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Brexit and the NATO Summit in Warsaw

Coming shortly after the successful referendum on taking the UK out of the EU, the NATO summit on 8-9 July in Warsaw promises to be one of the more challenging ones in its history. This blog looks at some of the more important issues on the Alliance’s agenda.

On 8–9 July, 28 NATO Chiefs of State and Government, as well as representatives from the organization’s forty-odd partner countries and organizations, will gather in Warsaw for what promises to be the most important such gathering since the end of the Cold War.

Even before the British vote to leave the European Union, this was going to be a challenging meeting. Brexit makes it that much more so. That said, it also provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at the way European and non-European NATO members work together on questions of common strategic interest. This is one of the two key issues before the Summiteers. But first, let’s look at the other one.

Since roughly 2014, NATO members have differed over the question of whether it is the Islamic State (IS) that requires the Alliance’s attention or Putin’s Russia. NATO’s southern members tend to see IS as the most important threat, while the Alliance’s eastern members look instead at Russia. The perspective of other member states – countries such as France, Belgium and Germany – has largely been shaped by the extent they have experienced or fear the threat of terrorist attacks on their soil.

Turkey and the United States find themselves in a somewhat different situation. Turkey, facing Russia across the Black Sea, suffered a series of terrorist attacks attributed to Kurdish groups fighting for communal rights and more recently to IS. The United States contends with IS-inspired attacks on its territory and a resurgent Russia trying to dismantle America’s leadership role, all the while suggesting the common struggle against IS is much more important than “misunderstandings” about Ukraine. Significantly, in recent days, there have been signs that the White House may be looking to do a deal with Russia on Ukraine in return for greater cooperation from Moscow in dealing with the Syrian crisis.

The need for some strategic fine-tooling is much greater than the IS/Russia choice described above would suggest. There are at least three other strategic challenges that are only weakly on the Alliance’s agenda or almost not at all.

First, the Alliance has no coherent policy on the Arctic, notwithstanding Russia’s growing military presence in the region, its ambition to lay claim to the North Pole and much of surrounding landmass, and the fact that this posture is clearly at odds with the United States, Canada, and NATO’s four Nordic members and partners. The question that arises is why these NATO members should go to bat for, say, NATO’s southern tier if the latter are not ready to go to bat for them. Granted, NATO countries most concerned about the Arctic have tended to see this region until very recently as one where cooperative policies could prevail. But the strategic situation in the Arctic has since moved on.

Second, the Alliance has no position on the security situation in the South China Seas, where Beijing lays claim to a dominant role that calls into question the rights of several contiguous states that happen to be key allies of the United States. It is vital that America’s European allies do some serious thinking about their security responsibilities in this part of the world. With its “pivot to Asia,” Washington has suggested that this region will take priority in its security tasks. This does not mean NATO Europe is less important but that is the implication. The tension between US strategic interests in Asia and in Europe is less crass than these words suggest. Nonetheless, it will not go away anytime soon, and deserves to be addressed by the Europeans.

The third issue concerns cybersecurity. Cyberattacks on the infrastructure of member countries have become increasingly frequent. Most of them have been traced to actors in such places as Russia, China, and North Korea. Western capitals have, however, hesitated to call a spade a spade, largely failing to assert with any conviction that the attackers are acting on behalf of their governments. This is more about weak knees than strategic analysis. Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang control pretty well everything in their national space: if cyber-pirates are not under their control, there is little reason to assume that they would not be able to correct this situation if they so desired. NATO has promised to make cyberspace a strategic domain in its own right at the Warsaw Summit. The Secretary-General has said that NATO could deploy conventional weapons in response to a cyberattack. So far so good, but there has to be more meat on these bones.

Curiously, Brexit may provide an opportunity to deal with some of these issues. Great Britain has been the indispensable nation for Canada and the United States in their efforts to preserve and protect the transatlantic link. The island state has also played a crucial role in championing the extension of the EU to the fledgling democracies that emerged after the fall of communism in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. These are historical contributions of the first order.

At the same time, London’s policies have been negative in important respects. The UK has systematically blocked the development of a governance paradigm that would allow the EU of 28 members to be able to take effective decisions. Paradoxically, this is part of the reason why the EU has been so ineffectual in dealing with the many challenges that now shape its agenda, and part of the reason why 52 percent of British voters voted to take their country out of the EU.

Then too, the UK has stood in the way of any attempt to develop an independent European defence role that could be activated when the US does not want or cannot engage. This, for example, is why there was no effective EU response to the situation in Syria in 2012 when Washington decided not to act on its redline on Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

Theoretically, with the UK out of the picture, the EU can decide to rationalize its decision-making procedures, and it can move as well to create a viable defence capacity. So, Brexit does not have to be a total disaster.

An autonomous European defence capacity would have a series of advantages. The EU could intervene independently in security situations posing a threat to its members, independently of whether the Yanks were inclined to do so. The Europeans would be absolved of the idea that their strategic priorities were by definition imposed by Washington. European politicians would enjoy greater scope for creating a domestic consensus around the notion that European defence is first and foremost a European responsibility, not a function of the voracious appetite of the American military-industrial complex. Last but not least, the Europeans would have the wherewithal to act as a viable partner in those strategic situations where common US-EU action was indispensable.

Will this work? The Americans, after systematically opposing a devolution of security responsibilities, have finally appeared ready to play ball. The much-maligned EU Commission has recently developed a concept for a more vigorous defence role that would appear to fit into this concept. The question now is how continental Europe will react. Will those European leaders who have traditionally relied on British reluctance not to have to take the tough decisions that an effective EU security role imposes assume their responsibilities? Or will the EU electorate be served up another plate of waffle?

Reorganizing defence roles with NATO is not an issue that the organization can decide on its own. In Warsaw, however, the Alliance could and should acknowledge the need for an autonomous EU defence capacity and declare its readiness to support efforts by the EU to move in this direction. This would not cancel out the Brexit decision but it could help allay the feelings of a Western world adrift.

(Image courtesy of Yves Herman/Reuters.)

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