"Diversity is a source of strength" – Report from NATO Engages: The Brussels Summit Dialogue

While world leaders met next door, the Munich Security Conference – in partnership with NATO, the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and Women in International Security (WIIS) – organized the official outreach event of this year's NATO Summit in Brussels. Titled "NATO Engages: The Brussels Summit Dialogue" the event brought together current and next-generation leaders in the spectacular setting of the new NATO Headquarters to discuss some of the alliance's most pressing challenges. Key themes mirrored the official summit agenda, but also included broader transatlantic and global security issues.

A view from the audience at NATO Engages: The Brussels Summit Dialogue (Photo: MSC / ACA)

The alliance met at an extremely difficult moment – that much was clear from the beginning of the "NATO Engages" outreach event. In the first session, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg thus reminded the participants that the alliance must not be taken for granted: "The transatlantic bond is not written in stone – it is not a law of nature that it will be there forever." By saying this, he clearly hinted at U.S. President Donald Trump's harsh calls for more balanced burden sharing between alliance members that rocked the Summit and were also the subject of particularly intense discussions at the side event. While there was general agreement that the burden was disproportionately shouldered by the United States, the scope and style of Trump's demands were heavily criticized by participants.


Cohesion is key

The participants were keenly aware of the importance of unity among alliance members. Clearly, NATO's opponents would like to see the alliance weakened by internal division between member states. For this reason, panelists throughout the conference highlighted the need to invest substantial political will and work in order to guarantee NATO's future cohesion. Dramatic developments at the official NATO Summit next door, where the heads of state and government had to convene an emergency session to discuss the issue of defence spending, also shaped the public debates and private conversations at the side event. Asked whether she was concerned about the future of NATO, German Defence Minister von der Leyen stated: "We're starting to realize how precious NATO is. It's not a given. We need to fight for it."

NATO membership remains an attractive prospect

"NATO Engages" also highlighted the continuing appeal of the alliance's founding formula – namely that the provision of security also paves the way to economic growth and development and helps preserve democracy. Zoran Zaev, president of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, appeared on stage shortly after NATO leaders had announced to begin formal accession talks with his country. Zaev praised the alliance's contribution to international stability and security. In a similar fashion, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko welcomed the strong message of solidarity their countries had received at the 2018 NATO Summit and reaffirmed their aspiration to seek NATO membership.

The new security environment

Participants not only addressed the challenges NATO faces from Russian actions in Europe's Eastern neighborhood and from instability in its South; they also discussed recent technological advances that increasingly blur the lines between the military and the civilian world and thus pose new security risks. However, participants agreed, some of these seemingly new threats echo challenges from the past. For instance, disinformation campaigns were already conducted during Cold War times. The rise of the Internet, however, has clearly magnified their impact. As examples, several panelists cited recent Russian attempts to undermine Western democratic institutions, electoral systems in particular. In this context, many speakers expressed the hope that the fraught relationship between Russia and the West could be improved, but agreed that Moscow currently did not seem willing to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Diversity as a strength

One aim of "NATO Engages" was to reach out to the broader public and engage stakeholders beyond the traditional security and defence community. In this sense, the event fully lived up to its name: The event's audience included 491 participants from 57 different countries, with 30 percent of participants below the age of 35, and 40 percent being women. Diversity has become a key issue for NATO, be it in terms of gender, age or nationality. As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rightly stressed, "diversity is a source of strength."


Further Information

To see the full agenda as well as for more information on the consortium behind NATO Engages, go to nato-engages.org. You can re-watch recordings of all of every session from NATO Engages here. A selection of photos from the event is available in our media library.


For more on the topic of the transatlantic alliance and European defence, see the summary of our Roundtable on European Defence, which was held in Brussels also on the eve of the NATO Summit, as well as our report "More European, More Connected and More Capable: Building the European Armed Forces of the Future".

13 July 2018, by MSC