“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities.
Following a busy week of multilateral alliance diplomacy and collective defense negotiations in Vilnius, five NextGen members working in the fields of defense, climate security, and democracy support share their reactions to the NATO summit. While there are varied reactions to the summit, one thing is clear: NATO leaders have a lot to think about — and do.
#1: Ukraine in NATO: If Not Now, When?
As NATO leaders departed Vilnius, onlookers were left with mixed emotions regarding the summit’s most contentious subject. Ukraine’s ascent into the alliance remained at the forefront of deliberations and calls to immediately welcome the embattled nation have grown ever louder. In truth, a path to membership that didn’t include an end to the war with Russia was never on the table, a point that even Ukraine itself has recognized.
The question is no longer “if” NATO will welcome Ukraine, but “when.”
Nevertheless, Ukraine left with multiple victories of note. President Joe Biden and others reiterated the alliance’s commitment to Ukrainian defense; leaders agreed to a multi-year program to help transition Ukraine away from Soviet-era doctrine and equipment; a NATO-Ukraine Council was established to centralize crisis response and decision-making; and leaders across the alliance insisted that Ukraine’s future is with NATO.
It may seem tepid in the wake of 16 months of war, but the fundamentals for supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia and building a path toward a more secure and prosperous Ukraine were all on display. The question is no longer “if” NATO will welcome Ukraine, but “when.”
Jacob Sharpe is a research analyst at the National Defense University’s College of Information and Cyberspace with a background in transatlantic security.
#2: European allies are standing up to the Chinese Communist Party
Amid Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, it is significant that the military alliance devoted to countering Moscow for nearly three-quarters of a century spent valuable time during the summit focusing on the Indo-Pacific. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held individual meetings with the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand — the so-called “Indo-Pacific 4” or IP4 — and the Vilnius Summit Communiqué unequivocally stated, “The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.”
Beijing has asserted that NATO is “meddling in affairs beyond its borders” under pressure from Washington, but this is a willful misreading of European interests. As Stoltenberg said in his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, “What happens in Asia matters for Europe, and what happens in Europe matters for Asia.”
The Indo-Pacific region is home to over 60% of the world’s population and is increasingly central to the global economy. European leaders are rightly concerned about a future wherein an openly antagonist China dominates the region politically, economically, and militarily. China’s diplomatic — and apparent military — support for Russia throughout its military campaign in Ukraine is a clear and immediate example of its negative impact on European security.
China’s diplomatic — and apparent military — support for Russia throughout its military campaign in Ukraine is a clear and immediate example of its negative impact on European security.
Beijing is clearly unnerved by NATO’s solidarity in the face of authoritarian aggression and intimidation in the region — and not without cause. In its competition with China, the United States has long benefitted from a history of multilateral coalition-building. In the words of Stoltenberg, “It’s good to have friends.”
Aaron Dresslar is an analyst with Analytic Services, Inc., under contract with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, focusing on the department’s strategic approach toward China.
#3: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has galvanized allies’ commitment to democracy
Governments often consolidate executive power and squeeze civil liberties during times of crisis — such as pandemics and wars — and democracies are far from immune.
According to the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties, freedom across NATO countries has presented a mixed picture in the year-and-a-half since the security, economic, and refugee crises catalyzed by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For example, three allies (Croatia, Greece, and Hungary) experienced declines in their political rights and civil liberties in 2022, four (Czech Republic, North Macedonia, Portugal, and Slovenia) made improvements, and two of the world’s freest countries (Finland and Sweden) were welcomed into the fold.
At the same time, pre-summit opinion polling commissioned by NATO indicates that 62% of allied citizens view Russia less favorably than they did 12 months ago. It would be dangerous to assume that declining views of Moscow equal growing enthusiasm for democracy. However, there’s reason to hope that the horrific war in Ukraine — and the strong response by NATO and its partners — have been a necessary wake-up call to the fragility of global democracy, the correlation between unchecked authoritarianism and conflict, and the need for collective protection of not only our security and sovereignty but our democratic rights and institutions.
Elizabeth Rosen is the former executive advisor to the NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Public Diplomacy and a former media monitor and analyst at NATO SHAPE.
#4: Countering climate change is vital for collective security, but is NATO doing enough?
The Vilnius Communiqué describes climate change as “a defining challenge with a profound impact on Allied security facing present and future generations.” The Communiqué states that NATO “seeks to become the leading international organization when it comes to understanding and adapting to the impact of climate change on security.”
On July 11, 2023, NATO released three major reports that reflect the alliance’s growing recognition of the salience of climate change, focusing on the effects of climate change on allies’ collective security, adaptation and mitigation strategies, and improving emissions reduction. Importantly, this includes developing a baseline assessment of military emissions. The following day, NATO launched its new Climate Change and Security Centre of Excellence (CCASCOE) in Montreal. Unfortunately, the United States is not among the CCASCOE’s 12 sponsoring nations — a missed opportunity for the United States to assert climate leadership in the international community.
As defense budgets across NATO partners continue to rise, effective use of the budget commitments, especially around acquiring and developing major new equipment, will be key for the alliance.
The World Meteorological Organization recently warned that the world is likely to surpass 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming by 2027 and said immediate action is needed to prevent this potentially catastrophic change from becoming permanent. The progress made over this latest summit marked a significant step in the right direction, but allies must continue to escalate their climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts in order to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming — including on collective security.
Marisol Maddox is a Senior Arctic Analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Polar Institute whose research focuses on the interplay of climate change with traditional security considerations.
#5: Defense budgets are (mostly) increasing across the alliance
Following the NATO Summit, defense spending will remain a key topic of discussion. Only 11 out of the 31 alliance members currently meet the 2024 spending target of 2% of GDP on defense, with 20% of total defense spending on major new equipment, as agreed upon in 2014.
As expected, the United States and Stoltenberg urged allies to embrace 2% of GDP as a defense spending floor, not a ceiling. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas also advocated for increased spending. The summit catalyzed ongoing discussions of the new spending targets and highlighted the issue following the recent commitments from the Baltic states to spend 3% and Poland’s aim to reach 4%. Germany is on pace to pass the 2% threshold next year, and France, which is close to the target, set ambitious goals for defense spending in the next decade.
Conversely, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reportedly vowed not to raise Canada’s military spending above 1.3% of GDP. Pressure to meet the agreed-upon target will increase for Canada and other underfunded partners but is unlikely to change their spending. As defense budgets across NATO partners continue to rise, effective use of the budget commitments, especially around acquiring and developing major new equipment, will be key for the alliance.
Michael Gradus is a John S. McCain Strategic Defense Fellow at the Department of Defense with a background in management consulting and public service.