As NATO continues to define its place in a changing post-Cold War world, the Alliance is holding what many describe as its most important summit for decades, where it will agree on a new strategic concept that better reflects today’s realities and tomorrow’s threats. While there is some American nervousness over recent cuts in European defense spending and questions in Europe about how highly the United States prioritizes the Alliance, the NATO summit is expected to endorse a number of pivotal decisions on critical issues from missile defense to its nuclear posture to the war in Afghanistan and resetting relations with Russia.

In a new Q&A, Detlef Waechter previews the NATO summit and analyzes the critical questions facing the Alliance. This summit, Waechter argues, is the critical event for making the Alliance between Europe and North America fit the security challenges of the twenty-first century.

What are the main issues on the agenda for this week’s NATO summit?

Leaders from the alliance’s 28 members will discuss a wide range of issues during the summit in Lisbon. Topics will include Afghanistan, its relations with Russia, the issue of missile defense and how to create a shield against ballistic missiles, and the Alliance’s new strategic concept.
The Alliance will meet with President Karzai and the twenty leaders of non-NATO countries sending troops to Afghanistan to debate the means and conditions under which full authority for security and stability can be turned over to the Afghan government. It is important for NATO to send a signal of resolve of maintaining its commitment until 2014.
The war in Afghanistan has also exposed the need for NATO to develop an improved comprehensive approach that incorporates both military and civilian efforts. In the beginning of the Afghanistan conflict, there were shortcomings in NATO’s civilian capabilities and the coordination and cooperation between military and non-military actors. While NATO will always remain primarily a military alliance, it needs some civilian capabilities to be able to interact with other civilian actors in its engagements.
Relations with Russia will be high on the agenda as President Medvedev accepted an invitation to Lisbon. With Secretary General Rasmussen committed to improving relations with Russia and the so-called reset in U.S.-Russia relations continuing, there is hope that the NATO-Russia Council will start to live up to its potential. In Afghanistan, joint areas of interest and future opportunities for cooperation include logistic transit via Russian territory, combating drug trafficking, and Russian support for the Afghan helicopter fleet.
Finally, NATO leaders will task Alliance institutions with pursuing a strategic review of the Alliance’s deterrent. We will not see revolutionary results, but this begins a careful rethink of NATO’s current nuclear posture.

What is NATO’s Strategic Concept? Are major changes to the doctrine expected?

It is essential that the new strategic concept answer the question of why NATO still matters twenty years after the end of the Cold War. As the most pivotal security alliance in the Western world, it’s important to clearly articulate the reasons for why NATO is still relevant and the new strategic concept can do this. It will define the three future core tasks of NATO: collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. Moreover, the concept will also seek ways for the Alliance to cope with cyber attacks and other new threats and challenges.
The strategic concept can be most easily compared with the strategic reviews that the U.S. government does on a regular basis. While they do not guide military commanders in the field of battle or outline the day-to-day work of key officials, such concepts essentially provide the broad strategy and red lines that leaders badly need in an unsafe world and outline the strategic consensus the 28 sovereign member states—who may have divergent interests—must agree on.

Is NATO changing its nuclear posture?

For the last several decades, NATO has adhered to a policy of nuclear deterrence. There has recently been a great deal of debate over its future nuclear policy spurred by recent nonproliferation initiatives like President Obama’s Prague speech or the work of senior statesman to promote a world without nuclear weapons. In Lisbon, countries will reexamine NATO’s policy on nuclear weapons and there had been some fears that the review could split the members if it’s not handled carefully.
Those fears have subsided. NATO leaders will agree on consensus language that commits to a continued nuclear deterrent but also to the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Leaders will task NATO authorities with a strategic review of its entire deterrent.
NATO essentially lives under the strategic umbrella of the United States. Tactical U.S. nuclear weapons are deposited in various European countries and the nuclear weapons of France and Britain also play an important role in planning. Debate among NATO members has centered on so-called “tactical” short range nuclear weapons systems.
The number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe has declined from 7,000 in 1990 to a fractional amount today. Within NATO, there is a significant unilateral disarmament underway. It remains to be seen whether Russia is prepared to enter into negotiations about its own much larger arsenal.
U.S. diplomacy has been largely able to bridge the gaps in the thinking of NATO partners and there will be a united alliance in Lisbon. Secretary of State Clinton outlined five principles for NATO’s future nuclear posture in April during a meeting with the other foreign ministers in Estonia where she called for NATO to retain its nuclear status but reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons.
The five principles say that (1) NATO should remain a nuclear alliance, (2) as a nuclear alliance, member states share risks and responsibilities, (3) NATO should reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons, (4) NATO allies should take on a mission pursuing territorial missile defense, and (5) NATO should specify the conditions for further arms control agreements. We will see these principles endorsed in Lisbon. This modest but realistic course will allow NATO to play a constructive role in arms control and could also open the door for further arms control negotiations with Russia, especially on the so-called “tactical” short range nuclear weapons in Europe.

Is NATO close to making a decision on missile defense?

Last year, President Obama altered the previously proposed antiballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe. The newer strategy is more acceptable to formerly hesitant Europeans and the reconfigured system will be developed to defend against Iranian missiles. Missile defense is not a substitute for nuclear deterrence, as both are important for NATO in the foreseeable future.
The on-the-ground realities of missile defense are political, technical, complicated, and tricky, so there won’t be detailed decisions on these aspects made during the summit in Lisbon. Experts and military authorities will need to work on the specifics for tying missile defense instruments and capabilities across countries and agreeing on the crucial questions of the chain of command—who controls what, where command is based, and so on.
Discussions on missile defense are tied to NATO’s relations with Russia. During Moscow negotiations with Washington on new START, Russia was and continues to be hesitant and critical on missile defense. NATO will invite Moscow to join NATO and the United States on missile defense efforts as Russia is exposed to the same threats as Europe and has significant capabilities, experience, and technical knowledge. However, if Russia decides not to join NATO efforts, the Alliance will proceed without Moscow. But if the two sides come together, missile defense is one element that could revitalize the collegial and cooperative spirit of the NATO- Russia-Council.

What is the status of NATO’s relations with Russia?

When assessing NATO-Russian relations, it’s difficult to say whether the glass is half empty or half full. The NATO-Russia Council was founded in 2002, and it’s fair to say that the relations have not lived up to their potential. There are a number of issues they have been able to cooperate on, including Afghanistan, where NATO and Russia have joined forces in combating drug trafficking and Russia allows NATO to use its territory for transporting non-lethal supplies. But more can be done.
NATO and Russia don’t need a “reset.” The two sides need to find concrete areas where they are willing to work together, such as on missile defense, future arms control efforts especially with a view on short-range nuclear weapons in Europe, and so on. Instead of an official reset, work needs to get done—that’s what counts. A joint missile shield could create a new era in NATO-Russia relations.

Will leaders try to determine when to begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and when to turnover security to Afghan forces?

One of NATO’s most pressing problems continues to be the conflict in Afghanistan.
While NATO has been fighting in the country for nine years, some see the war as being increasingly Americanized as some of Washington’s partners scale back. While this perception may be true to a large extent, many American don’t realize the importance of the other NATO countries and the considerable number of boots on the ground despite highly critical public opinion in Europe.
Right now it’s about establishing the right conditions to allow for a successful transition of responsibility to Afghan security forces in 2014. The first elements of this transition will start as early as 2011.
The international community, including NATO, must ensure that Afghanistan will not again be a safe haven for international terrorism and will not turn into a failed state. With this objective, the transition must be driven by success and not by the calendar. This is essential to the security of Europeans and Americans alike.

What is NATO’s role in the world today?

While NATO’s current and future role should be outlined in the new strategic concept, it’s also important to say what NATO is not. NATO is not the world’s policeman or an international security provider on behalf of, for example, the United Nations. Still, NATO is—and will continue to be—a regional security organization comprised of North America and Europe. But it will have an increasingly global role to play in reaching out to other regions that are sources of instability that could affect our joint security.
NATO should make it clear in Lisbon that it is the most powerful military and political alliance in history and it’s ready to defend countries sharing values and that it has the instruments—military means and civilian capabilities—at its disposal to do so.
Beyond its core concern of defending its members, NATO should make clear that it is willing to assume responsibility for other regions whenever the alliance is needed and asked to help. For example, NATO has provided help for an airlift in Sudan, after the devastating earthquake in Pakistan, and after Hurricane Katrina. NATO also needs to effectively reach out diplomatically in order to export security and stability.
With regards to resources, NATO wants to be taken seriously in the world, but it needs to do something about its capabilities. On the one hand, the alliance needs to make sure that the economic slowdown does not cause defense budgets to be cut to the extent that it’s basically impossible to pursue operations like the one in Afghanistan. On the other hand, it would be naive to think that the economic crisis would have no bearing on military expenditures. This makes the need for reform more urgent than ever. As NATO Secretary General Rasmussen put it: “We must cut off the fat and strengthen the muscles”.