02 December 2019

The NATO Summit under the effect of internal challenges

Ştefan Oprea

On December 4, in London, NATO wished for its seventieth anniversary to have a summit wherein it could prove its unity and promote its capability to deal with the challenges of the future. Unfortunately, this will not be so. The latest events confirm what was predictable since last year, the fact that NATO is going through a moment of inflection towards a critical direction. The “exaggerated” rumors have become true. The tendency of some of the Alliance’s member states to express themselves autonomously affect the solidarity and principles which stood at the base of its formation. Although it has prior experience in taking administrative measures to contain the presence of a member without endangering the Alliance, this time NATO’s relations with Turkey (or rather the other way around) turned the status of member into a problem which, in certain conditions, can request a practical and maybe necessary response from the allies. Inevitably, the structural challenges towards internal cohesion will perturb the Alliance’s concerns with deterrence and the defence posture.

Image source: Mediafax

The worsening of Ankara’s relations with the EU, the US and, lately, with NATO, together with a process of rapprochement with Russia, which culminated in the purchase of the S-400 systems, already has repercussions by affecting the Alliance in its possible security challenges, generated by the regional instability sources. With no perspective to improve the areas of disagreement within the trans-Atlantic relation or between member states, especially between Turkey and the US, the Alliance’s lacking internal cohesion will dramatically influence the implementation of proactive policies used to manage its dynamic future security environment.

But what happened especially in the past couple of days? In our attempt to unravel what happened “behind closed doors”, we will need to return to November 13.

At that date, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with US President Donald Trump at the White House.

As there had been a long list of Turkey’s actions which created enough “discomfort” in the US Congress, NATO, and generally in the international community, a short press conference was held at the end of the meeting. There, President Trump praised the Turkish leader, stating that he is a “great fan” of Erdogan, and as a response the Turkish head of state addressed him as “my dear friend”. Regarding talks on the S-400 missile system, it was clear that no agreement was reached, and on Turkey’s military operations in Syria, President Erdogan defended his decision by stating that it aims to “eliminate terrorists” (a term used both for ISIS as well as the US-allied Kurdish factions). We do not know if the subject of applying article 5 from the Washington Treaty (the possibility of other NATO members assisting Turkey in case it attacked) was discussed. Despite the pleasantries exchanged by the two presidents, the meeting did not make any major progresses regarding the controversial issues in the relations between the two countries. Furthermore, the attitude of the US Congress and Administration showed very clearly that they will not grant the Turkish president a blank check to act without constraints the Middle East (the recognition of the Armenian genocide is a crushing piece of evidence in this regard).

Coincidentally or not, in the same period, US Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was making an official visit to the United States. NATO reunions are usually preceded by meetings and visits of the secretary general with important member states leaders, and, mandatory, with the White House leader. The talks have the role of “calibrating” the stances of member states on the “sensible themes” which could affect the Joint Statement issued at the end of reunions. As the London Summit was under the pressure of this perspective, this visit aimed to be one of clarification. Without going too deep into the meetings’ results and agenda, it must be mentioned that the problem of disagreements between member states remained without a solution, which means that the December summit will be thoroughly affected and placed under a sign of uncertainty regarding common stances.

And the inevitable has already happened. Turkey is refusing to support a NATO defence plan for Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia until the Alliance will offer political support for Ankara in its fight against Kurdish YPG militias in Northern Syria.

It is no secret for anyone that timely planning represents an important component in the planning phase of operations, carried out by allied military structures for the purpose of facilitating crisis response concerning both article 5 and non-article 5 collective defence.

From this perspective, contingency plans are destined to manage future risks to the integrity of national territory, or the security of a specific geographic area, based on planning hypotheses which can be immediately enforced. They are meant to prepare the Alliance’s reaction in counteracting a future risk to its security of any type.

NATO’s request, addressed to all its 29 member states, to re-draft the defence plan for the Baltic Area and Poland without Turkey’s approval will be destined for failure. Should Ankara choose to block it unless it receives concessions, this will affect NATO’s unity regarding the safety and security of all allied states, despite the fact that NATO has no direct influence on Turkey’s strategy in Syria. The hope of a compromise will become an illusion. Ankara will not give in, because such an action could presume NATO’s lack of involvement in its Syrian strategy. Actually, Turkey requested a similar plan to help solve its current security concerns. Some NATO members refused to accept such a plan, arguing that the threats to Ankara were posed by Syrian Kurd fighters. In parity, what the Baltic states want from NATO is also wished by Turkey for its own purposes.

Previous experiences in dealing with NATO and the EU demonstrate that Turkey follows, in the first place, its own interests and not necessarily those of the West. At the same time, it must be remarked that the power balance in the Middle East has drastically suffered in the past couple of years. The US, by decreasing its presence in the region, also registers a decrease in influence. The fight for power in this area between Iran and Saudi Arabia (supported the US), as well the US support for Israel has also inevitably led to a decrease in its influence in the Arab world. At the same time, Russia’s role in the region has increased. In these circumstances, Turkey, which has a significant military role in the region, together with Russia, are clashing with US and, implicitly, NATO policy in the region.

A question which should normally be asked is whether this purpose serves NATO interest or not. And the answer is: categorically NATO. However, Turkey, through its geographical location, is still of primordial interest for the Alliance. Ankara’s control over the Bosporus and the Dardanelles is of essential importance for the Russian Navy’s access to the Mediterranean, but also to increase NATO presence in the region. If we add to all this the size and importance of NATO military infrastructure in Turkey (especially the Incirlik Air Base), as well as its military contribution to NATO missions, we will see that Turkey is and will remain a military power and important contributor to the Alliance.  

Although the period it is going through is sufficiently complex, Turkey has never questioned the future of its NATO membership. On the contrary, internal official documents state that the Alliance “plays a central role in Turkey’s security” and is “the most successful military alliance in history”.

Taking into account the fact that NATO is the only international framework which would grant Turkey military assistance, in case of enemy attack, and taking into consideration the fact that it is an integral part of NATO’s command structure, Turkey is clearly enshrined within NATO. Last, but not least, taking into account the fact that Ankara does not have a credible alternative in military and financial support, its need for NATO and the US is obvious.

In this context, it is difficult to assume that the Alliance, faced with a complex set of challenges and threats from abroad, but equally with a lack of internal cohesion, will manage to find a “miraculous” solution to calm things, in order to see the summit through without any hiccups.

From this perspective, some important subjects proposed to be solved during the meeting will remain at the state of a debate, and will be found in the final document as an analysis for later steps. Of these, the Black Sea region, whose shores are split among three member states (Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey) and two NATO partners (Georgia and Ukraine) on one side, and Russia on the other, will probably also remain at this state, even if it has the benefit of a package of measures approved this Spring (increasing the number of drills and information exchanges). Regarding the wish to drive allies towards offering the necessary resources and practical support needed in the region, it is hard to presume that this could be accomplished without Turkey’s support.

And for this image of the overall mood in which London Summit will take place to be even more conclusive, the Trump Administration’s announcement about scaling down its participation to NATO’s joint budget, from 22% to 16%, will “stimulate” the apparition of a new controversial subject. Even if the sum is insignificant (it can be covered by other contributors) and is not related to the issued of defence spending funds, it will still generate a sufficient number of “debates”.

Hoping that “alarmist” statements are only an “attention signal”

NATO leaders will meet in London to examine the progress in how the Alliance adapts to current challenges. Rapid technological progress presumes that NATO must also rapidly adapt to challenges such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic weaponry, directed-energy weapons etc., especially as this approach means predictability and preparedness, and important steps towards it have already been made.

There will inevitably be disagreements, differences of opinion are not a novelty, but as NATO has a vast experience in approaching them and has usually emerged more powerful from these situations, I hope that rationality will triumph, and President Macron’s comments about NATO’s so-called “cerebral death” will be just an “alarm signal” addressed to the Alliance, as he himself stated several days ago, during the meeting with NATO’s secretary general.

Translated by Ionut Preda