After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization sometimes looked like an alliance in search of a purpose. After this week’s Nato summit in Madrid, that charge is harder to sustain. Nato provided the structure for emergency western efforts to support Ukraine following Russia’s unprovoked invasion in February. Four months on, the alliance has now put that on a more long-term footing, with major financial, strategic and regional consequences. Yet important uncertainties still remain.
Nato’s repurposing has four elements. The first is strategic – recognising that attempts to form a cooperative relationship with Russia have ended for the foreseeable future, and that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inexcusable in itself, also marks a wider confrontation with the west. The second is the reversal of the post-1989 era of declining defence budgets. This has now been replaced by an expanded deterrence marked by aid to Ukraine, higher military spending for the coming decade and a sevenfold increase in the number of Nato troops on high alert to reach 300,000.
The third element is a partial U-turn on European deployments by the US. America’s pivot to the Pacific, confronting the rise of China, has not been abandoned, but President Biden is now authorising the largest scaling up of the US military presence in Europe since the cold war. Significantly, most of this American scaling up will be in the east of our continent, with a new headquarters in Poland, 5,000 additional troops in Romania and more intense deployments in the Baltic states.
Finally, Nato has expanded its membership, formally inviting Sweden and Finland – the latter has an 800-mile land border with Russia – to join the alliance. This ends more than 70 years of neutrality by the two Nordic nations. It is a sign of how decisively the Ukraine invasion has destroyed wider trust towards Russia. But it has huge military implications in the Baltic. It was only achieved after Turkey, a more than usually crucial Nato member during the current conflict, lifted its earlier veto, perhaps amid promises that the US would soon supply it with enhanced F-16 fighters jets.
These are major changes. Russian aggression has pushed the west across a big policy watershed. However, in some ways this is also a return to a once familiar security landscape. It finds Nato, in effect, embarking on a new cold war mission. It marks, potentially, the birth of a new era of collective western deterrence of Russian power. The implications for domestic and international politics should not be underestimated. But the world – and the Europe – of the 2020s is very different from that of the late 1940s.
Whether the new Nato strategy will unfold in a similar manner to the cold war, perhaps for the same length of time and with the same ultimate success, is unknowable. Much depends on what happens on the battlefield in the coming months. The democracies will all face big dilemmas about spending priorities and military commitments. A change of administration in Washington could transform the outlook radically, leaving Europe struggling to maintain sufficient support, and tempting Russia to simply sit the confrontation out.
It is important not to exaggerate, especially prematurely. Yet this is a permanent problem for Britain. Words and pledges are not the same as plans, outputs, deployments, training and spending. Much of what was agreed in Madrid will take years to come into effect, if at all. Boris Johnson and some ministers who are manoeuvring to replace him are showboaters whose inflated language is aimed solely at the Tory party. Threats against China, of the kind that Liz Truss made this week, are an example. Defending Ukraine and deterring Russia are more than enough to be getting on with.