NATO Is Dying
MADRID – NATO may be “the most successful alliance in history” – as its secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, claims – but it may also be on the brink of failure. After a turbulent few years, during which US President Donald Trump has increasingly turned America’s back on NATO, tensions between France and Turkey have escalated sharply, laying bare just how fragile the Alliance has become.
The Franco-Turkish spat began in mid-June, when a French navy frigate under NATO command in the Mediterranean attempted to inspect a cargo vessel suspected of violating a United Nations arms embargo on Libya. France alleges that three Turkish ships accompanying the cargo vessel were “extremely aggressive” toward its frigate, flashing their radar lights three times – a signal indicating imminent engagement. Turkey denied France’s account, claiming that the French frigate was harassing its ships.
Whatever the details, the fact is that two NATO allies came very close to exchanging fire in the context of a NATO mission. That is a new low for the Alliance – one that may herald its demise.
Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first secretary-general, famously quipped that the Alliance’s mission was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” The dynamic obviously changed over the subsequent decades, especially the relationship with Germany. But the broad basis of cooperation – a common perceived threat, strong American leadership, and a shared sense of purpose – remained the same.
Without US leadership, the whole structure is at risk of crumbling. It is no coincidence that the last time two NATO allies came this close to blows – during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 – the US was preoccupied with the Vietnam War. In fact, the spat between Turkey and France occurred just days after it was revealed that Trump had decided, without any prior consultation with America’s NATO allies, to withdraw thousands of US troops from Germany.
Germany may no longer be on the front line, as it was during the Cold War, but US forces there still serve as a powerful deterrent to Russian aggression along NATO’s eastern flank. By drawing down those forces, Trump has sent a fundamental message: ensuring European security is no longer a top US priority.
While America’s drift away from Europe has accelerated under Trump, it began over a decade earlier. In 2011, when Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was touting his “pivot to Asia,” then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that, unless NATO proved itself relevant, the US may lose interest. NATO did no such thing: until last December, its summit declarations failed even to acknowledge the challenges posed by China’s rise. By then, the US had lost interest. And now, under Trump, that disinterest has become open hostility.
Without the US as a rudder, NATO allies have begun to head off in different directions. Turkey is the clearest example. Before the recent squabble with France, Turkey purchased a Russian S-400 missile-defense system, despite US objections. Moreover, it has brazenly intervened in Libya, providing air support, weapons, and fighters to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems confident that his direct relationship with Trump will protect him from suffering any consequences for his behavior. Trump’s decision not to impose sanctions over the missile purchase, beyond cutting Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet program, seems to vindicate Erdoğan’s reasoning.
But Turkey is not alone in striking out on its own; France has done the same, including in Libya. By providing military support to the Russian-backed General Khalifa Haftar, who controls eastern Libya, to fight Islamist militants, France has gone against its NATO allies. While President Emmanuel Macron denies supporting Haftar’s side in the civil war, he did recently express support for Egypt’s pledge to intervene militarily against Turkey, which he says has a “criminal responsibility” in the country.
As tensions with Turkey rise, France is more insistent than ever that a European approach to security and defense – one that would be de facto led by France – is vital. The fact that popular support for Macron within France is waning only augments his sense of urgency.
Political motivations aside, Macron has said aloud what few others have acknowledged: NATO is experiencing “brain death,” owing to Trump’s dubious commitment to defend America’s allies. Given that the US drift away from NATO began well before Trump, there is little reason to believe that this trend will be reversed, though it may be slowed if he loses the November election. Unless Europe begins thinking of itself as a geopolitical power and takes responsibility for its own security, Macron argues, it will “no longer be in control of [its] destiny.”
Last December, NATO commemorated 70 years of underpinning peace, stability, and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic. But cracks in the Alliance are deepening, raising serious doubts about whether it will reach its 75th anniversary. The time for Europe to shore up its defenses and capabilities is now.
Ana Palacio, a former minister of foreign affairs of Spain and former senior vice president and general counsel of the World Bank Group, is a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.
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