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NATO's Chicago Shuffle

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy, Netherlands    Defence Academy, Strategic Advisory Panel of the British Chief of Defence Staff and Strategic Advisory Group, Atlantic Council of the United States.

Professor Julian Lindley-French held a lecture at CIORs Wessling Winter Seminar in February.


The Chicago shuffle is a jazz beat which requires a drummer to play both hands together at the same time at different beats. NATO leaders meeting in Chicago on 20-21 May 2012 will find themselves having to perform the political equivalent of the Chicago shuffle - finding a way to do more with less with no clear agreement over priorities. The agenda will prove challenging to say the least - NATO's commitment to Afghanistan through transition and beyond, modernisation of Alliance military capabilities and collective defence structures and the reenergising Alliance partnerships at a time when NATO's prestige worldwide is at a particularly low ebb.

Furthermore, two key members will be dealing with the consequence of or preparing for elections. France will just have emerged from presidential elections which could well see the Socialist Francois Hollande elected. President Obama will not wish to commit to anything that complicates his own forthcoming election fight. Once the Republicans have stopped killing each other they will turn on Obama. And a key outsider, Russia's President-elect Putin, has just completed a hand-back of power and will be pressing for Russia's voice to be heard. Europe meanwhile will still be mired in the Eurozone disaster.

NATO's Strategic Challenges

There can however be no illusions about the strategic challenges the Alliance confronts. Indeed, NATO remains the west's cornerstone security and defence alliance because of its embedded practice over many years. It is also the only international organisation in the world that can generate credible, legitimate military power across the crisis spectrum. However, unless real political and military investment takes NATO is increasingly at risk.

A March 2011 report by Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) underscores NATO strategic home truths. Annual economic growth across much of Europe will on average peak no higher than 1.5% through 2013 with the continuing risk of a double dip recession up to 2015. Mounting national debt in Europe could grow from 80% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010 to 100% by 2015 without drastic cost-cutting or changes in policy. European defence budgets have been cut as much as 25% since 2008 and on average around 15%.

External pressures are also mounting as the global balance of military power shifts away from NATO. In February President-elect Putin wrote that "For Russia to feel secure and for our partners to listen carefully to what our country has to say," Russia will spend an additional $775 billion by 2022 for new armaments and develop a more professional military. That will be a heavy burden for the Russian economy to bear but the intent is clear. Beijing's March announcement that it will grow the Chinese defence budget by 11.2% in 2012 (although slightly lower than the 12.7% in 2011) is but the latest double digit increase. Indeed, China has been growing its military at that rate since 1989 and the official figures are probably 'conservative'.

'Synergy' will be Chicago's buzzword. The Strategic Concept was agreed at the Lisbon Summit back in November 2010. Its mission was to "guide the next phase in NATO's evolution, so that it [the Alliance] continues to be effective in a changing world, against new threats, with new capabilities and new partners". Implicit in this statement of strategic intent was the need for more political and military synergy to ease a capability-capacity crunch whereby shrinking forces and resources face an ever-expanding task-list over extended time and distance. Providing such synergy has after all been the very purpose of NATO since its inception in 1949.

However, just at the moment when strategy synergy is a must the allies' world views are diverging. America, Britain and Canada are beginning to shape a shared post-Afghanistan world view which will see a switch back to the global maritime strategy implicit in the new January 2012 US defence strategy. Continental Europe is at best mired in a very local, very regional strategic focus that will be reflected in diverging levels of ambition that will be reflected in summit discussions.

And then of course there is Iran. Summits have a tendency to be hijacked by crises, most notably in 1999 when NATO's fiftieth anniversary summit to agree the then Strategic Summit was overshadowed by Alliance action in Kosovo. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that time is running out and that Israel will not live "in the shadow of annihilation". An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear programme would doubtless divide the allies as how best to respond, particularly in a US election year.

The Chicago Agenda

Transition in Afghanistan will of course be high on the agenda. The March deaths of six British soldiers in one incident in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province once again highlighted the difficulties of transition to Afghan control. Progress towards training up sufficient Afghan Army and Police to take over security from the NATO-led coalition is progressing. However, the effectiveness of these forces is patchy at best and Afghan President Karzai seems increasingly willing to undo much of the good work that has been done so desperate is he for some form of peace agreement with the Taliban. The sense of betrayal felt by the Americans, British and Canadians about the lack of willingness of NATO allies to share risk is profound. The Chicago Afghanistan discussion will as ever be a delicate political exercise.

Modernisation of NATO's capabilities will also be discussed and will also prove to be delicate. The need to modernise the forces of NATO's Canadian and European allies is not simply a question of new procurement. There are powerful vested industrial interests both in North America and Europe that prevent a balanced discussion across the Alliance. Moreover, the appalling handling by the Americans of the F-35 Lightning II project and the refusal of Europeans to properly consolidate the European defence and technological defence industrial base for want of solidarity and to protect jobs will be ever present. The simple fact is that just as the unit cost of military hardware is rising as it becomes more complicated, equipment budgets are collapsing. Moreover, such is the preponderance of personnel costs in the shrinking budgets of many of Europe's armed forces that some of them are little more than armed pensions. Be it bad American project management or European inefficiency NATO's armed forces pay too much for the equipment they get an it is questionable whether leaders will want to really enter this political swamp at Chicago.

Equally, Anders Fogh Rasmussen is keen to promote what he calls Smart Defence and Chicago will need to be seen to make some attempt to balance strategy, capability and austerity. Specifically Smart Defence will aim at qualitative improvements to Alliance capabilities within the context of shrinking budgets. Emphasis will be placed on the rationalisation of defence expenditure, elimination of obsolete programmes and systems, the avoidance of unnecessary duplication and the pooling of resources and capabilities where possible.

There is also a bigger strategic picture implicit in the Chicago Agenda. Missile defence will be on the agenda as will a meeting between President Obama and President-elect Putin. However, with the 'reelection' of President Putin expect Moscow to move beyond missile defence and demand a say on the modernisation of all elements of NATO's Article 5 Collective Defence - the creation of more advanced deployable forces (to that end the US will likely propose Mission Focus Groups (MFG) across the three Strategic Concept tasks (collective defence, crisis management and co-operative security)), cyber-defence and nuclear deterrence.

Moscow's concerns about missile defence were merely a ruse to establish the principle of a Russian voice in NATO affairs. Moreover, Moscow knows only too well that by raising issues such as the presence of American nuclear weapons in Europe it would be relatively easy to open up fissures in NATO solidarity.

NATO's partnerships will also be discussed. Co-operative security is one of the three pillars of the Strategic Concept. The Alliance is seeking to "engage actively to enhance international security, through partnership with relevant countries and other international organisations; by contributing actively to arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament; and by keeping the door to membership in the Alliance open to all European democracies that meet NATO's standards" What that means in a nutshell is that NATO places itself at the core of a network of security and defence relationship both in Europe and beyond. Given NATO's 2011 Operation Unified Protector over Libya that helped to remove Gadhafi from power and given the on-going instability across much of the Middle East how such partnerships can be fostered will likely be discussed in parallel with a consideration of lessons from Libya.

Specifically, Chicago will consider the role of the Alliance as a flexible and effective framework for generating coalitions from within NATO members for operations in and around Europe that can also reach out to and involve key partners. Operational planning for Unified Protector was undertaken almost exclusively by European officers within the NATO command structure with the Americans providing key enablers. The split between the US and its European allies in terms of applied military capabilities was roughly 50-50. The operation was a timely and seminal moment in proving the utility of NATO and its European command structures and leaders will be keen to tell a good news story about that at Chicago.

Chicago will also likely consider progress on implementing the so-called comprehensive approach, which seeks much more effective synergy between civil and military elements of complex operations. A more systematic approach to operations will also be discussed to generate planning, structures, partnerships and metrics vital to the successful conduct of complex operations.

The further reform of the NATO Command Structure will also be on the agenda. NATO staff is being reduced from 13,000 to 8,800 to save money, although the Alliance intends to maintain the same "level of ambition" - the Chicago shuffle again. The summit will reaffirm NATO's core functions, such as operational planning, conduct of operations, force development, force generation, transformation, and military cooperation and support activities.

NATO is to retain two Strategic Commands, Allied Command Operations (ACO) and Allied Command Transformation (ACT) and two Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQs) designed to support the strategic commands, with each JFHQ deployable into theatre to exercise command and control (C2) up to the level of a major joint operation. Additionally, the command structure will assume new tasks such as the conduct of Article 5 operations, and responsibility for enhanced deployability and sustainability.

NATO's Chicago Shuffle

NATO's May 2012 summit takes place at a particularly delicate moment for the Alliance both internally and externally. Ideally, Chicago will see Alliance leaders firmly grip the changing strategic reality with which NATO must contend and re-affirm and re-energise NATO strategic unity of purpose and effort. There is after all much that needs doing if NATO is to be properly prepared for a credible twenty-first security and defence role. In reality given the delicacy of the moment and the complexity of the many problems NATO leaders are dealing with it is more likely that the summit will be deemed a success if it avoids failure.

The most that can be hoped for is a 'steady as she goes' summit much of it focused on reviewing progress on key elements of the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept - the what, the where, the why and the how of NATO action… and the avoidance of controversy. 2013 could be another story.

NATO Summit Coming to Chicago

Leaders from around the world will gather in Chicago this spring for an important diplomatic summit hosted by President Barack Obama. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will hold meetings in Chicago May 20-21, allowing the city to highlight its economic vitality, its arts and architecture, and its can-do spirit.

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