Warsaw was the best NATO summit since the end of the Cold War. Serious people made serious decisions about serious problems. Taboos tumbled. Russia is a threat to the frontline states (saying that loudly at previous summits would have been controversial). The European Union is a vital partner (time was when Turkey would have been frothing about that). Deterrence goes beyond military means (NATO used to find talking about information warfare and cyber all but impossible).
It wasn’t all perfect. The Polish political scene – mean-minded and polarised – was an unhappy backdrop. It was sad to see a “historical” exhibition in which the giant political figures who brought Poland into the Western alliance were airbrushed from the story. Defence spending is far too low in many countries. Messages are still mixed: Jüri Luik, an Estonian bigwig, delivered a stinging rebuke to German and other politicians who decry the military exercises that their own countries are involved in. There was too little on offer for Ukraine, and a disappointing rhetorical rebuff to Georgia.
Worst of all was the shadow cast by Brexit: the biggest self-inflicted wound in my country’s recent history. Perhaps as bad as the Suez misadventure of 1956, perhaps even worse. It is tough being British at international security conferences these days; you spend a lot of time apologising, and get a lot of personal sympathy, mixed with barely concealed fury at the extra problems we are causing. Britain used to export stability. Now we export instability.
But the most important point about Warsaw is that though the direction of travel is now generally good, we have not yet arrived at the destination. We have gone from leaving our front doors open in order to show our neighbours that we trust them, to closing them, to installing a lock, and now to adding a burglar alarm and a security patrol.
What is not yet clear is what happens if the alarm actually rings. In theory, NATO has a high-readiness task force which can deploy in a matter of hours. But this exists mainly on paper. Details remain to be worked out. The political decision-making needed to authorise its deployment is untried. What instructions would a future chancellor Steinmeier give to his diplomats at NATO? What would a president Trump do? And how would a Russian threat to use nuclear weapons bear on the alliance’s councils?
NATO’s biggest threat, however, is from within. Few of the politicians at the summit seemed to have anything to say to the tens of millions of Western voters who are thoroughly fed up with the economic and political arrangements of the past 25 years. All this underlines the huge dependence on Angela Merkel. So long as she is firmly in power in Berlin, both NATO and the EU are in reasonable shape. If she goes, we are in real trouble.
There are no grounds for complacency. A lot more is going on behind the scenes than the public realises. Perhaps the most interesting rumour at the summit was that a Polish and Russian submarine collided in the Baltic Sea a few months back. Officials are tight-lipped. But this could be the reason for the recent, and otherwise unexplained purge of the high command of Russia’s Baltic Fleet (another factor may have been that the level of amber smuggling had annoyed the high-ups in the Kremlin).
The decrepit Russian naval presence in the Baltic has been largely unbothersome in the past few years. If that now comes under new and more vigorous management, we will have yet more headaches to add to the plenty that already beset us.
This article was originally published by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Edward Lucas is a senior vice president at CEPA where he leads the institute’s Information Warfare Initiative. The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, Estonian prime minister Taavi Rõivas, US president Barack Obama and (former) British prime minister David Cameron at the Warsaw Summit (courtesy of NATO).