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Nasty weather conditions for NATO’s 2019 leaders meeting

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The 29 Heads of State and Government of NATO will hold a Leaders Meeting in London on 4 December. Note that it is only a “meeting” and not a regular summit: an indication that NATO as an organisation is genuinely worried about some nasty thunderstorms ahead.

Besides the traditional reception hosted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace, the only working session of the heads of state and government will be about burden sharing, burden sharing, and burden sharing. Other topics, such as enhancing overall readiness, relations with Russia and China, and the adaptation of the Alliance to new technologies will most likely also be on the formal agenda, but it is already clear that there will not be sufficient time to discuss them extensively, as heads of state and government used to do in the past.

(Photo credit: NATO, 2019)


Nasty weather conditions for NATO’s 2019 leaders meeting

The 29 Heads of State and Government of NATO will hold a Leaders Meeting in London on 4 December. Note that it is only a “meeting” and not a regular summit: an indication that NATO as an organisation is genuinely worried about some nasty thunderstorms ahead.

Besides the traditional reception hosted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace, the only working session of the heads of state and government will be about burden sharing, burden sharing, and burden sharing. Other topics, such as enhancing overall readiness, relations with Russia and China, and the adaptation of the Alliance to new technologies will most likely also be on the formal agenda, but it is already clear that there will not be sufficient time to discuss them extensively, as heads of state and government used to do in the past.

Burden Sharing

The subject of burden sharing is as old as the Alliance itself, but because President Trump surprised the Heads of State and Government with a tough position at the 2018 Brussels summit and has continued to repeat it ever since, it risks to become the “elephant in the London room”. Since 2016 the European Allies and Canada have spent $100 billion more on defence. With this argument, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wants to appease Trump. Chancellor Merkel and President Macron especially were able to calm him down in Brussels with the promise that they would do more. In spite of the reticence of her coalition partner, Merkel has increased the German defence budget so as to reach 1.5% of GNI by 2024,compared to 1.36% this year. Even this will not remove the basis for the American complaints, however, since the result remains well below the 2% target agreed in 2024.

Trump’s frequent accusations render the debate particularly toxic, however, as he is not too popular with public opinion in most European countries. Furthermore, Trump’s undiplomatic ways threaten to undermine transatlantic unity: he does not exclude making American assistance dependent on the national defence efforts of the European Allies. In its 70 years of existence, NATO has experienced many fundamental internal crises: the Suez Crisis, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, de Gaulle who withdrew France from the military structure, etc. The United States, as a true world power, usually acted as the guardian of the unity of the Alliance. This time however, it is very worrying to see that precisely the US is causing internal divisions.

The revision of the contributions of the individual Allies to the operating budget of the NATO organisation is another thorny discussion point. This budget has two components: a civil component (€250 million) for the running of the headquarters in Brussels, and a military component (€1.4 billion), that covers the NATO command structure, programmes, and NATO operations around the world. This is very modest compared to the overall defence expenditures by all Allies: $1013 billion, of which 2/3 is spent by the US alone and the other 1/3 by the other 28 Allies. Allies contribute to the operating budget according to an agreed cost-sharing formula based on GNI. To allow for a substantial reduction of the US contribution (from 22,1% to close to 16%), countries like France or the United Kingdom would need to contribute more to these budgets, although their national defence spending is close to, or well above, the agreed 2% GNI norm. Therefore, in order to compensate for such an American reduction, these European powers look in the first place to the European countries that do or will not reach the 2% benchmark agreed in the Obama era by 2024 , such as Germany or Belgium. This debate, which is mainly symbolic but at the same time very polarising, threatens to divide the Europeans. One can only encourage Allies to deal with an in reality peripheral topic prior to the Leaders meeting.

Another cause for discord is the trade conflict between the US and the EU, which Trump sees as a rival. This is exacerbated by the US perception that the European aspiration to “strategic autonomy” and current European defence initiatives come at the expense of support to Washington and exclude US companies from the growing European defence cooperation. This perception is (rather) wrong, but it is persistent and feeds US discontentment with Europeans who benefit from and yet are unfairly competing with the US. The new Commission must definitely address this misperception.

Finally, it is not all about euros and dollars. Some rebalancing of the burden is also feasible in operational terms, starting with  the European allies shouldering more of the burden of the Enhanced Forward Presence.

Readiness Posture

The Alliance has decided to draw up a rather static defence at the borders of NATO, but it counts on a comprehensive and robust force that can rapidly reinforce the relatively few boots on the ground.At the Brussels Summit, Heads of State and Government launched the NATO Readiness Initiative: from within the overall pool of forces, Allies will offer an additional 30 major naval combatants, 30 heavy or medium manoeuvre battalions, and 30 kinetic air squadrons, with enabling forces, at 30 days’ readiness or less.” This high-intensity warfighting capability poses an enormous challenge for most European countries; at the same time, it provides Washington with an additional tool to increase the pressure on them. In this field, the leaders will be able to report progress; political NATO agreements in the field of military defence cooperation are genuinely well respected. This will allow leaders to demonstrate Allied unity, which constitutes the basis of the credibility of collective defence.

Russia & China: geopolitics are back!

The least one can say is that Trump’s abandoning of our Kurdish allies and the rapid insertion of Russia in the vacuum, has made many Europeans frown: is American assistance to the Europeans themselves still guaranteed by the tweeting president? Is Trump still trustworthy? For some time already, Macron is no longer convinced of the American commitment to European security, though for over 70 years the US has guaranteed stability and peace on the European continent on the basis of Article 5. Without consulting other European leaders, Macron has launched a unilateral and in this author’s view headstrong initiative in the wake of his meeting with President Putin: Macron wishes to engage with Russia in negotiations on a “new European security order”. This rather rash initiative may cast a shadow over the London talks: most, if not all, Allies have serious doubts. They see no reason to normalise their relations with Russia and are frightened for the consequences of such a new European security order for the EU, Ukraine, Georgia and others.

The consequences of the deployment of SSC-8 missiles by Russia on a wide scale and the end of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty as a result of Russia’s violations need to be addressed more thoroughly by the leaders of the Alliance. The targets that these nuclear assets can reach within minutes are primarily in Europe; one side thus possesses modern nuclear missiles while the other has none. The current situation is dangerously out of balance.

Russia clearly remains the most urgent challenge for the Alliance, as Moscow is willing to use its formidable military capabilities to realise its political intent and to disrupt other countries using hybrid tactics. The Alliance’s response to hybrid threats and national resilience must be further enhanced. Pressure should be kept on Moscow in support of the Minsk process and the sovereignty of Ukraine. The meaningful dialogue with Russia remains important as one side of the coin of the dual-track approach.

Trump will likely highlight that, for him, China in the longer term poses a greater threat than Russia. Europe seems to seek an alternative way, though it remains to be seen whether it can muster the necessary unity and resolve to see it through. Some European nations already have economic ties with Beijing that influence their foreign policy: commercial deals with China are more than just that. I believe that the Chinese ambitions for the next decade are clear, and that unity of vision is indispensable for our free and democratic nations.


The NATO Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan remains by far the most important operation, with 41 participating nations and still over 17.000 personnel, of whom half is American. Trump has advocated the withdrawal of American troops from what he calls “endless wars”, but in my view the Allies and operational partners have not been consulted appropriately, which has created political uncertainty about the way ahead. It remains extremely difficult for Washington to negotiate a peace agreement with the Afghan Taliban, which alone could lead to a further substantial reduction in Western force numbers, if any. NATO has been present in Afghanistan since 2003 as a direct consequence of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. NATO Allies will have to look for and ultimately approve a different mandate once a peace agreement is reached. Strategic clarity therefore is of paramount importance.


Trump continues to reiterate that the European countries must retrieve their foreign terrorist fighters from Iraq and Syria, but to his great irritation that does not happen. During his triumphant announcement of the death of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi he could not resist from expressing his “tremendous disappointment” with European countries that “didn’t want them” [their ISIS fighters]. It is highly likely that the Turkish operation in Northern Syria and the rapprochement between President Erdogan and Putin will also provide discussion material for the leaders, although one cannot expect an open debate with Erdogan present in the room. However, it is clear that the Turkish interests in the Middle East do not coincide with those of the other European nations and that the Turkish operation may create political uncertainty for the Alliance. I do not exclude that Syria will gain more prominence in the discussions the heads of state and government of the Allies will be having in their only working session.

Adaptation of the Alliance

For decades already the Alliance has continuously adapted to the changing security environment, which is a traditional point on summit agendas. This Leaders Meeting will not be different. For the cyber domain most is set, and an overarching space policy is agreed as well. The introduction of 5G and the rise of Chinese telecommunication companies in the West lead to serious concerns, as reliable communication systems are indispensable. And NATO is very much dependent on these national (also civilian) telecommunications. More information-sharing and common baseline requirements are highly recommendable. NATO should at least be a platform to share information on developments in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and big data. The more capable Allies have a key role in pursuing this objective. This is important for ensuring future interoperability.

Where stands Belgium?

On the positive side in our national report, the investments that the Michel I government has launched are certainly worth mentioning. Furthermore, other NATO Allies and EU Member States appreciate the consistent Belgian policy to ensure our security and defence through multilateral cooperation. Our country will continue to be present in Afghanistan in 2020 with 80 personnel deployed under German leadership and we will continue to provide support to that ravaged country. In addition, our contribution of dual capable combat aircraft significantly increases our relative weight within the Alliance. Our regular contributions of forwarding air and land defence in the Baltic States and to the maritime NATO squadrons are highly appreciated. All this provides Belgium surely with positive elements to share with the Allies in London.

By means of its “Strategic Vision for the Belgian Defence” (June 2016), the Michel I government planned to spend 1.30% of Belgian GNI. Based on all current planning data for the defence budget, our national defence spending is expected to rise this year to 0.95% GNI and in these difficult times with a care taking minority government our country is planning to reach 1.19% of GNI by 2024. Note that the reference group of “European NATO countries without nuclear capabilities” is spending more than 1.50% of GNI already in 2019. For political reasons, 1.30% of GNI in 2024 is in my view an absolute minimum in both NATO and EU contexts, as it would at least allow to keep pace with the European reference group. With 1.30% of GNI in 2024 Belgium would be in an inconspicuous position somewhere in the back of the pack of European nations, but no longer conspicuously penultimate or last.

For some years now the other 28 NATO member states have been expecting investments from Belgium in 22 additional capabilities, including some very large ones such as a full fletched land brigade and more combat aircraft. For the sake of convenience (“the NATO demands are absurd” as some officials even say), our country prefers not to respond to these demands and have them delivered by another Ally or Member State, in this case mostly by the United States… And let that be precisely the reproach of President Trump to his European Allies.

Today the Belgian Defence is faced with a constantly decreasing number of personnel. Unfortunately, that is exactly where NATO is asking its member states to deliver more efforts (i.e. the “NATO Readiness Initiative”): to have more usable troops and capabilities for reinforcing the protection of European borders. Belgium will probably only be able to participate in a normal proportional manner as from 2024 at the earliest.

In summary

NATO is doing well as an organisation and is making steady progress, increasing its military efficiency and carrying out its core tasks effectively. However, the foundation of the Alliance, the transatlantic link, transatlantic trust, is in a questionable state because of the many disputes between Allies and especially because this time the American attitude fuels internal division. Stoltenberg will have to manoeuvre cleverly to stay away from the many political pitfalls. This is a particularly unattractive tangle for the European countries; since the EU is far from capable of filling the vacuum of a possible disappearance of NATO, the European countries really do not have a military and political plan B for European security and defence. Trump’s criticisms and threats risk to push European leaders away from Washington without the prospect of a politically acceptable alternative. The London Leaders Meeting will undoubtedly test NATO cohesion and unity.


Colonel (Ret.) Didier Audenaert is Senior Associate Fellow at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations, where he focuses on NATO and Belgian Defence.