Speaking to the website of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, Abbas Sarvestani said the NATO summit was held in London Dec. 3-4to mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the military alliance. The meeting took place as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization faces unprecedented challenges similar to what it countered at the time of its creation to the extent that the future of the military alliance is at stake.
“Strengthening the eastern front of the military alliance has increased tensions with Russia and China dramatically and unprecedentedly since the Cold War. On the other hand, given US President Donald Trump’s stance, concerns and doubts have been created among NATO members concerning America’s interest and respect for this collective defence treaty.
The European expert said that ahead of the NATO summit, many of its member states are concerned about Trump’s behaviour and the repetition of what occurred in last year’s summit in Brussels; last year Trump had accused NATO’s European member states, particularly Germany, of negligence in contributing to the NATO expenses and failing to implement the 2014 agreement requiring them to allocate 2% of their GDP to military and defence affairs.
Optimistic and Pessimistic Scenarios about NATO
Sarvestani reiterated NATO’s status at the age of seventy and said pessimistic and optimistic scenarios should be considered in this respect. Critics of NATO see the divide between the two sides of the Atlantic and the decline in EU reliance on the US in defence issues, strategic trends and multilateralism in the international order based on common rules and norms a reason for the triviality of NATO military actions. He added, in contrast, many experts consider the following as reasons for NATO effectiveness in safeguarding Western liberal democracy against the destructive forces of the international system:
- Dispatch of new NATO forces to eastern member states to counter growing threats from Russia and China
- Holding large-scale manoeuvres
- Expanding the scope of the mission to counter cyber threats and terrorism
- Pursuing training and capacity building in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq
- Welcoming of the military alliance by new states
“What is often overlooked in these analyses is the dynamics of systems and their ability to adapt to new conditions,” he said. NATO has always faced numerous crises and criticisms, especially after the Cold War, but its achievements have not been few in the complex security environment of the world. Of course, we have to see the half-empty and half-full of the glass together. To say that NATO’s organization and operation are perfect or that NATO is disintegrating are both distortions of reality.
Problems Facing NATO
“This international military alliance contrary to the timing and philosophy of creation which was concentrated on a united front with the most specific geography faces a variety of threats and problems compared to the past.
Sarvestani said the focus of the military alliance was on the Soviet Union until its 40th year, after which it focused on wars in Eastern Europe, especially Kosovo air operations and then counter-terrorism, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan; but on the eve of its 70th birthday, the organization in a complex security environment faces a diverse range of threats on its three strategic fronts: east, south and inland.
He cited Russia’s proliferation of ballistic missiles, deployment of a missile defence system in the Crimea and Kaliningrad, Russia’s return to the Middle East and its close relations with Turkey and Iran, and its military actions in the Arctic, among other important issues that NATO considers as a threat facing its eastern front.
He added that especially after the termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and hesitations by the current US administration about renewing the New START(Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) in 2021, the vulnerability of the European countries before the ever-expanding intermediate nuclear weapons between the US and Russia has more than doubled, and this is most damaging to NATO’s eastern allies.
He said: NATO on the Southern Front is facing a crisis of fractured and fragile states against fundamentalism and extremism, a growing number of militias and criminal gangs that pose many different challenges, such as terrorist attacks, humanitarian crises, immigration crisis against the organization the solution of which is largely civilian, requiring indigenous knowledge, development, and long-term partnerships for internal capacity building.
NATO’s Internal Challenges
In the domestic field, said the European affairs expert, NATO also faces two major challenges; first of all, expansion of NATO’s activities in the fields of transport, electricity infrastructure, space communications, pipelines, member states’ information technology networks under Article 5 of the Covenant has increased territorial demands and defence of the national sovereignty of the member states. Also, the variety of new terrorist and cyber threats and their tools have raised concerns and distrust of NATO’s effectiveness in combating these threats.
“The second issue is the increasing spread of rightist tendencies among member states and their lack of support for transnational military organizations such as NATO. Part of this opposition is due to emerging global trends and the activity of anti-war institutions and organizations, and much of that is due to this,” he said. That is why many of today’s younger generations of NATO members have no understanding of the horrors that have led to the unification of global institutions such as NATO at the end of World War II.
Possibility of Europe’s Military Independence from the US?
Responding to a question that, given the arguments raised by France, can the EU take steps to defend its independence against the United States and act essentially in terms of securing independence from the US? “From the very beginning of the creation of NATO, there was a fundamental disagreement between the two sides of the Atlantic as to whether European defence identity should be strengthened or weakened,” he said.
“After 70 years, there is still debate over the existence of a single European army and strategic independence from the United States, but that seems to be in its most critical situation on the eve of NATO’s 70th year,” the European expert said. Fear of diminishing US commitments to NATO as well as Britain’s exit from the European Union has put European security in dire straits and has heightened the quest for important European countries for strategic and defensive independence from the United States.
He continued: The idea of independence by France as a permanent incompatible partner of NATO and Germany as the tip of the attack from Trump in criticizing lack of increased defence funding, and General De Gaulle’s vision of a Europe stretching “from the Atlantic to the Urals” are heard these days in German and French circles. Also, Trump’s mercantilist and supportive policies have raised the question among European elites why they do not pursue this policy.
So, as we noticed a week after the French president spoke in a controversial interview about NATO’s “brain death” and questioned NATO’s ability in defending its member states, EU countries launched a new project in the form of a structured cooperation program. They launched PESCO (the Permanent Structured Cooperation) as the part of the European Union’s security and defence policy in which 25 of the 28 national armed forces pursue structural integration.
NATO’s European Challenges
Commenting on the type of challenges facing Europe in this regard, Sarvestani said: Although security interdependence is one of the standards of the international security system, but as mentioned, the debate on Europe’s strategic independence from NATO and the United States as a new idea of European security and responsibility is currently attracting the attention of many fans from among the European countries.
Sarvestani said the EU’s new efforts to achieve European strategic independence include two PESCO initiatives as well as the creation of a joint defence fund that will reach $661 million by next year. This EU pursuit may in the short run help to increase their bargaining power against NATO and the United States, but ultimately this strategic independence and the creation of an independent international defence and security system in the hierarchical structure of the international system will not be without challenges.
He added: The first challenge for EU strategic independence is that all EU members, especially its central and eastern members, traditionally more concerned with Russian threats, oppose defence and security independence and undermine security cooperation with the United States. The second major challenge for the EU is the lack of consensus on the values and principles of foreign policy among member states, which has made it difficult to reach consensus, especially as experience in domestic and foreign policy and defence policy shows a desire to maintain EU membership. Its national sovereignty is more than transnational cooperation with the European Union.
Sarvestani said the EU’s third major geopolitical challenge is its security environment, such as Russia’s growing threats and the EU’s challenges to Turkey as a key NATO member, prompting even the most optimistic people to contemplate on strategic independence. Another challenge in this area is defence spending. European NATO members currently do not cover a large portion of NATO expenses, and if Britain leaves the EU, Europe’s share of supplying NATO expenses will fall to less than 20 per cent.
He added: Although NATO member states currently spend less than 2% of their GDP on defence, in the event of independence from NATO, European countries will need a budget far greater than the current NATO budget to provide maritime security and deterrence against Russia. In addition to these factors, according to Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, former State Secretary and German Ambassador to the US if NATO did not exist Germany would have to double its defence budget to 3-3.5 per cent of GDP or risk being still blind, deaf and defenceless”.
End of NATO?
“There are two possible scenarios for the future of NATO, including the continuation of the current situation and the adoption of a policy of strategic patience and time buying as well as collapse,” Sarvestani said of NATO’s future scenarios.
He continued: The worst possible scenario for NATO, given Donald Trump’s policies and the harsh criticism of some European leaders, is the collapse of the Western military alliance. Although NATO is regarded the most successful military organization in history, but considering a decision by the United States for abandoning the multilateral security framework in which it accuses its allies of free rides, as well as criticisms by the leaders of major European countries on the “brain death” of NATO, the expectation of a world without NATO is not beyond imagination.
“There are many reasons for this scenario to happen. The current US government prefers concluding a series of bilateral defence deals that prioritize bilateral security guarantees to economic and trade arrangements, such as the proposal that links the future of the US trade and security with the post-Brexit UK.
Sarvestani said Poland’s recent proposal for a permanent US military presence in Poland, such as the “Fort Trump” and a defence agreement between the United States and Hungary signed to facilitate the deployment of US troops on Hungarian soil are clear examples of the member states’ distrust in NATO.
He added: “Obviously, as we continue this trend, we will see a change in the geometry and security architecture of the NATO member states, especially in the European continent.” Germany and France will work to strengthen European defence initiatives and industrial cooperation and to attract as many EU members as possible to join it.
Heterogeneous European Security Landscape
The post-Brexit Britain will strive to conclude bilateral arrangements similar to what the US does, with key countries in the world, Nordic cooperation will inevitably be strengthened, the Polish Intermarium strategic concept involving the Baltic and Black Seas states can become a framework for formal European security arrangement with European countries, especially Germany with Russia, the European affairs expert said.
The result of this scenario will be the heterogeneous European security landscape in a way that Europe’s centre and periphery will become weaker against the growing power of Russia and China, Sarvestani said. The future of Turkey’s Incirlik base will be in a state of uncertainty as Ankara will be tempted to get closer to Russia and China to reduce its security and economic risks, the Western Balkans will re-enter the logic of greater competition and will have complex implications for the regional commitment system.
Sarvestani added: European history, especially after the Westphalia Treaty and the formation of national governments, is full of these nationalisms and bilateral security arrangements that have had catastrophic consequences for these countries. In this scenario, the United States will also become weaker against the future of the China-Russia alliance and even a pan-European security agreement.
NATO Members Await End of Trump Era
But the most likely scenario for NATO’s future is the continuation of the status quo and the policy of buying time and patience and waiting until the current US government changes. Many NATO members hope that the pressures of the Democrats in the US Congress on Donald Trump will end his destructive foreign policy and multilateral commitments, or the current divergence among NATO members will stop by coming to power of a Democratic president.
Sarvestani said with the continuation of the current trend the European NATO members at their forthcoming summit will most probably implement the Wales Summit 2014 pledge that they would commit 2 per cent of their GDP to defence and military affairs for 10 years up to 2024.
The result of this scenario would be that NATO would continue to secure its southern and eastern fronts and invest in deterrence measures against Russia’s offensive positions; but NATO’s usual response to Russia’s actions in cyber defence, interference with democratic processes and using energy as a political tool will be more difficult.
NATO’s Main Challenges on the South Front
“Terrorism and fundamentalism will continue to remain a major challenge for NATO on the South Front,” Sarvestani said. As NATO leaves Afghanistan, competition between Russia, Pakistan and China to fill the vacuum will increase. Turkey’s bilateral stance on sensitive issues such as Syria and relations with Russia and Iran is likely to continue. Tensions between the United States and Germany, France, Russia and China over the Islamic Republic of Iran’s sanctions case will add to the number of strategic uncertainties and security risks in large areas of the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
As evidenced by the theme of the upcoming NATO summit, Alliance for the Future, NATO is facing a wide-scale set of military, political, and economic crises in the Transatlantic relationship to ensure long-term security of its members, shape a new world order and guarantee peace and stability for the future of member states with a broad set of interests.
The meeting is also an opportunity to evaluate and present new strategies to adapt the entity to new conditions and enhance its capabilities to counter Russian threats, cyber-attacks, terrorism, border security, manipulation of the data, critical infrastructure protection and humanitarian crises will be caused by environmental crises and severe climate changes.
Sarvestani said Britain’s symbolic choice as the venue, despite all the crises the country is facing, was because the first headquarters of the political and security alliance was set up in London in 1949. Moreover, the choice was a sign of NATO solidarity with post-Brexit Britain with the UK leaving the European Union in January next year.