The NATO Summit: Was It Worth It?

NATO wanted to have the summit here for geopolitical messaging. The city wanted it as an “open for business” sign to the international community. Does that make up for the as-yet-unknown tab?

NATO summit chicago protest

 

Well, first we have to figure out what “it” is. Mick Dumke checks in on the current status of the NATO bill, and finds that 1) we don’t know how much it cost 2) we don’t know how much private donors kicked in 3) we don’t know how much the city will get from the federal government, and 4) we don’t know when we’ll know. It’s a good thing the G8 got moved.

Or is it?

Since covering both the summit and the protests, lots of people have asked me about both, in part because the city was blanketed with up-to-the-tweet reports for the entire weekend. The foreign journalists and U.S. officials I spoke to at the summit were legitmately interested in the protests, even if they didn’t know what the protesters were protesting.

The G8, held in sunny, historic, heavily isolated Camp David? I missed it, and from conversations I’ve had, it seems like most people did too. I can’t help but think it’s because the G8 summit—given the crises on most people’s minds, easily the more protestable one—was protested by several dozen people 15 miles from the summit in rural Maryland. The Chicago protests had to have been somewhat disappointing for protesters, given expectations, realistic or not, of up to 50,000, but: it did raise some awareness of NATO, America’s role in it, the endgame for the war in Afghanistan, and other related issues.

Public pressure has had some effect on countries involved in the war, and that pressure has been passed up to the level of NATO—Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was, um, diplomatic about France’s desire under Francois Hollande to get out quickly, but he had to talk around it. In Chicago, if the timetable for Afghanistan wasn’t moved up as was speculated, it was declared “irreversable,” and the widespread international public opinion against the war plays some role in that. One protest alone won’t push NATO one way or another, but one poll alone won’t either. If a concern about NATO’s role in the age of Smart Defense and pooled military capability is that defense and intervention decisions will be pulled another degree from the collective decisions of voters, continued public interest and action is vital.

Perhaps it’s just my own increased awareness from having followed the summit, but there also seems to be an uptick in coverage of associated issues: Jo Becker and Scott Shane’s piece about the White House’s secret “kill list,” which ties into the “drone diplomacy” mission creep criticized by retired General Jim Jones and former senator Chuck Hagel during the Young Atlanticists Summit, where unarmed drones used for surveillance give way to an “unending era of death by silver bird,” in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s powerful phrase: “And so drone strategy comes to self-replicate. We bomb your village. You declare war on us for the bombing. We deem you a terrorist and bomb again. Rinse. Repeat.”

Walking around downtown two weeks ago, practically abandonded save for protesters and phalanxes of cops—like Istanbul during the 2004 summit or Riga in 2006—I thought: “Just pick an island for NATO and the G8 and the Olympics and just have them all at a geopolitical Club Med.” Or have it somewhere quaint and quiet and isolated, like the G8 summit in Kananaskis, Alberta (population 249). But the G8 summit was on an island, the military installation of Camp David. And it passed without much thought.

Why Chicago? Geopolitically, as Mark Jacobson of the German Marshall Fund explained to me, it was viewed as a better location than Washington D.C. because a heartland summit addresses the perception that NATO is merely national governments speaking to one another in private, so the optics are better than holding it in the capital of the world’s largest superpower. Regionally and locally, the belief that cities below the international tier of New York and D.C. have to climb into the orbit of international political and business centers with events like it is pervasive, if not necessarily convincing.

All of that is a lot to ask of Chicagoans, who should be prepared for the possibility that more will be asked as the bill comes due. But perhaps it’s ultimately better to have international summits in cities like this one, with all the risks, financial and otherwise, that they entail, and for reasons other than geopolitics or international business: they’re the price we pay for democracy, or trying to keep it.

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