A Summit of Optimistic Resolve
The key result of the Chicago Summit was the restoration of an optimistic atmosphere.
Considered from a purely formal standpoint, the most senior body of NATO – the North Atlantic Council – always holds the same powers of decision, regardless of the level at which it convenes: be it at the level of ambassadors, foreign ministers or defence ministers or as a summit attended by heads of state and government.
Reasons for calling a summit must therefore be linked with something more than the need for the official adoption of certain decisions: a summit determines NATO’s broader political direction which is shaped by heads of state and government through their statements and the atmosphere created at the summit – something which the level of ambassadors will never be able to do, despite its formal powers of decision. For example, the Prague Summit held in 2002 is known as the ‘enlargement summit’ due to the fact that in addition to the adoption of the enlargement decision, it also lent added impetus to the enlargement debate in general; the Lisbon Summit in 2010 is perceived as the ‘summit on partnership relations’ in the spirit of which debates were held long afterwards on how to better engage and involve NATO’s partners, including Russia.
Think-tanks, the media and the security community in the Western world were largely pessimistic before the Chicago Summit: lengthy discussions centred on the rising powers in Asia and also on the related shift in the US focus to the East, on defence budget cuts in NATO member states and on difficulties in political decision-making in an enlarged organisation. This pessimism was essentially emotional because it was not based on key facts: both the defence expenditure and the deployable, i.e. available, forces of NATO as a whole are today larger than 15 years ago plus the Alliance can, if necessary, take quick decisions on complex issues as its operation in Libya demonstrated.
The key result of the Chicago Summit was the restoration of an optimistic and resolute atmosphere, reflected in every single decision adopted at the summit.
First, Afghanistan. The future action plan for Afghanistan was defined and the decision to continue to support the nation after the completion of NATO’s current military operation in 2014 was taken in Chicago. This was a crucial decision, but the discussions revolving around the issue were even more significant: namely, how to secure NATO’s future as an active and interoperable military union after the conclusion of an extensive, years-long military operation. Indeed, ‘how’ because ‘whether or not’ was not on the agenda – it was obvious to heads of state and government that NATO was, and would continue to be in the future, the cornerstone of the security of all Allies, regardless of any short-term or long-term threats various Allies might perceive to their security.
So, there were no doubts about the fundamentals, i.e. the nature of NATO, and one of the outcomes of the summit – paradoxically, as part of the debates on foreign operations – seems to be that future discussions will increasingly concentrate on such issues as the organisation of multinational joint exercises in different regions of the Alliance, the rationalisation of defence and operational planning, and the promotion of the cohesion of Allied armed forces, including their military staffs.
Second, missile defence. The decision to create a NATO missile defence capability was adopted in Lisbon where the time schedule for its development was also determined. The completion of the first phase in the development of the missile defence shield was announced in Chicago – outwardly, this was just to underline at a high political level the technical progress achieved. The meaning of the step, however, was much more significant: it is common knowledge that the defence shield has become one of the most fiercely contested issues in the NATO-Russian relationship, often leading to public displays of emotion. So, the declaration was made at the Chicago Summit to demonstrate that NATO is the one who decides on the issues that concern its defence and that – although it makes every effort to engage and involve other nations – it implements its decisions resolutely.
The progress made with missile defence also provides an example of NATO’s ability to deliver on its promises: despite defence budget cuts in many states, the Alliance has managed to stick to its schedule for the development of a highly complex and resource intensive missile defence shield. In addition, this testifies to the fact that the USA has not distanced itself from Europe or lost interest in Europe’s security – the missile shield for the defence of European Allies is, after all, built mostly at the expense of the American taxpayer.
Third, the issue of ‘smart defence’ received quite a lot of attention both before and during the summit. According to this concept, the Allies should increase their cooperation efforts in the development of capabilities to avoid duplication, so that we would get more defence for less money. The Chicago Summit approved a series of actions under the umbrella of smart defence, including one of its flagship operations – the now termless Baltic air policing mission – which enables the Baltic states to secure their airspace by using the already existing Allied resources, instead of the acquisition of fighter aircraft, and thus allows them to develop other more feasible capabilities.
In terms of giving guidance to future processes, the significance of smart defence, together with the matters related to it at the summit, is deeper than that of a simple set of jointly developed projects. The highlighting of smart defence in Chicago provides evidence of NATO’s intention not to lower its level of ambition and its strive to remain the world’s greatest military union despite the increasingly difficult economic circumstances for many Allies.
In addition, smart defence underlines the Allied commitment to cooperation: continued implementation of the concept will lead to closer military integration than before, which in its turn will also create stronger political ties inside NATO. After all, joint development of military capabilities means that the Allies will become more dependent on each other; this presumes the existence of great trust and operational political mechanisms on the enhancement of which NATO member states now need to focus at different decision-making levels of the organisation.
All in all, the key issues discussed and the respective decisions adopted in Chicago created an atmosphere of optimistic resolve, which does not mean that heads of state and government ignored all the challenges that NATO was facing. The primary cause for concern was the fall of the share of European nations in NATO defence expenditure to the lowest level ever in the post-Cold War era. Hence the Americans have to shoulder an increasingly heavier burden to maintain NATO’s overall defensive capability.
The continuation of the trends characteristic to Europe’s defence budgets in recent years would make it more difficult for future US governments to explain to their voters and to their representatives in Congress why NATO’s credibility is in the US interest and why the American taxpayer must invest in projects that address the security needs of the Allies with substandard defence budgets.
In practical terms, Europe’s inadequacy in defence expenditure also leads to shortcomings in expensive high-tech military capabilities, which in its turn may in the longer term create a situation where European-US military cooperation will become impossible, despite the political will to do so.
There were frank discussions on defence expenditure in Chicago; everybody acknowledged the existence of the above problems. At the same time, it was agreed that Europe’s defence expenditure must not fall lower from its current level, while highlighting the efforts of the countries that had managed to maintain or even increase their defence budgets regardless of the difficulties. So, in this respect, Estonia received positive attention, which helped to put across the points we wanted to make and allowed us to influence the decision-making processes and the general mood at the Chicago Summit. Largely as a result of this, we can be quite satisfied with the summit.