NATO’s path to fragmentation — What can be done?
The original purpose of NATO, as stated by its first secretary general, was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. 25 years after the end of the Cold War, NATO seems to have fulfilled and maintained its original premise, described by Hastings Ismay.
Yet there is friction within the alliance, often complicated further by outside forces. The increase in NATO members since the end of the Cold War includes many countries that used to be under Moscow’s control. Russia does all it can to coerce, undermine and weaken countries that have shown an interest in joining NATO, as the Kremlin feels that the institution acts primarily in the interest of the United States, against it. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring and its violent aftermath has upended regional stability, and NATO members are actively opposed to one another in numerous proxy wars.
Tension with Russia, warring member states, and economic and migrant crises have all worked together to weaken the European fabric of NATO. Though originally intended to act as a military bulwark to the Soviets and its allies, NATO has also helped to facilitate and maintain peace in Europe, a once unthinkable prospect. As Russia attempts to regain some of the regional dominance it once had, the US will be the only country capable of preventing them from doing so in Eastern Europe.
NATO is essential to Europe’s security, but without a change in the communal direction of the institution, the alliance will continue to grow in number, but weaken in collective resolve.
NATO’s post-Cold War growth
Geopolitical competition between Moscow and Washington did not simply end upon the conclusion of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Russia was forced to come to the realization that many of the countries it used to have considerable control over no longer accepted its authority, and were eager to get out of its former sphere of influence. The US could deploy its military seemingly anywhere as Russia was not strong enough to impede American efforts as effectively anymore. Not until almost two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union would Russia act militarily outside its borders again. When Georgia and Ukraine were given NATO Membership Action plans in early 2008, both countries would witness the Russian military seizing parts of their territory in the following months and years.
In the second round of post-Cold War enlargement in 2004, two of the seven countries that joined NATO, Estonia and Latvia, bordered Russia’s mainland. Ukraine and Georgia were two new areas of the frontier that NATO would field a presence, an unacceptable reality for a paranoid Kremlin. NATO’s post Cold War growth was now infringing upon the very territories that used to form part of Russia’s power and security.
Georgia and Ukraine would find themselves at war with the Russian military in 2008 and 2014, respectively. To this day, a Russian military presence remains in areas of Georgia and Ukraine, a stark reminder to any other countries pursuing NATO membership. Countries that have already joined were not dragged kicking and screaming from Moscow’s orbit, but embraced the institution willingly, believing the almighty US would prevent them from falling under Russian control again.
It was true, the US would prevent that from happening. But it would be doing so largely alone. France or Britain, the two strongest European military powers, have not offered any substantial military support (in comparison to the sustained-American efforts) to countries that feel threatened by Russia. US and EU sanctions, vehemently supported by the British, were imposed on Russia once they invaded Ukraine (in accordance with NATO policy).
But it served to cause dissent among NATO states such as Hungary, whose economy is heavily reliant on Russian trade and much more friendly to Russia than most other NATO countries. The Global Financial Crisis hit some NATO countries harder than others, and blame over whose fault everything is remains contested in Europe. Countries like Hungary are most affected by EU/NATO sanctions on Russia. They, like the Russians, would suffer the effects of the sanctions, while countries such as Belgium saw little change in their economic fortunes. Towards the Middle East, the aftermath of the Arab Spring was testing NATO solidarity there, too.
NATO in a fractious Middle East
Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952. It has the second-largest armed forces in the institution in terms of personnel and rivals France Britain in terms of military power (ignoring their nuclear weapons). In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Turkey has found itself at odds with various other NATO members. Turkey is far more sensitive to violence in the Arab world, simply due to a closer proximity to it.
A multi-state NATO-led coalition helped depose leader of Libya, Muammar Qaddafi, in 2011. The partial collapse of the Libyan state after the war led to another civil conflict shortly after, as rebel groups vied for control over territory. Turkey supports rival rebel groups that are directly fighting those supported by France and the US, a situation which persists as of this writing.
In Syria, Turkish leaders also oppose Assad like their American, French, and British counterparts. However, Turkey has made clear its displeasure towards American support for Kurdish rebels. This stems from Turkish concern over Kurdish political/military movements within Turkey itself. The Obama administration has been desperate to demonstrate an element of control over the conflict, and Kurdish forces are seen as the most receptive to American policy in Syria.
Turkey’s temptation in a complicated war
Various NATO members fund, arm, and militarily support opposing sides during an enormously complex regional proxy war in Syria. Russia, which has historically done its best to divide NATO members, has taken advantage of the discord.
Moscow’s decision to militarily intervene in September of 2015 came one year after the US intervention. In September 2014, the American-led coalition of NATO and Arab states began conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State, but also in support of the different rebels they supported. Russia’s intervention arguably won the Syrian Civil War for Assad. During the campaign, however, a Turkish jet shot down a Russian bomber acting in support of Syrian government forces, after it had strayed into Turkish airspace. Turkey called emergency NATO meetings, and the US urged restraint between all sides. Russia then placed sanctions on Turkey, and the relationship between them became one of extreme tension.
However, they have improved dramatically over the past year, as the two countries sought to reestablish ties. Turkey’s NATO partners including the US called for calm during the Russian-Turkish crisis, but offered not much more than reassurance and ceremonial support. It perhaps confused Turkish leadership, which believed much of NATO was opposed to Russian military escapades. If there was such a strong reaction against the Russians for their incursion into Ukraine, then why was the institution willing to let them use their hand so freely in Syria?
Since that time, Turkish and European leaders have been at odds with the various consequences regarding the refugee crisis regional conflict has created, while the Russians and Turks continue to mend their relationship. So long as Turkey and its NATO partners continue to fight against one another in proxy wars across the Middle East, Russia will work to add to that division and sow more dissent between other members.
The conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Syria have created millions of refugees, who see Europe as one of many safe havens. The Syrian and Libyan governments (or lack thereof) have been unable to control flow of people on account of the violence, and many of them have left for safety in the north. This has come at a time when Europe is still attempting to bring itself out of a continental-economic malaise.
Both have been instrumental in fracturing the unity of the European Union, long seen as the political-economic sister institution to the political-military characteristics of NATO. Anything that threatens the EU therefore threatens the ability of NATO to carry out a collective mandate. The figure above demonstrates the inter-connectivity between the two institutions.
Across Europe, numerous terrorist attacks committed by ISIS have killed hundreds of people since 2014. It is unclear as to how many of the attackers came among the refugees, or were already there among Europe’s almost 50 million Muslims. Some countries have taken measures to close their borders momentarily in response to the attacks, after decades of passport-free travel between some EU countries. The Schengen Zone is the institution’s open-border project, and a symbol of the unification of the continent after World War II.
An institutional compromise in regards to wider NATO policy in Syria could help end the senseless suffering of the Syrian people, even if that likely means recognizing Russia’s sphere of influence over much the country’s territory. The war has stalled in a violent stalemate; prolonging the fighting will not result in serious gains by any side. Instigating the means to promote peace would also decrease the appeal of ISIS and radical Islam among Europe’s Muslims. Foreign intervention in the heart of the Muslim world naturally spurs their animosity, regardless of intentions. If violence were to subside dramatically, ISIS’ appeal to the Islamic youth of Europe, would tumble, too.
NATO members have had disputes between them before. The French withdrew from the integrated military command in 1966, only to rejoin in 2009. France and Germany had serious opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, while Turkey invaded Greek-controlled Cyprus in 1974. Nonetheless, the importance of the alliance meant that NATO was never under threat from widespread disintegration. Turkey, which has suffered from ISIS attacks itself, still shares similar concerns to many other NATO states.
The Arab Gulf States are still attempting to topple Assad by supporting various rebel groups. The US maintains it’s air presence to protect some groups of rebels, and target ISIS positions that are not under Russian-controlled airspace. If Turkey leaves NATO (which is fair game in a post-Brexit world), then it will no doubt look to Russia as a replacement. Both are Eurasian countries, and blur the boundaries between west and east. Together, they would fundamentally alter the largely-stabilized balance of power in Europe, which has prevented conflict for decades. Is that worth risking over a war that all NATO countries would like to see end?
Hindsight in Georgia and Ukraine
Russia acted boldly in Georgia and Ukraine for many reasons; one of them NATO’s perceived infringement on areas it wants under its influence. NATO was created as an American-led military alliance. It was an ideological and military balance to the Warsaw Pact; the communist, Russian-led military alliance that existed from 1955 to 1991. Since 1991, many of those countries formerly in the Warsaw Pact have joined NATO. The Kremlin continues to view NATO states the same way the White House used to see the Warsaw Pact countries — members of a hostile military and political alliance.
The countries that have joined since 1990, such as Poland, Latvia, and Croatia, are not major powers. They joined NATO to maximize their own national security by joining a powerful alliance with many major powers. The US is by far the most important major power within the alliance. It pays most of NATO’s costs and is largely responsible for all of Europe’s security, on top of their own geopolitical commitments. Both Obama and Trump have voiced their frustration with NATO publicly over countries not contributing enough to NATO, yet still enjoying the so called long peace of Europe. The US takes care of many European countries’ security. By giving away that responsibility, European countries have become less-aware of how complicated peace can sometimes be to maintain, and how violent and destructive diplomatic disputes can be.
A lack of solidarity over NATO policy in Europe and the Middle East is evident of that. Understanding and mending NATO member’s collective sources of contention could once again help bring peace to Europe and much of the Middle East. The only way to do this is to make apparent the threats to peace and stability wherever they are present. Eastern European countries like Poland are more concerned over potential Russian aggression than they are about the refugee crisis. Countries such as Greece have been at the forefront of the refugee crisis, making them largely unconcerned with Russian action in Ukraine. Small, symbolic gestures of solidarity between these countries will help them uphold a commitment to European peace. This could be in the form of military, medical or monetary aid during times of crisis. Only by facing problems collectively will smaller NATO countries be truly secure. It would be a welcome change to the major power divisions that have added to the violence in the Middle East, and dulled the alliance’s common resolve in recent years.
Enlarging NATO did not essentially make NATO a stronger, more effective institution. It did seem to enhance the security of many countries who joined it, as well as the reach of the United States in order to defend them. But doing so provoked Russia into viewing NATO as a hostile alliance moving ever closer to Moscow. The Kremlin’s paranoia caused two-short-lived conflicts which have increased divisions across NATO and the EU. An overstretched USA, a paranoid Russia, a divided Europe and a war-ridden Middle East are all related to the inability of NATO to meet its contrasting needs.
Many see NATO as a tool of the United States to cement its place in the violently-orchestrated chaos of international relations. No matter its various roles, NATO has been essential in establishing and maintaining a general European peace that has existed since 1945. If NATO and/or the EU fragments significantly, so too do two institutions central to rebuilding the continent after the deadliest conflict in human history.
Smaller members should take a more active role in coordinating their concerns and efforts between them. Poland, Estonia, Greece, the U.S. and the U.K. are the only NATO countries who meet the minimum 2% of GDP on military spending. The U.S. and U.K. do so for largely offensive reasons, while the first three do so for more defensive reasons. Poland and Estonia are both extremely wary of Russian aggression in Europe. Greece has unresolved border disputes with Turkey, and is at the forefront of the migrant crisis. These NATO members are not major powers, but are still affected by their actions. Only by acting without the support of major power allies will NATO be able to promote a true sense of greater security for its smaller members. This will only happen if they do so, together.