NATO in a New Era: Selected Outcomes from the 2018 NATO Brussels Summit

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(Disponible en français : Une nouvelle ère pour l’OTAN : certains résultats du Sommet de l’OTAN de 2018 à Bruxelles)

Since 1957, when the first summit was held in Paris, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) summits have been a platform for issuing strategic direction to its institutions and its member states.

The summits, which bring together the member states’ heads of state and government to make important policy decisions, are designed to provide a visible display of unity and resolve. Often held at critical junctures in NATO’s decision-making process, these summits are considered to be significant milestones that mark NATO’s evolution over time.

Canada is a founding member of NATO and has remained actively engaged in its operations since 1949. Today, the country continues to make significant contributions to NATO, and several new commitments were announced during the 2018 NATO Summit held in Brussels.

The 2014 and 2016 Summits

In 2014 and 2016, deteriorating security within and beyond NATO’s borders led to two landmark summits.

The 2014 Wales Summit’s initiatives included a commitment to the Defence Investment Pledge, which aims to bring about more balanced sharing of costs and responsibilities within NATO through two actions: gradual increases in defence spending to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP); and the allocation of 20% of annual defence spending to major equipment.

Building on the 2014 commitments, the 2016 Warsaw Summit established NATO’s “enhanced Forward Presence” (eFP), comprising multinational battalion-sized battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. These battlegroups are designed to deter possible aggression against member states.

The context for the 2018 Summit

Since 2016, NATO has taken steps to adapt to the conventional and unconventional threats that increasingly characterize the modern security environment. However, a number of challenges hinder its ability to defend against a resurgent Russia, with its modernized military capabilities and provocative hybrid warfare tactics.

As well, on NATO’s southern border, violent conflicts have destabilized the Middle East and North Africa region, creating both security challenges and deeper divisions about how to address unprecedented refugee and migration flows.

Furthermore, in the lead-up to the 2018 Brussels Summit, the issue of burden-sharing dominated discussions about NATO, largely because of President Trump’s public admonishment of member states’ defence expenditures.

To many observers, the combination of internal and external pressures threatened to erode the trust that underpins NATO. However, the Summit produced a declaration comprising 79 substantive paragraphs that outline new commitments and reaffirm that NATO “will continue to stand together and act together, on the basis of solidarity, shared purpose, and fair burden-sharing.”

At the 2018 Brussels Summit, Prime Minister Trudeau announced increased support for NATO as a cornerstone of Canada’s international security policy. He also made specific commitments regarding certain initiatives.

A transatlantic alliance

The Brussels Declaration on Transatlantic Security and Solidarity adopted at the Summit both confirms the “unbreakable transatlantic bond” between Europe and North America, and underscores that Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – an attack on one is an attack on all – remains a fundamental principle of collective defence. Noting progress regarding increased defence spending, the member states reiterated their commitment to the 2014 Defence Investment Pledge.

The Government of Canada agreed to submit national plans regarding the country’s implementation of the Defence Investment Pledge. While the Government has committed to gradual increases in defence spending towards the target of 2% of GDP, it considers high-quality capabilities and contributions to operations and missions to be essential elements of burden-sharing.

Canada’s new defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged (2017), forecasts an increase in Canada’s defence spending to 1.4% of GDP by 2024–2025, and expenditures of 32.3% on major equipment by the same period.

Assurance and deterrence in the east

The Brussels Declaration reaffirmed member states’ commitments to enhance their deterrence measures in Central and Eastern Europe. It also noted the ongoing implementation of NATO’s eFP, which currently involves 4,500 allied troops deployed to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Prime Minister Trudeau visited the Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia prior to the Summit, and announced both the extension of Operational Reassurance – Canada’s contribution to NATO’s eFP – to 31 March 2023, and an increase from 455 to 540 in the number of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members deployed to Latvia.

Readiness and mobility

Member states agreed to take steps to make their forces more agile, interoperable and deployable, and launched NATO’s Readiness Initiative. This initiative involves a collective commitment to provide 30 major naval combatants, 30 heavy or medium battalions, and 30 air squadrons capable of deploying within 30 days.

They also approved changes to NATO’s command structure, creating two new commands: a Joint Force Command headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia to protect transatlantic lines of communication; and a Joint Support and Enabling Command in Ulm, Germany to support the rapid movement of troops into and across Europe.

Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Canada will provide up to 25 personnel within five years to NATO’s Airborne Warning and Control System program, one of the few military assets owned and operated by NATO.

Cyber defence

The Brussels Declaration affirmed that NATO must be capable of effectively countering cyber threats that are increasingly frequent and complex, including those conducted as part of a hybrid campaign. The establishment of a Brussels-based Cyberspace Operations Centre, which will focus on situational awareness and coordination of NATO’s cyber activities, was announced at the Summit.

Prime Minister Trudeau also committed to joining NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, which is based in Tallinn, Estonia.


Member states agreed to allocate human and financial resources to support an enhanced role in the international fight against terrorism, and to launch a non-combat training and capacity-building mission to support stabilization efforts in Iraq. They also noted their continued support for NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, where forces are training, advising and assisting Afghan National Defence and Security Forces.

The Government of Canada announced that Canada will assume command of NATO’s training and capacity-building mission in Iraq for one year. As well, Canada will station a Major-General, a Gender Advisor and up to 250 CAF personnel in Iraq to focus on training Iraqi security services and on helping to build institutional capacity.


A 2018 report on Canada and NATO by the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence states that, ultimately, NATO’s strength and value lies in the unity of its members. As NATO continues to strive for peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, it faces a rapidly changing security environment characterized by new domains of conflict, as well as enduring threats. In adapting to meet these converging challenges, solidarity may be NATO’s most important asset.

Additional Resources:

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, The Return of Global Russia.

Jeffrey Rathke, “NATO: Measuring Results, not Dollars, in Transatlantic Security,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9 July 2018.

Andrew Rasiulis, “Canada’s Military Operations on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Why They Matter,” Canadian Global Affairs Institute, July 2017.

Author: Katherine Simonds, Library of Parliament

Categories: Government, Parliament and politics, International affairs and defence

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