Papering over the cracks in NATO’s uncertain world

A review of the NATO Defence Ministers meeting, 17-18 June 2020

NATO Watch Briefing No.78 

24 June 2020

Key activities and decisions taken:

  • A new operational plan was agreed, to be ready for any second wave of COVID-19. No details of the plan were provided and it is unclear if it will be published.
  • It was also agreed to create a stockpile of medical equipment and supplies, and a new fund to acquire those supplies.
  • Ministers agreed to update baseline requirements for national resilience to take account of cyber threats; the security of supply chains, and consequences of foreign ownership and control. Again, it is unclear whether or not these ‘baseline requirements’ will be publicly available.
  • A “balanced package of political and military elements” was agreed in response to Russia’s “destabilizing and dangerous” behaviour.
  • Some parts of the package were outlined, including strengthened air and missile defence, advanced conventional capabilities, intelligence, exercises, and “steps to keep NATO’s nuclear deterrent safe, secure and effective”.
  • The exact nature of the nuclear-related steps was not disclosed; deployment of new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe continue to be ruled out.
  • The US Defense Secretary said that Washington would consult NATO allies on the next steps in plans to withdraw some US troops from Germany.
  • Ministers expressed concern about the consequences of the rise of China.
  • Ministers reiterated their strong commitment to Afghanistan’s long-term security; to support the peace process NATO is “adjusting” its presence in Afghanistan (i.e. attempting an organized and managed exit).
  • In Iraq, NATO remains committed to enhancing its training mission and to increasing its presence when conditions allow.
  • Eleven NATO Defence Ministers (Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Turkey) launched a multilateral initiative on pilot training. 
  • Various intra-NATO divisions persist: Turkey continues to block a NATO defence plan for Poland and the Baltic states; while NATO is to investigate a recent incident between Turkish warships and a French naval vessel in the Mediterranean (the two NATO allies are on opposite sides in the Libyan civil war).

The NATO Defence Ministers held a virtual two-day meeting to discuss four main issues: preparations for a possible second wave of COVID-19; updating national resilience guidelines; deterrence and defence, including the response to Russia’s new nuclear-capable missiles and the rise of China; and NATO missions and operations, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The proliferation in Chinese, Russian and US missiles and associated nuclear weapons modernisation programmes, the new NATO measures, plus the collapse of international arms control agreements strongly suggests that a new arms race is already under way. While this differs qualitatively and quantitatively from those of the Cold War, it remains equally dangerous and unnecessary.

The talking up of the Russian and Chinese threat is in line with a rich tradition of threat inflation about Russia/Soviet Union. A quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, a new mindset is needed on all sides, especially among Western nations. Rather than always interpreting the actions of the Russian and Chinese governments in the worst possible light and seeking to hold Moscow and Beijing to higher standards than sometimes operate in the West, there needs to be more nuanced engagement. China, Russia and NATO need to be cooperating to address a range of 21st-century threats from radicalisation to cyber-attacks to climate change and pandemics

Read the attached pdf briefing to find out more.