The leaders of the 31 NATO member states will meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, this coming week for the alliance’s 2023 summit. The summit comes at an important time in terms of transatlantic security. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is well into its second year and Ukraine’s counteroffensive has recently begun. The decisions taken at the summit could have a long-term impact on the overall stability of the transatlantic region and beyond.
Without a doubt, the primary focus of the summit will be Ukraine. In this context, expect two big issues to be discussed: future NATO membership and continued military support for Ukraine. Fifteen years ago, at the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008, Ukraine was promised eventual membership in the alliance. Over the years, little progress has been made — mainly due to the reluctance of some countries, like Germany and France. In retrospect, leaving Ukraine in this geopolitical limbo was probably one of the factors that enticed Russia to invade. Had Ukraine been in NATO, Russia would unlikely have dared to attack.
Nobody should expect an invitation to be extended at the summit for Ukraine to join NATO. It would be impossible to find consensus among all 31 members to invite any country to join the alliance while it is fighting a war. Instead, expect NATO to establish a roadmap that leads to eventual membership for Ukraine. Kyiv wants to join NATO immediately, so it remains to be seen if the alliance can provide a roadmap to membership that meets its reasonably high expectations.
Another issue that NATO members will discuss at the summit is the ongoing and long-term military support for Ukraine. Over the past 18 months, NATO members have been increasing the amount and types of weapons provided for Ukraine’s self-defense. In February 2022, the debate was about sending Ukraine anti-tank weapons. Today, NATO members are sending Ukraine some of the most advanced tanks in the world. However, more contentious items, such as fighter jets and long-range rockets, have remained elusive for Kyiv. It is likely that NATO members will use the summit to discuss the possibility of providing Ukraine these more advanced weapons.
The issue of defense spending will also feature at the summit. Defense spending across Europe, or the lack thereof, is a perennial issue for the alliance. In 2006, NATO agreed that each member should meet the target of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. However, in the subsequent years, very few members ever met this goal.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO set itself a new deadline of 2024 for its members to comply. Although defense spending across NATO has increased year on year since 2014, the overall situation remains dire. Last year, only seven members met the 2 percent benchmark for defense spending. While a few more members might reach the benchmark before next year’s NATO summit in Washington, the vast majority will not. This will have long-term consequences for the overall health of the alliance.
Keep an eye on Sweden, too. Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, both Finland and Sweden submitted applications to join NATO. For centuries, both countries maintained a position of military nonalignment — meaning neither would join military organizations like NATO. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed this. In April, Finland was formally admitted into the alliance. However, Sweden’s application has been held up over concerns Turkiye has over the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s presence in the country. Behind the scenes, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has been working closely with Turkish and Swedish leaders, trying to find a resolution to this impasse. Many will be watching to see if Sweden gets into the alliance at the upcoming summit.
Readers of Arab News will naturally wonder if the Middle East and North Africa region will get any attention at the upcoming summit. Unfortunately, it probably will not. This is shortsighted on NATO’s part. Whether it is regional terrorism emanating from extremist groups or the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran, NATO members share many of the same security concerns as the countries of the MENA region. Furthermore, many of the countries in this region have demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with NATO and have even contributed troops to NATO-led missions in the past.
The alliance should be finding ways to build on these relationships. So far this year, there have been some positive developments regarding NATO-MENA engagement. Just last week, a senior delegation from Mauritania visited NATO headquarters in Brussels for talks about security developments in the Sahel. Last month, a senior NATO delegation traveled to Bahrain to discuss enhancing military cooperation. Meanwhile, other senior-level engagements with the region this year include Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan.
While the focus of the alliance must remain on the threats in Eastern Europe, there are a few easy things that NATO can do to enhance its engagement in the MENA region. These steps could include appointing a NATO special representative for MENA and actively pushing to enlarge the memberships of the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.
The former, launched in 1994, forms the basis of NATO’s relations with its Mediterranean partners: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, launched in 2004, is the basis of NATO’s relations with the Gulf states. Although all six members of the GCC were invited to join, only Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE have done so.
At next year’s summit in Washington that will mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of NATO, the successes of the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative should be highlighted and a meeting of both should take place at the heads of government level.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year changed the security landscape in Europe in a way not seen since the Second World War. NATO must simultaneously bolster the security of Europe and remain aware of future threats beyond the region. With the right leadership inside NATO, the upcoming summit can usher in a new era of regional stability and security. Not just for Europe, but for the Middle East and North Africa too.