Don’t Blame Turkey for NATO’s Woes

Emmanuel Macron thinks the Atlantic alliance is brain-dead, but its problems have deeper roots than the recent U.S.-Turkish spat over Syria.

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) jokes with U.S. President Donald Trump (center) next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) as they arrive for the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) jokes with U.S. President Donald Trump (center) next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) as they arrive for the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11, 2018. TATYANA ZENKOVICH/AFP via Getty Images

As NATO celebrates 70 years of existence at this week’s leaders’ summit in London, the cohesion of the alliance is being tested like never before. In an interview with the Economist a few weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron said the alliance was experiencing “brain death.” His argument was that under U.S. President Donald Trump, the United States was no longer interested in the defense of Europe. He also cited Turkey’s cross-border operation into Syria as evidence of the political dysfunction of the alliance.

Last week, Ankara was criticized for blocking a NATO defense plan for the Baltic states and Poland. All of this prompts the question: Has Turkey really become a threat to NATO’s political cohesion?

The answer is not simple. NATO is currently adapting to changes in the global security environment. Despite claims to the contrary, NATO is a dynamic alliance. It has taken stock of the changing landscape since the end of the Cold War and is striving to adapt its doctrine and strategy to new conditions.

The political momentum for this transformation was provided by the Strategic Concept of 2010, in which NATO reenvisioned its role in defending the security of its members. Alliance leaders agreed to streamline NATO capabilities to enhance their collective defense beyond territorial defense and improve the alliance’s role in crisis management. The Strategic Concept heralded a change in how alliance members viewed their national security and the role they ascribed to NATO.

The traditional raison d’être of NATO was territorial defense. The alliance used its conventional and nuclear capabilities to deter attacks against the territory of its members. But at the end of the Cold War, NATO faced an identity crisis. Gone was the existential danger of a total war between the Warsaw Pact and the NATO alliance. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which took place in the heart of Europe, demonstrated that the alliance was still useful—albeit in a different way.

The 2010 Strategic Concept has underpinned this shift, which saw NATO overstepping its traditional boundaries and engaging in such areas as Afghanistan and Libya, which were previously considered “out of area” or no-go zones. This became possible as NATO members developed a more holistic view of their national security to match the globally evolving threat landscape.

This more sophisticated outlook required an overhaul of NATO’s defense plans, to match the strategic assessment of the alliance and to develop the capabilities required for all contingencies.

These updated plans were prepared for the eastern flank—covering the Baltic states and Eastern Europe—and separately for the southern flank, with a focus on Turkey, in order to better adapt NATO’s response to the realities on the ground.

Although it has not been publicly disclosed, NATO reportedly adopted these plans in early 2016. There were no major issues then in reaching the required unanimity within the North Atlantic Council and the plans received the political backing of all allies.

Since then, however, NATO has had a harder time managing the diverging national-security priorities of its members, including NATO’s leading member, the United States. The derisive rhetoric often used by Trump toward NATO has started to raise questions about Washington’s commitment to the security of its European allies, which undermines both the cohesion and the deterrence capability of the alliance. The United States’ national-security outlook was also upended by the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The fight against the Islamic State became a core priority not only for the national-security establishment, but also for the political leadership in Washington. U.S. policymakers formed a tactical alliance with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria to fight the Islamic State, preferring to remain oblivious to the danger that this partnership posed for Washington’s bilateral relations with Turkey. For Ankara, the YPG was an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and was therefore considered a security threat just like the PKK.

It is under these circumstances that Washington moved to block the implementation of the NATO defense plan covering Turkey that had already been agreed at the political level. The reason was that the plan as it was adopted in early 2016 had, reflecting Turkey’s legitimate concerns, labeled the YPG a terrorist entity.

But the plan for the southern flank was much more ambitious than that: Its objective was to prepare NATO to better respond to the variety of actual and potential threats that could potentially destabilize the region. The YPG issue was essentially a side note and not even a core element of the defense plan.

Yet the United States prioritized its own interests in a way that was diametrically opposed to the interests of one of its NATO allies—even going the extra mile to block a political-military plan to which it had given its prior consent. Washington also remained aloof to arguments by the Turkish side that the bilateral disagreement over the YPG should not become a broader NATO issue, turning it into a dispute that could divide and weaken the alliance.

As the United States became more recalcitrant, its bilateral relationship with Turkey rapidly deteriorated. The list of grievances grew on both sides—including the U.S. administration’s refusal so far to extradite the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, Ankara’s alleged violation of Iran sanctions, and the United States’ ongoing partnership with the YPG.

With the U.S. government unwilling to lift its veto on the implementation of the plan for Turkey, Ankara also hardened its position and is now threatening to veto the plan for the eastern flank, covering the Baltics and Poland. Ankara’s argument relies on the old dictum of the indivisibility of security. NATO cannot and should not discriminate between its members. An effort to improve the security of its members in the north and in the east should be accompanied by a similar effort for the south. Turkey’s stance has understandably irked countries in the eastern flank, such as Poland and Estonia.

Yet this episode is more about than just Turkey or the United States. It epitomizes one of the most significant challenges that NATO faces as it prepares to celebrate its 70-year anniversary—namely, how NATO can manage to retain its political cohesiveness in an environment where threats have proliferated and diversified?

The repositioning of NATO in the post-Cold War years as an alliance to address threats that don’t call for traditional armed conflict has created this dilemma for NATO leaders. Each NATO nation now has a different perception of the salience of various asymmetric threats—such as violent radicalization and terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and state failure in neighboring regions.

In short, the task of ensuring policy cohesion within an alliance which has been entrusted to respond to these threats has become more complicated. It was far easier to manage the consensual politics for a limited number of recognized “existential” threats than a greater number of smaller security challenges.

The diplomatic episode with Turkey should remind NATO leaders that this week in London, they will need to address these disparities in threat perception constructively. A possible formula could be to expand the scope and frequency of Article 4 consultations. Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty allows NATO members to exchange views on any developments that could affect transatlantic security. A failure to do so is more likely to confirm that NATO is comatose than the armchair diagnosis of the French president.

Sinan Ulgen is the chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Twitter: @sinanulgen1

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