NATO Summit 2018: Turbulent Waters Ahead - Institute on Governance

NATO Summit 2018: Turbulent Waters Ahead

3 minute read

This week, Brussels is playing host to the 2018 NATO summit where the alliance will be discussing ongoing coordination, emerging security challenges and the geopolitical situation more broadly. However, this is not just any NATO summit, since this year it will be occurring against the backdrop of an increasingly strained relationship between the United States and other NATO allies. If the recent G7 summit in Charlevoix was any indication, the US may well find itself again in opposition to its traditional allies. In fact, one need look no further back than Monday for inflammatory social media statements about US allies.

The Trump administration continues to insist that all NATO allies increase their military spending to a minimum of 2% of GDP and is expected to do so again this week. (As few as 5 of 29 NATO members currently spend 2% of GDP on the military, with Canada spending just under 1%.) Trump’s insistence on raising spending is not unrelated to ongoing issues of trade and tariffs, with NATO being a key global market for military equipment and the US being the world’s principal vendor of military equipment. Most immediately, the failing F-35 fighter program is desperately in need of foreign buyers if the American aerospace sector is to avoid a bailout.

These pressures to increase military spending will present a challenge for Canada for several reasons, not the least of which being the historically low military spending and peripheral status in global defence industries that will limit the potential spinoff benefits to Canada. Complicating matters further is that the Trump administration has announced many of its new tariffs under the aegis of national defense. If the US now views the import of Canadian or European defense inputs, such as steel and aluminum, as a national defence risk to the US, what kind of defence policy integration can be expected amongst NATO allies? Of course, all this makes it unlikely to see the US leading traditional NATO summit discussions on issues like force interoperability and joint drills.

Debate is also likely around Trump’s stated support of Russian membership in the G7, a prior announcement that will certainly come up again during the NATO summit. NATO is, after all, a Cold War era alliance designed to respond to aggression and incursions by the Soviet (Russian) military. Ever since the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Russia has been increasingly active in Europe’s backyard, including most recently launching provocative drills in the Barents Sea. Traditionally, we might expect NATO to respond by planning reciprocal military drills or to issue a joint declaration against such assertiveness, usually with the lead taken by the US. These are not normal times, however, and all signs indicate that a business-as-usual approach is not on the Trump administration’s radar.

More likely is another bombshell, or reality TV-eske revelation that knocks the summit off balance and distracts from the planned agenda. During gentler times, before the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, there was some talk of reforming NATO as a hemispheric security organization that could undertake post-conflict reconstruction such as in Afghanistan- indeed NATO was the lead for the ISAF mission until 2014. At this time Russia did not represent a clear security concern and some flirted with the idea of letting Russia join a reformed NATO, or abolishing NATO altogether given the long absence of Russian threat. Today’s circumstances are very different, and Russia is a clear concern, but that might not be enough to stave off a bizarre announcement about deeper military cooperation between NATO and Russia.

Whatever announcement from the Trump administration ends up stealing the show, Canada will need to carefully use this forum for the quiet diplomacy that is increasingly the trademark of the Trudeau government. Most immediately, Canada is in desperate need of replacements for its F-18 Super Hornets (so desperate in fact that it purchased 30 year old F-18s as temporary replacements from Australia, rather than be forced into an F-35 purchase involuntarily). With a new procurement competition announced and an increasingly warm relationship between France and Canada, perhaps a Rafael purchase will be on the table during the summit. The recently announced Franco-German fighter consortium will likely be a discussion item as well.

In short, the upcoming NATO summit is likely to feature both table-banging and pearl-clutching, and of course, genuine outrage as the long-standing post-War geopolitical order faces continued strain. In spite of the headline grabbing events that tend to follow the announcements of the Trump administration at events of this type, this NATO summit is also likely to feature some true diplomacy and events of long-term significance for Canada and the world at large.

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