NATO leaders meet in London on 3-4 December to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding. It will also mark the thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a period characterized by an endless search by the members of the alliance to give it new meaning. While there will be pomp and ceremony to commemorate the durability of an alliance that has grown not only in membership but also scope, underlying tensions will be evident at the occasion.
The irony is that a military and political alliance formed against an external threat during the Cold War is being challenged by a number of internal divisions that are raising questions about its future. First, NATO members are divided on whether China should be the identified as the threat that gives meaning and purpose to the alliance, reproducing the dynamics and cohesion of the Cold War. The American concern with China’s rise is putting pressure on its NATO allies to refrain from deepening relations that might raise security risks. This is particularly evident with respect to European nations possibly awarding contracts for the 5G transmission of data in Europe to Huawei. The German government had originally expressed a preference for the Chinese platform but it has come under pressure from the United States and other NATO members to find another option. More generally, as the possible threats to the security of NATO members are increasingly ambiguous and possibly territorially distant, China has become an easily-identifiable rival. It has all the elements of an emerging power that may challenge the dominant international order. The debate in Washington and other NATO capitals is whether to adapt and accommodate this rise or to begin to prepare for an eventual threat. The debate is still ongoing amongst NATO members but pressure from Washington is increasingly pushing the alliance to look to China as a threat, even at the expense of some of the economic and commercial interests of European member states.
Second, NATO has never really decided what to do about Russia, especially since its members are so divided on what Russia represents in the international order. More recent members from eastern and central Europe remain adamant that NATO’s primary concern should be containing the Russian threat, wanting a clear commitment that Article 5 would be invoked and respected in the case of a military conflict with Russia. Other member states, such as France and Italy, have argued that NATO needs to engage in a more open relation with Russia, looking to find areas where the two sides have common interests, such as international terrorism. The two sides of the debate within NATO are increasingly suspicious of each other, with those seeking a thaw in relations with Russia seeing the aggressive tone of some eastern European states as unnecessarily raising tensions; while the latter look to western European states as not necessarily attentive to their security needs and unreliable partners. The current uncertainly of the United States position on Russia has meant that these tensions continue to ratchet up the mutual suspicion within the alliance and with Russia.
Third, Turkey has emerged as one of NATO’s most divisive players in its 70-year history. The unilateral decisions to violate Syrian territorial sovereignty and to adopt the Russian S-400 defense system only fueled the suspicion of some member states, especially France, that it was not a fully committed member of the alliance. Turkey, for its part, was increasingly frustrated with the tepid response to its request to make international terrorism the external threat that held together the alliance. For many member states, Turkey’s strategic interests in the region were increasingly at odds with NATO’s strategic objectives and they feared that the alliance might be drawn into a conflict that was not central to their national interests.
Fourth, the Trump presidency has accelerated what had been emerging in recent decades: the American pivot to Asia highlights the growing sense in Washington that Europe is no longer central to its strategic interests. Trump’s brisk language may have ruffled European feathers but he simply pointed out that the alliance’s reason for being was not entirely clear and the United States was no longer willing to be the security provider for a region that it did not necessarily see as being as important as Asia. Trump’s campaign to have NATO members increase their defense spending may have seemed petty from the standpoint of some Europeans but it has forced member states to realize that they need to give meaning to the alliance in an era when transactional politics reign in Washington.
The list of issues eroding confidence and unity in the alliance is much longer than the four listed here. The tensions within NATO help explain conflicting signals coming from member states calling for an aggressive approach to Russia and China while others look for ways in which to engage with the two. It is not likely that these internal tensions will abate in the near future, especially since NATO’s dominant partner, the United States, is not overly concerned about providing coherence and clarity to the alliance. It is not surprising, then, that many are taking French proposals for developing security “sovereignty” in Europe more seriously than at any point in the past.
But we should not think that the anniversary celebrations in London will be the last for NATO. Despite all its internal tensions and growing mutual suspicion, security cooperation is hard-wired in the foreign and security infrastructure of its member states. With the exception of the United States and possibly Turkey, it is difficult for NATO’s member states to imagine any other security architecture. And even the United States recognises that its strategic interests are best served by an extensive network of allies that share some basic goals and values. As is often the case in many areas of public policy, inertia is enough to keep the train on the tracks. Perhaps it is only at the next momentous anniversary that we will have a better idea whether it is enough to meet new challenges and give new meaning to the alliance.