The troubled waters in which NATO has been navigating for the last few years offered no relief when defence ministers met in Brussels on February 12-13, 2020. Of particular importance on the agenda was the question of NATO’s role in the Middle East, its continued presence in Afghanistan, the NATO-EU relationship and how to respond to Russia’s missile defence plans. They were meeting for the first time since December’s tumultuous summit, which saw the US President leave before the final ceremonies, or since US demands that the alliance play a greater role in the Middle East.
The US decision to kill Iranian general Qasam Soleimani on January 3 was followed by demands by the Trump administration that NATO members assume a more prominent role in the troubled region, especially Iraq. The Iraqis call for the withdrawal of American troops from the country in response to the killing, led to the Americans calling on their NATO allies to fill the void. President Trump went so far as to call for a NATOME. The American president remained faithful to the transactional line he has taken for the last three years, claiming again that NATO allies needed to put more troops on the ground, spend more on defence and become more involved in the Middle East, as they had more vested interests there than the United States. In the three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the alliance has struggled to find an identity. However, an ill-defined role in a region that is of varying strategic interest for the 29 members was not likely to inject new life into NATO. European member states were not interested in any plan that would involve increasing the number of their troops on the ground in the Middle East and becoming directly involved in the region, which had numerous flashpoints.
The shuffling troops around Iraq and rebranding missions was the only real concrete measure to come out of the meeting. It allows the NATO allies to claim that they are responding to the request to play a more prominent role in the Middle East and to bring the experience the alliance gained in Afghanistan to the region, without having to take any measures that may be politically divisive at home. Whether anything concrete actually happens depends on whether the Iraqi government backtracks on its request that foreign troops leave its soil. Whether it will be enough to satisfy President Trump’s demand for a more active NATO presence in the Middle East remains to be seen.
The low visibility that the meeting and the decision to give greater prominence to NATO in Iraq received in the European and American media, after Trump’s very vocal demands in January, suggest that NATO members are trying to steer the alliance to calmer waters while dealing with a sceptical US administration. But treading water might not be what it needs right now as fear and uncertainty ripple through the international system.
The alliance members remain divided on what to do about a perceived Russian threat and whether it should also be an instrument to deal with China’s expanding role and power. EU member states are torn between wanting to remain anchored in the transatlantic alliance and the need to start designing their own security architecture, while divided about perceived threats and strategic objectives. And everyone is waiting for the outcome of the November 2020 presidential elections, hoping that NATO can go back to only being worried about what role it should play in the international order and not whether its most important partner would come back with yet another demand that threatens its survival. Defence ministers left Brussels most likely relieved and pleased that they had defused another explosive question, but their relief is likely to be short-lived.