It is less about substance than symbolism when the heads of state and government of NATO meet in Brussels this Monday.

In the matter, everything was negotiated beforehand: a final communiqué, several declarations and military planning specifications.

In the past four weeks the Alliance has been busy with little else than negotiating these texts - not an easy thing when thirty countries have to decide everything by consensus.

But nothing has remained open, as diplomats confirmed on Sunday evening.

So the bosses could concentrate on the big strategic questions on Monday.

Thomas Gutschker

Political correspondent for the European Union, NATO and the Benelux countries based in Brussels.

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    Of course, this only leaves a working session of two and a half hours - every boss can talk for just five minutes.

    That is why NATO itself does not speak of a summit, but of a “leader's meeting”.

    It was like that in December 2019 when the heads of government met for a day at the gates of London.

    At that time they contented themselves with an explanation that fit on two pages.

    This time there is again the big package with a good forty pages and 78 paragraphs final declaration in which the alliance presents its common view of the world and itself.

    Alliance case in space

    It's still about trauma therapy. The first meeting with President Joe Biden is intended to put an end to the Trump era and show the whole world that there is "new energy" and "new determination" in transatlantic relations, as one diplomat put it. In the same location, in the then still new NATO headquarters, Trump detonated a bomb at the summit meeting in July 2018 when he said - in an outburst of anger that mainly referred to Germany - that America could "go its own way".

    Those present saw this as a clear threat to leave the alliance. Chancellor Merkel had appeased Trump behind closed doors, he did not repeat the threat publicly. But everyone who witnessed it was still in shock months later. Biden will send completely different signals when he arrives at NATO at noon.

    Among the non-public documents that the Heads of Government will adopt is a strategy paper on “Deterrence and Defense in the Euro-Atlantic Area”, which specifically addresses nuclear defense issues.

    In addition, the heads of government will take decisions on defense in space and cyberspace, the essence of which will be found in the final declaration.

    In essence, it is about making it clear to a potential attacker that NATO will treat attacks from space or on targets in space (satellites) as “armed attacks” within the meaning of Article 5 of its charter - this is the alliance case.

    China is not named as a "rival"

    The same goes for cyber attacks. The point here is to make it clear to attackers that the alliance does not want to accept a gray area with repeated, low-threshold attacks. The decisive factor is the “cumulative effect”, as it was called from the negotiating circles.

    The final communiqué will make it clear that the Alliance sees Russia and terrorism as its greatest immediate threats. Several paragraphs on Russia have been completely reformulated to take account of developments since 2018: Russian armament in the medium-range range, hybrid attacks on allies, the explosions in a Czech ammunition depot, new Russian capabilities, for example with hypersonic weapons. The alliance makes it clear that it is actively opposing these threats. This is connected and “balanced” by the message that it is still ready for dialogue with Moscow.

    For the first time, the alliance will deal extensively with China.

    The 2019 London Declaration contained only the phrase that the country's growing influence brings with it "opportunities and challenges" that the alliance must face.

    Now the challenges should be clearly stated.

    From negotiating circles it was said that the “systemic” difference would be expressed, even if China was not named as a “rival”, as the EU did.

    Conflicts of interest continue to burden the alliance

    These passages have been negotiated for the longest, and Germany is said to have insisted on caution. Two messages were important to Berlin. First, NATO remains a transatlantic alliance whose job is not to contain China. Second: Even if NATO has to remain vigilant towards China in its area (for example with investments or the 5G network), the member states should not let the thread of the conversation break.

    Although the heads of state and government only meet for a few hours, they will also use the opportunity for bilateral meetings. A meeting of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is eagerly awaited. Biden and Chancellor Merkel will also meet separately with Erdogan. Then it is no longer about symbolism, but about conflicts of interest that burden bilateral relations and thus also the alliance.