Analysis | NATO’s Madrid Summit: A missed opportunity for European strategic responsibility

Nicholas Lokker

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a joint NATO-E.U. press conference during a trip to Lithuania and Latvia.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a joint NATO-E.U. press conference during a trip to Lithuania and Latvia. (Image: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Flickr/Cropped from original)

On June 29 and 30, 2022, NATO Heads of State and Government met in Madrid for a highly anticipated summit. This gathering offered an occasion to define an innovative vision for the future of the alliance, which has gained renewed relevance in the context of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. While the summit did yield some important achievements, most notably a diplomatic breakthrough that clears the path to membership for Finland and Sweden, it nonetheless failed to meaningfully advance what should be one of NATO’s foremost priorities — building a stronger European pillar in the alliance.

Greater European strategic responsibility is vital for the future of NATO. While tensions around unequal burden-sharing are a long-standing element of the transatlantic relationship, recent years have highlighted the urgent problems that the status quo poses to both the United States and Europe. Washington increasingly focuses on both domestic issues and the challenges posed by China in the Indo-Pacific. This shift in priorities casts doubt on the sustainability of massive military commitments to Europe. European leaders at both the national and E.U. levels, meanwhile, have stressed that Europe needs greater strategic autonomy to become a stronger geopolitical actor in a more turbulent international environment.

Although shared interest in rebalancing NATO presents a window of opportunity to work toward greater European strategic responsibility, achieving this goal will require bold decision-making. To build the necessary capabilities to assume a greater share of the burden for defense and deterrence, Europeans must commit to higher defense spending and use the full potential of the European Union to better coordinate their investments.

However, Europe’s success in addressing these dual “free-rider” and “collective-action” problems, as the Atlantic Council’s Emma Ashford recently labeled them, depends in large part on the actions of others. On the one hand, NATO member states are unlikely to increase their defense spending as long as the United States continues to provide the vast majority of capabilities on the European continent. On the other hand, the European Union’s ability to integrate European defense by reducing fragmentation will be limited unless the supranational bloc is fully embraced by NATO as the emerging political center of gravity in Europe. This trend is only likely to accelerate given the constellation of avidly pro-integration governments currently in power in leading member states such as France, Germany, and Italy.

Unfortunately, the Madrid summit failed to advance either of these critical issues. Instead of pushing Europeans to invest more in their own security, the United States announced major expansions to its own force posture on the continent, indefinitely increasing the number of U.S. troops stationed in Europe to 100,000 from 80,000 earlier this year. Of particular note are the decisions to send additional U.S. destroyers to Spain and F-35 squadrons to the United Kingdom, decisions directly at odds with U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific, where they could assist in deterring China. While billed as a direct response to the ongoing war, these new deployments are unlikely to change the Kremlin’s calculus in Ukraine. Instead, they are likely to further entrench Europe’s dependence on the U.S. military, deflating current momentum toward increased defense spending by European governments.

Moreover, NATO’s relationship with the European Union was notably absent from the main agenda in Madrid, despite the strong impetus toward further E.U. defense integration in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The alliance’s new Strategic Concept, which outlines its priorities for the coming years, dedicated just one paragraph to NATO-E.U. relations. While the document hits the right rhetorical notes, vowing to “enhance the NATO-EU strategic partnership,” it does not outline any concrete actions to advance relations with the European Union. For instance, NATO could update the sorely outdated Berlin Plus arrangements or incorporate E.U. capability development projects into the NATO Defense Planning Process. Both options would ameliorate the persistent coordination problem present in European defense planning. They would also strengthen NATO-E.U. relations, but the document does not mention them. This is a clear missed opportunity, especially given the concurrent development earlier this year of the E.U. Strategic Compass, the bloc’s first ever white paper on defense that outlined an ambitious common strategic vision for the security of its member states. Despite persistent calls to link the Concept and the Compass, evidence of any explicit efforts to do so is meager.

Together, the increased U.S. military presence in Europe and the lack of progress on NATO-E.U. relations amount to a worrying sign for the future of European strategic responsibility. Without full allied buy-in on greater defense spending and E.U.-facilitated defense integration efforts, Europeans will struggle mightily to develop the capabilities needed to assume an equal share of the burden for deterrence on the European continent. Ambitions of a strategically autonomous Europe that aids the United States in its pivot toward the Indo-Pacific will likely fail to materialize as a result.

There is still time to correct the course. First, the United States could announce a time limit for its new deployments to Europe, in particular the destroyers and F-35s. This option would communicate to Europe that it cannot expect U.S. troops to do all the heavy lifting indefinitely, encouraging higher levels of spending. Second, NATO could offer the European Union permanent observer status in the North Atlantic Council, enabling the two institutions to coordinate much more directly and providing a strong political signal of the transatlantic community’s dedication to further European integration. In sum, these moves may keep alive the goal of a militarily and politically balanced transatlantic security community fit for the decades to come.

Nicholas Lokker is a research assistant for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., as well as a 2022 graduate of the M.A. in German and European Studies program at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. His work focuses on European political and security affairs, with a particular emphasis on the European Union and the transatlantic approach toward Russia.

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