatic rounds in Turkey and in Saudi Arabia, respectively.
Yet the administration shows little determination to take on Russia. The threat from ISIL notwithstanding, Russia is a much more complex and long-term threat to Europe. It appears that as long as the administration shows a lack of resolve, NATO will remain far from the powerful defense alliance it was intended to be when founded in 1949 in the face of Soviet aggression.