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The NATO Summit: Symbolism or Substance?

By Wyn Rees

It is the purpose of press officers within international organisations to convince the publics of their member states that each summit is of lasting importance. In reality, most summit declarations are full of symbolism and struggle to find ‘deliverables’ of substance to make them memorable. However the NATO summit in Wales will truly be of historic importance.

This summit was pre-destined to rank amongst the substantive meetings of the post-Cold War era because it preceded the withdrawal of NATO combat forces from Afghanistan. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, assumed by the Alliance in 2003, has been its first ever ‘Out of Area’ mission. It has been a microcosm of the tensions within the organisation: between a superpower and its regional allies; a group of European states unwilling to pay for credible expeditionary forces and of a growing inequality of risk taking amongst its members. The impending withdrawal of those combat forces raised questions about the future orientation of the Alliance. It was the task of the Summit in Wales to wrestle with these issues and chart the future course for NATO.

But the Ukrainian crisis has overshadowed that debate and added an urgent dimension. A NATO-Russian relationship that, over the last two decades, has been characterised by limited patterns of engagement and periods of friction has been thrown into reverse. NATO is confronted with a crisis that has implications both for the future security of Europe and for transatlantic relations.

The summit must start by acknowledging NATO’s limitations in the face of Russia efforts to de-stabilise the government in Kiev. Ukraine is not an Alliance member and despite sympathy for its predicament, no one envisages extending to it military assistance. Rather, NATO is committing itself to reassuring its members who share a border with Russia and contain sizeable Russian minorities. Exercises and the forward stationing of troops and equipment are designed to send a clear signal of resolve to President Putin. Plans for a rapid response force are designed not to provide a meaningful military defence but to symbolise that all NATO countries would be engaged if Russian aggression were to be directed at a member state.

That is not to say that Russian actions in Ukraine will go unpunished. The Alliance is taking steps to isolate Russia diplomatically, removing it from interaction with NATO’s headquarters and mobilising international organisations against the Kremlin. Through the EU European states are imposing targeted sanctions that will cause pain and dislocation to the Russian economy.

The Alliance must also focus on its own weaknesses in the face of Putin’s challenge. NATO’s strength derives from the values that are shared between the United States and its European allies. The glue of that relationship has been weakened over recent years by transatlantic disputes and the weariness from the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan. The summit in Wales provides an opportunity to reassert the underlying values of the West and obtain agreement on greater burden-sharing in defence. The Alliance needs to be reinvigorated if it is to stand up to a reassertive Russia. The summit in Wales provides an historic opportunity to do just that.

 Wyn Rees is a Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations. He teaches and researches in the broad field of International Relations and specialises in International Security. 

 Image credit: NATO

Published inConflict & Security


  1. Stevie Stevie

    Yes. The N.A.T.O. summit is in Wales but why is the media reluctant to state that it’s happening in ” Newport ” South Wales. When the Ryder cup came to us, Newport was frequently mentioned. This Summit is much bigger so come on worldwide media put “Newport” , Wales in the frame.

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