This summer’s Vilnius Summit took place during an interesting time for NATO as an organization and the transatlantic community writ large. The Summit was full of anticipation, hope, concern, and determination in the months and weeks leading up to its commencing. In the lead up to the Summit, leaders, experts, media, and parliamentarians were debating whether NATO itself as an organization would do more for Ukraine, whether the transatlantic leaders would commit individually to better arm the Ukrainian armed forces, would Russian President Putin create a distraction that would cast an even bigger shadow over the event, would Turkish President Erdogan finally agree to allow Sweden its place in the Alliance’s ranks, and, would Ukrainian President Zelensky find there to be a compelling enough reason for him to attend the Summit in person.
Assessing the Vilnius Summit’s Decisions: An American Perspective
In reflecting on the Summit outcomes from an American perspective, it is perhaps most useful to review what happened across five critical areas of importance for U.S. leaders: Russia, China, Ukraine, defense spending, and partners.
Clearly the Alliance leadership wanted to send a strong signal to President Putin as well as the Russian people that there is no doubt as to who is responsible for the war in Ukraine.
With regard to Russia and building on the summit hosted in Madrid nearly a year earlier, Heads of State and Government reaffirmed Russia as a threat. As stated in the NATO Summit Communique[i], “Russia is the most significant and direct threat to allied security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” Clearly the Alliance leadership wanted to send a strong signal to President Putin as well as the Russian people that there is no doubt as to who is responsible for the war in Ukraine. Moreover, the Alliance included the need for NATO to remain agile in both its posture as well as its responses to Russian provocations and attempts at destabilizing actions[ii]. These statements, as well as those declaring that members will continue to reinforce NATO’s Eastern Flank[iii], the Alliance demonstrated clear resolve, solidarity, and determination in remaining prepared for anything Putin may try against NATO and its partners.
China, too, was put on notice. As stated in the Communique[iv], “The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.” NATO leaders outlined areas where Chinese actions were undermining global standards for human rights and rule of law but remained open to a “constructive engagement[v]” with the PRC. However, the Alliance left no room for confusion when it called on Beijing to act responsibly and refrain from providing any lethal aid to Russia.[vi]” Such words matter to U.S. audiences. While there is a growing belief amongst some in the U.S. that Europe will not be able to measurably contribute to any defense of Taiwan should Beijing attempt to forcibly try and retake the island, statements that put China on notice about supporting Russian efforts in Ukraine show the degree of alignment between the U.S. and Europe on what it expects from Chinese leaders.
For American political leaders, military brass, and, to a great degree, the American public, getting commitments from Europe’s leaders to spend annually no less than 2 percent of their GDP on defense was both welcome and long overdue. For decades, U.S. and some European leaders have banged the drum on the need for Europe to invest, build, and spend more on necessary capabilities. The Communique clearly stated that the Alliance will spend more on defense, will spend at least 20 percent of their 2 percent annual spend on major investments which can include research and development, and will need to have a robust defense industrial base.[vii] In 2014, when NATO leaders met in Wales, they committed to achieve 2 precent of defense spending by 2024. From an American perspective, the fault with the Vilnius language is that it does not specifically recommit the Allies’ pledge to reach 2 percent by 2024. For some members, the war in Ukraine has expedited their plans to reach 2 percent or more; for others, the stated goal is still years away.
The failure to achieve agreement regarding Sweden’s membership in NATO during the months leading up to the Summit was disheartening. At the Summit itself, Turkish President Erdogan did agree to remove his country’s block on Swedish membership but both the Turkish and Hungarian parliaments’ still need to formally approve Stockholm’s candidacy. It was great, however, that Finland could be represented as the Alliance’s 31st member at Vilnius. NATO’s “open door” policy was once again validated with Finland’s accession.
So what about Ukraine? Arguably the most high-profile issue on the Alliance’s agenda and one that had multiple aspects for NATO’s leaders to consider. On the positive side, President Zelensky did attend the event. He met with Alliance leaders and addressed the Lithuanian public. He attended the inaugural NATO-Ukraine Council[viii], which replaced the NATO-Ukraine Commission set up following the 2008 Bucharest Summit. The decision to upgrade NATO’s formal engagement from a Commission to a Council meant Ukraine was now considered a co-equal with NATO members in certain forums and for various other activities.
NATO also agreed to make its Madrid Summit commitment of creating a Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) for Ukraine a multi-year, more integrated initiative[ix]. This is important because it demonstrates a long-term, post-war commitment to Ukraine to help build out much needed areas of institutional and capability building for its armed forces.
The reaction in Washington amongst many in the pro-Ukrainian camp was that the Alliance leaders fumbled in terms of making a post-war membership commitment to Ukraine more clear.
However, NATO bungled the language with regard to its future commitment to Ukraine. Similar in 2008 in the days leading up to the Bucharest Summit, NATO leaders could not come to agreement on what the appropriate language should be to offer Kyiv the possibility of near-term NATO membership. Given the country was at war with Russia, allies struggled with any binding wording with regard to promises of NATO membership. Ultimately, Alliance leaders reaffirmed the 2008 Bucharest Summit language that Ukraine will one day become a member of the Alliance but caveated the wording in Vilnius by saying, “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.”[x] This understandably resulted in a lot of disappointment with Ukrainian leaders as well as its citizens. The reaction in Washington amongst many in the pro-Ukrainian camp was that the Alliance leaders fumbled in terms of making a post-war membership commitment to Ukraine more clear. As we have seen in the weeks and months following the Summit, the ability of some allies (including the Americans and the Brits) to both criticize Zelensky at the Summit as well as fail to show positive, bold leadership in driving toward a more declarative position on Ukraine’s future membership in the Alliance has lead to a weakening of support in Washington and other allied capitals for the continued material support to Ukraine in its fight against Russia.
But all should not be consider lost despite some uphill obstacles. The July 2024 75th anniversary summit in Washington allows Alliance leaders the chance to not only demonstrate progress on the Wales, Madrid, and Vilnius commitments as it pertains to defense spending, but also to take some historic steps that reflect on NATO’s continue and future need for peace and stability in Europe and beyond.
First, NATO leaders should continue to hold Russia accountable for the war in Ukraine and should resolve any fissures or splits amongst themselves in terms of supporting the military efforts and political leadership in Kyiv. This must manifest itself in terms of modifying the Vilnius language to reflect immediate consideration of Ukraine’s membership following cessation of the war. If this cannot be achieved either politically amongst the allies or because there is a fear that Moscow will just keep a hot war going indefinitely, NATO leaders need to make clear that Ukraine’s future is in NATO. Washington cannot be ambiguous or ambivalent on this. The world needs American leadership on this issue. It includes not just the White House but also Congress. Weaking Russia, seeing Ukraine prevail, and preventing future “Ukraine’s” is in America’s security interest.
Second, all efforts should be made to ensure Sweden is welcomed into NATO no later than the Summit’s opening events. The country deserves its rightful seat at the Alliance table. Hungary and Turkey are democratic members of the Alliance and, therefore, NATO members need to respect their respective processes. However, Sweden brings vital capabilities to the Alliance that are needed now and will be needed even more in the future. NATO is a military alliance that needs strong militaries willing to support one another. Sweden will be a great ally and it should be brought into NATO as soon as possible.
Third, it is important that NATO reports out how many member states have reached the two percent defense spending threshold. When the Washington Summit takes place in July 2024, Americans will have just spent 5 months voting in their state primaries for who could be the next U.S. president. Europe will be on the minds of many Americans whether because of the status of the Ukraine war or because some politicians may try and state on the campaign trail that Europe is not doing enough for its own defense. One of the best ways to defang these arguments is to have the majority of NATO member states achieve the two percent spending target. Allies need to hold each other accountable and honor the agreed Wales’ Summit deadline of reaching such spending goals by 2024. A stronger, increasingly capable Europe is in America’s interest.
Americans want to know their country has partners and that they are not the only ones obliged to defend freedom and provide security. They want to know our partners will fight with and for us.
As noted above, the Vilnius Summit both achieved historic deliverables but also missed the mark on a few key items. Most Americans do not pay attention to Summits and the ‘deliverables’ that emerge from them. Rather, American media and politicians tend to focus more on what failed to happen at Summits and magnify and demagogue these points as demonstrating that America’s partners are freeloading off American largesse. This is often factually wrong and dangerous as it corrupts the public’s thinking and perspective. Americans want to know their country has partners and that they are not the only ones obliged to defend freedom and provide security. They want to know our partners will fight with and for us. The want to know America’s friends share in what we believe in. This includes ensuring Ukraine wins, encouraging our allies to spend more, and growing the number of European and Indo-Pacific partners – which is the best antidote for reducing the toxicity that is poisoning American political and public attitudes toward Europe and democracy promotion.
The Summit’s legacy can be solidified depending on how Alliance leaders advance the Vilnius outcomes at the 75th anniversary summit in Washington. NATO needs to remain functional and unified. It needs to be inspiring as well. Figuring out the right decision pathway for Ukraine to join NATO is one of the most important decisions that can be taken in 2024 and could be the enduring legacy of the Vilnius Summit.
[i] Paragraph 5, Vilnius Summit Communique, NATO, July 11, 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_217320.htm
[ii] Paragraphs 14-19, Vilnius Summit Communique, NATO, July 11, 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_217320.htm
[iii] Paragraph 34, Vilnius Summit Communique, NATO, July 11, 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_217320.htm
[iv] Paragraph 6, Vilnius Summit Communique, NATO, July 11, 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_217320.htm
[v] Paragraph 24, Vilnius Summit Communique, NATO, July 11, 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_217320.htm
[vi] Paragraph 25, Vilnius Summit Communique, NATO, July 11, 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_217320.htm
[vii] Paragraphs 27-30, Vilnius Summit Communique, NATO, July 11, 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_217320.htm
[viii] Paragraph 12, Vilnius Summit Communique, NATO, July 11, 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_217320.htm
[ix] Paragraph 13, Vilnius Summit Communique, NATO, July 11, 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_217320.htm
[x] Paragraph 11, Vilnius Summit Communique, NATO, July 11, 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_217320.htm