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The next NATO Summit will be the first for Prime Minister Theresa May, US President Donald Trump and the new President of France.

The Summit will be held at NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels on 25 May 2017.

This briefing paper looks at some of the expected areas of discussion. It will not be updated before the UK general election (8 June 2017).


The last two summits were dominated by discussion on how to respond to Russia. The headline decision of the 2016 Warsaw summit was to deploy four multinational battalions to Poland and the Baltic States. This Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) is designed to act both as a deterrent to Russia and to reassure those states of NATO’s commitment to collective defence. All four battalions are expected to be operational by June.

The UK is leading the battlegroup in Estonia with 800 troops from 5th battalion The Rifles (5 Rifles) and the Queen’s Royal Hussars. An additional 150 troops from the Light Dragoons are in Poland with the US-led battalion. Four RAF Typhoon aircraft have deployed to Romania to support NATO’s Southern Air Policing mission from May 2017. The Russian Ambassador to UK has accused the Government and NATO of increasing tensions in Europe.

Defence spending

Another major issue is defence spending. President Trump has made clear his displeasure at the imbalance in spending among NATO allies.[1] In 2006 NATO agreed a guideline for allies to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Allies recommitted to that guideline at the 2014 Wales summit, pledging to: halt any decline in defence expenditure; to increase defence expenditure in real terms as GDP grows; and to aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade. NATO reaffirmed this commitment in Warsaw.

The US is pushing this issue further, demanding that Allies agree in Brussels to produce national plans that will “clearly articulate how, with annual milestone progress commitments, the (Defence Investment) Pledge will be fulfilled”.

Jens Stoltenberg has confirmed NATO is looking at developing national plans as a way of “strengthening the transatlantic bond” through “fair burden sharing.” Stoltenberg has also said he welcomes the US stance as “it helps me in pushing all allies to deliver on what they promised in 2014 on defence investments”.

However Stoltenberg has also cautioned against focusing solely on defence spending: “burden sharing is not only about spending, burden sharing is also about contributing with forces, with capabilities, with troops to different NATO missions and operations”. The German Chancellor made a similar point to the US President when they met in Washington and the German Foreign Minister has described spending 2% of GDP on defence as neither reachable nor desirable for Germany.

Currently only five allies (the US, UK, Estonia, Greece and Poland) meet the 2% target, although NATO’s Secretary-General says Romania, Latvia and Lithuania are expected to reach the 2% target either this year or next.

The terrorist threat

How to respond to the myriad challenges emanating from the Middle East and North Africa, in particular countering the threat of terrorism, will also be discussed in Brussels. The Warsaw summit communiqué said terrorism “represents an immediate and direct threat” and the US Secretary of State has explicitly called on NATO to do more to fight terrorism.

NATO is not formally part of the US-led coalition against Daesh/ISIS in Iraq and Syria, although it is providing NATO AWACS (advanced Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft to provide surveillance and situational awareness. NATO runs a training programme for Iraqi security forces and foreign ministers agreed in February to provide additional training for paramedics armoured vehicles/tanks maintenance.

NATO is to create a new regional hub in the south, based at NATO’s Joint Force Command in Naples, to collect information and improve situational awareness on developments in the Middle East and North Africa. This was agreed by NATO defence ministers in February.

Relations with the EU

As the UK plans to leave the European Union, so NATO and the EU pursue closer ties. A joint NATO-EU declaration was agreed in Warsaw and Jens Stoltenberg attended the recent EU defence ministers meeting in Malta. Particular areas of cooperation are cyber defence, hybrid challenges, exercises and maritime security. Further decisions on potential areas of joint working are likely to be agreed at the summit.

Other topics

NATO declared Cyberspace a separate operational domain along the same lines of land, sea and air domains in Warsaw. In February NATO defence ministers approved an updated Cyber Defence Plan and a roadmap to implement cyberspace as an operational domain.  NATO held its largest cyber defence exercise in Estonia in April, exercising the defence of a military airbase against cyber-attacks. NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence capability may also be discussed.

The Libyan Government of National Accord formally requested NATO assistance in February for building security and defence institutions.

The Summit may also discuss NATO’s ballistic missile defence capabilities.

Montenegro is set to become the 29th member of the Alliance this year.

About NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was formed in 1949 as an Alliance of 12 nations dedicated to ensuring their collective security and preservation and intended to counter the perceived threat from the Soviet Union and later the countries of the Warsaw Pact. The main tenet of the Alliance is Article 5 of the Washington Treaty which states unequivocally that an armed attack against one shall be considered an attack against all.

From its inception through the Cold War, NATO looked eastwards to the Soviet Union. That focus shifted in the 1990s and relations with Russia improved – NATO and Russia signed a Founding Act in 1997 and established a Council in 2002. However events in Ukraine in 2014, coupled with what NATO perceives to be aggressive military action by Russia – violations of NATO allied airspace, provocative military activity near NATO borders – has prompted a significant re-evaluation of that relationship.

Russia argues it is NATO, not Russia, which is the aggressor. Moscow judges NATO to be a significant external threat to Russia, pointing to the deployment of military forces near the border of the Russian Federation and further expansion of the Alliance. President Putin argues NATO requires an ‘enemy’ to justify its ongoing existence.

[1]     NATO estimates for 2016 suggest US spending on defence amounts to 3.61% of GDP compared to 1.47% for NATO Europe.

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