By Dr. Isabelle François
Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow
Center for Transatlantic Security Studies
The NATO summit in Chicago was organized around three key themes, including partnerships, and according to the Declaration by the twenty eight Heads of state and government agreed in Chicago, the North Atlantic Council gathered “to strengthen our wide range of partnerships” among other things.
The Summit certainly showcased partnerships in terms of the meetings that took place. Three of those meetings involved NATO partners: the “expanded International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) meeting” and the meeting between Allies and 13 “core partners” (defined as those who “recently made particular political, operational and financial contributions to NATO-led operations”), as well as the meeting at the level of Foreign Ministers with the 4 leaders of countries aspiring to join the Alliance (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Georgia.) The mere fact that these meetings took place delivered three strong messages.
First, it completed the work set in motion at the previous summit in Lisbon whereby a new partnership policy seeking increased flexibility and rationalization of the partnership frameworks was developed, agreed, and in Chicago demonstrated in action. The Alliance was able to have a meeting with 13 selected partners from different regional frameworks showing NATO’s flexibility in terms of who gets invited and in terms of the agenda setting. These leaders were gathered to talk about NATO-led operations as a testimony to their considerable contributions to the Alliance over the past few years.
Second, the meeting with aspirants ensured that the open door policy was not forgotten in what was publicized as “not an enlargement Summit.” The point was brought home when Secretary Clinton indicated in Chicago that this was the last summit, which would not have enlargement on the agenda.
Third, the summit reiterated with the ISAF meeting that operational partnership is fundamental to the Alliance, and that NATO will continue to work with partners until and beyond 2014 in building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan. The meeting included the countries in the region from Central Asian countries to Russia and Pakistan, as well as Asian contributors from Japan to Australia and beyond. The Declaration devoted a particular paragraph to the regional dimension recognizing “that security and stability in the “Heart of Asia” is interlinked across the region.”
That said for all the nice words and focus on partnerships there is not a single tasking in the communiqué, which pertains to partnerships. There are some very timid efforts referring to partners in paragraphs dealing with emerging security challenges and smart defense and reiterating Allied commitment to engage with relevant partner nations on a case-by case basis as appropriate (i.e. with the usual qualifiers), which is nothing new and remains obviously sensitive within the Alliance.
Moreover, the partnership related paragraphs of the Declaration (26 paragraphs out of 65) are extensive. They cover everything one can possibly imagine from all the various frameworks (Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, Mediterranean Dialogue, Black Sea, Middle East and North Africa) to the specific relationships (Russia, Ukraine) and the flexible meetings above-mentioned (meeting with 13 partners, and with 4 aspirants). In addition, the Declaration refers to partners in almost all other paragraphs be it on Afghanistan, missile defense, smart defense, cyber defense to name but a few. Nonetheless, there is no tasking coming out of Chicago to guide work ahead in the area of partnerships. In NATO terms, this means that work will not be required to prepare for the next high-level meetings, be it at ministerial or summit level.
Some might interpret this as marking a time for reflection given that partnership has been high on the agenda of the Lisbon summit and the Chicago summit. It will no doubt be also welcome by those who prepare for further cuts at a time of austerity. Others, however, have indicated that partnerships will be central to NATO’s work ahead and an area where a lot of creative thinking is and will be required. Without any tasking, however, NATO as an institution has no mandate to get this work underway. As a result the thinking and the political agenda will have to be initiated by nations, and serious leadership will be required to accompany any new idea to be developed in this field given the resistance encountered on the part of some nations within the Alliance on any new developments in the area of partnerships. Leadership and serious political pressure will also have to be devoted to enlargement if the Alliance is to have it on the agenda of the next summit.
That said there seems to a positive assessment within U.S. official circles on partnerships at Chicago. Asking a high-ranking official from the Obama administration a couple of days after the summit about U.S. expectations with regard to work ahead on partnerships in the absence of any tasking from the summit, I was told that President Obama indicated clear expectations that NATO would initiate further work towards getting countries like Australia to continue contributing to the Alliance beyond operational commitments and beyond the draw down of operations. More specifically, expectations were that the NATO Secretary General would initiate such work. While I have no doubt regarding U.S. intentions and the U.S. level of commitment to partnerships, my own assessment is that, in the absence of significant political pressure from key nations, such work cannot easily be initiated by the NATO Secretary General, irrespective of his own personal commitment to NATO partnerships over the past few years. Leadership will be extremely important to go beyond Chicago. New thinking will have to be done in capitals and Delegations in NATO will have to work it through the system, but this will be uphill in the absence of a formal tasking. There is of course always the option of inserting a tasking in future high-level meetings, and perhaps this is how it should be given that creative thinking has barely begun in Washington.
 The meeting was attended by the leaders of Australia, Austria, Finland, Georgia, Japan, Jordan, Republic of Korea, Morocco, New Zealand, Qatar, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates.