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What does the Vilnius Summit mean for NATO’s future?

The Council on Geostrategy asks seven strategic experts what the 2023 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, signifies about the future of the alliance

Hillary Briffa, Council on Geostrategy

In Neutral Beyond the Cold: Neutral States and the Post-Cold War International System, I argued the significant merits of a neutral posture for small states in precarious geopolitical positions. Yet, strategies must be attuned to changing threat perceptions, and the NATO accession efforts of Finland (neutral since the 1950s) and Sweden (neutral since 1814!) in the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine are testament to this.

Finland actively participated in the Vilnius Summit as a full NATO member for the first time, and Sweden has finally made significant strides to overcome Turkish opposition to its own membership, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Türkiye, at last resolving in Vilnius to send NATO’s accession documents to the Turkish Parliament for approval after holding out for over a year. Whilst the Summit communiqué acknowledges the strengthening of the alliance’s future through the security contributions and resources of these new members (that will increase the strategic depth of Baltic defence), it will take time to resolve logistical challenges, as well as to entrench the ideological shift in societies whose political identity has been shaped by neutrality and serving as mediators. 

Russia’s actions necessitated the rapidity of the shift to collective security membership, but integration – not only in terms of command, personnel, and planning, but crucial societal resilience – will take time, and the still emerging implications of such historic shifts should not be underestimated.

Artur Honich, RAND Europe

The outcomes of the Vilnius Summit show the dual nature of alliance politics: the great potential of 31 allies working together to strengthen their security, and the challenges of finding a consensus. 

The summit produced important decisions to enhance collective defence against the two threats identified in the 2022 Strategic Concept: Russia and terrorism. Allied leaders approved three regional plans covering the High North and the Atlantic, Central Europe from the Baltic to the Alps, and Southeast Europe. These classified plans are a strong signal of unity and purpose: the plans clearly outline what allies need to do to deter and defend. Work will now begin on the ‘how’, including developing the required capabilities, adapting command and control, training and exercising, and investing in infrastructure and enablement.

However, results concerning NATO enlargement are mixed. While Erdoğan agreed to Sweden’s accession, the summer recess of the Turkish parliament means further delays. Moreover, the decision to not give Ukraine a timeline and specific conditions for membership confirms the Kremlin’s logic that armed aggression works as a de facto veto on NATO membership, at least for now. Therefore, helping Ukraine liberate all of its territory is the key task ahead to not only facilitate Ukraine’s future membership but also to deal with the most significant threat to NATO in decades.

Dominik P. Jankowski, Policy Adviser, Office of the NATO Secretary General

The Vilnius Summit confirmed that strategic competition, pervasive instability and recurrent shocks will continue to define our broader security environment. In this context, five elements are of key importance for the future of NATO. 

First, deterrence and defence is back in full swing. Allies agreed NATO’s most detailed and robust defence plans since the Cold War and are delivering a larger pool of dedicated combat-capable forces. 

Second, NATO remains clear eyed about the long-term threats (Russia, terrorism) and challenges (the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and climate change, among others) to allied security. This helps to plan the long-term political and military adaptation of the alliance. 

Third, technology is at heart of NATO’s approach to security and defence. Allies will work on maintaining their technological edge and developing a transatlantic innovation ecosystem through NATO’s Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic and the NATO Innovation Fund. 

Fourth, NATO will continue to help allies enhance national and collective resilience by mitigating strategic vulnerabilities and dependencies, including with respect to our critical infrastructure and supply chains. And finally, the alliance will continue to grow. Sweden will soon become an ally; Ukraine – through the establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Council and the adoption of the long-term deterrence and defence package – is closer than ever.

Alexander Lanoszka, Council on Geostrategy

Every joke has a trace of sad truth about it, and the joke about NATO is that it stands for ‘No Action, Talk Only’. 

This year’s summit in Vilnius had three principal shortcomings. Although it was not on the agenda, the NATO-Russia Founding Act remains official alliance policy despite how radically worse the security environment is today in 2023 than what it was in 1997. Furthermore, there was no agreement on the potential opening of a liaison office in Tokyo despite Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, declaring that there is ‘no partner closer than Japan.’ There was also no timetable or clear set of conditions given for Ukraine to attain NATO membership. 

Yet these problems should not obscure how the alliance achieved substantive progress at the Vilnius Summit. More and more allies are warming to the idea of Ukraine becoming part of NATO. The newly created NATO-Ukraine Council will offer a vital platform for consultations and information sharing. More weapons will be sent to Ukraine. Sweden’s path to NATO membership is now unencumbered, thus helping the alliance consolidate military planning in the Baltic region. Progress may indeed be sluggish, but that is a feature – not a bug – of a large democratic and collective defence alliance like NATO.

Rory Medcalf, National Security College, Australian National University

Time will confirm the historic character of the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius. Some contemporary commentary will focus on disappointment and incrementalism: notably, the lack of consensus or breakthrough on rapid membership for Ukraine. But the larger picture remains an affirmation of the relevance, fortitude and adaptability of the alliance for a new era, reinforced by Finland and imminently Sweden.

Of especial interest for countries in the Indo-Pacific is NATO’s new forthrightness on the challenge posed by the PRC. The presence in Lithuania of the ‘Indo-Pacific 4’ – Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand – underscored a global dimension to the alliance mission. Old concepts of a ‘NATO area’ become hazy when the PRC enables Russia’s aggression and seeks to undermine the alliance. The pause on a NATO office in Japan will not change the structural realities that compel global partnerships in maintaining an open international system, respect for the United Nations Charter, and mutual strengthening among democracies.

The communiqué makes clear that the defensive purpose of the alliance cannot be narrowly military. The economic resilience of member states, the infrastructure of connectivity (such as undersea cables) and advantage in critical technologies: this is vital terrain for strategic competition, where the alliance has rightly signalled a role.

Philip Shetler-Jones, Council on Geostrategy

This summit affirmed the viability of NATO on its fundamental role as well as yielding pointers on the connections between the Euro-Atlantic and the global security order. 

It was impossible to satisfy everyone completely, but NATO exhibited three fundamental qualities: its ability to attract and absorb new members, to reinforce its own capacity, and to recognise the success of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression as a common interest of the alliance that must be sustained. Furthermore, the summit offered a glimpse of how the alliance is being positioned relative to global security trends. The leaders from Indo-Pacific partners Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea are becoming a fixture of NATO summits. The PRC, mentioned once in last year’s Madrid Summit, got 14 mentions in the Vilnius Summit communiqué. 

An inconclusive discussion on a liaison office in Asia should not eclipse the expansion of substantively valuable programmes for NATO cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Under Japan’s leadership the G7 formed up alongside NATO as a guarantor of the international security order. As Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, put it, ‘for the first time since independence, we have formed a security foundation for Ukraine on its way to NATO. These are concrete security guarantees that are confirmed by the top seven democracies in the world. Never before have we had such a security foundation, and this is the level of the G7.’

Viktorija Starych-Samuolienė, Council on Geostrategy

Undoubtedly, the brutal war waged by Russia against Ukraine and Ukraine’s future in NATO was at the centre of attention at Vilnius, although other security issues were not overlooked.

The first – and an important – win was the smoothing of the path for Sweden to join the alliance. It is a great outcome showcasing the unity and ability to overcome lingering internal disagreements in order to strengthen our collective security.

Secondly, the summit demonstrated that Ukraine’s future is in NATO. Announcements confirmed that the alliance and Ukraine will move beyond the need for the Membership Action Plan, that a NATO-Ukraine Council mechanism will be created, and that Ukraine will continue to get the delivery of urgently needed non-lethal assistance through the Comprehensive Assistance Package. From NATO’s perspective, this is a realistic outcome while the war still rages, and commits the alliance to actively supporting Ukraine in increasing its interoperability with NATO members and achieving necessary domestic reforms.

Finally, NATO committed to becoming a leader in adapting to the impacts of climate change and established a NATO Centre of Excellence for Climate Change and Security. Key partners in the Indo-Pacific were also acknowledged for their efforts and commitment to Euro-Atlantic security, whilst NATO simultaneously signalled its willingness to engage more in the Indo-Pacific in tackling common security challenges.

The Vilnius Summit demonstrated that NATO is united, energised and purposeful and ready to innovate and adapt not only to current, but also future geopolitical challenges.

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