NATO is wounded, this Summit could break it

By Dr Zachary Wolfraim

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the Summit (Credit Image: NATO HQ)

In light of the recent chaos consuming British politics and the looming NATO summit, I revisited an article I wrote on the eve of the US election in 2016 hoping it would outline a worst-case scenario, rather than reality. At that time, NATO was heading into uncertainty with the reality of Brexit and the Conservative Party’s significantly reduced majority in Parliament just starting to sink in. Turkey was moving steadily towards autocracy and Donald Trump was a long-shot, but nonetheless threatening Presidential candidate. This scenario has since come to pass and with the critical ongoing summit  (on the 11th and 12th July 2018), NATO has again been pushed into a corner and forced to defend its existence. This is a frequent occurrence for the alliance, particularly since the end of the Cold War.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, rather than disbanding, the alliance found new purpose both as a vehicle for promoting US interests in Europe but also as a security organisation capable of undertaking coordinated multilateral interventions. In occupying this role, NATO has reinvented itself from collective defence organisation established to prevent Soviet expansionism into one able to execute complex, coordinated multilateral military interventions. In doing so it has responded to crises in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya and has now reoriented back towards countering Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. The threat it faces now is not from an external crisis, however, but internal within the alliance and the effect of radical realignments in policy both in the US and the UK.

As a backdrop to current events, suspected Russian interference into both countries have undermined mechanisms of political campaigning and cast doubt on democratic outcomes while delivering policies that dramatically upend decades of Western international security policy. President Donald Trump and specifically his transactional view of international alliances and a complete lack of consistency in policymaking present an existential threat to the organisation and consequently, creates another way of undermining US influence in Europe. Concurrently, Britain has been rendered politically unstable, consumed with Brexit which adds to years of austerity that have diminished much of its defence capability. Both countries play a central role in providing military support and a diplomatic vision to NATO and are struggling to define their respective relationships within the broader international order.

In the UK specifically, both major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, are completely riven by Brexit with the Conservative party engaging in open conflict over the UK’s future relationship with the EU, most recently losing its Foreign Secretary and its Brexit minister. This has not yet spilled into the UK-NATO sphere but nonetheless has planted seeds of doubt in the minds of allies over the type of reliable member the UK will continue to be. Despite the country’s position as a framework nation contributing to vital capabilities and forces alongside meeting its 2% budgetary commitment, it has continued to under invest in maintaining its military capabilities and by extension limiting its ability to act as a capable partner in NATO operations. This is now reaching  a point where its future effectiveness could be called into question. Stagnant economic realities mean that future defence investment decisions are likely to be pushed down the road until there is a clearer UK-EU relationship. As a result, one of Europe’s critical NATO members is effectively in a holding pattern for the next few years.

The US, on the other hand, presents an even more fundamental question. President Trump has made it relatively clear that he does not believe the values that underpin NATO are sufficient to justify its existence. Trump’s sole emphasis has been on the disparity between US defence spending and the continuing 2% spending target, disregarding the agenda setting influence this spending has bought. While this has often been a point of contention in NATO, the President’s willful misunderstanding of how this spending target works has only compounded his sense of grievance with NATO allies. Fundamentally, the President seems willing to dismantle the security architecture that has underpinned the safety and security of Europe, the North Atlantic and the West more broadly since the end of the Second World War over the issue of spending and budgets. Despite reassurances from the US Permanent Representative to NATO and US Defence Secretary, James Mattis, about the alliance’s central role to US defence priorities, no one actually knows what President Trump will say as he has no defined priorities or identifiable value structure when it comes to international relations.

Regardless of what happens in this summit, NATO remains in serious trouble during the tenure of the Trump presidency and until Britain has decided its future relationship with the EU. For the time being NATO member states must remain defensive about their continued increases in spending, proactive in their policymaking and vocal about what NATO’s value added is to international security. The 2% spending goal, while admirable, should be adapted to place emphasis on effectiveness and thus increase coordination between Allies to enhance the capability of NATO as a whole. Though the UK has made its commitments to NATO clear, its ability to follow through on them is variable and thus the ability to coordinate with similarly effective NATO forces creates a way of preserving influence and capability. Ultimately, despite the UK’s diminished international presence, NATO can potentially continue to limp along with US disengagement until the next presidential election. However, there is no doubt that this is one of the lowest points for the transatlantic relationship since the beginning of the Iraq War. At that time, major NATO members both publicly rebuked the US invasion of Iraq and refused to support US efforts in mobilising NATO to defend Turkey. This previous rift in the alliance seems minor in hindsight, however, it nonetheless demonstrated that the organisation can endure difficult diplomatic relations and carve out a relevant international role.

During this summit and beyond, Canada and European NATO Allies will need to prioritise the relevance of NATO, invest in maintaining the organisation and prepare to speak up in its defence. There remains considerable support for NATO in the US and Allies should make every effort to maintain links with aligned US Senators and Representatives to continue making the case for NATO. In terms of operations, NATO must continue its presence in Eastern Europe and continue to be a proactive force in international affairs, driven by the initiative of Canada and European members, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming a discussion forum rather than an active force for stability and progress. More generally, NATO member states will need proactive strategies to deal with Russian disinformation and spend time on reaffirming and rebuilding trust with voters. With time and perhaps a different administration, the alliance will recover somewhat, however, the damage that has already occurred will take time and dedication, particularly on the part of the US, to recover.


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Dr. Zachary Wolfraim 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 political risk and intelligence sectors in London.

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