NATO Warsaw summit: A two-speed Euro-Atlantic relation gains momentum

NATO Warsaw summit: A two-speed Euro-Atlantic relation gains momentum

Stefan Popescu

Sr. Analyst at ROEC

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Stefan Popescu

Bucharest, Romania

by Stefan Popescu, July 7, 2016

Symbolic place, difficult context

The background against which the Warsaw high level meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is taking place is far from usual: the result of the UK referendum on leaving the European Union. Even if London continues to have an important presence in Europe (as part of its security and political space[1]), Brexit will institutionally take out the UK from the EU decision making process and will inevitably force the UK to prioritize its areas of security interest on the continent. The most important outcome will be that London will no longer be able to block the Franco-German initiatives in the area of the Common European Security and Defense Policy (CESP). Therefore, it is for the first time when there truly is a political opportunity to create a Europe de la défense, a European strategic autonomy vis-a-vis NATO.

There are other elements that place the Warsaw event in a unique context. It seems that never before have the security agendas of the participating states been so divergent, and more so those of the Eastern Flank countries: the Visegrad group is profoundly divided, with Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary reluctant to NATO initiatives on the Eastern flank; the Southern part of the Eastern Flank is practically spread between Romania’s powerless pro-Atlantic stance, the reserved positions of Bulgaria and Greece when it comes to NATO maneuvers in the Black Sea and Turkey’s desire to normalize its cooperation with Russia as fast as possible. The only common position is represented by the Poland and Baltic States „front”. Last but not least, the Syrian crisis and the need of a sustained engagement against the Islamic State compel the United States and Russia to have a dialogue and to cooperate, and this aspect will undoubtedly leave its mark on the Warsaw reunion. As a matter of fact, the Alliance Secretary General, Jan Stoltenberg, announced that immediately after the Warsaw summit a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council will be held to „improve dialogue and avoid incidents between the two sides”, but also to revive some cooperation dossiers of common interest, first of all the one on Islamic terrorism. In addition, there are ever more visible signs of a „fatigue” about confrontation with Russia in many Western states, and particularly towards the „bill” of reciprocal economic sanctions.

At the recent international economic forum in Saint Petersburg, European leaders in attendance rushed to denounce „the Cold War vision that dominates NATO” and to state their opposition towards any confrontation or provocation towards Russia. „I would like (…) us to talk and start a positive dynamic” said the former French president who is currently the president of the biggest political party in Hexagone, Les Républicains, from the podium on Vassilievskii Island. „The present dynamic is extremely negative, an initiative must end this process and the only initiative is a peace initiative. We need a founding act and instead of hiding behind sanctions that block everything, sanctions must be lifted”. What the former French president seems to be suggesting is a mutually agreed arrangement between the West and Russia in the East regarding a demarcation of the areas of interest between the two sides!

The current Italian PM, Matteo Renzi, stated from the same podium that „expressions such as Cold War have nothing to do with reality!” The big commercial interests aside, Italy’s strategic orientation has suffered a true Copernican revolution in the past years, getting rid of the memory of a sate defeated in World War II and rehabilitated thanks to the great American ally. For the first time, in the White Book of the Italian Ministry of Defense, the relationship with NATO is hardly mentioned, while Italy’s interests are circumscribed with priority in the Euro-Mediterranean area and not at all in the East of the Union.[2] London’s eventual exit from European institutions becomes thus an opportunity for Rome to achieve an improvement in its European and international standing.

The strategic horizons of Paris, Berlin, and Rome are different than the ones of Bucharest and Warsaw. In these three big European capitals, there is an interest of their domestic military industries, an interest that does not exist in Bucharest, Warsaw and Tallinn. The strategic autonomy of the European Union or of a EU hard core is seen as a means of sustaining their own defense industries which don’t object at all to projects with Russia (American and British pressures in the Mistral affair have left a sour taste in Paris!). Installation of American military bases in some periphery EU countries is seen in Paris and in Berlin as a means to co-opt local political and military elites to American strategic and industrial interests, and not so much as a security guarantee for some countries at the Eastern frontier of the Union that are sensitive to the re-emergence of the Russian power. This was abundantly clear from the Global foreign policy and security strategy presented by the EU high representative for foreign policy Federica Mogherini to the European heads of state and government: “The European Union will make the effort to create a solid European defense industry which is essential in order to guarantee Europe’s autonomy in decision-making and action.[3]

A case in point: different visions on the ABM

The topic of the Anti-Ballistic Missile system divides NATO members in two clear-cut camps: one European, the other – Atlanticist. For the countries in the East – Poland, the Baltic States and Romania – the defense shield compensates their military weakness and embodies NATO’s concept of indivisible defense, a strong proof that, if push comes to shove, Article 5 will not stay on paper. Since the relationship with the United States represents the cornerstone of these countries’ foreign policy, the investment in ABM is an element that tightens their relations with the superpower across the Atlantic. Hosting components of the shield has also an identity meaning for these countries which, throughout history, have sought guarantees for their belonging to the West and for not being „abandoned“ to Russia’s sphere of influence in the future. For European countries with international „responsibilities“, which have industrial interests, the ABM issue is somewhat more complicated.

The ABM system is based almost exclusively on American technology. It is a project with obvious economic overtones, since it exploits the synergies of the oversee industry, universities and research institutes, exactly as during the Reagan Administration, these creative energies were mobilized for the Strategic Defense Initiative (known as the Star Wars project). This research, manufacturing and operational effort determines a true cascade of positive effects for the American economy. These investments are supported by the federal budget (billions of dollars annually).

The second positive effect is selling ballistic missile defense systems to allied states, but also conventional weapons which are seen as an extension of NATO deterrence. The reluctance of Paris is determined by the non-participation of the European research and industries in this project. The second issue related to the ABM is political. The presence of the ABM system determines a dependency relation towards the owner country. We must not have the nativité of believing that strategic investments are altruistic! The view from Paris is that ABM strengthens American control over the EU periphery and is an obstacle in the way of realizing a EU, as a great power within the Alliance, but on equal footing with the United States. As a matter of principle, Eastern European countries do not conceive their defense policy (military, secret services, military-industrial cooperation) except in a Euro-Atlantic framework, and not in a European one which is allied with the U.S. These options are taken more and more into consideration by the French foreign policy planners for their project of creating a hard-nucleus Europe, the only framework in which a strategic autonomy may be realized.

Thirdly, the French nuclear doctrine is in contradiction with the American ABM project for Europe (in spite of the consent given by President François Hollande for the start of this program). The French nuclear doctrine is based on the tous azimuts principle, in other words, all horizons, no exception, a doctrine that was reaffirmed in 2008 in the White Book of National Defense. Consequently, an ABM system represents, hypothetically, a shield also against the ballistic missiles of the French Republic. The French gave their consent only to avoid isolation from other European allies and reactivation of the Old/New Europe fault line.

Fourth, France but also other European powers (Germany and Italy) fear that the shield will be interpreted (it already happened!) as a provocation by Russia and that it will be another obstacle in the way of normalizing Russian-European relations.

Many key decision-makers from core European countries are of the opinion that „East European states have been accustomed for so long to have a big Soviet brother that, when it disappeared, they have desperately looked for another, the American one”. This is what recently wrote Pascal Boniface, the director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations: „In reality, there is a functional drift of NATO: in order to justify its existence, it needs to invent a threat. Does anyone seriously believe that Russia may launch into a war against Poland or that it would try to re-conquer the Baltic States?”.[4] Hence, we are dealing with a strategic vision that is fundamentally opposed to that of the countries on the Eastern frontier, a vision that can affect Alliance viability and lead over time to the risk of it becoming a club of Western countries. Moreover, in the French imaginary locus, Tunisia, Mali, Central African Republic, Chad and even far away Madagascar represent security concerns much closer to home than the even farther away Black Sea. Maybe it would not hurt to remind the refusal of a certain East-European country to respond to a request from Paris to participate with at least one helicopter to the operations in the Central African Republic…[5] I am reminding this episode to emphasize that security misunderstandings run on both sides. As far as the strictly European commitment is concerned, ever since General De Gaulle there has been a deeply rooted belief that Europe’s security architecture cannot be achieved without Russia, and this idea is shared by Rome and Berlin. Particularly in Paris and in Berlin, there is an obsession with the multipolar world which compensates the erosion of their international status after World War II (a historical experience unknown in London, which stood in the camp of the BIG ONES at Yalta and Potsdam and which, compared to Paris, had an exit strategy from the colonial empire, a strategy for creating a post-imperial space). In this view, the association with Russia would allow Paris and Berlin to obtain critical mass to balance the United States, and eventually China. On the other hand, given the disproportion Washington/Paris and Washington/Berlin, an exclusive association with the United States leaves them with the sense of being part of a satellite system.

What to expect from the Warsaw Summit?

Even if nobody will say it out loud, in no case shall we witness a deepening of relations with Georgia, Ukraine or Moldova, states that are in the security glacis of the Russian Federation. Even if mentioned, at statement level, it will be just an encouragement for these countries to continue on the course of reforms. The classical diplomatic language which says NO in very nice words! Instead, a policy of opening will be possible towards the two West Balkan candidate countries: Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Thus, NATO’s role as a security organization for a wider Europe, from Atlantic to the border with Russia, is consolidating even more. A more prominent European role is also consolidating within the Alliance, meaning that NATO will transform in some sort of military personnel reservoir and „equipment and ammunition” box for countries engaged in operations.[6] As far as a permanent military commitment in the East, to reassure the frontier member states and to discourage the Russian Federation, this will be limited to a level perceived as non-threatening by Moscow (several battalions). Although announced as the summit of the big long term decisions, Warsaw will represent just a pit stop event, in expectation for the new reconfiguration of the European Union.

Read in Romanian

[1] Through its bilateral strategic partnership agreements with a number of European Union countries, through its presence in NATO, but also its bilateral defense agreements such as the French-British one from Lancaster House (November 2010). As stated recently by the French Ministry of Defense, Jean-Yves Le Drian, „even outside the EU, Great Britain will remain the main partner of France in defense matters” (Nathalie Guibert, « Le Royaume-Uni repense sa stratégie de défense », Le Monde, 6 juin 2016 : they are the only European countries that are permanent members of the UN Security Council, they are the only European countries that own strategic nuclear arsenal and have complimentary interests at global level that come from their particular situation – the only European countries, great traditional post-imperial powers, with a global horizon. One can also mention the joint French-British arm programs (development of a multirole aircraft) and creation of a joint expeditionary force.

[2] Ministero della Difesa, Libro Bianco per la sicurezza internazionale e la difesa, luglio 2015:

[3] Vision partagée, action commune: Une Europe plus forte. Une stratégie globale pour la politique étrangère et de sécurité de l’Union européenne, SN 10192/16 :

[4] Pascal Boniface, « L’OTAN a besoin de faire valoir une menace », L’Humanité, 9 juin 2016:

[5] „The bad mouths” (les mauvaises langues) claim that France has asked Romania to pitch in with a military helicopter to an operation in the Central-African Republic which would have given the appearance of a European participation and would have avoided accusations of „neocolonialism”. This supposedly is the explanation for  the distant attitude of president Sarkozy towards president Băsescu, at the NATO Summit in Lisbon in 2010.

[6] The way it happened during the French-British intervention   in Libya (2011) when the U.S. has contributed with drones and ammunition, and Italy has put at disposal the air base in Sigonella etc.

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