The Road to Vilnius: Key Issues at the 2023 NATO Summit

VAdm (Ret'd) Darren Hawco & Yves Brodeur

Former Canadian Military Representative to NATO VAdm (Ret’d) Darren Hawco and former Canadian Permanent Representative to NATO Yves Brodeur shed light on the key topics anticipated to be discussed at the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius. 

The summit will address pressing issues such as Ukraine’s membership bid, the rise of China, challenges to liberal democracy, climate change, and the lessons learned from the war in Ukraine. 

While Canada and other allies are supportive of Ukraine’s NATO membership bid, there is a reluctance to initiate the accession process at this time due to certain conditions not being fully met. 

While Canada’s contributions to NATO, including defence spending and readiness, will be scrutinized, meeting the 2% defence spending target may prove challenging. It is crucial for the Prime Minister to emphasize Canada’s enduring commitment to NATO and convey the importance of investing in defence capabilities to address security challenges.

Yves Brodeur, Former Canadian Permanent Representative to NATO

What do you expect will be the central areas of focus or the main issues at the upcoming NATO summit? What can we expect from the 2023 communique?

First, this Summit in Vilnius will take place more or less a year and a half after the brutal Russian aggression against Ukraine. It is a key moment for NATO because there are a few things that will influence the meeting in terms of backdrop issues as well. Some are fundamental. You could probably argue that the political strategic global environment has changed quite significantly over the last year and a half since Madrid.

For instance, what happened in Russia with the Wagner mutiny is interesting. I don’t want to try to draw any conclusions from it. I think that it’s pretty early for that—much too early. Yet, this is an important factor that will certainly be in the minds of leaders when they meet in Vilnius. Another issue, the rise of China—which is not per se an issue that NATO is really preoccupied with, because of what the treaty is all about—will be on the minds of leaders. It wasn’t at the time when I was ambassador there, but it’s certainly a big issue that is having an impact on the overall strategic security environment. Again, I think leaders will have that on their minds.

There’s also something that’s ongoing, this movement, or trend, that appears to be driving some nations away from democracy—liberal democracy—as we know it, which is something that is part of NATO’s mission—to defend liberal democracy and the values that come with it. But right now, there’s something happening, there’s a shift, including within some NATO nations. It’s something that is worth considering when you’re thinking about Vilnius.

Another issue is climate change. In Madrid, there was a passing reference in the Declaration on Climate Change, but NATO has been more vocal on that, through the words of the Secretary-General—a number of actions and initiatives were adopted by NATO. Emerging challenges, such as the Arctic in the context of climate change remains and we have a big interest in that as a country. The question of energy is coming at us in a big way. Water is an issue that we don’t hear a lot about, but I know that NATO has been looking at it to some extent. So, all these issues will colour proceedings.

The other issue I would like to underline is the question of the lessons learned a year and a half into the brutal war in Ukraine. I would hope that NATO has been looking at the lessons that one should learn from what’s happening right now, not only in terms of political issues, but also in terms of strategy, and tactics. You can see the nature of warfare is being affected by what’s going on in Ukraine.

The last thing I want to say is that NATO is approaching Vilnius with a certain degree of success in terms of the unity and solidarity that has been displayed over the last year and a half, which is the main strength of NATO. It’s been reinforced, if only because Finland is now a full-fledged member. It will be the first time that Finland sits at the Summit as an equal member. Sweden is an invitee and its accession ratification process is still underway, blocked by two nations, Hungary and Turkey. That I think is going to be one of the significant topics there, and certainly one that NATO nations and several others would like to see resolved at Vilnius. I’m not too sure I would expect that.

NATO has a lot of good things to say about itself, about the Alliance, and its impact. Now, what are going to be the big issues? I think that you’re going to see, again, Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine, as being the first topic on the agenda, in terms of renewing the commitment of allies to support Ukraine politically, as well as militarily. Coming out of that you will also have a very strong commitment to transatlantic relations, coming from all allies—the United States, first and foremost, but others as well.

I think NATO will want to talk about the issue that will never go away, the 2% threshold. What’s happening with that? A looming issue is the Secretary General’s eventual replacement—an issue that you won’t really hear a lot about in public because it doesn’t happen like that at NATO. It’s a discussion that takes place in corridors among nations. But I think that you could probably expect, or imagine at least, that there will be consultations among leaders about “What’s next?” Who comes after Stoltenberg?

The Balkans, as well, that’s going to come back, and not in a nice way. Kosovo, Serbia—you can see that, right now, trouble is brewing again. The rest of the issues, I think, will be pretty much dominated by Ukraine, Russia, and the 2% threshold. So that is what I could see as being the main topics.

If I may, I just want to talk a bit about Canada, because we too are walking into that Summit with some of our own concerns and objectives. My own personal view of this is that Canada will have some work to do in terms of reaffirming its strong commitment to the alliance, in terms of its capacity and capabilities. We’ve been bruised over the last little while in terms of our capacity to deploy, take part in critical exercises, and over our military spending, and our defence expenditures.

The Prime Minister will want to send a pretty strong message in terms of Canada being an ally that can be really trusted, and deal with any doubt that could exist about Canada’s strength and commitment in terms of its contribution to the alliance. I don’t think that you could expect anything very different from what happened in Madrid, but there will certainly be an amplification of what was said then. Ukraine is going to be the top issue. So that would be my take on the Summit.

How do you evaluate Canada’s contributions presently to NATO? What does Canada need to do to ensure it has the trust of its NATO allies? As you mentioned, we’ve been under a lot of scrutiny lately for our contributions and for not meeting the 2% threshold.

The 2% issue is something that’s very dear to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s heart, so he will push on that. He made it clear that this would be an important issue in terms of trying to make it less of a goal and more of an obligation. Take the 2% not so much as a ceiling, but as a floor, as he said, in terms of spending. To me, the 2% is an accounting thing—it’s something that was a target, but essentially, it’s hard to understand exactly why it is 2%. Where is that number coming from? It’s not actually clear.

The way it is being calculated by different nations varies greatly in terms of what you include. When I look at the whole issue of defence expenditure, my take on it is more about what it is that Canada wants to do. Is it equipped to do what it’s supposed to do? What are our priorities? That gives you an answer about where you want to spend, how much you want to spend, and how much you can spend.

What I’m talking about is the famous defence review that we’ve been waiting for. It’s been a long time and we haven’t seen anything yet. First and foremost, when going to NATO, the PM should aim to, not necessarily make a strong commitment to reach the 2%, but basically, reassure allies that we’re doing everything we can to reinforce our military capacities and that we can invest quickly, if only because we as a nation need it. We need it to ensure our own safety. Right now we’re in a difficult situation.

The other thing that we don’t hear a lot about, but I think is as important, is our readiness. Are we prepared to deploy? How much, how fast, how quickly? My sense is that we’re not as ready as we think we are or as we should be. There are no official numbers about that. However, I think that the fact that we decided not to take part in this major NATO air exercise in Germany a few weeks ago speaks volumes about our capacity to deploy quickly and our readiness to act.

The fact that we’re not doing any air policing or joining air policing missions is another issue. Sure, we’ve been taking an active part in air policing in the past, but we’re not doing it now. Our navy is very slowly being reinforced. It’s looking better, but we’re far away from where it should be in terms of being able to patrol even our own waters to ensure that we’re safe and secure. We only have one support ship, and frankly, that’s not enough for a nation that has three oceans. So, these are the issues. I think that no one is going to actually question or challenge Canada in terms of its contribution to NATO, but we have a big job to do in terms of reassuring allies that we’re investing where we need to.

Is it going to be 2%? I doubt it. That would mean doubling our defence budget, which is something I don’t see happening in the short term. I think we’ll have some work to do on that. We have to signal very openly, frankly, and in a transparent way, that we’re not going to be meeting the 2% anytime soon. There’s also the question of sustainability. In a way, Canada will point out the fact that we’ve been taking part in almost every military operation under NATO’s command. Can we sustain that over time? Can we actually deploy 3000 people for more than three months? That is a question that hasn’t been answered. Something that you don’t see very often in the papers, and is not being discussed, but I think militaries would have an interesting answer to that question.

Does Ukraine exhibit the criteria required for NATO membership at this time and should Canada support Ukraine’s NATO membership bid? What would the implications of NATO membership be?

Yes, we are supportive. There’s a quote from Stoltenberg, and I quote him not in full, but the important part, “All NATO members agreed that Ukraine will eventually join the Alliance once the war is over.” So, “once the war is over” is ambitious. The other thing is— “eventually”—what does that mean? It’s hard to say.

When I was at NATO there was no appetite to bring Ukraine into the fold for strategic reasons. Although in 2008, the allies all agreed again that one day Ukraine, and Georgia would eventually join NATO. We’re all supporting. Canada is also part of that and is basically in favour of that. But as he said, when the conditions exist.

What are three the conditions? They’re not really spelled out clearly. There will be a pretty important discussion. Now, if you look at the membership accession process at NATO, there are quite specific criteria, such as being a democracy, the protection of minority rights, resolution of conflicts in a peaceful way, and so on and so forth—having essentially a society based on the rule of law with an economy that’s open. You could take a look at the situation in Ukraine and tick the boxes or not, but I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of meeting all these requirements. That would be my take on it.

How long will it take? I don’t know. Will it happen? Maybe. Meanwhile, the question of offering guarantees to Ukraine, on a bilateral basis, is something that is already happening through the group of allies which are providing weapons training, etc. There are some discussions about providing more supportive initiatives but how would that be different? I think it won’t be very different than what you can see now, maybe being better organized would be more important, I don’t know. But training and providing weapons systems is already happening.

Germany and France, if my memory serves me right, are the nations that actually made some public comments about the possibility of offering security guarantees to Ukraine, but again, without actually developing and defining what these guarantees could be. I think, as I said, we’re supportive—Canada is, as are all other allies. Is Ukraine ready? My own personal view? No. I think that there will be, at this point, extreme reluctance to actually consider even the beginning of an accession process for Ukraine at NATO. Stoltenberg is right, once maybe the war is over, then we can look at it again, but it’s not going to happen soon.

I was thinking, if I were there at NATO with my Prime Minister, as I was in the past, what would be my message—my advice to him? My advice would be that you need to go out there, be strong and essentially send the message that we are a trusted ally and intend to remain a trusted ally and that we will put the effort, the energy, and probably the money into ensuring that we are still able to contribute in a significant way to NATO. That would be my take on it.

The second thing is that the Prime Minister has to speak to Canadians as well. I know that judging from the comments in the public domain about military spending, he’s probably not a big fan of telling Canadians we’ve got to spend huge amounts of money on security and defence. It doesn’t come out cheap. You can’t build up an armed force worth its name on the cheap, that doesn’t happen. But he’s got to start talking to Canadians about the challenges that we’re facing as a country and tell them that this is really important. This is crucial.

The future is coming at us. And some of it is not actually reassuring, I would say, and we need to actually tell people “You don’t like it, but we need to start to really invest in our defence if we want to play our role in continental defence.” First and foremost, I mean, we have a big neighbour down south that actually is looking at us as well, saying, “Well, you guys have to get your act together, and really start, putting serious money in this thing.”

So, the prime minister has to talk to Canadians—that’s why he was elected—and tell them, “You know, we need to really look at this seriously and start putting money into this.” We need to stop thinking that we are immune to these kinds of threats and challenges.

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