Disillusionment At NATO Despite Policy Shifts – OpEd


By Yasar Yakis*

The NATO summit held in London last week was dominated by a phrase that French President Emmanuel Macron used in an interview with The Economist on Nov. 7. While talking about various shortcomings of the organization, he said: “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO. The United States appears to be turning its back on us,” notably by pulling its troops out of northeastern Syria without notice. 

In an effort to cushion the US reaction, he continued by inviting the European members of the alliance to do more for their own defense. All the same, US President Donald Trump described Macron’s remarks as a “very, very nasty statement.” Referring to France being invaded during both world wars, he added: “Nobody needs NATO more than France.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted to Macron’s statement with more moderate words, saying that such sweeping judgments were not necessary. “Even if we have problems and need to pull together,” she continued, “NATO remains vital to our security.”

Macron’s reference to NATO’s “brain death” provoked other reactions too. Among several weaknesses of the organization, he has also mentioned Turkey, saying: “Turkey now fights against those who fought with us (meaning the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization). And sometimes they work with (Daesh) proxies.” Such a direct negative reference provoked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reciprocate with even harsher words: “Look, Mr. Macron. I am addressing you from Turkey, but I will tell you again at NATO. First, have your own brain death checked.”

Despite this exchange of narratives — the likes of which are rarely used at the level of heads of state — NATO did not break its tradition of reflecting only the positive aspects of its performance in the summit’s final declaration. 

NATO has a tradition of reaffirming the allies’ commitment enshrined in Article 5 of its charter. This article provides that an armed attack against any NATO member shall be considered an attack against them all and that they will take such action as they deem necessary. This is a polite way of saying that they will move only if their own national security is at risk. This understanding of Article 5 was confirmed in 1964 in a letter by then-US President Lyndon B. Johnson to Turkey, when he said that the NATO countries might not come to help Ankara if it was attacked by the Soviet Union. Therefore, Turkey is under no illusions that France would agree to send its young men to defend Turkey under Article 5 if it was attacked by another country today. 

Having said this, NATO is adjusting its strategy to new threats, especially after the demise of the Soviet Union. A lecturer in the NATO Defense College used to tell us that NATO was established in 1949 “to keep the US in (Europe), the Soviet Union out and Germany down.” This initial intention is now far from reality. 

The Soviet Union no longer exists, though a reduced threat continues to be perceived from the Russian Federation. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its pressure on Eastern Ukraine are perceived in NATO countries as signs of Russia’s expansionist policy. The nations where this threat is felt in a more concrete manner are the three Baltic states and Poland. 

To keep Germany down has no relevance to today’s reality. On the contrary, Germany was invited to join NATO six years after the establishment of the alliance. Its admission prompted the Soviet Union to establish the Warsaw Pact, which became NATO’s main target. 

The US rightly expects all other NATO countries to increase their military spending to 2 percent of their gross domestic product. This issue is one of the permanent items on the NATO agenda, with little progress so far. 
Meanwhile, Cyberattacks and hybrid tactics have become a new reality in warfare. Last week’s final declaration mentioned this subject as an important policy target. 

The emergence of China as a major actor on the international arena is a new phenomenon. It does not yet pose a direct military threat to NATO countries, but the alliance has to assess all implications of this important phenomenon. The summit tasked the NATO secretary general to prepare a report and submit it to the alliance’s ministerial council. This preparation covers both the China factor and other developments, such as Daesh and all its implications. 

Like other international organizations, NATO constantly updates its policies according to new requirements, but the priorities of each of its 29 member states are far from being identical. This causes disillusionment for certain members, who believe that their national priorities are not being properly addressed. Turkey is one of them. 

  • Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar

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