Nato is ripe for reform, but can Madrid begin the process?

A number of challenges remain before Europe can secure itself, which makes this week's summit crucial

Workers on a crane put up Nato posters on Saturday ahead of the alliance's summit in Madrid. AP Photo
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An exchange between a Ukrainian researcher and a former high-ranking US official at an event in London last week highlighted how far the Nato alliance must still travel to respond to the Russian war.

The Ukraine expert had travelled from the Donbas where she had heard her country’s troops crying out for the weapons systems that the western countries have pledged to Kyiv’s defence. As the Russian artillery rained down, the Ukrainians took the view that the shipments were not happening fast enough. The former US official conceded the point that, while the commitment was welcome, it shouldn't be a case of "too little, too late".

Nato is not at war with Russia. In fact none of its members are at war with Russia either. But Ukraine has gained support from within the alliance since the start of the Russian war in February. Notably last week, it also saw its application to join the EU accepted. This is something that had stalled for years as Ukraine failed to make the anti-corruption reforms and other improvements that accompany any application.

The push within EU for strategic autonomy could come in part through a unified defence policy

Significantly, given the role that the application played in the lead-up to the last war in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had no objections to it because the EU is not a military alliance. The offer of Nato membership is less forthcoming to Ukraine. But as the 30-member grouping meets for a landmark summit in Madrid later this week, Nato is the reference point for how the defence of the continent will play out.

As the link between the US and Europe, the shock to the latter's security was always going to play out in Nato’s court. With the Europeans themselves assessing that it will take until 2040 before the region can defend itself from external aggression, this is a long-term issue – not a one- or two-year passing phase.

If the arms don’t go fast enough to Ukraine, the prestige of the alliance will certainly suffer a blow. If the unity of purpose shown in the months since February unwinds, this will all be a lost opportunity.

Presidents and prime ministers have the opportunity to look at the defensive alliance in a new way and ask if there should be a systematic approach to raising the capabilities of friendly countries. Getting the arms to states deemed to be just as vulnerable as Ukraine before trouble strikes is an important consideration in allowing those places to have their own deterrence.

Polls show that more than 90 per cent of Americans hold a negative view of Mr Putin. Other polls conducted across Europe show support for Ukraine and its struggle well above 50 per cent everywhere – between 70 per cent in Poland to 58 per cent in Spain. Contrast that with a poll taken in Russia, where a majority backs the invasion and provides support for the Kremlin’s narratives.

Within Nato the spirit of unity is high, but these are early days. Not only is the test of the energy and food crises still creeping up on its members, but so too are critical choices in the defence sphere.

This week, Nato will reveal its strategic concept. In 1997, the Nato summit in Madrid set the stage for the group's enlargement. When the last strategic concept came out in 2009, Russia was still being categorised as a strategic partner. At the closing of a 20-year cycle, a new blueprint for the alliance is clearly needed.

The growing push within EU states for strategic autonomy could come in part through a unified defence policy.

One of the most important preparatory meetings that Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held was with French President Emmanuel Macron last week. Mr Macron probed how the strategic concept could incorporate EU ambitions. The Elysee Palace can no longer afford to talk about the Nato alliance being "brain dead". Now it says it has suffered an “electric shock” and is demanding answers.

America’s pivot to Asia is certainly not dead. Indeed its move to seal Aukus, a strategic rearmament agreement with the UK and Australia, shows that it is ambitious in the platforms it seeks. For now, the Europeans are not actively challenging the US over China in the way that was true two years ago. They may be seeking to end their cheap energy relationship with Russia, but they are not altering their trade-focused relationship with Beijing.

Nato’s efforts to flesh out a strategic outlook that straddles those interests is going to be a key test of its thinking next week. How it implements that approach and sticks to it when it is inevitably tested is one of the greatest challenges facing the alliance.

With the US mid-term election looming and the short run-up to the next presidential election, Nato is hostage to another concern. Europeans are broadly convinced that Donald Trump stands a good chance of being elected US president in 2024. What chance of the alliance holding together, then, is probably best described as slim to nil.

Published: June 27, 2022, 4:00 AM