NATO in Lisbon: A Moderate Success

Lisbon Logo

Although the pre-summit hype—mostly generated by NATO itself—had observers thirsting for more, the 19-20 November NATO Lisbon Summit was a moderate success. The alliance took some measured steps toward dealing with new challenges, deftly sidestepped some political landmines and laid a reasonable foundation for the considerable work that remains. Perhaps most important, in Lisbon, NATO reinvigorated itself.

Ironically, with NATO enlargement off the agenda and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev overshadowing everything, Georgia emerged as a winner. More ironic, Georgia’s understated Lisbon presence juxtaposed with Medvedev’s triumphal smile appears to have sparked more sober alliance thinking than has lately been common.

Georgia scored three successes. First, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and US President Barack Obama met. Apparently, Obama was well briefed and it was a serious meeting. He praised Georgian reforms and underscored America’s support for Georgian territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Obama was no doubt partially motivated not to appear too gaga over Medvedev—snubbing Saakashvili would have harmed the American President in the new super-charged Washington political environment. In this, Georgia did America a favor, helping to nudge Medvedev madness into some kind of reasonable perspective.

Second, the newstrategic concept approved at the Summit commits NATO “to continue and develop the partnership with Georgia.” It is a modest passage, but it appears in a document intended to endure beyond alliance statements and summit declarations.

Third, NATO reaffirmed its support for Georgia: reiterating the 2008 Bucharest declaration that Georgia will become a member of NATO, backing Georgia’s territorial integrity, calling upon Russia to observe the August 12 and September 8, 2008 ceasefire agreements and to reverse its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And the Lisbon Summit Declaration recognized Georgia’s contributions to NATO operations, particularly to ISAF.

That such reaffirmations were still necessary in late 2010 must have given pause to Summit participants. Medvedev’s welcome was more modest than the heralding of his coming. And a few notes of caution wound up in Summit documents. For example, the strategic concept commits the alliance to “work to strengthen the conventional arms control regime in Europe on the basis of reciprocity, transparency and host-nation consent,” barely disguised allusions to the problem with Russia.

More broadly, the Summit was supposed to have been about the new strategic concept, missile defense and Afghanistan.

The new concept is, frankly, lackluster. It addresses new threats, broadens the scope for NATO partnerships and expresses a wish for strategic partnership with Russia. But it says nothing new and it gives scant directions for the alliance to follow. Its main contribution is to set out the parameters for alliance discussions, thus laying a reasonable foundation for the considerable work that remains.

It also sidestepped a political landmine by papering over diverging views on nuclear weapons. NATO will work toward “a world without nuclear weapons,” the concept says, “but reconfirms that, as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance.”

The other major issue swirling about the new strategic concept was cyber-security. The document identifies cyber-attack as a main threat, which “can reach a threshold that threatens national and Euro-Atlantic prosperity, security and stability.” That implies that some cyber-attacks could be Article 5 attacks under the North Atlantic Treaty, but the document never says so.

Weapons of mass destruction are another main threat to which missile defense is an important response. Medvedev agreed to cooperate on a yet undefined missile defense system. However, he intoned, that it must be "a full-fledged strategic partnership between Russia and NATO…Otherwise, it is a no-go." Both NATO and Russia envisage two or more independent systems linked together, but the devil will emerge in the details—and in the tenor of relations with Russia.

And the Summit sidestepped a political row with Turkey by not naming Iran as the likely source of a ballistic missile attack.

Then, there was Afghanistan, the biggest challenge to NATO’s future. There was a tussle between those who want to fulfill the mission and those who want a withdrawal timetable, but the Summit did a creditable job of facing down tough issues. The strategy is to transition security functions from NATO and NATO-led forces to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. “Transition,” says the Summit declaration, “will be conditions-based, not calendar driven.”

This strategy will be challenged as early as next month when Obama’s strategy review is due, and then time-and-again as conditions develop and as national leaders feel domestic pressure to bring the troops home. Nonetheless, the Summit did what was possible within the alliance’s current world view.

On Afghanistan, the Summit cobbled together a consensus. On other matters, it set out the parameters for multifaceted debate that must immediately ensue. Most important—maybe the pre-summit hype was useful—Lisbon reinvigorated NATO for the difficult work that lies ahead.

David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.

Image: Lisbon%20Logo%20500_0_0.jpg