Why Anthony Albanese is attending the NATO leaders summit, when Australia's not a member

The prime minister has described Australia’s attendance at the meeting of the NATO alliance as “absolutely critical" as war rages in Ukraine. Analysts say it's rare for an Australian leader to be there, but not unexpected.

Anthony Albanese in a suit

Security analysts have described Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's attendance at the NATO leaders summit in Madrid as vital during a time of geopolitical uncertainty.

Anthony Albanese’s attendance at the NATO leaders summit is unusual for an Australian leader, but security analysts say its vital in the shadow of Russia’s war against Ukraine and concerns over China's military and economic assertion.

Mr Albanese will arrive in Madrid on Monday night for the meeting that brings together the leaders of the United States and European nations making up the security alliance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The prime minister has been invited as part of the first formal Asia Pacific delegation to attend the meeting, alongside the leaders of New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.
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Australia is not a member of NATO, but has permanent observer status with the group, allowing the country to have transparency on its security cooperation.

Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said Mr Albanese's attendance was “unusual” but reflected the “critical” timing of the meeting.

"This is a particularly important summit given what is happening in Europe at the moment with the Russian invasion of Ukraine," he told SBS News.

“For Albanese to be attending this summit in person I think is vital because it emphasises that Australia is a partner to NATO and NATO is not just about Europe.

“Increasingly its members are focusing on the Indo-Pacific as well."
Visits by Australian leaders to the NATO leaders' summits have been rare in recent years, with Australia typically represented by foreign or defence ministers.

In 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd attended the annual leaders summit, against the backdrop of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.

His successor Julia Gillard also attended similar summits in Lisbon in 2010 and Chicago in 2012.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull also visited NATO in Brussels in 2018 for talks with the group’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg.
John Blaxland, a professor of international security at the Australian National University, said the prime minister would seize the chance to “press the flesh” with key world leaders, and his presence made an "enormous amount of sense."

“NATO is also important for Australia for what it can do with contributing to Australia's interests in the Indo- Pacific,” he told SBS News.

“Anthony Albanese is establishing fresh credentials, he's actually in the process of building relationships with key heads of states of important partner nations.”

Mr Albanese has described his attendance at the summit as “absolutely critical” alongside the Ukraine invasion and in the face of an "uncertain world."

On 14 June, Mr Stoltenberg outlined the pressing challenge facing the security alliance.

“In response to Russia’s invasion we have reinforced our ability to protect and defend every inch of NATO allied territory,” he said.

"In Madrid we will take the next steps and agree [to] a major strengthening of our posture.”

Dr Davis said despite NATO facing the biggest threat since the cold war it remained “very cognisant” of responding to China’s military and economic assertion.

“There is mutual interest there in the form of NATO working with Australia and us strengthening and expanding our relationship,” he said.

But Professor Blaxland said closer engagement didn’t require Australia to commit “boots on the ground” in Europe.

“It is in our interests to align as best as possible what the NATO countries are doing in support of Ukraine because the defeat of Ukraine has enormous implications.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Bucha, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Bucha, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. Source: AFP / RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images
Hervé Lemahieu, director of research at the Lowy Institute, said the summit is important because of the far-reaching implications of the Ukraine conflict.

“The fact is it is a recognition of the global ramifications of the war in Ukraine,” he told SBS News.

“The energy security crisis, the fact that the ramifications are rippling through this region as well, in terms of inflation and scarcity of food resources.

“All these issues affect Australians so it’s a very positive show of support and it makes sense that we are coordinating with NATO partners.”

Mr Albanese will hold sideline talks during the summit with Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Canandian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

He's also widely expected to meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but a formal meeting has not been confirmed.

The prime minister will then stop over in Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron to reinforce ties - soured under his predecessor because of a scuttled submarine contract with the French government.

The prime minister has also not confirmed if he'll take up a personal invitation to meet with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.

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5 min read
Published 27 June 2022 at 5:17pm
By Tom Stayner
Source: SBS News