What Happens After Vilnius Will Matter More Than the Summit Itself
.No NATO summit has been greeted with as much anticipation and speculation than the meeting in Vilnius slated for next week. The central question will be the future of Ukraine’s membership in the alliance, and by all indications the allies will not be issuing an invitation to Kyiv to start the application process, nor are they likely to agree to issue an invitation next year during the planned Washington summit. Nonetheless, most of the debates are focused on this central political question, and how different member states are likely to align on it. As a result, the other key agenda item for the summit, i.e., the adoption of the three new regional plans, additional planning, and most of all the alliance’s return to its original collective deterrence and defense mission has garnered less attention. This is partly due to the fact that these highly classified plans can only be publicly discussed in general terms, but also because the subject doesn’t lend itself to the kind of high-stakes political gamesmanship with which the question of Ukraine’s membership in the alliance has become associated.
The restoration of NATO’s primary function and return to its core mission will thus arguably be the greatest deliverables from the Vilnius summit. But the key challenge facing the allies will be not so much adopting the plans themselves – elaborate and detailed as they are, spelling out both the units and capabilities each ally will need to provide, the overall size of the force at different stages of future mobilization, and the sheer numbers of what will be needed; rather, the most urgent question that will be posed at the summit will be how the allied governments react to those capabilities’ targets, i.e., whether they will be willing to properly resource their militaries and, simply speaking, rearm.
Vilnius will lay on the table the greatest set of military requirements that NATO has faced since the end of the Cold War. Those requirements will be weighed against the “out-of-area” mission set of the last twenty years that has reformatted the allied armed forces, including those of the United States, away from planning for a near-peer state-on-state war. As part of the post-Cold War “peace dividend,” allied governments pursued policies aimed at reducing the size of their militaries and consolidating as well as reducing the size of their countries’ defense industrial manufacturing base. The result has been a dramatic decline in the size and type of real exercised military capabilities that the alliance can put in the field, and the speed with which it can do this. The same goes for Europe’s stocks of weapons and munitions which – with a few notable exceptions – are simply inadequate to the task. Europe has so thoroughly disarmed that by my estimates it will take about a decade to bring back the requisite capabilities the alliance needs. For NATO to remain viable in the meantime, the United States will have to bridge in Europe with its own forces. Most of all, for the necessary changes to take place, allied governments will have to take tough political decisions to spend real money on defense. That is why what will happen after the Vilnius summit will arguably be more transformative for the future of NATO than the declarations and the communiques issued during the meeting itself.
If we are to account for what has happened in the past thirty years when it comes to defense spending, or even what has happened since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the picture is quite uneven. Despite the sense of urgency that Russia’s invasion should have generated across the alliance, a number of states are still failing to meet the agreed-upon target of spending 2% of GDP on defense – a number of NATO allies are going to Vilnius with that record, while there is pressure to make the 2% the bare minimum all allies should contribute. Furthermore, while countries along the Eastern flank, to include Finland, the Baltic States, Romania, and especially Poland have significantly increased their defense spending, buying weapons and munitions at unprecedented rates, Germany continues to lag behind while France’s acquisition programs will only marginally enhance its military’s capabilities needed for a large land war in Europe. The projected increases in real exercised capabilities that the European allies will be expected to bring to the fight under the new regional plans will require far greater financial commitments to defense than the governments of some of Europe’s largest economies are currently projecting. As NATO leaders prepare to put on the agenda in Vilnius the question of expanding their defense manufacturing capabilities, no amount of strategizing will substitute for a clear commitment to dedicating resources to defense and issuing contracts, for defense manufactures will ramp up production only if they are assured that the additional weapons and munitions will be purchased.
.Whether European allies make good on their expected pledges to spend more on collective defense will have a defining impact on transatlantic relations. With a potential storm rising in the Indo-Pacific, there has been growing political pressure among the “China first” policy hawks to redirect US priorities away from Europe and focus on the threat posed by China’s determination to take over Taiwan. Relying on America, which for the past three decades provided 70% of the cost of defending Europe, with its nuclear guarantee and 100% of high-end capabilities, will no longer cut it. The United States is confronting a Russia and a China united in their opposition to the international order that America and its allies put in place after the Cold War. Europe must step up and provide the bulk of conventional deterrence and defense in NATO, with the United States continuing to provide the nuclear umbrella and high-end enablers, thereby freeing it to focus its resources on the threats in the Indo-Pacific. If the allies depart Vilnius without having absorbed the fundamentals of this new geostrategic reality, the summit will fail to generate the requisite momentum to restore NATO’s capabilities and, by extension, will render any discussion of Ukraine membership in the alliance moot. The burden is on European governments to make sure that what happens after they leave the summit lives up to the promises they made in Vilnius.
Andrew A. MICHTA
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.