NATO: Losing relevance

The London meeting of NATO leaders, meant to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the organisation, ended up showcasing the differences among them on its future role.

Published : Dec 23, 2019 07:00 IST

 NATO leaders, including Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the U.K.’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, U.S. President Donald Trump, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in London on December 4.

NATO leaders, including Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the U.K.’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, U.S. President Donald Trump, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in London on December 4.

At the age of 70, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) seems to be in terminal decline. There have been obvious signs for some time now that the days of the Cold War relic may be numbered. The differences among NATO leaders came into glaring view when they met in London in the first week of December to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the organisation.

The two-day meeting was downgraded from a “summit meeting” to a meeting of “leaders” because of fears that some of those present might refuse to sign a joint communique. In June 2018, United States President Donald Trump refused to sign a formal communique at the end of the G7 summit.

As many had predicted, the meeting witnessed scenes of open bickering among the leaders on the proposed road map for the future of the most powerful military grouping in the world. The Warsaw Pact, which was a counterbalance to NATO, wound up in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the break-up of the socialist bloc. NATO was left without a rationale for its continued existence but has plodded on. It was only a matter of time before the differences between the U.S. and its European allies on many international issues burst out into the open.

There was an unwritten understanding between the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush that NATO would be disbanded. It was this assurance that played a critical role in Gorbachev’s decision to dismantle the Berlin Wall and end the Cold War. The commitment was forgotten in no time. NATO went on an expansion spree that reached the borders of Russia and incorporated many Warsaw Pact members into the alliance.

The latest expansion spree involved the inclusion of former states that were part of the Yugoslav federation such as tiny Montenegro. It should not be forgotten that NATO played a key role in the disintegration of the federation when it intervened in the Balkan conflict in 1999 without the sanction of the United Nations. The Yugoslav army was no match for NATO, but it fought valiantly for more than 70 days. NATO joined the U.S. in the invasion of Afghanistan. In 2011, NATO forces illegally undertook a regime-change operation in Libya and devastated that country in the process.

Doubts about NATO expansion

Many founding members had doubts about the Washington-instigated expansion of NATO in the last two decades, but there was very little they could do about it given the fact that the U.S. provides the lion’s share of the military grouping’s budget. The U.S.’ plan to militarily box Russia in along its borders boomeranged after Vladimir Putin stepped into the Kremlin. Russia was no longer willing to be a bystander as the U.S. placed offensive missiles along its borders and NATO regularly conducted huge military exercises there.

After emerging as the undisputed imperial power at the end of the Second World War, the U.S. set up a network of military bases in western Europe. Under the NATO framework, this network expanded to eastern Europe. The U.S.’ unilateral scrapping of nuclear and missile treaties has led to a new arms race, which has further rattled Europe. European powers are particularly angry with the Trump administration’s decision to scrap the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia.

Fireworks were expected at the London meeting in the wake of recent events that brought the differences of opinion about the future of the military alliance out into the open. Turkey’s purchase of the sophisticated S-400 missiles from Russia despite the offer of Patriot missiles from the U.S. angered the Trump administration. Turkey’s military action in Syria against the NATO-backed Kurds and the Trump administration’s tacit support for the move rankled major alliance members such as France and Germany. Turkey, though situated quite a distance from the Atlantic Ocean, was a founding member of NATO. It has the biggest standing army in the military grouping after the U.S. Leading European NATO members were also extremely unhappy with the Trump administration’s unilateral moves in West Asia such as its withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and preparations for a new military conflict there. The cornerstone of the founding treaty of the NATO alliance, Article 5, states that an attack on a member state is an attack on all its members.

The clause, however, has been invoked only once: after the 9/11 terror attack on the U.S. All the same, European member states do not want to be drawn into another U.S.-instigated war.

In the run-up to the London meeting, trade issues between the U.S. and its major European allies further endangered NATO’s viability. Trump was threatening to unleash a trade war on France and he never stopped complaining about Europe’s unwillingness to contribute more money to NATO’s military budget. When Trump was running for President, he had called NATO “obsolete” and said that it was set up to confront the Soviet Union and not designed to counter terrorism. NATO, he said at the time, was there to basically provide protection for countries such as Germany and France. After becoming President, he changed his tune and is now masquerading as NATO’s greatest defender. He claims that NATO “is the most successful alliance in history, guaranteeing the freedom, prosperity and security of its members”.

Meanwhile, in their quest for strategic autonomy, Germany and France were talking about the need to create an independent European Union (E.U.) army. The U.S.’ strongest ally, the United Kingdom, which wants to walk out of the E.U., was in the midst of a heated election campaign. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, despite being an ideological soulmate of Trump, went out of his way to keep a safe political distance from the U.S. President during the summit. The Conservative Party, in fact, made an appeal to Trump to refrain from interfering in the election campaign. Johnson was among the leaders caught laughing on tape listening to the not very complimentary comments about Trump that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made at a social event during the summit. Trump was so angry with the video clip that he left for Washington in a huff without bothering to hold the traditional post summit press conference.

But the major face-off occurred between Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron. In a widely publicised interview with The Economist magazine just before the London summit, Macron described NATO as being “brain dead” and the American policy on Russia as “governmental, political and historical hysteria”. Macron said that American policies in West Asia had become detrimental to the economic and military interests of European powers and “an enormous problem for NATO”. He stressed the need for European nations to have stronger ties with Russia. “If we want to build peace in Europe and rebuild European strategic autonomy, we must reconsider our position towards Russia,” he said. Macron has been openly critical of Trump’s cancellation of the INF Treaty. Macron explained that his repeated emphasis on improving ties with Russia was “to prevent the world from going up in a conflagration”. Like many other world leaders, Macron fears that unchecked U.S. militarism could even lead to an all-out war. The 2018 U.S. National Security Strategy document named Russia and China as enemies in the “great power competition”.

In a joint press conference in Paris with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg before the London meeting, Macron said that NATO should not target Russia and China as “enemies” and that the main focus of the military grouping should be the ongoing war on terror that is being waged by the West in various countries in Asia and Africa.

On reaching London, Trump described Macron’s comments on NATO as “nasty” and “very insulting”. The U.S. and French Presidents had an unscripted and sometimes contentious press conference, with both leaders sticking to their positions on NATO and other issues and making critical comments on issues they currently do not see eye to eye on. Trump had an ally of sorts in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said that it was the French President who was “brain dead”. France took a strong stand against the incursion of the Turkish Army into Syria. Macron had even suggested that Turkey’s membership of NATO should be reconsidered.

Trump even made references to domestic problems in France, suggesting that Macron should focus on solving them rather than talking about the problems NATO faced. “You look at the ‘yellow vests’ and what is happening to them. They have had a very rough year and you can’t go around making statements like that about NATO,” Trump told Macron. Macron had to cut short his visit to London and rush back to Paris to deal with the nationwide strike and protests called by the trade unions and the yellow vests movement.

The strike in the first week of December, which paralysed the country, was against Macron’s neoliberal economic policies, especially his decision to go ahead with the slashing of pensions. It was the largest industrial action witnessed in France in several decades. Trump’s political future is also in doubt as the U.S. Congress prepares a strong case for impeachment against him.

But both these leaders prefer to pontificate on the international stage while trading barbs. “Nobody needs NATO more than France, and frankly the one that benefits the least is the United States,” Trump said in a speech with the NATO Secretary General standing in attendance. Trump boasted that he had made member countries substantially increase their contributions to NATO by $160 billion from 2016. NATO plans to increase its military budget to $240 billion by 2024. It has pledged more missile deployments in eastern Europe targeting Russia and increased surveillance on China. Already, NATO’s military budget is 20 times that of Russia’s and five times that of China’s. The military-industrial complex has the most to gain from the continuing existence of NATO, not ordinary people.

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