The flags and insignia, the calls to unity and the reminders of the transatlantic link: it can be tempting to think one Nato summit is much like another. But last week in Warsaw, the alliance held a gathering for a new era – one in which Europe’s collective security and territorial defence are once again Nato’s core mission, and with new resources to fulfil it. This is an important shift, and in uncertain times it will be important that dangers and threats, as well as the policies and means put forward to confront them, are finely assessed.
Russia’s new assertiveness, terrorist assaults in Europe and other challenges such as migration and cybersecurity have created a sense of urgency. That the location chosen for the summit was, for the first time, the capital of a central European country that was once under Soviet domination, and that it was held just two weeks after Britain had voted to leave the EU, added to the symbolism: a show of western unity around Europe’s prospects had become all the more necessary. David Cameron went to great pains to reassure his Nato colleagues that the UK would remain engaged in the security of allies.
Go back 10 or 15 years and the changes that have unfolded are momentous. In the post-cold war and post-9/11 period, the idea had taken root that if Nato didn’t act “out of area” it would soon be “out of business”. Nato’s long and difficult engagement in Afghanistan partly drew from this. Confronting radical Islamists in the Hindu Kush took up a lot of energy and brought uncertain results (at one point Nato had up to 140,000 troops in Afghanistan). Now, with Russia’s behaviour a major source of concern and the spillover effects of Middle Eastern wars threatening to destabilise Europe, the alliance is getting back to basics. This can only be logical, but it is just as crucial that the right balance be found. As Angela Merkel said at the start of the summit, deterrence and dialogue must go hand in hand.