NATO Summit Leaves Questions Unanswered | Opinion

The recent NATO summit in Madrid was one of the most productive on record. Traditionally, meetings involving NATO heads-of-state resemble an elegant family affair, where members of the alliance hug each other, crack jokes and brag about the longevity of the organization. Countless speeches are given, with the NATO secretary general repeatedly branding NATO as the world's oldest and most successful military alliance. By the end of the summit, a long, joint communique is issued, with multiple references to the "rules-based international order."

In some ways, this week's summit was quite similar to others. President Joe Biden had several bilateral meetings with NATO allies like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as allies (like South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida) who aren't formally a part of the group. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg lauded the alliance as unified, strong, and increasingly willing to spend what it takes to ensure its eastern flank is protected.

But in other ways, the three days in Madrid were unlike anything else the alliance has experienced. For the first time since the late 1990s, NATO met at a time when war was churning on European soil. Russia's five month-old invasion of Ukraine was understandably at the top of the agenda, and the alliance rolled out a number of new initiatives designed to address the recent tremors in Europe's security environment.

First, NATO will expand the number of troops available for deployment on short notice. The alliance's Rapid Response Force will increase in size from the current 40,000 to over 300,000, a nearly eight-fold hike in personnel. Second, the NATO battlegroups now deployed in Poland and the Baltic States will become brigades, effectively adding thousands of additional troops to the area. Third, the U.S. will be making its own force increases in Europe, including additional F-15 aircraft to the U.K., a permanent army headquarters in Poland, two more warships in Rota, Spain, and the deployment of 5,000 more troops to Romania. Finally, the alliance published its first Strategic Concept in 12 years, a 16-page document that mentioned China as a challenge to NATO's values and interests.

In terms of deliverables, that is quite a long list. Biden seemed pleased by the results, calling the gathering in Madrid a "historic" moment that demonstrated NATO's ability to respond and adapt during a time of crisis. And in a way, the president was right; it's not every day two more states, Finland and Sweden, are presented with the chance to apply for membership (those applications went ahead after Erdogan dropped his objections after his security concerns were addressed).

But beneath the unity and camaraderie are several questions about where the alliance is going and whether the initiatives NATO presented this week will even be implemented.

President Joe Biden holds his press conference
President Joe Biden holds a press conference at the NATO summit on June 30, 2022, in Madrid. Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Enhancing the combat readiness of NATO's Rapid Response Force is a sensible idea in theory. If Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were concerned about Russian revanchism before the war in Ukraine, they are now on a constant state of alert. But in practice, plussing up the force to 300,000 personnel will include a lot of work behind the scenes, none of which appears to have been done.

Which member states will contribute forces? How many of those forces will be forward deployed to the east as opposed to staying in their home bases? Does the alliance possess the combat enablers, weapons systems and ammunition that will accompany such a force—and if so, will the equipment be pre-positioned in NATO's eastern flank or stay in warehouses in the west? None of these details have been answered; in fact, some Western defense officials were surprised about Stoltenberg's announcement, suggesting there wasn't much consultation with the very countries that will be expected to participate.

NATO's decision to devote two paragraphs of its Strategic Concept to China's undermining of the so-called rules-based international order was seen by some Asia specialists as a win for the Biden administration, which has tried to gingerly enlist Europe to its campaign of competing with China in the Indo-Pacific. Yet one must not lose sight of a basic fact: despite Beijing's economic coercion, shady loan practices, military modernization and territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, it's difficult to argue with a straight face that China is a military threat to Europe. In addition to a pesky thing called geography (Beijing is about 4,000 miles away from Kyiv, Ukraine), the Chinese military hasn't shown the ability to project this kind of power on the Eurasian continent. By the Pentagon's own estimates, some kind of mythical military influence in Europe doesn't even register on China's list of national priorities.

NATO seems to be devoting more of its bandwidth on Asia, when its original purpose, deterring threats to Europe, is as relevant today as it has ever been since the Soviet Union's collapse more than 30 years ago. What sense does it make for the alliance to slowly avert its gaze to another region of the world when the continent is now hosting the biggest conventional war in nearly 80 years?

One can only hope the alliance, in between the photography and sherpa sessions, discussed these issues during their meetings in Spain. Unfortunately, it's more likely NATO is sweeping them under the rug and perfectly comfortable with proceeding on auto-pilot.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own