This July I attended ‘NATO Engages – the Brussels Summit Dialogue’ – the official outreach event of the NATO Summit. Co-located and taking place at the same time (July 11-12) as the actual NATO Summit, the event was organized by Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), Munich Security Conference (MSC), Women in International Security (WIIS) in Brussels, in partnership with NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division. A powerhouse event with two full days of intellectually stimulating discussions on the current and future challenges for the Alliance, the event featured a fantastic line-up of speakers ranging from presidents, prime ministers, NATO officials, CEOs, think tank, military and government analysts.
Among the high-profile speakers of day one were the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, Germany’s Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen, Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Minister of Defense Harjit Singh Sajjan, as well as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the Deputy Secretary General of NATO Rose Gottemoeller, the Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at NATO – Jamie Shea, to name just a few.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated in his opening speech that the Alliance is confronted with “a more complex, a more difficult and a more demanding security environment”, but “on the ground, Europe and North America are doing more together”. He underscored that “a strong NATO is good for Europe and good for the United States” while reminding that “actions speak louder than words” and that since Donald Trump became president, the “US funding for military presence in Europe (the European Deterrence Initiative) has been increased by 40%”.
Fair burden-sharing within the alliance and the different views on defense spending dominated the spotlight. The German Minister of Defense stressed that cash should not be the only metric, and that all three (cash, capabilities and contribution) are equally important. While committed to the 2% goal, the Minister said that Germany will spend 1.5% of GDP on defense in 2024 (which is an 80% rise in a decade), but could not say for sure when Germany will be able to allocate 2% because she cannot forecast how the German economy will evolve beyond 2024 (!). Both Germany’s Defense Minister and Canada’s prime minister talked about looking not at how much is spent, but at what is actually done, suggesting an alternative approach to quantifying Member States contribution to the organization, one which would value outputs over inputs: “A lot of people talk about the 2 percent, but (…) announcing money put in, announcing inputs, isn’t nearly as important as demonstrating outputs,” said Justin Trudeau who stressed that capability, contribution and commitment are just as important as costs.
Some of the other key messages were about how the 29-member organization should prepare to respond to modern challenges. There was a lot of emphasis on NATO being a value-based organization, deterrence in a world where disruption is the norm, better telling NATO’s story at home, inclusive security, and fighting disinformation. In that sense, countering disinformation with disinformation would be a “race to the bottom of truth”. The panel on the blessings and curses of technology stood out in particular by discussing why the West will not be able to extract itself from the future uses of AI on moral grounds, not while China and Russia have already teams of researchers and military working on leveraging commercial applications of AI. If only for defensive purposes, the West will have to stay in this game, especially in order to counter the potential nefarious uses of AI technology. While the Western lawmakers are really conversant on defense issues, the policy-makers still have a long way to go to become literate on AI, social media or cyber defense issues.
During the session on defense and deterrence in the modern age, General Knud Bartels, DKA (Ret.), now Adjunct Professor at the Royal Danish Defense talked about the ‘fit-for purpose’ concept in the intelligence dimension. According to him, the “greatest hurdle today is not so much gathering the information and putting together a coherent picture which can be presented to the decision maker (…) The real issue is when you present that to the decision-maker (…), then comes the real issue: does it fit into the preconceived world which the person in charge has of what is going on? Military history is full of surprises and, generally speaking, the information was available, but it didn’t fit the purpose”.
Sharing the news of just having received the invitation to join NATO, Macedonia’s PM Zoran Zaev enthusiastically reminded everyone that “it is cold on the outside” and why it is important “to participate in the peace”.
A message that resonated deeply with me as a think tank founder was expressed by Jamie Shea: “you can’t have a democracy without a common public agreement on what is the truth”. The environment has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Previously, there was a clear top-down communication, but now the minds of the public are just as important as the real battlefields. According to him, the next challenge will be to re-establish the respect for accuracy and trustworthiness of what people are reading and to cultivate the public demand for quality products. “Clarity and discipline begins at home”, he said “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts (…) the stakes for failure and success have never been higher”.
Two of the best sessions that I have attended were off the record: the session on the New Nuclear Age and the Night Owl Session on the fate of the liberal order and how to deal with China and Russia.
The panel on nuclear featured speakers with radically different views: Beatrice Fihn (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN – the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winner), Karl-Heinz Kamp (German Federal Academy for Security Policy) and Guy Roberts (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, US Department of Defense).
The Night Owl Session had a similar all-star speaker panel with great insight offered by veteran experts such as Lilia Shevtsova (Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House), Ambassador Alexander Vershbow (former NATO Deputy Secretary General, now Distinguished Fellow at Atlantic Council), Gunnar Wiegand (Managing Director for Asia and Pacific at EEAS) and Bobo Lo (Russia expert at the French Institute of International Relations, IFRI).
Day two was no less intensive a marathon: the charismatic Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdottir talked about Iceland’s goal to become carbon neutral and how implementation of SDGs, environment and gender equality are also security issues. Lt. General Benjamin Hodges (CEPA) spoke about the Black Sea, how the situation there is worse than in the Baltic Sea, and in dire need of Turkish leadership. The president of Afghanistan Mohammad Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai told the audience there is “no quick fix in Afghanistan”. General Curtis M. Scaparrotti (NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe) and two US senators – the Hon. Thom Tillis (R-NC) and the Hon. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) were among the high-profile guests of day two, as were Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko and Georgia’s president Giorgi Margvelashvili. Georgia’s president called for clear messages towards Russia while Petro Poroshenko said that “when one of the members of the UN Security Council is an aggressor, the [UN] mechanism does not work anymore and is completely destroyed. Practice demonstrates that the only mechanism which effectively works is NATO”.
The event also introduced me to novel concepts such as policy design thinking. The sheer diversity of views, topics and expertise presented over the two days was astounding. With an audience as diverse as the speakers (academics, law- and policy-makers, think tankers, business and media experts), the main takeaways from the conference boil down to: Western actions or inactions have consequences, everyone should pay less attention to political messaging and just carry on with their job “as a matter of housekeeping”, involve women in security issues (feminization of security), the need to come up with other metrics to evaluate NATO Member States contribution to the alliance (not just the 2%) and focus on the quality (not only quantity) of investments in defense. All in all, the two-day conference was an inspirational and empowering tour de force which reminded me that NATO is truly a unique institution, the Euro-Atlantic friendship is very much alive despite any disagreements, while values such as peace, rule of law, diversity, multilateral order are worth fighting for now more than ever.