By Nikos Theodosiadis
Thou shalt not kill. Simple. Straightforward. Unmistakeable. This forthright yet highly intricate instruction comprises the fifth of the Ten Commandments governing biblical principles. A foundational pillar of modern religions, it bears an uncoincidental resemblance to another norm of Western strategic and political culture that is not religious but might as well be given the pedestal it is held at.
NATO’s Article Five – commonly known as the mutual defence clause – asserts that an attack on one Ally constitutes an attack on all Allies. This dome of transatlantic defence safeguarded the security of European and North American democracies against Soviet aggression. The once pious pact is now riddled with existential angst. The most recent NATO Summit that took place in the outskirts of London this past month was supposed to reassert Article Five as ironclad. Instead, the cacophony of bickering leaders left a vacuum at the very heart of European security.
The summit was supposed to be a triumphal celebration of the NATO’s 70th birthday offering credible security guarantees. With the average lifespan of defence alliances over the past half millennium spanning just 15 years, NATO has indeed not just survived but prospered as perhaps the strongest and most successful alliance in history. However, in contrast to the gravity of the present circumstances the London summit ended in a fashion more reminiscent of a High School Prom with spoiled teenagers upset that they did not receive the attention and generosity that they hoped for.
Mr Trump’s premature departure from the NATO Summit after a video – that can only be described as tabloid tattle – emerged of fellow world leaders mocking him perfectly summarises the pacts’ current member cohesion. The changing strategic and political priorities of the USA have become evident under the Presidency of Donald Trump who has called into question America’s continued commitment to European defence. Describing NATO as “obsolete”, President Trump has even flirted with the idea of a US withdrawal from the Alliance, albeit privately.
Asked whether US armed forces would defend their NATO allies under a hypothetical Article Five invocation, Mr Trump hinted that “delinquent” members which do not meet the threshold of 2 percent of GDP spending on defence may not be his country’s priority. The chorus of NATO sceptics, then, should not come as a surprise. French President Emmanuel Macron threw fuel to this raging fire by evoking NATO’s “brain death”. His comments may have been indelicate, but his sentiment was not.
The corrosive nature of Mr Trump’s comments obligate that Europe begin taking steps towards strategic autonomy as a way of ensuring its collective security. Such steps would not threaten the US through open competition, but would rather complement the defence alliance by strengthening its most fundamental pillar, the European frontier.
To understand the future of NATO it is vital to break down the components that underpin the alliance. As Paul Taylor describes NATO consists of two central spheres. The first one entails NATO’s slick war machine capable of adopting to any security or defence threat. Following Mr Trump scolding, European states’ spending on defence has risen by $130 billion the past four years, with troop numbers in the Baltic states and Poland now at the highest they have been since 1991 while a space force is currently in works as well. Suffice to say that NATO readiness to counter Russian or any aggression in this sphere is doing exceptionally well.
The second sphere which comprises the political alliance was put on full display at the NATO summit. Unity and consensus driven dialogue are key to its success. Instead, over the past years we have become accustomed to a world where historical allies extort one another at moments of crises for monetary and self-interested trade concessions, and view NATO as a forum of zero-sum outcomes. The one NATO cannot survive without the other and currently the two seem grossly incompatible. If European states cannot know for certain the intentions of their allies, tackling the idea of strategic autonomy and collective defence is of utmost necessity.
At present coordination between NATO members has reached rock bottom. Twitter has now become the source of notification for US Presidential decisions that affect all member states. Whereas, the once proud forum of liberal norms has been infiltrated by Trojan horses carrying illiberal and authoritarian ideals which could not run further astray from the transatlantic ideals.
Questions of Russian aggression across the eastern European frontier are constantly raised, and rightfully so. Russia’s revisionism since the Cold War in tandem with the risen Chinese economic expansionism have pressured Europe intensely. However, these are not the only threats to European security. The greatest ones, and those capable of dismantling the entire defence colossus, are those within.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria working alongside French and British Special Forces was one of the most consequential decisions because it was done without proper consultation. So too was the decision to rescind support for the only Western ally on the ground in Syria, the Kurdish Forces and more recently, the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Suleimani by a US drone. But no country has threatened to pull down the entire edifice of NATO more than Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Just in the past year Ankara has unilaterally decided to invade northern Syria and wage an offensive against Kurdish forces, without any prior warning. Further, Erdogan has been cuddling up to Russia President Vladimir Putin by disregarding NATO treatises through his purchase of Russian S400 air-defence systems. If that was not enough, Turkey also signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN-backed Tripoli government in Libya, demarcating a maritime sea border that outright ignores Greek and Cypriot sovereignty. All the while it has been conducting drilling tests for oil and gas in the Cypriot exclusive economic zone.
The French President rightfully asked how would NATO members behave if Syria were to retaliate Turkish aggression and Erdogan invoked Article Five. Why should other NATO states be called upon to protect a self-absorbed demagogue? In similar light, what outcome could we expect in the unlikely but possible scenario of a Greco-Turkish conflict? Erdogan’s belligerent indifference for international laws and his constant disrespect for allied sovereignty necessitates that such questions are not only posed but that answers are provided.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s top foreign policy official, declared that if Europeans want to avoid being squeezed into insignificance by great powers who are mercilessly engaging in realpolitik while using Europe as a chessboard, then they must “learn to use the language of power.” Von der Leyen’s aspirations of a “geopolitical Commission” set this goal very much within striking distance.
The first steps toward Europe’s strategic autonomy have already been taken. While numerous defence enterprises have been undertaken lately, the most notable include the new European Intervention Initiative and the EU’s Permanent Structured Co-operation which is complemented by the European Defence Fund. Together these initiatives can serve as the cornerstone of the EU’s autonomous security architecture.
Caught between an unpredictable US President and ambivalent ‘allies’, Europe should not let NATO’s quagmire undermine its collective security and defence clout. Headline statistics and rubberstamp communiques are insignificant in the face of brittle mistrust and faded cohesion amongst members. The time has come for the US to entrust Europe with the stewardship of its own continental security. With Europe rising to the challenge of burden sharing, the US can then gain a competitive edge in the frontier of the Pacific theatre.
European leaders must dare to envision a Union that will thrive in the dangers of the present world. Europe’s perseverance is not a choice, but a duty. The road ahead will be daunting and the obstacles plenty, yet we must remain steadfast in our commitment to the panacea of our security, ultimately leading invariably to the formation of a historic European defence union.