Primer to the Wales NATO Summit: NATO, summit agenda, likely results, Canadian interest

by Colin Robertson

September, 2014


Presidents, Prime Ministers, and ministers responsible for foreign affairs and defence will meet in Newport, near Cardiff in Wales for the 26th NATO summit, September 4-5, at the invitation of UK Prime Minister David Cameron. With ‘partner’ nations also present, leaders of 60 countries are expected at the summit.

The conference takes place against a backdrop of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis and continuing turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa.

As host David Cameron observed in his letter to fellow leaders "In 2014, the world is more unpredictable than ever and we meet at another pivotal moment in the history of the alliance." Or, as President Obama said last week at a party fundraiser, "If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart." 

Both leaders are also conscious of the domestic backdrop: the Scottish referendum on independence (September 18) and the US midterms (November 4).

What is NATO?

In the wake of the Second World War, the victors set up a series of international institutions. The foremost was the United Nations, with universal membership designed to advance human progress and prevent the “scourge of war”. Responding to what Winston Churchill described as the “iron curtain” descending “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”, the western alliance set up a collective security agreement called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In the words of its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, NATO was to “keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in”. A collective security agreement, an attack on one would be considered an attack on all (Article 5). NATO was also designed, at Canadian insistence, to have an economic dimension to promote trade, investment, and commerce between the members (Article 2). 

The agreement was signed in Washington on April 2, 1949. Its original membership included twelve countries – the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg. In signing the agreement Canadian External Affairs Minister Lester Pearson said that Canadians “feel deeply and instinctively” that the treaty is “a pledge for peace and progress”.

The Alliance expanded: Turkey and Greece joined in 1952, West Germany in 1955 and Spain in 1982. France left the military alliance in 1967 but rejoined in 2009. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, NATO membership is now 28 countries – most of the former Warsaw Bloc countries including the Balkan countries created with the dissolution of Yugoslavia (Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia). 

NATO is headquartered in Brussels, where Secretary General Anders Rasmussen, former Prime Minister of Denmark, leads its Secretariat. Former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg will succeed Rasmussen as Secretary General in October.

NATO military operations are headed by two commanders: the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) based in Brussels is currently General Philip M. Breedlove, United States Air Force; and the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT) based in Norfolk, Virginia is currently French Air Force General Jean-Paul Paloméros.  

Member nations are represented in both the NATO council and military committee and legislators meet annually in the NATO parliamentary assembly. While a Canadian has never held the post of Secretary General, Canadian General Ray Henault, a former Chief of Defence Staff, served as Chairman of the Military Committee from 2005-2008. 

What Has NATO Done? 

For its first 40 years NATO’s purpose was to deter Soviet aggression. Canadian troops were stationed in Europe, mostly in Germany.

With the end of the Cold War, NATO shifted to help the former Soviet bloc countries embrace democracy and the market economy.

Since 1989, NATO has also become involved in a series of out-of-theatre missions. Over 150,000 troops have served under NATO command in six different operations on three continents, including counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. 

NATO forces were involved in bringing peace to the Balkans (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo), operations that continue today. NATO forces, under the umbrella of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), have been present in Afghanistan since 2003. There have been operations around Iraq (1990-1) and a training mission (2004-11). In 2005, NATO assisted in the relief efforts following the Pakistan earthquake. In recent years, NATO has also provided support to African Union peacekeeping missions in the Sudan and Somalia. NATO led the UN-sanctioned Libyan campaign (Operation Unified Protector) in 2011, maintaining a no-fly zone and conducting air strikes against the Gaddafi regime. Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard directed the air campaign.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February presents NATO with a new challenge while events on its southern flank – in Libya and the Middle East – oblige a response. 

What is on the NATO Agenda in Wales?  

  1. NATO Readiness to reinforce collective defence, including investing in capabilities.
    Recent events, notably the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have underlined the need for NATO readiness including a rapid combat-ready expeditionary force with attention to cyber defence and maritime security. As NATO scholar Julian Lindley-French and Admiral (ret’d) James Stavridis, former SACEUR, argued recently “Article 5 collective defence must be modernised and re-organised around cyber-defence, missile defence and the advanced deployable forces vital to contemporary defence.” Host UK Prime Minister David Cameron has also called for a 10,000 member joint expeditionary force with Denmark, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Norway and the Netherlands indicating that they will participate. The model for the force will be the new Anglo-French Joint Expeditionary Force that will be operational by 2016.

  2. Defence Spending 
    The United States shoulders three quarters of the alliance’s operating budget. US presidents and cabinet secretaries have consistently encouraged NATO members to spend more.

    The US argument is expressed well in the valedictory remarks to NATO (June 10, 2011), of former US defense secretary Robert Gates, who warned, “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

    Former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder graphically described the gap between the US and the rest of the Alliance: “the US spends three times as much as Europe on equipment, four times as much per soldier, and seven times as much on defence research and development.”

    Fortunately, US public support for NATO remains high:  78 percent, the highest in 40 years, according to a May survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

    Writing last month to NATO leaders, host David Cameron urged members to "make the strongest possible commitment to increase their defence spending", stressing that such investment signals "that NATO means business".

    It will take considerable effort. Defence spending in 2000 for most NATO members was 2 percent of GDP but it has steadily declined. Today only a handful of the 28 members meet the target. IHS Jane's Defence Budgets notes that 13 of the top 20 most rapidly declining defence budgets from 2012 to 2014 are NATO members or partners.

  3. Relations with Russia and stronger ties with Ukraine
    Russia’s invasion of Poland and illegal annexation of Crimea violates the UN charter of the Helsinki Final Act, and Russia’s 20-year old commitment “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”.

    With the end of the Cold War there was hope that Russia would eventually become a NATO partner and in 2009 NATO and Russia signed an accord “build together a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security.” Like the Obama ‘reset’ it hasn’t worked out as planned.

    President Putin wants to create a sphere of influence on his frontiers and, through the creation of his Eurasian Union (a free-trade customs union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus), a counter-weight to NATO. Ukraine is not his first incursion into a neighbour’s territory. In 2008, at his instruction, Russian forces occupied southern Georgia.

    Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk plans to seek membership in NATO (dropping Ukraine’s non-aligned status). In a recent extraordinary meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reminded membersof NATO's decision taken at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 according to which Ukraine will become a member of NATO, provided of course that Ukraine so wishes and provided that Ukraine fulfils the necessary criteria.”

  4. Deepening partnerships and maintaining NATO’s open door policy
    NATO’s partnerships, born out of its 1990 London summit focused first on the former Soviet bloc nations (many of whom are now full members), then on crisis management in the Balkans, and, since 9-11, on wider partnerships now including more than forty nations around the world – Australia, New Zealand and, as the latest addition, Mongolia. At its peak, the ISAF mission in Afghanistan included 22 partner nations. Partnership does not include the security guarantee of Article 5.
  5. Afghanistan and the completion of ISAF at the end of 2014
    NATO has been involved in Afghanistan since the UN Security Council authorized the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in December, 2001. At its peak, ISAF deployed 150,000 troops, over a third of which came from European NATO members and Canada.

    An Afghan government has yet to be declared following the elections earlier this year. In December, U.S. combat forces are scheduled to withdraw. The US is still without agreement with Afghan authorities to leave an estimated 10,000 troops there for training and counterterrorism missions.

  6. Jihad
    Writing in the Daily Telegraph last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron called for a "firm security response" to defeat jihadist militants and the Islamic State saying that, as host, he would use the Wales NATO summit to build international support using “all our resources – aid, diplomacy, our military prowess…We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime. We face in ISIS a new threat that is single-minded, determined and unflinching in pursuit of its objectives.”

    Last week Mr. Cameron continued in the same vein saying, “This threat cannot be solved simply by dealing with the perceived grievances over Western foreign policy. Nor can it be dealt with by addressing poverty, dictatorship or instability in the region, as important as these things are. The root cause of this threat to our security is quite clear. It is a poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism that is condemned by all faiths and by all faith leaders. It believes in using the most brutal forms of terrorism to force people to accept a warped worldview and to live in an almost medieval state.”  

What Results Can We Expect from the Wales Summit?

Reinvigoration of the Alliance begins with political will. The Ukrainian crisis and threat of Jihad should motivate leaders to put a higher premium on collective security and readiness.


On Jihad there is broad agreement about its threat to the civilized order (and not just to the West).


Leaders will agree to the readiness strategy but the test will be in its implementation. In practical terms that could mean a new high-readiness brigade as well as increased Alliance exercises on NATO’s eastern periphery. New NATO bases in Poland and the Baltic states are possible.


Strong rhetoric in support of Ukrainian sovereignty is already being matched with financial guarantees and training although a discussion on arms for Ukraine would be divisive. Nor is there any expectation of early Ukraine admission to NATO – the Article 5 guarantee would effectively oblige direct confrontation with Russia. As President Obama said last week “a military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia "is not in the cards.”


In response to recommendations, including recent reports from NATO parliamentarians, young leaders and experts, there likely will be commitments to purchase equipment interoperable within the Alliance and to increase interoperability within NATO forces.


A firm commitment by all members to spend 2 percent of GDP on national defence, the target originally set by NATO in 2002, is unlikely without an agreed strategy on what spending is to support. This would have to include actual capability requirements as well as agreement to make those resources available for combat. The Afghan and Libyan missions were handicapped by the caveats imposed by some NATO members on use of their personnel and equipment.



Canadian involvement at the summit?

Prime Minister Harper will be joined at the summit by Foreign Minister John Baird and Defence Minister Rob Nicholson. They have four goals: underscoring Canada’s commitment to the Alliance; addressing the pressing political and security challenges; the need for a concerted response to Russian efforts to destabllize Ukraine; and to discuss security transition in Afghanistan.

In practical terms, Canada fighter jets are already patrolling the Baltic skies. The Canadian mission to NATO has also tweeted “a ‘helpful’ guide map for Russian soldiers who keep getting lost and ‘accidentally’ entering Ukraine.” Canada is providing air support to a US-led multinational effort to support pro-Iraq forces battling the Islamic state.

While Canadian Forces left Afghanistan in March after a twelve-year campaign and the loss of 161 men and women, we continue to support significant development and security support programs.

In terms of readiness, Canadian forces already have achieved significant interoperability on land, air and sea with the US through NORAD, our binational aerospace and maritime surveillance agreement, and through both joint exercises and active operations in theatres like Afghanistan and Libya. As Eric Lerhe has demonstrated this has not impaired Canadian sovereignty.

As for the 2 percent GDP for defence spending target: a spokesman for Prime Minister Harper said that Canada an "aspirational target", adding that Canada will spend "on measures that meet actual operational needs, in response to global issues."

About the Author

A former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson is Senior Strategic Advisor for  McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP working with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. He is Vice President and Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and Executive Fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. He is an Honorary Captain (Royal Canadian Navy) assigned to the Strategic Communications Directorate. He is chair of the board of Canada World Youth.

Living in Ottawa, Robertson writes and speaks on international affairs and he is a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail. Embassy Magazine named him to  their “Top Eighty Influencing Canadian foreign policy” in 2012 and 2013.

Robertson sits on the boards of  the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and North  American Research Partnership. He is a past president of the Canadian International Council’s National Capital Branch. Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) at Carleton University, Robertson is a former member of Carleton’s President’s Advisory Council and a current member of the NPSIA Advisory Council. He is honorary chair of the Canada Arizona Business Council. He is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, the Retired Heads of Mission Association, and the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Ottawa.

A career foreign service officer from 1977-2010, he served as first Head of the Advocacy Secretariat and Minister at the Canadian Embassy in Washington and Consul General in Los Angeles, with previous assignments as Consul and Counsellor in Hong Kong and in New York at the UN and Consulate General. In his final assignment he directed a project at Carleton University’s Centre for Trade Policy and Law with the support of the Federal and Provincial Governments and the private sector on Canada-US Engagement. A member of the team that negotiated the Canada-US FTA and NAFTA he is co-author of Decision at Midnight: The Inside Story of the Canada-US FTA (1996). He is co-editor of Diplomacy in the Digital Age: Essays in honour of Ambassador Allan Gotlieb (2011). He has taught at Carleton University, Queen’s University Public Executive Program and the Canada School of Public Service. He served as president of the Historica Foundation. He was editor of bout de papier: Canada’s Journal of Foreign Service and Diplomacy and president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers.

Robertson was awarded the Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012),Alberta Centennial Medal (2005), the Saskatchewan Centennial Medal (2006), the Alberta Motion Picture Industry Association ‘Friend of the Industry’ (2004), and the distinguished alumnus award from the University of Manitoba (2004).

Robertson was given the “Hot Potato Award” for helping to increase collaboration between U.S. and Canada organizations and stakeholders at the 2012 Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER) Summi.

His smartest decision was marrying his wife Maureen Boyd, a Vancouverite, former journalist and communications consultant. They have three children, Allison, Sean and Conor. Robertson reads voraciously, runs, swims, cycles, cross-country skis. A series of what Lemony Snicket would describe as ‘unfortunate circumstances’ have left him with low vision. This  has obliged him to give up  tennis,  a sport he enjoyed but played badly.

Colin can be reached by email at [email protected] or 613-6191867

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