NATO in the Crucible

By. Dr. Zachary Wolfraim

NATO Parliamentary Assembly, held in London 2014. (Source: NATO Parliamentary Assembly Pre-Summit Conference)

Yet again, NATO is having a challenging year. Since the end of the Cold War, the Alliance has demonstrated its repeated ability to pivot and adapt in order to retain some level of relevance in the face of continued international instability. That being said, the newest challenges are coming from within the Alliance and from three of its key member states: the US, the UK and Turkey. NATO is now fully immersed in one of its most difficult and uncertain periods yet, as all these countries potentially redefine their roles internationally and their relationship with the organisation.

The most immediate challenge for NATO is Turkey’s drift towards authoritarianism under President Recep Erdogan. The has given Erdogan the freedom to purge his enemies, both real and imagined, from government while also allowing him to consolidate power. This is troubling for many reasons; however, for NATO, it certainly compromises its ability to act as an alliance built on shared values. NATO has previously had questionable governments in its ranks such as Portugal under Antonio Salazar, the Greek military junta in the 1970s, and Turkey during its previous periods of military rule. That said, the current trend in Turkey seems to be an increasingly colder relationship with Europe and the NATO allies. This has been coupled with renewed overtures towards Moscow, thus presenting a serious difficulty for any future NATO role.  An Erdogan-led government of an increasingly authoritarian nature presents a serious threat to NATO’s  .

To respond, NATO must continue to gently remind Turkey of the benefits of the Alliance. NATO must also prod other nations, particularly European ones, to remember Turkey’s role in NATO as well the regional pressures that Turkey is facing and which many member states have done little to alleviate. While Turkey is unlikely to leave NATO, a closer relationship with Russia would complicate NATO’s consensus-based decision-making process. Backing Erdogan into a corner will only serve to deepen the Turkish dissatisfaction with NATO and promote closer ties between Ankara and Moscow.

The second clear threat came in the form of the message sent by the British public about their continued relationship with the European Union. With the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, the desertion of leadership posts by the main pro-Leave campaign leaders and deep turmoil within the Labour party opposition, the British political system was shaken to its foundations. Brexit has fundamentally damaged the credibility of the UK’s ability to serve as the leading international actor in Europe. Though the UK remains a critical military actor in NATO for the time being, it has nonetheless called into question its ability to maintain this position in light of Brexit-related budget shortfalls. Additionally, the deep differences in attitudes towards Europe between Scotland and Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain point to potentially further instability within the UK. While it would be wrong to doubt the UK’s resolve to act in a crisis, the Brexit vote calls into question the scale and capabilities that it can bring to bear in the future.

For now, there has been little immediate effect from the referendum save for the self-inflicted economic damage. Prime Minister Theresa May has announced her intention to invoke Article 50 in early 2017 and formally begin the process of leaving the EU, meaning most, if not all, the instruments of British policymaking will be focused on disentangling and redefining the UK’s relationship with the EU . Beyond this, the future economic impact of Brexit will likely mean diminished revenues and, by extension, NATO can insulate itself somewhat from this by strengthening its relationship with the EU and European member states and offering a more cohesive and coherent partnership between the two organisations. Depending on the shape that Brexit takes, however, it may see one of its most stalwart members reduced significantly in stature.

The final and thankfully still hypothetical prospect, for policymakers in Brussels and for many of America’s allies more generally, is the election of Donald Trump. He recently declared his intention to what could be diplomatically called a more “ blatant disregard for the rules and norms that govern participation in NATO drew a strong response from the Secretary General; however, the reality is that the lack of American participation in the Alliance would effectively demolish its effectiveness. Even questioning the commitment to NATO’s collective security guarantee, Article V, would mean that European member states would find themselves under threat. While there has always been some unease in Washington D.C. about NATO allies pulling their weight, it is the first time that a Presidential contender has threatened to leave American allies undefended.

Thus far Mr. Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements have lacked coherence; however, he has made it clear that European states would not be able to count on the US to uphold the key tenets that underpin NATO’s security guarantee. Similarly, he has expressed his affinity for President Vladimir Putin and recognised Russian claims to Crimea while also (apparently sarcastically) encouraging Russian hackers to leak information about Hilary Clinton. There is little NATO can do should Mr. Trump win the election as his approach to foreign policy is erratic at best. It nonetheless falls on the Secretary General and senior officials to continue to articulate the importance of NATO to American interests overseas.

Any one of these issues would present a serious challenge for NATO yet the Alliance is now faced with all three. This reinforces the commentary from the Wales Summit about NATO’s ability to “walk and chew gum” as crises continue to crop up in parallel rather than sequentially. NATO has continually shown its capacity to repurpose itself, often despite its own worst impulses. It must demonstrate this ability yet again.



Dr. Zachary Wolfraim recently graduated from the War Studies department where he examined how narratives shape foreign policy behaviours. He has previously worked in NATO headquarters on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as well as the political risk sector in London.


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