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After the 2 per cent debate – NATO catches up with politics

In this post, Julia Himmrich analyses the most recent NATO meeting in London, arguing that political disputes threaten to disrupt an otherwise-well functioning alliance.

The past week brought North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) leaders, defence ministers, ambassadors and civil society actors to London to reflect on the state of the Atlantic Alliance 70 years after it was founded. Beyond the headlines of leaders gossiping about each other, it was evident that this summit brought the political shifts in Europe to the forefront.

In comparison to the last several meetings, the all-consuming 2 per cent defence spending debate and the threat of Russia was much less prominent this time. Instead, French President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial interview with the Economist – during which he called  the alliance ‘brain dead’ – captured the attention of world leaders in the lead-up to the summit. He lamented that NATO lacked the strategic vision and argued that terrorism, not Russia, was the most significant threat. Unsurprisingly, other leaders rejected the statement for its exaggeration.

At the NATO Engages conference preceding the summit, Secretary-General Stoltenberg argued that NATO was strong on substance but weak on rhetoric. While Stoltenberg may have been accurate in his assessment, to draw a clear line between the two ignores the relationship between words and the operational effectiveness of the alliance. There is now a risk that NATO’s substance could be undermined by its weak rhetoric and the increasing controversial statements from allies. Turkey further contributed to the political tensions and continued its collision with allies. The two parties disagree vehemently over the direction of the fight against ISIS and the fate of the Kurds along Turkey’s border in northern Syria.

The post 2 per cent debate

Although it predates the Trump Administration, the 2 per cent debate has polarised the intra-NATO debates in the last three years. US President Donald Trump’s instance on fulfilling the pledge to spend 2 per cent of their GDP on defence before the agreed deadline, and ignoring other contributions allies make to NATO, has tired both Canada and the Europeans, most of whom do not meet the target that was agreed upon in 2014.

However, the shape of this debate has changed. While in 2017, when Trump came onto the international stage, they were defensive about their spending, Europe and Canada now have confidently prepared answers and downplay it as a non-issue. Trump’s narrowly-focussed argument about defence spending has shown the limits of his understanding and engagement or vision for the alliance. His approach to bully Europeans on defence spending may make him look strong with his domestic political base. Internationally, however, this attitude has made the US appear less reliable as an ally. More importantly, the matter of burden sharing remains unresolved.

Burden sharing is no longer the top issue at NATO, but only because it has been overshadowed, not because it has been resolved. Combined with Trump’s ambivalence about arms control, (the United States’ formally left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia earlier this year) trust in the US’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic security has weakened.

In the last few years, Europeans have grown more confident in their efforts on defence. The false dichotomy of NATO versus EU defence has broadly been overcome among Europeans. While US officials may still be suspicious, just like the defence spending debate, European now shrug the opposition off much more confidently. At the European level, the initiatives for defence integration are now well underway. Beyond PESCO, the European Defence Fund, the new planning tools such as CARD, there is now also a new Directorate-General for the defence industry and space. These are all long-term plans and developments and will face their EU-internal political problems, but Europeans are determined not to let the US dominate the defence debate. Broadly, Europeans appear to have found a new consensus now that EU defence integration is reconcilable with NATO efforts.

Conflict over threat perception

These former major points of contention now appear very technical in comparison with the political conflicts currently facing NATO. Threat perception and the increasing authoritarianism in Turkey had been ignored over the last few years, but leaders have not been shy to address them directly this time. Macron’s call for more attention to terrorism was also motivated by the recent deaths of French soldiers in Mali; Macron is tired of the lack of support of the allies in the Sahel. But getting involved in the region would be a controversial shift for NATO.

Although allies disagreed with Macron’s approach, the question of the Russian threat was considerably toned down at this summit. No longer is there a discussion of a Russian military attack or physical traditional collective security, Article V scenario, according to which an attack on one ally is an attack on all. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine and Georgia, who are not NATO members, following Russian aggression, received little coverage. But just as the summit was ongoing, Germany expelled Russian diplomats involved in the killing of Georgian nationals on German soil. Macron’s statement does not reflect the experience of other allies, both in regards to hybrid and traditional warfare. Due to the diminished focus on Russia, Eastern European members are particularly concerned. But allies with more interest in the southern flank of NATO are determined to be heard.

This includes Turkey, over which the biggest political conflict in NATO that has been brewing for years has now erupted more publically. Relations with the EU, of which Turkey is not a member, have been deteriorating over the autocratic developments under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The expectation of the other countries was that the privilege of NATO membership would keep him in check on his military ambitions in the Middle East. Instead, the Turkish leadership has aimed at a key political tension among allies. Turkey’s insistence on labelling the Kurdish YPS a terrorist organisation confronts the allies and also targets the disagreement on the US withdrawal of support for the Kurds in Iraq. Turkey was eventually forced to back down on its threats to use this demand to withhold support for Baltic allies. However, an ally publically threatening to withhold support for others is a an alarming development and Erdogan is unlikely to be more cooperative soon.

Politics are catching up with NATO. It has always tried to stick to its clear mission and mandate, but European allies are pushing the alliance into different directions without a new vision that is likely to capture consolidated support. We may come to miss the days when the biggest conflict was over how much everyone is spending on defence.

Julia Himmrich is a Dahrendorf Post-Doctoral Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.