‘Brain dead’ NATO not a force for good
This week’s NATO Summit in London exposed the alliance’s growing irrelevance probably more than at any time since its formation 70 years ago in 1949.
NATO is no longer a strong alliance with a clear purpose, and it arguably has not proved to be a force for good in the world.
If anything, NATO promotes militarism, pressures European countries to increase their military spending instead of diverting those resources to more pressing issues, and actually exacerbates tensions internationally.
US President Donald Trump has put an inordinate amount of pressure on NATO member states to spend 2% of their GDP on defense by 2024, which is not popular with Europeans.
This pressure comes at a time when states are grappling with addressing the massive influx of refugees from Africa and war torn countries in the Middle East, and many would prefer to divert resources towards social spending and fighting climate change, rather than increasing their defense spending.
As a result only seven of the 29 NATO members are spending 2% of their GDP on defense, although Trump is taking credit for the additional revenue being committed to the NATO defense budget.
But in decades past NATO members justified their financial contributions to NATO believing that if they were attacked, NATO would come to their defence, and most importantly the United States.
But under the Trump administration this is no longer necessarily the case as Trump has refused to commit to Article 5 of the NATO constitution, which obligates the US to defend any NATO member under attack.
If the US is reneging on its future obligations as a NATO member, there is little reason for members of the alliance to have the same trust in the alliance’s utility.
According to one poll only 4% of Europeans trust Trump, and European leaders increasingly don’t trust him either.
When Trump ignored his NATO allies and ordered US special forces out of Northern Syria, paving the way for Turkish troops to attack Kurdish forces, the rest of NATO was shocked.
Kurdish forces had been operating with French and British Commandos in Northern Syria, and had been invaluable NATO allies in the fight against ISIS over many years.
Such a decision would ordinarily never have taken place without robust consultations with NATO allies, but Trump did his own thing, leaving even his own Republican allies in Congress incredulous.
Given the evident unreliability of the US under the Trump administration, the European Commission has drawn up plans for a European “defense union” which is indicative of the general sentiment that European nations will need to become far more self-reliant in the future.
French President Emmanuel Macron has publicly questioned the US commitment to fight for Europe, calling NATO “brain dead” at this week’s Summit.
Macron has proposed an alternative of a European army under the nuclear umbrella of France. Macron has also reached out to Russia, which is the direction the Germans seem to be moving in as well.
According to a German poll, 66% of Germans want closer ties with Russia, and Germany’s Nord Stream 2 project will pipe Russian gas to Germany.
As for Britain, Boris Johnson as the leading Brexiteer is not a fan of European alliances, and the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has in the past called NATO “a danger to world peace and security.” Even the Scottish National Party wants to see NATO’s nuclear submarine base closed.
Probably NATO’s greatest detractor from within, which some may go so far as to call it's Trojan horse, is Turkey.
Turkey’s military aggression against the Kurds in Northern Syria has been considered unforgivable, and its recent purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system has been particularly problematic for members of the NATO alliance.
The fact that Turkey has been so audacious as to threaten to veto a Baltic Defence Plan if NATO members do not support its incursion into Northern Syria has really rattled European feathers.
Increasingly NATO members are asking whether Turkey should even be allowed to continue as a member of the alliance, although there is no precedent for kicking out an existing member.
As for the relations between NATO members and China, Trump has been pushing hard for NATO members to push back against China’s influence, particularly rejecting the use of Chinese companies such as Huawei to assist in the creation of 5G networks (probably due to the fact that US companies do not as yet have the same capabilities).
But NATO members are unwilling to toe the American line, and are forging ahead with preparations for acquiring 5G technology in collaboration with the Chinese.
NATO continues to strategise on how to confront future threats from China and Russia, particularly in the area of hypersonic missiles and cyber warfare.
But the old Cold War notion of NATO as being about “Keeping the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down,” has long been obsolete.
When NATO was founded by the US and 11 Western nations in 1949, its objective was to curb the rise of communism, and subsequently communist nations formed the Warsaw Pact.
In 1991 when the USSR collapsed the Warsaw Pact had disbanded, but instead of NATO also disbanding it expanded from 12 members to 29, and with the impending addition of Northern Macedonia it will be 30. Such expansion was particularly disingenuous on the part of Western nations.
At the end of the Cold War, the Soviets had agreed to withdraw 380,000 troops from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as long as NATO did not fill the vacuum or recruit members from the Warsaw Pact.
At the time, US Secretary of State James Baker had promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbechev that NATO would not move “one inch east.”
But contrary to what had been agreed, after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, former Eastern bloc countries started being recruited as NATO members, such as Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania.
By 2004, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria and Turkey were accepted as part of the alliance, and since then Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro have joined. In an ever increasing Eastward expansion, Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia, and Bosnia Herzegovina have also been invited to join NATO.
Strangely Colombia in Latin America was even included as a NATO member in 2017, and Trump has suggested that Brazil under right wing President Jair Bolsonaro could also be considered as a member.
Understandably, NATO’s aggressive expansion eastward has been seen as a national security threat to Russia, with NATO bases and missiles deployed on its doorstep.
This is precisely what Gorbechev had wanted to avoid at the end of the Cold War - that Russia’s borders would be exposed given that Russia had been invaded at terrible cost three times in just over a century.
Today NATO has surrounded Russia on three sides, and deployed anti-missile systems in Poland, Romania, Spain, Turkey and in the Black Sea.
NATO’s increasing presence and maritime activity in the Black Sea is of particular concern to Russia. The US would never have tolerated similar deployment in its backyard, particularly if Russia deployed troops and missile systems in countries in close proximity or neighboring the US.
Following NATO’s meeting in July this year, it was decided to beef up its forces in Eastern Europe, making the prospect of inadvertent conflict between Russia and NATO members even more likely. Instead of preserving peace, NATO is fomenting a new arms race and escalating tensions with Russia and also China.
Perhaps Macron is correct that the alliance is brain dead, and it has long reached its expiry date.
* Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor