What will emerge from NATO’s December meeting?

02 november 2017

The fifth of December NATO’s Foreign Ministers met in Brussels. Roberta Haar wonders what concrete results will emerge from this meeting.

What are the prospects of anything concrete emerging from the recent Foreign Ministers meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels?  Should we anticipate that ministers attending the meeting will be able to build broad international support for any policies that might advance the alliance’s interests in key regions or on important issues?  Or should we lower our expectations, given that the meeting comes hot on the heels of a Trump Twitter attack on a key NATO alliance member, namely, UK Prime Minister Theresa May?

The positives

The goal of the meeting was to address how NATO can adapt itself to effectively tackle a wide range of defense and security issues as well as prepare for the next NATO summit in July 2018.  On the plus side, NATO–EU cooperation is being strengthened, as expressed in the Joint Declaration signed in Warsaw in July 2016.  Of the 42 measures agreed upon at Warsaw, cyber security is one area where cooperation is working well.  The EU has also defined a new package of measures, in such areas as mobility between NATO troops and EU national governments.  Additionally, under Operation Atlantic Resolve, the U.S. is maintaining its higher troop levels (on rotation), which are committed to European Defense on the European continent.

The members of the alliance also have strong incentives to work together to address terrorist threats in Europe and North America and to deal with other global challenges like North Korea, the remaining elements of ISIS in the Middle East and how to move towards security stabilization in Afghanistan.  Security on Europe’s periphery was certainly an important issue at the meeting, with discussions on how to deal with ballistic missile threats and how to build close relationships with Georgia and the newest member of the alliance Montenegro, which joined in June of this year.  Given Montenegro’s accession to the alliance and Georgia’s hopes to also join the defense club, it is clear that as an alliance NATO remains attractive.  It also means that countries that want to join in the future will make real efforts toward reform and modernization, which will have many positive spillover effects.

The impediments

Unfortunately, diplomatic niceties, such as those found in the Declaration, still contrast worryingly with the actual state of transatlantic relations, a predicament most tellingly revealed by the dilemma that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finds himself in.

At the end of November, in preparation for his trip to Brussels, Tillerson gave a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, which was full of historical examples of the strong ties between Europe and United States and a forceful restatement of America’s continual commitment to the defense of Europe.  While Tillerson may personally believe that America’s commitment to its European allies is ‘ironclad’, the communication of these views in Brussels met with icy responses.

One of the primary reasons that Tillerson’s fellow ministers met his fine words with glacial looks is because Tillerson is a dead man walking.  Tension between U.S. President Donald Trump and Tillerson has grown increasingly public throughout this year, culminating in recent White House leaks that Tillerson would soon be fired and replaced by the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo.  The flutter that this caused in Washington led Trump to deny on Twitter the next day that he wanted Tillerson out, but the message is clear: Tillerson no longer serves with the confidence of his boss so why should any of Tillerson’s fellow participants in Brussels take his words to actually reflect U.S. policy.

A second reason that Tillerson has lost all power to lead U.S. diplomacy is that he has lost all credibility with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and within the State Department itself.  In fact, Tillerson was forced to defend his leadership of the department during his speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center.  He was forced to rebuke the claim that he was ‘hollowing out’ the State Department through budget cuts and staff departures.  The deep internal reorganization that Tillerson embarked upon shortly after he arrived at State means that morale at the department is abysmal.  One result is that Foreign Service Officers are resigning at an unprecedented rate.  The current situation led The New York Times editorial board to accuse Tillerson of ‘making war on diplomacy’.  Regrettably, the dysfunction at the State Department means that America effectively does not have a working diplomatic instrument to use in its relations with other actors on the global stage.

And finally, Trump’s continuing lack of enthusiasm for alliances, for any existing agreements that America brokered in the past, plus the president’s profound ignorance about foreign affairs, further coupled with the continuing turmoil in Washington, puts into doubt any U.S. commitment to any policies agreed upon at the meeting.  Trump’s personal attack on Prime Minister May is one example of the turmoil in Washington.  Trump went on the offensive after May publicly admonished the president for re-tweeting fake anti-Muslim videos posted by the fringe, far-right U.K. political party Britain First.  Rather than admit any wrong, president Trump thought it fine to personally disparage the leader of one of America’s closest and most loyal NATO ally.

Contrast with the warm words in Brussels

Ultimately, Trump’s disinterest in foreign affairs means that neither he nor Tillerson have enunciated a strategy or vision for America’s goals or interests in the world and how these might relate to NATO.  From what can be pieced together, the profound disagreements or concerns expressed by America’s closest allies in Europe on such things as the Iran nuclear deal (which is seen as a centerpiece of European diplomatic achievement) and on U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, alongside Trump’s ambivalence towards Europe, paint a picture that is out of kilter with the warm words emanating from NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. This means that the prospects of anything concrete emerging from the December NATO Foreign Ministers meeting are rather small.

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