Few NATO summits have captured the attention of this one—but for all the wrong reasons. On July 11, 29 heads of state and government will arrive at the new NATO headquarters building in Brussels. All eyes will be on U.S. President Donald Trump, looking for the slightest sign that a repeat of the chaos at this year’s G-7 meeting is in the making. Such a distraction from what will be a substantive NATO agenda is a pity. There is real work going on within the alliance as it continues its rush to shore up deterrence against further Russian aggression in the east, takes on a greater counterterrorism role in Iraq, and works to counter new threats in the cybersphere.


Over the past four years, there has been no letup in the almost frantic NATO preparation for possible conflict on the European continent. Four months after being caught flatfooted by the Russian seizure of Crimea, NATO approved the base-line Readiness Action Plan at the 2014 Wales summit. The plan included a continuous air, land, and maritime presence across the NATO frontier with Russia. Among other initiatives, the alliance increased the size and readiness of the NATO Response Force and established a subcomponent called the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, composed of about 5,000 troops provided by a rotation of allies with maritime, special operations, and aviation units that can deploy to a crisis within two or three days. In addition, the Wales summit established eight multinational NATO Force Integration Units in the east to help train troops and receive reinforcements in a crisis.

Most notably, it was at Wales that NATO allies signed on to the Defense Investment Pledge, an agreement “to reverse the trend of declining defense budgets, to make the most effective use of our funds and to further a more balanced sharing of costs and responsibilities.” To operationalize this pledge, member states lagging in defense spending made the heavily caveated commitment to halt any further budgetary declines and aim instead to increase defense expenditures in real terms as GDP grows and move toward NATO’s two percent target.

Much of the Wales agenda had been implemented by the time of the Warsaw summit in 2016. But those two years were full of lessons learned on what NATO still needed to do to strengthen deterrence. Two glaring problems stood out most: the need for NATO to deploy troops to the Baltic area and the logistic and bureaucratic obstacles to moving forces swiftly and smoothly across Europe (and from across the Atlantic). Building on Wales, the Warsaw summit approved the first large-scale deployment of NATO forces into the Baltics and Poland, a region of the alliance where it never thought it might have to fight. The establishment of an “Enhanced Forward Presence” of NATO forces put four multinational battalion-sized battle groups to act as tripwires, “triggering an immediate Allied response to any aggression.”

It’s now been two years since the Warsaw summit, and the work NATO is doing on all these fronts has continued unabated. Forces are on the ground in the Baltics and in Poland, but problems remain in readiness and mobility. To address the mobility issues, the 2018 Brussels summit will approve changes to the NATO Command Structure that add two new commands: one in Norfolk to focus on maritime issues, including reinforcement by sea, and one in Germany to tackle the logistics of moving troops across Europe. The summit will also tackle the readiness problem by having member states commit to collectively provide 30 ships, 30 battalions, and 30 squadrons that can arrive at the battlefield within 30 days. While 30 days is still too long a readiness time window, it is a step in the right direction. NATO will also significantly enhance its counterterrorism effort by growing the NATO training mission in Iraq and will continue to refine its approach to cybersecurity.

Burden sharing will be the topic on the agenda of most interest to Trump, and there is progress to show. Since 2014, NATO has seen three consecutive years of growth in defense expenditure across European member states and Canada. In real terms, defense spending among them increased by 4.87 percent from 2016 to 2017, with an additional cumulative spending increase of $46 billion for the period from 2015 to 2017. Eight members of the alliance will meet the two percent target by the end of 2018, up from four at the end of 2014.


Seated with members of his Cabinet, U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House in Washington, May 2018.
Seated with members of his Cabinet, U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House in Washington, May 2018.
Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Leaders will arrive in Brussels to a story of continued progress across a broad front. NATO has not stood still, even as its biggest and most influential member has been largely absent over the past 18 months. Since NATO’s creation, the United States has played a unique and oversize role in the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s decision-making body. It has pushed forward bold and innovative ideas, from the Partnership for Peace, which helped prepare former Warsaw Pact adversaries for NATO membership, to the Enhanced Forward Presence. Since the start of 2017, however, NATO has had to cope with a U.S. president who has called the alliance “obsolete” and “as bad as NAFTA” and who appears incapable of discussing anything other than burden sharing.

Imagine, though, that the United States had a president who was committed to the alliance, who acknowledged the many times that NATO has transformed itself in light of new challenges, and who understood its potential. What would the 2018 summit look like in that scenario?

Without a capable ally such as the United States providing the necessary know-how and leadership, NATO’s cyber-initiatives will continue to lack ambition.

The first thing NATO could be doing is preparing the alliance for new military domains. As we noted in our primer on the upcoming summit, NATO has taken some important steps in recent years in the area of cyber-deterrence. In 2017, the alliance decided that a cyberattack could trigger Article 5 and established cyberspace as a military domain. Member states have also committed to strengthening their cyber-capabilities both individually and collectively. Yet the alliance needs a much more robust and forward-leaning approach as its adversaries rapidly expand their capabilities and tactics in cyberspace. For example, a new cyber-doctrine that outlines how allies will respond to attacks below the threshold of war is essential. But without a capable ally such as the United States providing the necessary know-how and leadership, NATO’s cyber-initiatives will continue to lack ambition.

Similarly, NATO adversaries are quickly developing new capabilities in the areas of space and artificial intelligence, as the alliance lags behind. Not every NATO ally has the experience or industrial base to help lead initiatives in these areas. That’s why the alliance needs the United States or a small group of capable member states to help incorporate these new technologies, not only into member states’ defense systems but also into NATO-wide planning and doctrine. Establishing a NATO Artificial Intelligence Center of Excellence in the United States would go a long way to integrating AI into NATO thinking.

An active, engaged United States could also be doing more to highlight the regions in and around Europe most in need of continued diplomatic and military engagement. Neither the Black Sea nor the Balkans has garnered the same level of attention that NATO has given the Baltic states since 2014. The emphasis on the latter’s security was understandable given their geography and almost constant assault by Russian disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and energy coercion. But it’s time now for the alliance to look at other vulnerable states, including some that aren’t members of NATO such as Serbia and Bosnia. Historically, the United States has had a strong track record of bringing countries together to address regional challenges. It could be playing that role today both in the Black Sea and in the Balkans.

Finally, today’s multilevel threat environment requires NATO to break out of traditional models of operation and think about big, bold new ways of doing business. One idea is to host a joint EU-NATO summit that would allow those two institutions to pair their soft- and hard-power instruments to focus on a common challenge. If Trump understood the strengths of those two institutions and had spent the last 18 months developing the necessary personal relationships with other European leaders, we might see the United States persuade the two institutions to come together to address a single challenge such as the instability across North Africa and the Middle East.

The good news about the 2018 NATO summit is that the alliance is still capable of moving forward even when its strongest member is abdicating its traditional leadership position. The bad news is that there are limits to what it can deliver with the United States on the sidelines.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JULIANNE SMITH is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a former Deputy National Security Adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden. JIM TOWNSEND is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy.
  • More By Julianne Smith
  • More By Jim Townsend