A version of this piece was also published in Barron’s.
NATO’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11-12 has been touted as one of the most important ever held by the alliance.
“NATO is unified, strong, and purpose-driven” — at least, this is the takeaway message allies will seek to project. Indeed, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in response to Chinese assertiveness, the alliance has hardened its resolve, added to its membership, and broadened its scope. But dynamics within the institution remain brittle, in part due to the complexity of addressing multiple global threats, as well as the reality that NATO’s success rests on the commitment and direction of its largest ally, the United States.
The summit will showcase the leadership of the Baltic states within the alliance, particularly their shared post-Soviet history of facing down Russian aggression and staunchly supporting Ukraine. Host-nation Lithuania, which has vocally criticized both Russia and China, will be lauded for its principled diplomatic stance and commitment to security in the region. Neighboring Poland will also receive attention from allies for its tone-setting voice on Russia policy, as well as its accelerated build/buy defense procurement that could be a harbinger for NATO’s future force. The leaders of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Ukraine will also join the summit. Their presence for a second consecutive year demonstrates strategic alignment with NATO and the shared importance of several key summit themes.
First, NATO allies and partners will reaffirm commitments to defending the trans-Atlantic community, with language on this topic reflecting both principle and practice. Discussions on defense spending at the 2% of gross domestic product threshold will not dominate debate as at previous gatherings, largely due to massive bilateral and multilateral commitments in support of Ukraine. Allies also have moved closer to meeting their spending obligations. France and Croatia, for example, have nearly reached the 2% goal, while several others are only falling short because of higher-than-expected GDP growth. Total defense spending across the alliance grew an estimated 2.2% in real terms from 2021 to 2022.
Second, the preponderance of messaging will relate to resisting Russian influence and bolstering deterrence on the eastern flank and the Black Sea region. NATO allies will discuss Russian political stability in light of the Wagner Group’s rebellion, as well as the reported construction of a Wagner camp and relocation of Wagner’s leadership to Belarus. Those developments triggered NATO neighbors Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland to introduce heightened border security measures over the past week. Russia’s recent deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus represents a further strategic shift for Minsk, which had long sought to prevent any expansion of enduring Russian military presence on its territory beyond scattered listening posts. On top of maintaining troop garrisons in Belarus near the Ukrainian border, Russia will almost certainly deploy specialized detachments to secure and control its nuclear-capable Iskander missile launch systems.
Third, as evidenced by current discussions at NATO headquarters in Brussels, allies’ messaging will emphasize the importance of defending democracies around the globe from existential threats, no matter the origin; Russia, China, nuclear North Korea, and near-nuclear Iran are all viewed with particular concern in this respect. With a degree of nuance designed to refrain from provocation or explicitly expanding the alliance’s umbrella beyond the North Atlantic region, NATO leaders will also articulate their role in upholding the rules-based order. This will include ongoing support for Ukraine and NATO’s Asia-Pacific partners, as well as (through oblique references) Taiwan’s democracy.
Fourth, NATO leaders will address emerging challenges stemming from the Indo-Pacific, specifically Chinese efforts to secure basing access, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and freedom of navigation in the Taiwan Strait, as well as the sensitive topics of commercial espionage and cyber intrusions. There likely will be discussion about Europe’s critical infrastructure, access to concentrated sources of minerals and metals, and supply-chain resilience. Energy security and sanctions policy will be on the table, following China and India’s increase in imports of Russian energy that have counteracted the effect of Europe weaning itself off Russian oil and gas. There will also be discussion of how best to harness the growing geopolitical clout and national interests-based policies of India and the Gulf states.
Despite general unity on these issues, debates continue on others. The most acute relates to the extent and depth of security guarantees to be pledged to Ukraine. Most leaders will agree at Vilnius that Ukraine will need to wait until the war’s cessation to become a NATO member, but allies disagree on steps to be taken in the interim. President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested a NATO pathway and binding agreements of Western aid for his nation in perpetuity, arguing that Ukraine’s military actions against Russia have bolstered security and upheld Western values on behalf of the broader alliance. Proponents of this position also argue that Ukraine has built one of Europe’s largest and most capable militaries and become a source of advanced research and development. Rather than offer explicit, perpetual security guarantees, however, a smaller group of influential states likely will instead push to sign a nonbinding agreement pledging additional financial, training, logistics, and materiel support in the face of Russia’s invasion.
Another wildcard is the status of NATO’s newest potential ally, Sweden, which has had its membership blocked by Turkey and Hungary. There could be celebrations in Vilnius around Sweden’s accession if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban yield, as some diplomats still expect. However, the recent burning of a Koran by an Iraqi refugee in front of a Stockholm mosque, along with Turkey’s objection to the presence of Kurdish opposition groups in Sweden, have complicated negotiations. If Sweden has not acceded to NATO before (or during) the summit, animosity toward Turkey and Hungary could grow and spill over to other linked topics — such as Turkey’s desire for new F-16s and modernization kits, or Hungary’s seeking of European Union funds blocked over democracy and human rights concerns. The result may be turmoil within the NATO alliance and the EU. In any case, NATO allies will offer a warm welcome toast to Finland, which will be taking part in its first summit as an ally.
Looking beyond Vilnius, observers across the alliance are already speculating about 2024, with pivotal elections taking place in the United States, Europe, and Taiwan, and geopolitical tensions related to the US-China relationship potentially coming to a head. Overall, leaders at Vilnius will undoubtedly recognize that the challenges they face are serious and even grave, but also that there is no viable alternative to NATO — dubbed the most successful alliance in world history — as a safeguard for global stability, freedom, and prosperity.
Jay Truesdale is the CEO of Veracity Worldwide