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NATO Leaders Meeting in London – Revitalising Collective Defence? By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.




With the annual NATO Leaders Meeting, chaired by the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, taking place at a Hotel in Hertfordshire this week together with a formal reception on Tuesday marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the alliance hosted by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace, amidst a number of differing views this week may be regarded as one of the most important gatherings of alliance for many a year.

The London/Hertfordshire meetings have specifically not been billed as being a NATO summit but the hope is that alliance members will work hard to sort their differences out and create both a forward strategy and improved environment in which the alliance can continue to provide the form of collective defence that it has done so well since its foundation in April 1949.

As far as I and the vast majority of people born before and during the immediate post war years are concerned, NATO remains even more vital today than it has ever done before.

Over the years, particularly since the ending of the ‘cold war’ the alliance has been forced to change and adapt and while it may not have always done so with the speed that its critics would have preferred and whilst I accept that not all would agree, I take the view that NATO is today more than fit for purpose to face the threats that it can see.

To suggest anything other than that the past four years have been a particularly difficult time for the alliance what with French President Emmanuel Macron calling NATO ‘brain dead’ and seemingly wanting the EU to take a much greater responsibility for its own defence and US President, Donald Trump provided several tirades against the alliance since taking office calling for the US to have a lesser burden of NATO costs while others, particularly those in Continental Europe to pay more, the alliance appears to be at something of a crossroads. 

That the vast majority of its 29 members are very supportive, one may hope that this week will see criticism of the alliance by two of the former twelve founding members turned to mutual advantage. Indeed, several commentators have suggested that what President’s Trump and Macron have done in airing criticisms has actually been good for NATO. Apart from methods chosen by them to voice such concerns, to a large extent I for one would probably agree.

NATO should not be about money of course and I suspect that by the end of this week The US will be paying fractionally less of NATO costs while Germany and maybe one or two others will have agreed to pay more.

All that said, there can be little doubt that Donald Trump will, as long as he is in the office of president, continue to see NATO as being a purely transactional instrument and one that although designed to create and ensure stability through collective defence, of being one that today carries far less weight than it did. 

Emmanuel Macron’s underlying desire, as suggested by some as the reason for his recent outbursts, that France might one day lead Europe’s defence is to my mind neither affordable nor is plausible without Germany being absolutely on-side. That in my view will never occur but that is not to suggest that NATO can brush aside criticism. However, listening to the words of support for NATO as spoken by Angela Merkel over the past week, if there ever had been any support for a French vision of lessening reliance on NATO by Germany, it has already waned.

So, my main concerns in respect of NATO’s future do not surround specific notions emerging from France. They are reserved for the role that the alliance will need to play in the future – a period that we can be certain will very different to the past. The bottom line is not just about having a collective strategy but on implementation. If, as I do, you happen to believe that the potential threats that we keep on talking about in respect of China, Russia, Iran, rising terrorism, cyber and space are all real then we need to ensure we not only have a collective strategy but that we know exactly how we propose to implement it and share the burden throughout the alliance fairly.

As to money, I am not nor have I ever been in favour of the 2% of GDP spending on defence commitment which came out of the s014 NATO summit in. Wales. Indeed, I suggest that if Germany was to spend 2% of GDP on defence, a huge rise from where it is presently, other NATO member states in Europe might well be concerned. That is not to suggest that Germany should not increase its spending on defence, pay a larger part of the overall NATO cost burden and fully engage its military on deployment where required as much as others such as the UK do. 

While it is to me inconceivable, although not impossible, that Donald Trump could, if he so chose, bring the US out of NATO, I doubt that he would go that far. I continue to take the hardened view that the US needs NATO just as NATO absolutely needs to US and I hope that I am not proven wrong. But it is surely equally right to suggest that NATO also needs Germany to come off the fence and play as fuller role in national and international security and collective defence.

CHW (London 2nd December 2019)   

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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