Western leaders will meet in the Spanish capital Madrid from Jun. 28 to Jun. 30 for what many are expecting to be the most important summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in recent decades. Just months after the invasion of NATO ally Ukraine, the 30 member states of the intergovernmental military alliance are keen to demonstrate their unity against Russian aggression.
Leaders attending the two-day conference are expected to unveil a “transformative” approach to their security and defense strategy of the kind not seen since the Cold War, according to its Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The summit will be focused on bolstering NATO’s military support in eastern Europe, reaffirm support for Ukraine, and the growing global influence of China. Analysts tell TIME that the summit could provide the opportunity for the E.U. to take the lead on expanding allied military presence in Europe, which historically has been driven by the U.S., given the war in Ukraine.
But there will be tricky issues to navigate—notably Turkey’s opposition to Finland and Sweden’s bids to join the alliance, and the need to balance defense spending with nations’ domestic budgets amid rising inflation and fears of recession.
Here, what to expect from the NATO summit:
What is the NATO summit and who will be attending?
The leaders of the 30 members of NATO meet at least once a year in a member state to coordinate defensive strategy, discuss new policy and the alliance’s response to security threats. As well as the U.S. and Canada, leaders from 28 European and Nordic member states, including the U.K., Germany, and Denmark, will be in attendance.
NATO was set up in 1949 by North American, European, and Nordic states to pledge mutual military assistance in the event of an attack from the Soviet Union. It has since expanded its membership and its remit since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and has been involved in military operations—from peacekeeping to training and combat—in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East.
At this year’s summit in Madrid, world leaders from countries not currently members of NATO —including South Korea and Japan—along with Finland and Sweden, which have applied to join the alliance—will be in attendance as observers.
What about Finland and Sweden?
Less than three months after the invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership on May 18. Russian aggression in a neighboring non-NATO state had an unprecedented effect on public sentiment in the two historically neutral countries—Finland shares a 830-mile border with Russia. The two countries have been closely aligned to NATO for years, collaborating on peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and the Middle East.
But Finland and Sweden’s bids to join were blocked by Turkey, a member of the alliance with the second-largest army after the U.S. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the country could not approve the request of two countries which he says were harboring “terrorists”—a reference to members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is currently engaged in a conflict with the Turkish government as it attempts to gain greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority. Although the E.U., including Sweden and Finland, designated the PKK a terrorist organization, Western leaders have supported the group’s Syrian wing, the YPG, in the war against ISIS. Sweden and Finland, along with other E.U. countries have imposed a ban on arms sales to Turkey since the country’s 2019 incursion against the YPG in Syria.
Ankara has also accused Sweden and Finland of harboring supporters of a religious sect that is widely believed to have been behind a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.
Turkey is currently the only member of NATO blocking Sweden and Finland’s accession—but analysts tell TIME that a diplomatic stalemate over the issue could persist for some time. According to Alissa de Carbonnel, deputy program director for Europe and Central Asia at International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, Turkey is using the opportunity to address long-standing grievances that it has with the U.S. not the Nordic nations.
“Ankara has been infuriated, quite frankly, with U.S. support for Kurdish groups in northern Syria in the fight against ISIS,” de Carbonnel says. Another issue is Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric who Ankara blames for the July 2016 coup attempt and has lived in the U.S. since 1999.
Will Ukraine and Russia be discussed?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is due to address the NATO leaders and allies via video link during the summit. During previous addresses at cultural and diplomatic events, the Ukrainian president has called for tougher sanctions and the implementation of a no-fly zone over Ukraine—a request that has so far been denied by the U.S. and NATO due to fears of escalating the war with Russia beyond Ukraine’s borders. NATO leaders are expected, however, to unveil greater military assistance for Ukraine at the summit, including equipment to combat Russian drones and to secure communications.
Russia’s encroachment on the borders with Ukraine, its invasion on Feb. 24, and subsequent allegations of human rights violations in the country have forced a rapid transformation of European countries’ approach to defense in the region. Leaders at the NATO summit are expected to announce an expansion of the organization’s crisis response and defense unit of 40,000 and a bolstered military presence in eastern European countries bordering Russia, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Ahead of the summit, NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg said that the alliance is looking at how to be better equipped to respond to a Russian threat. This could include an additional presence of troops at borders with Russia as well as reserve forces being stationed in other NATO countries, such as Germany, which could be called on when needed. NATO member states will have to weigh up the hefty costs of deploying troops permanently—something that is particularly sought by the Baltic countries—in the context of soaring inflation and a widespread cost-of-living crisis as a result of Russia’s war.
Analysts tell TIME that this could provide the opportunity for the U.S. to pass some of the military responsibility of securing European countries to the E.U., which has taken the lead in coordinating an allied response to the war. In terms of the proportion of its GDP, the U.S. spends more than any of the other 29 NATO member states on defense which, according to Ben Friedman, policy director at the Washington D.C.-based think tank Defense Priorities, means that the U.S. has acted like a “helicopter parent” in telling European countries how much they should spend on defense. But, Friedman says, the U.S.’s allies have shown that they’re more than capable—last month Germany committed to invest €100 billion on its underfunded military and increase defense spending to the NATO goal of 2% of GDP.
Giuseppe Famà, the head of E.U. affairs at International Crisis Group, says that the summit will demonstrate that NATO is becoming “more Europeanized”, with the alliance following the example of the European Union Military Committee, which coordinated the bloc’s weapons supplies to Ukraine. The increased responsibility of the E.U. over NATO could be a positive thing for security, Famà says, as it reduced the risk of engaging in a more global confrontation with Russia. “A more forceful response from NATO in Ukraine would have created greater potential for escalation, because Russia would have responded to a U.S. presence much more forcefully,” he tells TIME.
What else to expect from the summit
The 30 NATO member states are expected to unveil a reworked version of a key policy document which has been unchanged in over a decade and is somewhat outdated given changes in global security threats such as the rise in the influence of China, cyber warfare, and the climate crisis.
According to Friedman, the core argument is the shifting power to Asia. “The Strategic Concept that was written in 2010 saw the world as a playpen for the United States and its NATO allies to spread democracy and intervene militarily, and that’s no longer the case,” he tells TIME.
Perhaps that’s why, for the first time, South Korea and Japan will attend the NATO summit, albeit as observers. Their attendance signals not only the countries’ concerns over Russia—with which Japan shares a sea border—but also the growing global assertiveness of Beijing, which has refused to condemn Moscow for the war in Ukraine.
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