NATO had a stroke in 1962, now it’s in a coma

If there is one NATO tenet that resembles a support column it is “the principle of collective defense."

US President Donald Trump holds a breakfast meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) at the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018.  (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump holds a breakfast meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) at the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s gloomy remarks about the trans-Atlantic alliance revealed a secret reality: NATO is dying. Because its values have never been fully implemented, the conditions which necessitated its inception no longer exist, and the current American approach to NATO is not conducive to helping it survive the challenges.
If there is one NATO tenet that resembles a support column it is “the principle of collective defense... [binding] its members together, committing them to protect each other and setting a spirit of solidarity within the alliance.” This was seriously bruised when at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, America withdrew the PGM-19 Jupiter missiles which provided a nuclear umbrella to the member states of Italy and Turkey. The withdrawal demonstrated that the US, the backbone of the alliance, could and would sacrifice the other members’ security for its own.
In fact, Turkey’s leeriness about the NATO commitment to security goes back to that time just over 57 years ago. For Turkey, NATO became completely irrelevant when in early 2003, France and Belgium vetoed NATO’s planning for steps to defend Turkey in the event of war against Iraq. That’s to say, the post-Cold War instability in the Middle East demonstrated that NATO, especially the European members, are unwilling to bear the weight of security challenges that fell to its southernmost member, Turkey, thus making the idea of “collective defense” obsolete.
To make things worse, the Trans-Atlantic alliance has always been prone to Euro-American bickering over the distribution of power. Disturbed by growing American influence in Europe, and due to his resentment that the United States abandoned France during the 1956 Suez Crisis, then-French president Charles De Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s integrated military command in 1966. This shook the alliance to its core.
If there was one thing that enabled NATO to maintain what was left of its strength, it was the perception of a common enemy. After all, the alliance was established as a joint defense mechanism to protect its members against communism and the Soviet Union. Much like a competitive wrestler, NATO maintained its physical and operational capabilities as long as it had to train against the Soviets. However, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, this common opponent was no more, and it hasn’t been replaced by a tangible one, which is necessary to maintain the alliance’s motivation and physical strength.
America’s ambiguous global “war on terror” in the post-September 11 era didn’t create the incentive for NATO to maintain its muscle. It was simply not prepared to combat unconventional problems outside its traditional geographic boundaries, nor was it ready to engage in nation-building efforts, such as were dictated by Washington in Afghanistan.
THE EFFORTS to elevate Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the level of that needed threat, particularly at the Warsaw Summit in 2016, has failed. This is largely because the Europeans, especially those from developed Western European countries, tend not to see Russia as a threat.
In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, the European Union has become more worried about managing its ailing economy, and it desperately needs Russian gas to do this. The European dependence on Russian energy varies from around 50% (Germany) to 100% (the most eastern of the European countries from Finland to Bulgaria). German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally strove to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will eventually transfer Russian gas directly to Germany. Putin’s choice of weapon against Europe, in his wisdom, isn’t nuclear missiles or tanks, but natural gas. There is no clause in NATO’s constitution that would defend its members against such a weapon.
President Donald Trump’s bullying approach to NATO isn’t helping the already frail alliance either. He repeatedly complained that Europe is overdependent on Washington, and admonished the member states for not spending enough on defense. This doesn’t bode well with the European allies, whose priority is salvaging their economy, not defense, in the absence of a threat that necessitates inflation in defense spending. Also, given the memory of De Gaulle, it isn’t surprising that it was a French president, Macron, who just openly defied Washington’s overtures, once again bringing Euro-American squabbling to the surface.
In this context, Europe’s desire to get rid of the American “yoke” is clearly visible in the formation of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which is expected to be an all-European – minus the UK and Denmark – common security and defense policy. PESCO is widely perceived as a European alternative to NATO.
Merkel said in 2017, “The times in which we [Europe] could completely depend on others [the US and the UK] are, to a certain extent, over. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”
Finally, Turkey, the second-largest NATO member, is currently testing the alliance’s willingness to protect its members from a perceived threat. Ankara is refusing to back a NATO defense plan for the Baltics and Poland until the alliance offers Ankara more political support for its fight against the YPG in northern Syria, and eventually designates it as a terrorist organization.
With no clear set goals and the unwillingness of its members to undertake their assigned duties due to a lack of a perceived common threat, we have every reason to believe that NATO’s future is gloomy. If NATO had a major stroke in 1962, today it has fallen into a coma. Turkey’s involvement in Syria and Trump’s second term will greatly determine NATO’s future.
The writer was a Fulbright scholar before obtaining a doctorate in political science from the University of South Carolina. He taught Middle East politics at the College of Charleston in South Carolina from 2011-2018. He has been published in The National Interest, The Jerusalem Post and Inside Arabia. He can be found on Twitter @DemirdasPhD.