The West Cannot Afford To Ditch Nato

A Donald Trump presidency would test the alliance to breaking point at a time when it faces threats across a wide range of fronts

Alexander Woolfson

Treaty in trouble: Erdogan has vowed to restore Turkey’s “axis of friendship” with Russia, and is severing ties with the West (© Murat Kaynak/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This  summer has been a nadir for the global health of democracy. July’s Nato summit in Warsaw was meant to be a reassertion of the West’s security framework after Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Instead, the conference has been followed by a failed coup in Turkey, China’s rejection of an international tribunal’s decision which invalidated its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric as Republican presidential nominee. Western governments have yet again failed to stem the unravelling of the postwar international order. In its place isolationism and nationalism are taking hold. The reach of globalisation and the spread of Western liberal democracy that underpinned it are being challenged, not only in Russia and Turkey, but, unexpectedly, in the United States itself. In the midst of so many crises the current strategic focus and health of Nato has been overshadowed by Donald Trump’s attack on the future of transatlantic security. What Trump is saying is more than just bluster and the implications can only be understood within the context of broader political trends on both sides of the Atlantic.

Viewed from a security perspective, the surge of populist assaults on the international system has been shocking. From Brexit to the coup attempt in Turkey and Russian action in Syria, American foreign policy does not seem to guarantee the type of stability that it once ensured. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Europe faces a dire security situation with little chance of resolution. Both France and Germany are being subjected to extended terrorist campaigns, threatening Angela Merkel’s political dominance, at a time when Brexit has thrust Germany into the position of reluctant European hegemon. The unintended consequence has been to undermine part of Nato’s original purpose: to keep Germany from regaining dominance in Europe. Nato has been unable to formulate effective responses to both Russian revanchism and haphazard European budgetary commitments for several years. These threats are now matched by far more serious existential questions about Nato’s future. Most significantly, the unprecedented questioning of the organisation’s relevance has unexpectedly become a feature of the US presidential debate.

Erdogan’s vicious hollowing-out of the Turkish state in the wake of the attempted coup has tipped Nato’s perennial questioning of resolve into the realm of a genuine security crisis. Turkey is becoming less, rather than more, Western and is sliding away from democracy. Nato faces the uncomfortable choice between weakening the alliance by trying to expel a member, or accepting a member that openly questions its commitment to liberal democratic values. Turkey is no longer the country it was ten years ago when it saw Nato as a stepping-stone to EU membership. It is enthralled by neo-Ottoman fantasies. President Erdogan nakedly peddles anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories about Nato meddling in Turkish politics. This is making Turkey’s continued membership of a US-backed security organisation untenable. The uncomfortable question becomes how many Nato members would now be willing to come to Turkey’s aid, cognisant not only of the decay of her democracy but also her willingness to provoke her neighbours.

The situation is further complicated by Europe’s other major security threat, the ongoing migration crisis, which lies outside the auspices of Nato. The result is that Nato policy towards Turkey is rapidly decoupling from EU policy as Germany, in particular, desperately tries to negotiate a migration deal. Turkey has become the graveyard for Europe’s woes. While Eurosceptics have spent the past decade obsessively wrangling with the hypothetical effect of Turkish membership of the EU, Turkey has been busy severing her ties with Western values. The more pressing question is how Europe and Nato can engage with Turkey now. There is certainly precedent. Although the Nato treaty refers to democratic values and principles, during the Cold War the alliance allowed Portugal to join in 1949 while ruled by a dictator, and over the course of Nato’s history both Turkey and Greece have occasionally been ruled by the military.

In Washington, Turkey is now seen as a source of significant worry as much as it is seen as an ally, a view echoed throughout Nato. Strategically it remains important, straddling the Asian and European continents and acting as a forward operating base as the fight against IS is expanded. The moral course for the US would be disavowal, which would undoubtedly make Nato’s Syria policy more coherent. As it stands today one ally, the US, supports factions that another, Turkey, bombs. The messier, more pragmatic and more likely outcome is for the US  to recognise Turkey’s strategic and now political importance and to attempt some sort of reconciliation with Erdogan. Doing otherwise would be to relinquish whatever diminished Western influence remains in Ankara. Yet again this underscores the reality that while cutting ties or punishing uncooperative governments with sanctions was a realistic option for Washington during the peak of US power, today the reality is different, and America simply cannot risk a Turkish response that involves her realigning with Russia or China. In less than seven months Russia and Turkey have gone from hostility to coordinating their interests. Putin wants to use the Syrian conflict to manipulate Turkey into slowing Nato buildup in the Black Sea. This is an uneasy relationship, a lose-lose for Nato, in which the potential for aggression remains simmering.

Compounding the worsening security landscape, America’s strategic focus has been directed at the ongoing campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria and escalating tension in the South China Sea. This has to be seen in the broader context of the change in how the US perceives her strategic interests. Even before Trump appeared, Obama’s America had moved away from her hegemonic international role to a much more limited set of strategic ambitions. Trump’s incendiary foreign policy vision invokes Charles Lindbergh’s “America First”. He recalls a world where American intervention in the Second World War was far from certain, instead seeing her interests as best served by isolationism. For those who grew up during the bipartisan consensus of the Cold War this current political warfare over foreign policy seems like a dramatic aberration. In fact, partisan wrangling over foreign policy has been the historical norm in the US.

Hillary Clinton was correct to suggest in her speech at the Democratic convention that America faces a “moment of reckoning”. However, her uninspiring slogan “Stronger Together”, was also reminiscent of another lacklustre campaign, the Remain operation in the EU referendum. Indeed, there are important similarities between the Brexit vote, the rise of Trump and Erdogan’s Turkey. The potency of immigration as an issue, popular protest about economic insecurity and a growing chasm between elites and the public have all been widely dissected. The important link is that all three of these represent deep anxieties about, and indeed challenges to, the functioning of democracy. Erdogan and Trump in particular represent an unusual view quite different from liberal democracy — far closer to the alternative form of authoritarian democracy that Putin espouses in Russia. For them democracy is a form of government where the will of the popular majority is fully represented by an individual, to be implemented by that individual without regard for institutional or legal constraints. In the US this raises the question of whether democracy is going down the path of unstable populist politics.

This assault on liberal democracy is worrying. Since 1945 the health of liberal democracy has been inextricably tied to the spread of globalisation. The US presidential campaign and populist politics in Europe have been notable for their assault on the trade agreements which have made globalisation possible. Even Clinton has been forced to moderate her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the populist sense of economic disenfranchisement, which ultimately stoked support for Brexit and support for Trump, has grown until it now constitutes a profoundly destabilising assault on the international order.

The strategic impact of the rollback of globalisation is important. The changing normative approach to free trade is being hastened by another wave of technological revolution.

While technological development has hitherto been a driving force in the spread of globalisation, several commentators have suggested that the next stage will see a reduction in international trade, as developed countries are able to move industrial and agricultural production closer to their domestic markets. This is genuinely revolutionary. In terms of foreign policy the uncoupling of national prosperity and global stability means that for the first time in living memory the US will be able to avoid the link between global hegemony and the pursuit of national interest.

This notion, that US national interest is closely aligned with global stability, has been a shibboleth for close to 50 years. To follow the logic to its conclusion, the rollback of globalisation and America’s need to promote international stability would remove the requirement for a large expeditionary US military. In foreign policy terms it would probably cause a rethink of the purpose of American power. With the need for access to global markets reduced, isolationism might well take on a new appeal, as Trump’s supporters already indicate. If so, Trump’s “America first” may be the start of a significant isolationist trend, not just in America but globally. This would usher in a very different and less cosmopolitan world. Trump’s isolationist rhetoric, of which questioning Nato is just a part, has already had a marked effect on the tone of debate in the US and because it has popular appeal Clinton will not be able to ignore it. November will see the most important and probably most damaging US presidential election in a generation. It looks set to instigate a genuine political upheaval of the ideological roots of US foreign policy that Western prosperity has been reflexively based on for a generation. Most worryingly, it will probably take place without a serious debate about the role of American power in the world.

The political commentator Walter Lippmann understood the dangers of such debate. He wrote in 1943: “When a people is divided within itself about the conduct of its foreign relations, it is unable to agree on the determination of its true interest. It is unable to prepare adequately for war or to safeguard successfully its peace . . . The spectacle of this great nation which does not know its own mind is as humiliating as it is dangerous.”

At the heart of Nato’s declining stature is Trump’s recent suggestion that he would not necessarily extend the security guarantee inherent in Nato’s Article 5 to all 28 members of the alliance. Given a scenario of Russia attacking a Baltic state, Trump said that he would provide aid contingent upon whether the state had “fulfilled their obligations to us”. This lack of commitment to upholding Nato’s cornerstone of collective defence from a US presidential candidate undermines the alliance as a whole, experts believe, and is causing considerable anxiety among Nato allies — particularly in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe.

Even before Trump’s appearance on the political landscape both George W. Bush and Barack Obama raised serious questions about European commitment to the alliance. However Trump went further, explicitly linking spending of member states to strategic responses. This fundamentally undermines Nato. Article 5 is meant to be an absolute commitment, without condition or caveat.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s comments were met warmly in Moscow. His thoughts on Nato are dangerous, not just because he challenges the sanctity of the idea of mutual deterrence. As in so many other areas in which he debates, Trump has simply pushed an existing idea to an extreme and his comments stifle a genuine need for debate about Nato’s mission and purpose. More fundamentally they sow the worrying seeds of doubt that America would be less reliable in coming to the aid of its fellow members. Whatever the outcome of the election, it is clear that Trump has changed the scope of debate and America’s commitment to the alliance can never again be taken for granted.

As the future of Europe becomes less certain, Nato needs to place much less emphasis on the expansion of the alliance and far more on honouring the Article 5 guarantee that is already in place. The situation in Turkey and Trump’s comments about the Baltic states should be proof enough of this necessity. The problem with Trump is that his form of populism prevents the emergence of the type of change that Nato so desperately needs.

Equally, Trump’s hero-worship of Putin — to whom his campaign chairman Paul Manafort seems uncomfortably close — prevents the emergence of a meaningful new strategy for engaging with Russia on pan-European security concerns. Much like the EU, the borders of Nato were never seriously defined and the strategic identity and security concerns of Russia were never seriously engaged with.

The challenge for Nato has been in reassuring newer members, particularly in the Baltics, that the threat of Russian hybrid warfare will be met with a credible and appropriately scaled response by the alliance. Nato has been its own worst enemy in the sense that it has allowed countries which have no realistic chance of joining, such as Georgia, to take part in the membership process, a move which can only serve to weaken the alliance. An alliance with security guarantees that suffer from doubt or misperception is much more dangerous than the complete absence of an alliance.

US predominance has bred complacency, and Americans are not in the habit of negotiating with other countries as peers, or indeed rivals of the magnitude to which Russia aspires. Washington and, to a lesser extent, Europe are convinced that Russia is in serious structural decline. The belief since the end of the Cold War has been that Russia lacks the ability to challenge American interests. After Putin’s campaigns in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, that belief is now dangerously out of date. Russia now dictates the course of events as much as she is dictated to.

The combination of a significant increase in Nato exercises, matched by Putin, and a simultaneous decrease in direct communication with Russia, mean that the chance of a conflict between the US and Russia is higher than at any point since the Cold War. With an effective proxy war between the two countries in Syria, the possibility of escalation is a constant threat. Nato was forced to disavow Ankara after the shooting down of a Russian plane at the end of last year. More recently Russia has bombed UK special forces positions.

Amongst senior military leadership there is now significant concern that all three of Russia’s campaigns are being used as rehearsals for potential military conflict with the West. Earlier this year Sir Richard Shirreff published a controversial scenario for a future conflict with Putin’s Russia. His warning has now been joined by a leaked British Army memo which makes clear the degree of military vulnerability the UK in particular, and Nato more broadly, faces from advanced Russian capability. This should be a wake up call.

Nato cannot simply bury its head in the sand. The post-Cold War security arrangements have always been haphazard, but they are not as effective as they once were. The West has to find a forum for proactively finding new structures to ensure international stability. The Trump pronouncements could potentially offer an opportunity to tackle some of the major issues Nato faces and engage with major security concerns. Nato needs to at least explore opportunities for engagement with Russia. But such cooperation should be focused on situations where Russian capabilities truly matter for the resolution of pressing international problems. If the transatlantic community was more effective at deterring, or at least not inviting, subversive Russian behaviour in the first place, Russia would have fewer opportunities to create crises it later promises to try to solve in exchange for otherwise needless compromise and accommodation.

The only other pan-European security agreement, the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, came to an abrupt end in 2015 when Russia unilaterally withdrew. Nato needs to consider what replaces the CFE as part of a broader dialogue about the balance of power in Europe, in light of the EU’s continued weakness.

From Putin’s perspective, the introduction of wavering US support for Nato into the presidential election cycle is a significant victory. Even if the alliance does not crumble, Eastern European states will be forced to hedge their bets on the once-sacrosanct issue of US support. Nato is vulnerable to splintering as opposed to direct military attacks. It is clear that Putin’s major target is Turkey, with the aim of preventing Turkey acting as an effective buffer against Russian expansion to the south and into the Mediterranean.

Somewhere in the midst of debate, the sense of Nato’s utility for America has become lost. The weakening or disintegration of Nato would represent a serious strategic loss for the US. It is easy to forget why the US defends small, distant nations which are seemingly irrelevant to its everyday security. The point is that mutual deterrence is meant to deter the emergence of regional hegemonic powers which might challenge Washington for dominance of the global commons, and influence or revise the rules of international order. This is precisely why Putin resents Nato’s existence. Seen through this prism, the value that the US derives from Nato far exceeds its expenditure on it. Certainly during time of war, the Nato alliance would be indispensable but its greatest contribution is the prevention of conflict.

None of Nato’s problems can really be answered until the American people have decided what sort of foreign policy they want their new President to pursue. Under Barack Obama the early stages of isolationism gained momentum. It seems unlikely that this trend will be completely reversed by a Clinton victory. As a result, the real issue is what strands of isolationism will remain or develop over the next eight years.

Will it be a harder form, where America sends small amounts of relief assistance to parts of the world suffering conflict and disaster, but mostly abstains from restoring stability? This would certainly deliver the cost savings sought by Trump as expeditionary warfare capability becomes redundant. The other alternative might well be a more codified and nuanced version of the Obama doctrine whereby the US does not completely abandon its involvement in international security but makes it far more conditional on the involvement of international coalitions and without the expectation of nation-building. Whichever direction America and Nato take, it should be based on robust debate rather than the empty promise to “Make America Great Again”.

As Turkey slides away from liberal democracy and political cohesion in Europe and America comes under sustained assault, we must reflect upon the shared democratic tradition that Nato was meant to protect. The solution for America’s allies in preparing for the possibility of a Trump presidency is twofold — first, to make themselves stronger and more resilient, and second, to shore up the alliances and agreements that currently exist between them. As the security blanket provided by America shrinks, and European political cohesion falters, the West must acknowledge that old political assumptions and institutions can no longer be taken for granted. Nato faces a period of extraordinary vulnerability, Europe must pull its weight to ensure that Nato does not become another Cold War relic.

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