What can we expect from the NATO 2021 Summit?

By Jennifer Bergman
Europe Analyst

On June 14th, NATO is holding its Summit of allied leaders at its headquarters in Brussels, which will focus on the NATO 2030 agenda. In their press release from April this year, the Alliance listed the challenges that they will be covering in their discussions, centring on the topics of Russia and China, terrorism, cyberattacks, emerging and disruptive technologies and the security impact of climate change. This piece briefly explores what we can expect as the main challenges to be covered concerning these topics.

Russia and China 

President Macron of France has stated that Russia and China are the two main threats that NATO currently faces (No author, 2021). This concern is shared across NATO with differing opinions about who should be the point of focus. The alliance is mostly united on the threat that Russia poses but is more divided on the nature of the Chinese threat. For example, Merkel has expressed resistance towards choosing a side, having concluded the E.U-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment last year (Bjerg Moller, 2021). While NATO has been dealing with the Russian threat for years, China has not necessarily been perceived as a military threat to Europe and, therefore, not a priority. That being said, China is expanding its power and influence, primarily through trade and investing in European infrastructure. As a result of this, China has been perceived as a political and economic threat rather than a military one. However, with their recent increasingly forceful foreign policy, their actions in India and tariffs against Australia, China is increasingly becoming a military threat (Bjerg Moller, 2021). The changing nature and increasing threat of China is likely to be a dominating discussion point over the coming days.


Alongside land, air and sea, cyberspace has been officially recognised as “a new frontier in defence” by NATO (Emmot, 2021). The 21st century has seen the significant emergence of cyberattacks, with Russian cyberactivity against Estonia in 2007 marking the significant use of cyber-warfare against one country by another (McLaughlin, 2021). Since then, cyberattacks have become more frequent, ranging from attacks targeting states such as that in Estonia to smaller interferences that aim to undermine democracy in Western countries. Russia and China are frequently believed to be two major perpetrators. This development has brought up dilemmas about how these attacks should be approached internationally. The summit will likely cover topics such as how to hold countries and people accountable for cyberattacks under international law (McLaughlin, 2021). In regards to this, General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg has stated that “a major attack would be considered just like any other military strike…. In a way it does not matter whether it is a kinetic attack or cyberattack, we will assess as allies whether it meets the threshold for triggering Article 5. It sends a message that we regard cyberattacks as seriously as any other attack” (Malloy, 2021). Despite this, international law surrounding cyberattacks is still a very new arena and one that NATO needs to make sure becomes less ambiguous.


Although terrorism does not pose a new threat in the same way that cyberattacks might do, the evolving nature of the terrorist threat requires new strategies from NATO. In recent years there has been increasing use of new technologies by terrorist groups; for example, the increasing availability of weapons such as drones have influenced terrorist methods. As before, NATO states that they are focusing on countering terrorism through collaboration with other organisations and information-sharing between its members (ICCT, 2021). That being said, one key challenge that the alliance must address will be how to contain the power vacuum that will emerge as they, together with the US, start to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Left to themselves, situations like these tend to provide a perfect opportunity for new terrorist organisations to emerge or old ones to grow. Actors in Afghanistan have already expressed concern that the recent increasing territorial control by the Taliban will only exacerbate as foreign troops leave the country (Fazalminallah and Diaa, 2021).

Emerging and disruptive technologies

NATO counts seven science and technology areas under emerging and disruptive technologies. These are artificial intelligence (AI), data and computing, autonomy, quantum-enabled technologies, biotechnology, hypersonic technology, and space. The alliance have stated that for the near future, the priority is AI and data (Machi, 2021). The main dilemma that they face is how to ensure cooperation across allies of NATO concerning these challenges, in particular when it comes to communication and making sure that the same technologies are used to ensure interoperation. To address this, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has proposed a NATO defence innovation initiative that aims to foster better cooperation on emerging technologies (NATO OTAN, 2020). How this cooperation will look will likely be a key topic discussed by the different leaders.

The security impact of climate change

Climate change has become increasingly present on the international scene these past years and NATO’s current strategy is attempting to start a conversation between the military and climate sector. In a piece Jens Stoltenberg wrote for Politico, he stated that “NATO has a key role to play in three areas when it comes to climate change: understanding the challenge, adapting our operations, and reducing military emissions” (Stoltenberg, 2021). One key aspect of adapting their operations, he argues, is using new technologies such as AI to gather data on climate change. Additionally, focusing on including young leaders in the discussion and working with other organisations such as the UN. Bridging this gap between the security sector and other sectors is vital. Birnbaum and Ryan (2021) argue to the military disconnectedness from climate change politics needs to be addressed since “militaries control vast swaths of territory”, making them a key player in managing climate change but also being impacted by the effects of it. Hopefully, this week’s meeting will include discussions on how to bring these plans of cooperation across organisations and sectors from ideas into action.

Overall, the topics that will be covered at the summit this week are about adapting to the changing security landscape of the 21st century, attempting to keep a united front while threats emerge, not just from new sources but also in new frontiers. Throughout all of this, NATO is also taking steps to include a mainstreamed gendered approach to these new security threats, recognising that “women are often the most marginalised from security and defence conversations and other security issues” (ICCT, 2021). It will be interesting to see the development of the alliance as it works to bring NATO into the future.


Birnbaum, Michael and Ryan, Missy (2021) “Facing Sweltering Soldiers and Flooded Ports, NATO to focus on Climate Change”, The Washington Post, March 23, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/nato-climate-change-stoltenberg/2021/03/23/3884fe52-8aa7-11eb-a33e-da28941cb9ac_story.html

Bjerg Moller, Sara (2021) “China’s Rise is exactly the kind of threat that NATO exists to stop”, The Washington Post, March 12, accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/chinas-rise-is-exactly-the-kind-of-threat-nato-exists-to-stop/2021/03/11/c3adfad6-8211-11eb-81db-b02f0398f49a_story.html

Deni, John R. (2021) “China is a present danger to Europe. NATO’s defense plans must respond”, Atlantic Council, June 3, accessed at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/china-is-a-present-danger-to-europe-natos-defense-plans-must-respond/

Emmot, Robin (2018) “NATO Cyber command to be fully operational in 2023”, Reuters, October 16, accessed at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nato-cyber-idUSKCN1MQ1Z9

ICCT (2021) “An interview with NATO on gender and counter-terrorism”, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, accessed at https://icct.nl/publication/an-interview-with-nato-on-gender-and-counter-terrorism/

Machi, Vivienne (2021) “Artificial Intelligence Leads NATO’s new strategy for emerging disruptive tech”, C4ISRNET, March 14, accessed at https://www.c4isrnet.com/artificial-intelligence/2021/03/14/artificial-intelligence-leads-natos-new-strategy-for-emerging-and-disruptive-tech/

Malloy, Daniel (2021) “Secretary General Stoltenberg explains why NATO is getting serious about cyber and China ‘is not an adversary’”, Atlantic Council, June 7, accessed at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/secretary-general-stoltenberg-explains-why-nato-is-getting-serious-about-cyber-and-china-is-not-an-adversary/

McLaughlin, Daniel (2021) “Estonia at the fore of cyber security after major attack in 2007”, Irish News, May 22, accessed at https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/estonia-at-the-fore-of-cyber-security-after-major-attack-in-2007-1.4571673

NATO OTAN (2020) “NATO advisory group on emerging and disruptive technologies – Annual report 2020”, NATO, accessed at https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_181901.htm 

No Author (2021) “NATO needs to know who its enemies are, says Macron”, Reuters, June 10, accessed at https://www.reuters.com/world/nato-needs-know-who-its-enemies-are-says-macron-2021-06-10/?fbclid=IwAR16DKShyveheVjsBQY9wPk9QDYmBjzRNjNfYEc7jOHbWLF1rBJtUj24Usg

Qazizai, Fazalminallah and Hadid, Diaa (2021) “The Taliban are getting stronger in Afghanistan as U.S and NATO forces exit”, NPR, June 5,  accessed at https://www.npr.org/2021/06/05/1002085012/the-taliban-are-getting-stronger-in-afghanistan-as-u-s-and-nato-forces-exit?fbclid=IwAR0gxJLsQtSbSSou4yy4YfYERLaSOqdLX2w3NYf0DjKafssbOMJCioQNXlY&t=1623402756043&t=1623414422218

Stoltenberg, Jens (2021) “Jens Stoltenberg: NATO’s Climate Challenge”, Politico, April 22, available at https://www.politico.eu/article/jens-stoltenberg-nato-climate-change-challenge/

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