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NATO’s Geographical Vision

Jul 21, 2023
  • Jade Wong

    Senior Fellow, Gordon & Leon Institute

NATO leaders held their annual summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on July 11 and 12. The Vilnius communique, published on July 11, called the summit “a milestone in strengthening our Alliance.”  

A similar description was given to the Madrid summit last year. In that case, however, there were some nuances: “This summit marks a milestone in strengthening our Alliance and accelerating its adaptation,” the Madrid declaration read. Thus we can see that NATO embarked on its transformation at the Madrid summit, and then took a giant step forward this time in Vilnius.

What does this giant step embody? NATO’s three core tasks of deterrence/defense, crisis prevention/management and cooperative security have not changed. The group’s role as a defense and nuclear alliance, among other things, has not changed. NATO’s branding of Russia as the “most significant and direct threat" to its members’ peace and security — which is also deemed global and interconnected — has not changed. But changes are reflected in NATO’s geography.

The first is expansion. Finland’s accession to NATO and Sweden’s upcoming membership will considerably shore up the alliance’s northern flank.

“We are adapting our command structures to reflect the new geography of the alliance, with Finland’s membership — which has doubled NATO’s land border with Russia — and soon Sweden's membership. This is a game-changer for European security and will provide an uninterrupted shield from the Baltic to the Black Sea,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

The second is increasing cooperation. Sweden’s NATO bid had been blocked by Turkey. But Turkey suggested just before the summit that Sweden could join the alliance if Turkey is accepted into the European Union. Although no guarantee was given, major European powers are bound to bolster cooperation with Turkey. In addition, ties between the EU and NATO will be closer. As the Vilnius communique pointed out, “For the strategic partnership between NATO and the EU, non-EU Allies’ fullest involvement in EU defense efforts is essential.”

The third is consolidation. As shown in the communique, the top priority for NATO is to put in place additional robust forces on the bloc’s eastern flank. As the Russia-Ukraine conflict represents “a more demanding challenge” to the alliance’s collective logistics, NATO is expected to vigorously “ensure the enablement of SACEUR’s Area of Responsibility.”

The fourth are visions, which hold the key to the future development of NATO and hence worth elaborating.

One of the visions involves Ukraine, as it concerns the nature and the boundary of Europe’s future security architecture. Before the Vilnius summit, U.S. President Joe Biden suggested during an interview with CNN that the U.S. would continue providing security support for Ukraine, as it does for Israel, while the process plays out and after the Russian invasion ends. In other words, Washington wants to use an Israel-like security framework for Kyiv in place of immediately adding it to the NATO ranks.

However, Kyiv is eager to see a clear timetable and a path to NATO membership. Although the Vilnius communique mentioned the establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Council, it failed to meet Ukraine’s expectations. The leaders of the G7 came to the rescue as the Vilnius summit drew to a close on July 12 by signing a joint declaration of support for Ukraine.

This is a compromise. What’s good about it is that Europe won’t immediately become a “new cold war frontier,” as Ukraine joining NATO now would mean the West would be officially and directly engaged in a war with Russia. The bad side is that the so-called Iron Curtain would probably move from the Berlin Wall during the time of the Cold War to Ukraine in the future.

Meanwhile, the Western Balkans, Serbia, Kosovo, Georgia, Moldova, the Middle East and Africa — all mentioned at length in the communique — can be viewed as tools to help expand the hard borders of Europe’s security framework.

The other vision of NATO’s geography lies in the Indo-Pacific region, which involves the interaction between European security and that of the Indo-Pacific, as well as the future international order.

It was the second time the leaders of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea attended the NATO summit. The communique notably dedicated one paragraph to the Indo-Pacific region: “The Indo-Pacific is important for NATO, given that developments in that region can directly affect Euro-Atlantic security,” it read.

Some European countries — France, for example — are reluctant to see NATO edging toward the Indo-Pacific. The military alliance launched Individually Tailored Partnership Programs with Japan and South Korea, which, nonetheless, were not written into the communique. Similarly, the mention that NATO would continue discussions with Japan about opening a liaison office in Tokyo was removed.

European states must follow the U.S. to step into the Indo-Pacific region if they want to retain the heart of Washington; however, they are unwilling to transfer their strategic and military resources from Europe to that region.

Territory and boundaries are a core element in international politics. Carl Schmitt, a famous German legal theorist, once pointed out that the U.S. had extended the Monroe Doctrine from the control of Latin America to the world at large and established a hegemonic order. Who knows where the borders of NATO will be drawn?

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