For the first time in many years, the cohesion of NATO is genuinely threatened and the major threats may not come from the more traditional adversaries. Uncertain times lie ahead.
Either side of an ironically timed and situated Football World Cup Final on Sunday 14th July in Moscow, sits the annual NATO Summit (11-12 July) in Brussels, and afterwards the much talked of Trump-Putin summit (16th July) in Reykjavik. For NATO leaders, the list of problems is extensive, be that the US pressure for member states to spend more on defence, the threats posed by a mischievous Russia, the UK’s exit from the EU, the EU’s intent to grow its own collaborative defence alliance, Turkey’s expansionist designs in Northern Syria and their closer relationship with Russia and Iran, an unpredictable US President threatening a US withdrawal from NATO and possible deals with Russia, and no end to distant regional conflicts where NATO has both deployments and strategic interests.
NATO has undoubtedly been and is, a force for good, delivering a united front against Warsaw Pact Forces during the Cold War and shortly afterwards, delivering peace in the war ravaged Balkans. In hindsight, these were simple days; Western Europe was becoming all the more stable and integrated, there was one enemy to defeat, there was a fairly well defined area of operations (Western Europe and the North Atlantic) with clear boundaries (with a wall and a fence in fact, called the Iron Curtain), and of course, there was an understanding of the destructive power of nuclear weapons, making war less likely. Fast forward to 2018 and everything has changed. The assumptions of an ever closer relationship with Russia have been shattered, the expansion of NATO eastwards halted, the US has to some extent, ‘pivoted to the Pacific’, 9/11 happened, the Arab Spring caught everyone by surprise and NATO deployments to Afghanistan and Libya have been far from successful.
However, it is not the threat from Russia or any other state, such as Iran, that is the main immediate problem to NATO and the Europe that it is there to protect. The real threats come from the very stability and political cohesion within Europe, caused mainly by the economic hardships brought on by the 2008 financial crash, the huge influx of refugees fleeing poverty and conflict in the Middle East and Africa, the inflexibility of the Euro currency on some poorer southern European EU members, the freedom of movement permitted for those inside the EU (allowing organised crime, terrorists and illegal immigrants to operate and travel across the EU seamlessly) and the changes that the Information Age has had on traditional politics and voting behaviours. These economic hardships, combined with the inability to integrate and share out immigrants, and a fear of Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorism, have in turn produced more extreme political movements, which disagree with EU stated policy and who have started to win democratic elections and referendums, such as in, Austria, Hungary and Italy, the UK (Brexit) and Spain (i.e. Catalonian independence). This slow break down of European unity should worry both the US and NATO.
So as NATO leaders gather for their summit, whilst there must be attention paid to the state threats posed by Russia and possibly others, the herculean task for NATO is to maintain the very cohesion and security of Europe and prevent Europe from sliding back into nationalistic and extremist camps (and potentially conflict), two of the three reasons why NATO was created in the first place. While this may be seen by the US and NATO as an EU problem, if NATO is to stay true to its purpose, then it must recognise its priority to maintain peace within Europe. Peace should never be taken for granted; Europe's history tells as this much. If this concept can be accepted as the primary task for the Alliance, then a very different set of priorities and actions will arise, which will include:
- Robust dialogue with the EU to decide upon the responsibilities of NATO and of any EU Force and the need to share the financial burden fairly.
- Understanding the UK’s position with EU Defence cooperation, (alliance with the US and NATO to be assumed).
- Increased military investment to Europe’s external border security, including much greater maritime patrolling and security in the Mediterranean, capable of processing and handling immigration, refugees, organised crime and terrorists.
- Increase of investment in Intelligence and Surveillance against potential insurgents and terrorists intent on causing fear and division across Europe (both internal to Europe and globally).
- Commencing missions in capacity building in the Levant and the Mahgreb and deeper into Sub Saharan Africa, in order to stem the flow of refugees and economic migrants.
- Increase in investment in European Internal Security Forces, possibly including a NATO/EU police and counter terrorist force.
- Decisions as to the criteria for membership of NATO. Ultimately, an alliance can only operate with members who have the same political intent and who share the same behaviours and values.
These may not sound like the areas that NATO should be looking at and perhaps they all lie with an EU Defence concept, but they are tasks that need doing by someone. One should forget that it was a UK Police Force and Home Office, not the military, that have had to deal with the alleged Russian nerve agent attack in Salisbury. The reality is that EU member states cannot afford the luxury of an EU Defence Force and NATO doing the same thing. 'Double hatting' forces seems an inefficient way of creating military and security capability. Might it not be more effective to clearly articulate what NATO is responsible for delivering, and likewise for any EU Defence Force?
As NATO leaders prepare to meet on 11th & 12th July, whilst the existential threat to Europe may still come from Russia, a more significant threat comes from within. In the Information Age of the 21st Century, NATO leaders would do well to understand where they really are and what is going on around them, because there is a real risk that an unchanged NATO may not be forever. That may sound far fetched, but so is an England football World Cup win in Moscow on Sunday 15th July. I hope for the latter, not the former.
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