World leaders will converge on the United States for two important summits in May but many are skeptical that NATO and the G-8 are equipped to produce a consensus on what to do about Syria, Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, the fragile global economy and other key issues of the day. And in the midst of a presidential election campaign in the United States, the leading Republican candidates, who often try to portray President Obama as being insufficiently tough on America's adversaries, will scrutinize the administration's every move at the head of state powwows.
The summits were to be held back-to-back in Chicago, but in a surprise move, the White House announced in early March that it planned to move the G-8 summit to the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland to create a more intimate atmosphere for the talks. The Obama team denied that the meeting was relocated due to planned demonstrations, but protesters saw the move as a victory.
"We think a big part of why they moved the G-8 summit is because of our brewing protest movement," said Andy Thayer, spokesman for the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda, a group that is organizing protests against both organizations, in an interview with The Washington Diplomat. "We take that as a big victory and a signal that if we want more change, we should step it up even more."
But Stephen Flanagan of the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said he doubted the move to Camp David was connected to the protest movement.
"I think when the president saw the plan for Chicago, he figured they wouldn't be able to have the quiet discussion they wanted," he said in an interview. "The thing that's really useful about the G-8 summits is that they bring together a group of world leaders to have a conversation about important issues. So I think he genuinely wanted a better environment for that type of meeting."
Thayer said that his group, which had planned its march and demonstration to coincide with the G-8 summit, will now protest the NATO gathering, scheduled for May 20 to 21, directly after the G-8 meeting at Camp David on May 18 and 19. But Chicago officials have been loathe to grant the group permission to get near the NATO meeting and Thayer blames Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff, whom he says supports "NATO's pro-war agenda."
Group of Eight summits have been a magnet for protestors off and on over the years, with most passing peacefully. But in 2001, anti-globalization protestors clashed with police and one demonstrator, Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old Italian, was shot and killed by police. A court ruled that no excessive force had been used as the bullet wasn't aimed at Giuliani, but the incident was a black eye for the G-8, which still struggles to overcome the perception that it's an organization of wealthy countries impervious to the problems of the developing world.
Last year, the security arrangements for the G-8 summit in Deauville, France, reportedly included 12,000 police and soldiers, prompting author and historian Timothy Garton Ash to call the event a "circus" and a "monumental waste of time and money." Ash went on to conclude that the G-8 should be abolished, and he's not alone in his conclusions.
What is now the Group of Eight highly industrialized nations, comprised of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, started out as the G-5 in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis.
"In '75, the first oil shock hit the industrialized world very hard," Flanagan said. "In those days, the five big economies were the U.S., [West] Germany, Britain, France and Japan, so French President Giscard d'Estaing invited the other four leaders for the first of these informal summits and the point was to formulate a response to the crisis."
Flanagan said that Italy crashed the party, making it the G-6. Then in 1976, Canada was invited to join what became the G-7, and in 1997, Russia's inclusion made it the G-8. Over the years, various other countries have been invited to attend the meetings (the European Union is represented but cannot host or chair summits) and celebrities like Bono have turned up to chide leaders of the world's richest nations to pledge more for development and health-related projects.
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was born out of the 2001 Genoa summit, in fact, and member nations have pledged billions in aid at prior meetings. But follow-through on pledges has been a constant issue, and many now believe that the G-8 has lost its usefulness.
"The G-8 is not the party everyone wants to belong to anymore," Flanagan said, noting that countries like Brazil wanted to join the G-8 years ago, but are now content to be part of BRIC, a geopolitical grouping that includes Brazil, Russia, India and China, as well as the G-20.
The G-20, which will meet in Los Cabos, Mexico, from June 18 to 19, includes a host of rising economic players like China, India and Turkey and has risen in importance since 2008, when the G-20 summits transitioned from meetings attended by finance ministers to head of state gatherings.
Flanagan said that the G-20 is seen to be eclipsing the G-8 because it's a more diverse body that carries greater international legitimacy because it better reflects the world's population. Nonetheless, the G-8 countries still wield enormous political and economic clout, and a number of hot-button issues will be broached at the Camp David summit, including the eurozone crisis, African food security, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, how to stimulate the global economy, and the Arab Spring uprisings.
Few predict any big, breaking news to emerge from the summit, but Flanagan said he expects the Obama administration will want to demonstrate that it has had useful discussions on stimulating the global economy and on all the key foreign affairs issues outlined above. And while Bono won't be at the G-8 this year, newly re-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin will be there, which could be even more interesting, especially given Putin's recent comments about NATO. Putin accused the security bloc of supporting a "string of armed conflicts" to achieve "absolute invulnerability."
"Nobody has a right to hijack the prerogatives and powers of the U.N.," Putin charged. "I am referring primarily to NATO, which seeks to assume a new role that goes beyond its status of a defensive alliance."
But while Putin may be critical of NATO's interventions in Libya, Kosovo and elsewhere, others, most notably Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), believe that it's time for NATO to step in and help topple Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a Dane, recently told Foreign Policy magazine that NATO wasn't likely to do that.
"Syria is ethnically, politically, religiously much more complicated than Libya," he said. "I think a regional solution would be the right way forward with strong engagement by the Arab League."
Syria will be on the agenda of the 2012 NATO summit, as will other problematic nations such as North Korea and Iran, but the meeting will be dominated by the ongoing mission in Afghanistan.
Ahead of the Chicago summit, U.S. and NATO officials say they have finalized plans to wind down the 11-year war in three main areas: transitioning Afghan security forces to take the combat lead while NATO recedes to a support role; keeping some troops in Afghanistan after the 2014 pullout date; and, perhaps most importantly, financially supporting the fledgling Afghan army after 2014. In addition, according to the New York Times, the United States and Afghanistan have completed the outline of a strategic partnership for the decade after 2014, the draft of which will reportedly be signed before the summit. Details though on exact funding commitments or troop numbers remain sketchy.
World leaders from NATO member countries have been debating how to keep the peace or prevent further bloodshed in global hotspots since the very first NATO summit in Paris in 1957. Since its founding in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has served as a bedrock of European security, evolving from a 12-nation body to its current structure, which includes 28 member countries and some 33 other countries involved in NATO partner institutions like the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.
But the future of NATO is a constant — almost cliché — question in security corridors, with pundits debating the transatlantic alliance's role (and relevance) in a post-Cold War world, especially as members broaden their scope to places such as Afghanistan and Libya while dealing with ever-tightening defense budgets back home.
On that note, another centerpiece of the Chicago summit will be the "smart defense" initiative that seeks to "do more with less," according to Rasmussen, by helping countries pool defense resources in a time of shrinking budgets to expand the organization's overall defense strategy. So for example, NATO recently agreed to have allied air forces patrol the skies over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which in turn would redirect their defenses spending toward other resources that would help the bloc, such as building up ground forces or bolstering cyber security.
It remains to be seen whether the smart defense approach, which has been mentioned in various incarnations for decades, will address a longstanding complaint among Americans that they do all the heavy lifting in NATO. Shortly before stepping down, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates lambasted Europe for essentially hitching a free financial ride off U.S. taxpayers.
"The blunt reality," Gates warned, "is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense — nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets."
Rasmussen himself has spoken about the need to distribute responsibilities more evenly to preserve the alliance, pointing out at the recent Brussels Forum that European defense cuts go "against the trend we can see in much of the rest of the world. This year, for the first time, Asian defense spending will outstrip that of NATO's European allies. And Russia is planning to double its defense spending over the next decade," he noted. "European allies must be ready and able to assume a greater leadership role. And I am confident that they can."
Barry Pavel, director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council, believes that another key goal for this year's meeting will be how to forge closer, more productive defense relationships with Middle Eastern countries.
"They need to figure out how to work more robustly with countries in the Persian Gulf who, in some cases, are screaming for a closer relationship because they are concerned about Iran," he said. "It's a massive opportunity to restore U.S. influence and it's an opportunity to reset the Middle East security architecture."
But of all the issues on the Chicago docket, Afghanistan — NATO's biggest 21st-century test — will be at the top of the list. At the last NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, alliance leaders agreed to formally transfer security responsibility to Afghan forces at the end of 2014. Officials insist there will be no change to the timeline despite numerous setbacks, the latest being the release of photographs depicting U.S. soldiers posing with the body parts of dead insurgents.
Leaders will, however, discuss shifting the mission from a combat to a largely support role, probably around mid-2013. U.S. officials are also hoping to keep NATO member states from bailing out of Afghanistan ahead of the already-accelerated schedule (Australia recently announced it was pulling troops out earlier than expected) and secure concrete commitments from them to help Afghan security forces stay afloat after coalition troops eventually leave. The Government Accountability Office says the United States has spent more than $40 billion training and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces, which would flounder financially after 2014 without outside funds.
According to the New York Times, one proposal calls for the United States to pitch in about $2.2 billion or more of the estimated $4 billion a year needed to sustain the army and police, with the Afghan government contributing $500 million and allies covering the remaining $1.3 billion.
A deal to hand over control of controversial special ops raids to Afghan authorities helped pave the way for a strategic partnership agreement that pledges U.S. financial and security support for Afghanistan until 2024. Details on how much money and security assistance will be given to Afghan forces after 2014, and by whom, will be debated in Chicago. But the Obama administration hopes the partnership agreement, even if just a broad outline, will prod NATO allies to lend more financial support now that they know the United States won't (in theory) abandon Afghanistan after the pullout date.
But plowing more resources into what many see as a losing war — from cash-strapped European governments — will be a tall order, especially as U.S. and NATO coalition troops come under fire by the very Afghan forces that they're training to take over for them.
Public opinion in the United States and in Europe has been turning against the war, and the recent Koran burnings and the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier in March have only intensified that trend.
"Everyone's going to keep things together and try to put on a good public face and declare that we're doing well," said Pavel of the Atlantic Council. "But the countries with the most forces are looking to get out in general."
Pavel said he wants President Obama and NATO to lay out a realistic plan for what will happen after they hand over control to Afghan security forces. But he said that in an election year, it's uncertain whether Obama would want to delve into the specifics of how many troops would remain in the country and what their mandate would be.
Yet with 69 percent of the American public indicating that the United States shouldn't be involved in the conflict in Afghanistan, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, and an election looming, Americans are more likely to ask how quickly the troops will be coming home before fretting over the details of what happens after we leave.
"It's been the longest war in our history," Thayer, the G-8/NATO protester, said. "Some of us were opposed to it from the beginning, but at this point, the majority just wants this war to end."
About the Author
Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a former diplomat based in Northern Virginia.
Last Edited on May 8, 2012