If the number of eager applicants on a waiting list determines the strength of a club, then the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is in fine fettle.
At its most recent gathering in July, NATO welcomed its 29th member — Montenegro — which means that the alliance now outnumbers the European Union. Nearby Macedonia has been waiting for 17 years to be let in the door only to have Greece block entrance every time because of a longstanding dispute over Macedonia’s name. Bosnia also wants in but must first overcome its internal divisions. Georgia’s membership, too, has been on hold, for fear of inciting Russia’s wrath, though that hasn’t prevented the country from hosting U.S.-NATO military exercises.
Perhaps more surprising, the traditionally neutral Scandinavian states of Sweden and Finland have been making noise recently about joining as well. They both participated in the recent NATO summit. They’re both upset over Russian military maneuvers near their borders as well as the Kremlin’s meddling in Ukraine. Even if they don’t put in a formal application to join, they are signing defense agreements with the United States and will likely coordinate their military affairs more closely with NATO in what one observer calls “smoking without inhaling.”
Meanwhile, things are heating up near the Baltic-Russia border. NATO has been conducting military exercises on land, sea, and air in preparation for the placement of several thousand troops in the Baltic states and eastern Poland. Russia plans to station nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad in response to the construction of a missile-defense complex in Poland.
Not that long ago NATO seemed to have lost its Cold War mojo. Hard on the heels of the Soviet Union’s collapse, however, came the wars in Yugoslavia, a ghastly reminder that Europe could be a very dangerous place, and in 1999 NATO engaged in its very first combat mission against Slobodan Milosevic and Serbia. The alliance expanded dramatically in the 1990s with the incorporation of the Eastern European and Baltic states, initiating a great bustle of hardware upgrades and military exercises. During that time, too, NATO began to conceive of “out-of-area” operations that went beyond defending its members. The war in Afghanistan that began in 2001 significantly expanded NATO’s self-definition.
The ultimate failure of that mission in Afghanistan and the persistence of the Taliban led to another round of soul-searching for the organization. But Russia’s pushback against the West’s expansion of influence — in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014 — suddenly gave NATO a renewed sense of purpose (or dusted off an older one). Beating back the Islamic State in lawless areas of Iraq, Syria, and Libya provided yet another raison d’etre for the organization. Security alliances thrive on threat, so NATO was back in business.
Robust threats and eager aspirants: NATO would seem to be experiencing a veritable rebirth. Yet, despite these consolidating forces, the alliance is coming apart at the seams. It faces considerable dissension among its ranks. One of its members may soon pull the equivalent of a Brexit. Any of these might become the thread that unwinds the NATO tapestry.
The Problem of Turkey
Turkey has been a member of NATO for nearly 65 years. It wasn’t an original founder but participated in the first expansion in 1952, along with Greece. Thus, Turkey has been a member longer than Spain or even West Germany. It hasn’t always been the most compliant partner, however. An intra-NATO dispute with Greece came to a head in 1974 when Turkey invaded Cyprus. The United States slapped an arms embargo on Turkey, which reciprocated by banning U.S. military activities in the country.
The spat was short-lived. Through it all, the United States had sufficient confidence in Turkey to station nuclear weapons there, first nuclear-tipped missiles and then tactical nukes. Today, Incirlik airbase houses 50 B-61 nuclear bombs, making it NATO’s largest nuclear weapons storage facility. Incirlik was also critical in the first Gulf War in launching nearly 5,000 sorties against Iraq. In the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Turkey contributed nearly 2,000 troops, twice took charge of the International Security Assistance Forces, and has committed to remain behind to help rebuild the country.
But Turkey has not exactly been a team player. During the Iraq War, for instance, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to allow the United States to use Incirlik to fly combat missions because the mission did not have UN or NATO backing. Later, Washington had to lobby long and hard to receive permission to fly combat missions out of Incirlik against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).
The issue of Syria has proven to be the greatest wedge between Turkey and NATO. In its eagerness to oust Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has been supporting anti-regime actors that don’t pass NATO’s sniff test (frankly, the same applies to some of America’s temporary allies on the ground). Only recently, after several horrendous terrorist attacks, Turkey has woken to the urgent need to address the threat of IS.
At the same time, Turkey is worried that the most effective anti-Assad fighters in Syria — the Kurds — are working hand in hand with Kurdish separatists in the Turkish southeast. Thus, when Turkey began launching its own air strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2015, it targeted not just the Islamic State, but Kurdish fighters as well. Turkish ground forces entered Syria last month, simultaneously pushing IS away from the Turkish border and preventing the Syrian Kurds from expanding their de facto state of Rojava.
After an attempted coup briefly challenged Erdogan’s authority in mid-July, the Turkish leader accelerated efforts to repair fences with Russia. Erdogan has been upset that the United States has refused to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish spiritual leader living in Pennsylvania that Ankara claims was behind the coup. Nothing says “screw you” to Washington like a high-profile visit to the Kremlin. The Russian media have treated the rapprochement as the beginning of divorce proceedings between Ankara and NATO and an upcoming betrothal to Russia.
So far, the defense cooperation between the two countries has been more symbolic than substantive. “Turkey wanted to cooperate with NATO members up to this point,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. “But the results we got did not satisfy us. Therefore, it is natural to look for other options. But we don’t see this as a move against NATO.” So far, neither the United States nor NATO has viewed it as such either.
However, Turkey seems to be moving inexorably toward the kind of independent stance that France took during much of the Cold War when it refused to join NATO and developed its own nuclear arsenal. In fact, Turkish Gaullism is what Omer Taspinar calls the new ultra-nationalism developing around Erdogan:
As in the case of Charles de Gaulle’s anti-American and anti-NATO policies in the 1960s, a Gaullist Turkey may in the long run question Ankara’s membership within the military structure of NATO or the logic of waiting for the elusive EU membership. In search of full independence, full sovereignty, strategic leverage and, most importantly, “national prestige, glory and grandeur,” a Gaullist Turkey may opt for its own “force de frappe” — a nuclear deterrent — and its own “Realpolitik” with countries such as Russia, China, and India.
Would Turkey really exit NATO? It could do so out of spite — at Europe’s decades-long hesitation over EU membership or the conflicted U.S. response to the military coup. It could do so out of calculation — that Russia provides a better deal or that shrugging off the former colonizers wins it points in the battle with Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the Middle East. It wouldn’t be the first time that a country chose “national interest” over the perks of an exclusive transnational club.
The Problem of Eastern Europe
If Turkey were NATO’s only thorn in the side, it could shrug off the irritation and move on. Turkey, after all, has long been a difficult partner.
But NATO faces a number of Gaullist challenges in Eastern Europe. Under current leader Viktor Orban, for instance, Hungary has cherry-picked the NATO policies it likes. It has praised NATO for deciding to do something about migrants (indeed, even falsely claiming that it convinced NATO to do so). At the same time, Hungary has moved closer to Russia and, despite the situation in Ukraine, has argued that Russia is no threat to Europe. This warming relationship with Moscow is partly for pragmatic reasons (securing Russian energy, diversifying trade relations) and partly for ideological ones (Orban likes Putin’s brand of illiberal democracy).
Despite Orban’s numerous run-ins with the European Union, he has also backed the creation of an EU army. Such a force would possibly compete with NATO if not eventually replace it and subtract the United States from the equation. Perhaps Orban sees beyond the current East-West tensions to a time when the United States has extricated itself from the Middle East and turned its attention primarily to Asia. Even if Donald Trump isn’t elected, the United States may well bail, and where will that leave little Hungary?
The Czech Republic and Slovakia have joined Hungary in calling for the lifting of European sanctions against Moscow, imposed after the seizure of Crimea. Back in 2014, both countries also ruled out the presence of NATO troops in their countries (though Slovakia more recently invited a group of NATO planners in a Force Integration Unit).
Bulgaria, too, has tried to tread a fine line between its NATO membership and its close relationship with Russia. This summer it refused to consider participating in a NATO fleet designed to counter Russian influence in the Black Sea. However, it will work with Romania in a joint NATO brigade and is coordinating with the United States on joint air patrols.
Much of the EU has expressed skepticism about provoking conflict with Russia. At the recent NATO summit, according to The Financial Times, Greek leader Alexis Tsipris said that it was time to end the impasse with Moscow. Although no one else went on the record at the summit in support of Tsipris, the Times pointed out that,
In the run-up to the summit, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, accused the alliance of “warmongering” with Russia as it conducted defensive exercises in Poland. And on the very eve of the gathering, President François Hollande of France said Russia should be treated as a “partner” not an adversary.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State is “in retreat on all fronts,” according to the Pentagon, having lost Ramadi, access to the Turkish border, and 25,000 square kilometers of territory in all. If Russia becomes a partner once again and the Islamic State continues to collapse in on itself, NATO will again be forced to answer its eternal existential question: why are we still here?
The Problem of Trump
Even as NATO has been struggling with challenges on its periphery, it suffered a recent stab in the back when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump questioned the utility of continued U.S. involvement. Europeans weren’t paying their fair share, Trump asserted, so perhaps Americans should just stay home and let those countries across the Atlantic sort out their own problems.
Although the foreign policy community inside the Beltway freaked out at Trump’s statements, he was simply echoing the perennial U.S. calls for Europeans to increase their military spending and share the burden. The challenge, however, is that most European governments don’t have a lot of wiggle room to increase their NATO contributions unless they want to incur the wrath of their electorates by cutting social spending. All EU members have to keep their government budget within certain fiscal limits. Explains Jacek Rostowski, former minister of finance in Poland, “I experienced this firsthand as Poland’s finance minister during and after the 2008 financial crisis. On two occasions when I suddenly had to cut spending to comply with the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), a 1997 agreement among EU member states to enforce fiscal responsibility, I had few options other than to cut the defense budget.”
The U.S. and European left might get excited by the prospect of a U.S. presidential candidate challenging the very existence of NATO. But the result will likely be a concerted effort to increase European military spending — with no concomitant decrease in Pentagon expenditures — which will leave NATO in place with a more diversified funding base and more austerity for European citizens.
However, Trump’s questioning of NATO does reflect a certain ambivalence in the U.S. public about the alliance. Although a majority of Americans look on NATO favorably, a quarter of respondents in the latest Pew poll do not. Also, 37 percent wouldn’t support the invocation of Article 5 to use U.S. forces to defend a fellow NATO member from a Russian attack. An escalation over one of the Baltic states or another failed intervention in the Middle East could turn U.S. opinion against the alliance.
Russia is not betting on Trump. It is doing what it can to encourage the centrifugal tensions within NATO through conventional means (diplomacy, trade) and unconventional ones (disinformation campaigns). According to The New York Times, “The flow of misleading and inaccurate stories is so strong that both NATO and the European Union have established special offices to identify and refute disinformation, particularly claims emanating from Russia.” Moscow would be remiss, from the point of view of its own national interests, if it didn’t exploit the existing cleavages in the alliance. But perhaps Vladimir Putin and the next U.S. president could sit down and negotiate a truce: we’ll stop promoting democracy in the former Soviet Union if they stop subverting democracy beyond Russia’s borders.
It’s hard to turn over a heavy object like NATO to read its expiration date. As before, a new conflict or a new enemy — attacks in cyberspace, for instance — might provide the necessary glue to keep the rickety alliance from falling apart. Right now, the marriage of interests holds, barely. But don’t count on NATO making it to its platinum anniversary in 2019 in any mood to celebrate.