July 12, 2018
The second day of NATO Engages in Brussels focused on NATO’s relations with its immediate neighbors and the role the Alliance plays in providing security and building peace around the world.

In a day marked by US President Donald J. Trump’s threats to withdraw from the Alliance over burden-sharing concerns, the event provided a platform for US Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) to reassure US partners that Washington stands with NATO, despite the president’s remarks.

NATO Engages, a two-day event held on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Brussels on July 11 and 12, was jointly hosted by the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the Munich Security Conference (MSC), and Women in International Security (WIIS).

Here’s a look at how the day unfolded.

It’s not just about the military. In the day’s opening session, Iceland’s NATO-skeptic prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, implored the Alliance to think beyond military might when discussing security. She argued that issues such as gender equality, climate change, international development, and conflict resolution should be as important to NATO as troop levels.

NATO’s unstable neighborhood. There was a lively debate on the sources and causes of instability in NATO’s neighborhood. Imen Ben Mohamed, a member of Tunisia’s parliament, kicked off the discussion by pointing to the prevailing chaos in Libya as being a major challenge to Tunisia’s security. The ripples from the chaos in Libya are felt not just in Tunisia, but across the Mediterranean as the North African nation has become the source of a steady stream of migrants into Europe.

Soli Özel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Turkey, contended that the absence of a long-term allied plan and commitment to stabilize Libya was largely to blame for the chaos. [The United States, France, and the United Kingdom conducted airstrikes in support of the rebels that toppled Libya’s longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.]

Amanda Sloat of the Brookings Institution noted that the US experience in the Middle East had produced multiple cautionary tales. For example, Iraq, which the United States invaded on 2003, suffered years of turmoil; Libya, where the United States was briefly engaged militarily, is mired in chaos; and Syria, where the United States was reluctant to intervene, is ravaged by war.

Retired Lt. Gen. Benjamin Hodges, the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, meanwhile, described Turkey as an essential NATO ally, but also “one of the most frustrating to deal with.” One of the challenges posed by Turkey is its proximity to Russia. Özel attributed this close relationship to what he said was the belief in Turkey that its Western partners are not sensitive to its threat perceptions.

Congress has NATO’s back. As news broke that US President Donald J. Trump had questioned the United States’ commitment to NATO while pushing allies to spend more on defense, US Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Thom Tillis communicated the strong support NATO has in the United States Congress. “Congress has your backs,” Tillis said, while Shaheen added “we are stronger with allies than we are alone.” The senators’ visit came after the US House of Representatives passed a resolution in support of NATO on July 11 and the US Senate passed a NATO support motion on July 10 by a vote of ninety-seven to two.

A productive meeting? Despite reports that Trump’s criticism of allies’ contributions to NATO caused a meeting on Ukraine and Georgia to be ended early, both Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said they were pleased with the results of the NATO summit. In a panel moderated by Atlantic Council President and Chief Executive Officer Frederick Kempe, Poroshenko said he was confident that “the door of NATO is open for Ukraine and for Georgia.” Margvelashvili said that NATO leaders provided a “strong message of unity from all the member states and strong message of solidarity with Ukraine, as well as Georgia.”

A look ahead to Helsinki. In the same panel with Margvelashvili, Poroshenko said he expects Ukraine will be a priority for Trump’s July 16 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He expressed his hope that Trump will be able to convince the Russian president to allow a peacekeeping force to be sent to Eastern Ukraine, to stop the fighting there. Both Poroshenko and Margvelashvili added that they were pleased NATO listed Russia as an “aggressor” in its statements on the Ukrainian conflict.

‘A mindset of readiness.’ US Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (NATO) and  commander of the US European Command, participated in a discussion with retired Gen. James L. Jones, Jr., interim chairman of the Atlantic Council’s board of directors. Scaparrotti said the “Four Thirties” initiative, a military readiness plan that would see the Alliance have—by 2020—30 land battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 navy vessels, ready for deployment in 30 days or less—had helped him “with a mindset of readiness.”

What about the European Union? Trump’s criticism of European allies is not just about NATO contributions, but also about supposedly unfair EU trade practices. A panel with Alejandro Alvar Gonzalez, NATO’s assistant secretary general for political affairs, European Union Commissioner for Single Market, Industry, and Entrepreneurship, Elzbieta Bienkowska, Carnegie Europe’s Judy Dempsey, and Chris Lombardi, Raytheon International’s vice president of European business development, discussed the current status of the EU’s relations with NATO, the EU’s challenges with identity and messaging, and the prospects for more EU-led defense initiatives to strengthen European capabilities. Moderator Ines Pohl, editor-in-chief of Deutsche Welle, brought in significant audience participation to hold a wide-ranging debate on the major challenges facing the EU and growing tension with the United States.

Giving peace a shot. At a summit where discord over defense spending grabbed international headlines, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was pleased to report that “Afghanistan is a subject of consensus, it is not a subject of dissent.”

Ghani emphasized the importance of finding a political solution with the Taliban—the militants that have waged war in the country for close to two decades. Among Afghanistan’s neighbors, Ghani said, consensus is now emerging on the importance of peace. As for Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan, which has been roiled by the latter’s support for terrorist groups, including the Taliban, Ghani said: “On paper, we have had very significant movement with Pakistan.” Hopeful that this will translate into action, he added: “Our relation with Pakistan has to become three dimensional, it has been unidimensional. Everything has been shadowed by their relationship with the Taliban.”

Despite the myriad challenges facing his country, Ghani remains optimistic. “The finishing line is going to be full of hurdles, but the direction has been set,” he said.

‘What’s wrong with a good debate?’ In the final session of the NATO Engages event, NATO Deputy Secretary Rose Gottemoeller credited Trump with providing the impetus for a “very deep and intense discussion around the table about how the Alliance needs to intensify its efforts to fulfill its commitment to defense spending.” She downplayed the tension between the allied leaders, saying they are “people who know how to talk to each other.” Responding to concerns about the tone of Trump’s criticisms, Goettemoeller asked “what’s wrong with a good debate?”

David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.

Ashish Kumar Sen, deputy director of communications, editorial, at the Atlantic Council contributed to this blog post. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

RELATED CONTENT