High hopes and (dis)-heartening Outcomes

27 February 2020, 00:01

NATO at 70: The “Birthday Party” Drama in London

The British capital London, NATO’s first home after it was formed in 1949, served as the celebration venue marking seventy years of the strongest and most successful Alliance in history, along with the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain. The much-anticipated meeting of the North Atlantic Council that took place on 03-04 December 2019 served also as NATO’s 70th“birthday party”. Understandably, it was fraught with high hopes and great expectations, but it also charged with emotions, both positive and negative, while the outcomes it delivered left many wondering about whom the big winner of this event would be in the coming critical year 2020 and beyond. Quite as expected, it also did not go without the usual drama, caused (as it has become the norm at such gatherings of trans-Atlantic leaders in recent years), by US President Donald Trump, whose overreaction to the comments made on his behalf by Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, proved that he is not as thick-skinned as the targets of his incessant verbal attacks over the years. Trump left the meeting abruptly before it ended, apparently feeling deeply offended by Trudeau’s joking remarks to a group of NATO leaders including French President Macron, as those moments were captured by an open microphone and also caught on camera, proving yet again, that anything a public person says in the age of digital media, by default gets shared with the world in an instant, regardless of the venue and that person’s intent. 


Macron’s “Révérence” to Putin: Out with Descartes, in with Richelieu

Trump’s absence from the final ceremony in London and his subsequent pugnacious media remarks regarding Trudeau, were hardly the lowest point of the celebration, however, for its overall mood had been marred before it even started by none other than President Macron, who publicly accused NATO of being “brain dead” barely a day before the event, and who also rejected the notion that Russia is the main threat to NATO, opting instead to direct his ire at Islamist terrorism. Such harsh and unjustifiable remarks would not have shocked NATO’s allies and partners so much had they come from the current White House resident, and not from the “enfant prodige” of European politics who once, not so long ago, had raised high the beacon of hope that his Cartesian rationalism could serve as Europe’s liberal response to the irrational, reactionary forces exemplified by Trump and the European far-right. Macron’s statements were not inspired by Descartes’ love of reason, however, but reeked of the raison d'état promulgated by Descartes’ contemporary Cardinal Richelieu – a duplicitous foreign policy that seeks to elevate France to the center of European politics, by promoting its own particular interests at the expense of those of allies and partners alike, especially weaker and vulnerable distant ones, such as Ukraine and Georgia. The expectations that such policies will bring back the long-lost grandeur of France as Europe’s foreign policy heavyweight to compensate for Macron’s serious troubles at home, are short-sighted and egotistical, in the context of an alliance that depends vitally on the loyalty and dedication of its members, especially in these troubled times. Macron’s naïve attempts to placate and appease Russia are ultimately doomed to fail, but they threaten to cause as much damage, if not more, that Trump’s erratic behavior and pliability before Putin. Macron’s words have already, undoubtedly, proven in the eyes of the Kremlin, that the cohesion of the North Atlantic Alliance, as its center of gravity, can be put to the test, given the de facto refusal of the US President to act as the primary leader of NATO (self-imposed due to his lack of will and bizarre affinities for Putin, and not caused by any actual lack of US capabilities); the fading away of Merkel’s political energy as her mandate draws near its end; and Johnson’s apparent inability to negotiate the unfathomable Brexit morass. These are exactly the signals that Putin’s regime would likely interpret as a “greenlight” for expanding its aggressive policies against the already embattled Ukraine and its inexperienced new president; to continue probing NATO’s resolve along the entire Eastern flank, while ultimately seeking to reconstitute its new Eurasian imperial project by pushing Ukraine away from the West and attempting to swallow Belarus as the next potential collateral damage of the new Cold War of the 2020s.

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Stoltenberg vs. Macron: “NATO is Not Braindead!”

This was the pan-European and global security context that NATO’s leaders had to consider as they gathered in London last week determined to send out messages of the Alliance’s cohesion, resolve and common purpose that would reassure its allies, convince its partners, such as Ukraine and Georgia to continue their long and arduous paths of reforms and integration, and deter threats emanating from state actors such as Russia, as well as non-state ones, such as trans-national terrorism.

In that regard, the opening statement of NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, was significant in delineating NATO’s priorities for the coming decade. The mentioning of terrorism in the beginning of the list of global threats, was no doubt NATO’s collective curtsey to France with its perpetual primary focus on the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean. NATO’s relationship with Russia came as number three in Stoltenberg’s list, followed by a novel item – China, mentioned prominently as a security challenge in an official NATO communique for the first time in history. Together with arms control, those three items seemed to outweigh Russia in the Secretary General’s statement, as it was not even directly referenced as a threat. Still, Stoltenberg was quick to emphasize that NATO’s presence in, and commitment to the Baltic States and Poland is stronger than ever, as it has finally matched the plans (intent) with the combat-ready forces (capabilities) present on the ground there.

When confronted with a question on Macron’s “braindead NATO” statements, Stoltenberg was quick to dismiss them by stating solemnly that “NATO is agile, NATO is active, NATO is adapting” to the challenges of the new era. He also correctly pointed out that there had been disagreements among the allies during previous historical periods, beginning with the Suez Crisis of 1956, when none other than the US put pressure on Britain and France to stop their military action against Nasser’s Egypt, and into the 21stcentury with the Iraq War of 2003 and the rifts between the allies that it created or exposed. At the time, those differences were the result of the opposing stances of the US, the UK, and the new NATO members in Eastern Europe (“New Europe” as they were dubbed by Donald Rumsfeld back then), and opponents of the war such as France, Turkey and others. The fact that at present the main detractors of NATO unity and their dissenting voices have remained largely the same (both France and Turkey), while the Eastern European NATO members feel directly threatened by a resurgent Russia for the first time in three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, comes to prove that the geographical location and historical experience of nations are the strongest invariable that shapes their policies within the Alliance. Neither France, nor Turkey felt directly threatened by the Iraqi regime in 2003, they apparently have found their modus vivendi with Putin’s Russia nowadays, while terrorism (Islamist for France, Kurdish for Turkey) was high on their list then and now. On the opposite side of the equation, while the Eastern European member-states had rallied in support of the US-led invasion of Iraq to demonstrate their reliability as new NATO allies, now they are torn between their fear and mistrust of Putin’s revanchist Russia, alarmed by the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, and forced to seek the benevolence and win the favor of an American President with unstable behavior and short attention span who clearly favors dictators such as Putin to democracies, albeit imperfect and corrupt, like Ukraine. Indeed, NATO has evolved since 2003, as it continues to adapt to the challenges of the day, and increase its capabilities designed to defer an ever more assertive Russia, but its publicly manifested internal differences and sheer lack of will among some of its top leaders, have put in question the Alliance’s resolve, which was never the case whatever differences and internal clashes might have existed during the Cold War and the first two post-Communism decades.

The Secretary General, thus, was faced with the uneasy task to project an image of confidence amidst all those competing issues, which he managed by bringing up the new domains NATO is to operate within, such as space and cyber; the NATO adaptation measures for the Eastern flank, and its improved infrastructure and increased military spending. During his final press conference, he also announced that the Allies have reached an agreement on the NATO Readiness Initiative by committed 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 combat ships, available to NATO within 30 days.

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The allies always have the final say

The increased defense spending was reflected strongly in the final declaration of the summit, in which the Allies solemnly stated that they are “determined to share the costs and responsibilities” of their indivisible security through their Defence Investment Pledge that calls for increasing their defense investment in line with the 2 percent (of their budget) and 20 percent (investing in new capabilities) guidelines, and contributing more forces to missions and operations. Given President’s Trumps strong criticism of the past insufficient defense spending of NATO’s European members, and the announced reduced US payments for NATO, the Allies were forced to demonstrate that this has not affected the capabilities of the organization by investing offsetting the US budget cuts through increased non-US spending and by announcing the investing of over 130 billion US dollars more for defense purposes. The Allies’ statements that: “We are making good progress. We must and will do more” serve to remind everyone that substituting for the US in NATO’s defense budget will be a long uneven process that will require the contributions of all members.

The Allies further reinforced their strong commitment to protecting their territory and their shared values, such as democracy, individual liberty, human rights, and the rule of law. At least on paper, they also reaffirmed the enduring transatlantic bond between Europe and North America, and their commitment to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty that stipulates that “an attack against one Ally shall be considered an attack against us all.” Since, however, Article 5 is not triggered automatically, but requires reaching a consensus among the allies, they recognized that peculiarity of NATO’s decision-making process in case of a military conflict, and tasked the Secretary General with developing a proposal on further strengthening NATO’s political dimension including consultation among the allies. This comes in response to many years of criticism of the political decision-making process within NATO by a succession of SACEURs, beginning with General Phillip Breedlove in 2014, who correctly pointed out that should the North Atlantic Council prolong its deliberations in case of a Russian overt or hybrid attack against the Baltic States, for example, his task will turn from a defensive operation into a “liberation campaign”. Apparently, the consensus within NATO that the whole political consultations process needs to be revamped and streamlined to provide the top military commanders with more flexibility, has reached a critical mass, and the Alliance has taken up this task seriously, in order to increase the speed of threat-recognition in case of hybrid attacks, as well as shorten the response time.

While the General Secretary’s statements only spoke of “NATO’s relations with Russia” as part of the officially adopted NATO policy of deterrence and dialogue with Russia whenever possible, the final communique of the Allies clearly ranked Russia and its aggressive actions as the number one threat to Euro-Atlantic security currently; albeit not a persistent one, such as terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, or more elusive ones, such as irregular migration, cyber and hybrid threats. Still, it was critically important for NATO to speak decisively as the main champion and defender of the rules-based international order against threats coming from all strategic directions and emanating from all types of actors – state and non-state alike. 

Another important aspect of the NATO-Russia relations in the diplomatic and military spheres is the risks that Russia’s deployment of new intermediate-range missiles poses to Euro-Atlantic security. The Allies reiterated, as they always do, that NATO is a defensive Alliance and poses no threat to any country, but that at the same time they shall remained committed to a strong nuclear posture for NATO, combined with the preservation and strengthening of effective arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. They clearly stated that they are open not only for mere dialogue, but more importantly – to a constructive relationship with Russia, but conditioned it upon the changing of Russia’s aggressive international behavior.

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NATO’s “Open Door Policy” or “Window into Eurasia” – Alternative futures for Ukraine and Georgia post-2020

Last, but not least – the Allies also stated their commitment to NATO’s “Open Door” policy as one that strengthens the Alliance by bringing security to millions of Europeans. They mentioned North Macedonia specifically as NATO’s newest Ally in the near future. This comes to demonstrate that domestic political cohesion when it comes to setting the priorities of NATO membership are of primary importance for countries that aspire to become part of the Alliances, such as Ukraine and Georgia. Their prominent absence from the final declaration speaks volumes about the changing attitudes within Europe regarding the enlargement process – it was only recently in September, that Secretary Stoltenberg stated his conviction that Georgia will become a member of the alliance one day. Of course, one should not read between the lines too much, as it is highly likely that both countries were not mentioned by name to reach a consensus with the anti-enlargement camp led by France. The US, on its turn, was quick to reaffirm its support for Ukraine, by stating its full support for the territorial integrity of the country, and announcing that it will increase its military aid. Thus, often the concrete actions of individual member-states can, to a certain extent, offset temporary setbacks such as omitting names from important international declarations. Nonetheless, perceptions matter tremendously in international politics, as well as in the domestic one. If Russia interprets those details as a sign that NATO is divided on the membership of Ukraine and Georgia, especially in the context of the ongoing protests in both countries against any potential concessions during the current round of the Normandy talks; and against the pro-Kremlin course of Georgian’s government; then it will, without a shadow of a doubt, seek to further drive a wedge between those nations and NATO; as well as between their people and their governments. Should the political pressure on Ukraine’s government not deliver the results desired by the Russian leadership, the Kremlin would ultimately feel emboldened to escalate militarily and even resort to further territorial expansions and occupation in order to punish Ukraine and force its leadership to negotiate from the position of weakness. Any leader who is determined to play and win the hybrid chess game against Putin must first learn to navigate between the high and low tides of Euro-Atlantic integration, lest he is swept aside by the waves of popular discontent, or overwhelmed by the deadly tsunami of yet another aggression on the part of the Kremlin.

Mark Voyager, visiting scholar at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement

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Mark Voyger

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