Fifteen Eighty Four

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NATO’s London Summit: Intra-alliance Opposition and Silver Linings

Oya Dursun-Özkanca

On December 3rd and 4th 2019, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the world’s strongest and most resilient military alliance, celebrated its 70th anniversary. Yet, instead of an atmosphere of celebration, many intra-alliance cracks surfaced in the prelude to the alliance’s big summit. French President Emmanuel Macron’s criticism that NATO is “brain-dead” stirred a vigorous debate about the lack of strategic coordination among NATO allies. Macron openly put into words what was in the minds of many people, that NATO is an alliance in crisis. Macron’s comments originated mainly from the lack of coordination/consultation among the allies prior to the US decision to withdraw from northern Syria, which in turn gave a green light to Turkey’s military incursion. A war of words between the Turkish, French, and US leaders ensued.

Public disagreements and debates damage not only the image of alliance cohesion but also the effectiveness of this political and military alliance. There are many common threats that the 70-year old alliance faces, ranging from an increasingly assertive Russia to a rising China to international terrorism, making the stakes high and requiring unity. Fractures between allies at a public level only play into the hands of Russia and China.

Having said that, Macron’s rhetoric seems to have served as a wake-up call for NATO allies. There are three silver linings about the outcome of NATO’s London Summit. One is that Turkey did not materialize its threat to veto the defense plans for the Baltic states and Poland. The second is that President Trump was put in a position to defend the very same alliance that he has been critical of ever since coming into power. The third is that NATO allies agreed to initiate a “forward-looking reflection process” aimed at enhancing the strategic coordination at the political level.

Turkey is aggrieved. It feels like its voice is not heard by its Western allies, and that it is not accepted as an equal partner. It is not co-opted into the EU’s defense initiatives, and it saw its interests being ignored or opposed by the US and other NATO allies in the Middle East. There is, therefore, a dynamic of pushback. Nevertheless, the fact that Turkey did not exercise a veto of the defense plan for the Baltic states and Poland is a good indication that there is some space for reconciliation. Furthermore, the fact that the Trump Administration still has not imposed sanctions for Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia provides an environment that could induce further negotiations between Turkey and NATO allies about missile defense.Turkey–West Relations

France is frustrated. In the face of President Trump’s repeated threats that the US would withdraw from the alliance if the allies continue refusing to pay their fair share of the defense spending, Macron has called for the Europeans to take care of their own business when it comes to security and defense and signaled that France should increase its coordination with Russia. However, with the UK expected to withdraw soon from the European Union (EU), the feasibility of an autonomous security and defense policy at the EU-level is not realistic. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted in his first meeting with the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security of the European Union Josep Borrell, “the EU cannot replace NATO when it comes to the defense of Europe.”

The US is reluctant. NATO suffers from a lack of strong leadership. President Trump’s transactional America First vision and continuous threats to withdraw from the alliance sends the wrong message to our European partners, leading to mistrust about the lack of US political will to stand by our allies in face of security threats. However, on a positive side, President Trump’s threats seem to have achieved the long-desired US goal of motivating NATO allies to invest more on defense spending to fulfill their pledge of spending 2% of their GDP on defense. Leaving aside the rhetoric and a November deal reached between the US and NATO committing the US to contribute about 16% of NATO’s central annual budget of 2.5 billion USD instead of 22%, the US under the Trump Administration has substantially increased its investment in European defense. In fact, it has more than tripled the amount that the Obama Administration allocated for the European Deterrence Initiative (formerly known as the European Reassurance Initiative), with about 17.2 billion USD during the first three annual budgets.

All in all, for the past seven decades, the alliance has always found ways to reassert its strength in unity in the face of challenges it faced. The communiqué from NATO’s London Summit emphasizes NATO’s “solemn commitment” to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which guarantees collective defense, and gives the Secretary General a mandate to start a “forward-looking reflection process” aimed at strengthening NATO’s political dimension, including consultation and dialogue. The alliance is striving to move forward in response to an evolving strategic environment. Time will show whether this can be done effectively and inclusively.

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