NATO’s meeting in Warsaw is the ‘Second Chance’ Summit

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been trying to find its new role.

Workers place banners in preparation for the NATO Warsaw Summit in Warsaw, Poland [EPA]
Workers place banners in preparation for the NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland [EPA]

We have been told that this week’s NATO summit in Warsaw will be the most important summit since the end of the Cold War. The problem is we have also heard the same thing for NATO’s other summits in Wales (2014), in Chicago (2012), in Lisbon (2010), and so on.

Although politicians do not want to admit it, the truth is that this summit is not the most important. The most important in recent years was arguably the last summit in Wales in 2014. This was the first summit since Russia had invaded Ukraine, the last summit before NATO’s combat operations in Afghanistan were due to end, and the last before the Alliance’s new secretary general took charge.

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It would be more accurate to describe this week’s gathering in Warsaw as the “second chance” summit. This is because NATO has an opportunity to take the tough decisions it should have taken at Wales and send a message to Russia that the Alliance is serious about the security of its members.

High hopes at Wales

Owing to Russian aggression and Moscow’s redrawing of borders in Europe by force for the first time since 1945, the Wales summit was supposed to get the Alliance focused on collective defence to counter the emerging threat from the East.

This didn’t happen.

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Contentious issues such as permanently basing NATO troops in the Baltic states were skirted around. Vague pledges to increase defence spending were made but since then it has only increased by 1.5 percent. No new members were invited to join the Alliance because there was no political will for NATO enlargement.

After Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008, and then the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it is now clear that NATO's new role is actually its old role.



The highlight of the summit was announcing the creation of a rapid reaction force of 4,000 soldiers, but even this modest initiative ran into early trouble.

Even though Europe has almost two million men and women in uniform, and is one of the wealthiest regions in the world, it has taken more than 18 months to finally stand up the force.

The Wales summit ended in a farce, with the secretary general and president of Ukraine giving press conferences simultaneously but in two different locations: the former in the hotel where the summit was being held and the latter somewhere on the hotel’s golf course.

The reason? Moscow decided to announce the details of the first Ukraine ceasefire on the same day and roughly at the same time as the summit was ending. Proving that even Vladimir Putin can control the news cycle of a NATO summit.

Back to basics

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been trying to find its new role. After Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and then the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it is now clear that NATO’s new role is actually its old role.

Bulgarian and NATO navy ships take part in a joint military navy exercise in the Black sea, east of the Bulgarian capital Sofia [Getty]
Bulgarian and NATO navy ships take part in a joint military navy exercise in the Black sea, east of the Bulgarian capital Sofia [Getty]

The Alliance needs to refocus on the traditional role of territorial defence. NATO does not have to be everywhere in the world doing everything but it does have to be able to defend the territory of all its members.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was hope for closer relations between the West and Russia. The middle of the 1990s – especially under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin – suggested that Russia had turned a corner.

But then came Vladimir Putin.

Putin has harked back to Russia’s imperial days and is set on establishing Russian influence outside his country’s borders.

Time and time again Putin has proved he cannot be trusted.

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Take Syria as an example. NATO and Russia have a shared interest in Syria in the same way a customer and a robber have a shared interest in a bank. The same can be said about the Arctic, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the South Caucasus. This is the reality NATO needs to face.


A generational challenge

NATO’s Strategic Concept is designed to highlight the threats the Alliance will face into the future and how to best address these challenges. NATO desperately needs to start writing a new Strategic Concept at the Warsaw summit.

The last time NATO published a Strategic Concept was 2010. This was before the so-called Arab Spring, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and the rise of ISIL. Clearly, it is out of date.

Most importantly, the next NATO summit should draw a line under the relationship with Moscow for as long as Putin is in power. This could be a very long time and NATO members need to prepare their publics for this.

Thanks to Putin’s constitutional gymnastics he has been either president or prime minister since 1999 and can stay in either one of these positions for the rest of his life. This is what NATO needs to prepare for at the Warsaw summit.

Luckily Putin has not done anything too crazy since the last summit to really test NATO. The Alliance needs to be grateful for this second chance to do what was not done at the Wales summit.

Waiting to the next summit in 2018 might be too late.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.