Last week’s meeting of NATO foreign ministers was supposed to address the alliance’s future and ways for it to stay relevant. Instead, it devolved into an acrimonious exchange of grievances, reinforcing the internal cleavages that plague it. Turkey was at the heart of the controversy, with outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashing out at its purchase of the S-400 missile defense system, among other issues. Turkish Foreign minister, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, responded with harsh words of his own. France jumped on the Turkey-bashing bandwagon, with Greece trailing close behind. It was, by all accounts, a demonstration of discord rather than the unity the NATO leadership was hoping for. Can the alliance ever get its act together?
Adnan R. Khan: What were the key divisions the meeting exposed?
Ilter Turan: There appear to be three questions that need answering, all based on how different relationships within the alliance work. The first is the nature of the relationship the U.S. and NATO’s European members; the second is the internal relationships among European members; and the third relates specifically to Turkey’s relationship with NATO.
Let us start with the European-American relationship. Throughout most of NATO’s history, the U.S. has been a clear leader; all other members have adjusted their behavior and strategies according to America’s strategic plans. These days, some argue that Europe should exercise strategic autonomy. This in practice means that Europe should be able to defend itself without the Americans, if need be. This is particularly suitable for the French, who have historically hoped that they, rather than the U.S., would become the main security provider of Europe.
This first issue leads to the second. There is a significant divergence between the French and the Germans regarding how European defense should be organized. The Germans feel that Europe’s defense can only be secured with American commitment. The French would like to see themselves as dominant security provider, based on the assumption that the Germans, in light of their problematical history, are reluctant to take on an enhanced military role in Europe. This, of course, is a highly questionable approach because, under current circumstances, France is in no position to provide a security umbrella for Europe; and any search for strategic autonomy would not only alienate the Americans but would also necessitate extensive spending on its military including the development of its nuclear capabilities. So, by promoting this sort of strategic autonomy, France is basically saying: Pay to upgrade my nuclear weapons, contribute to the cost of running my military, and I will hope to defend you.
Then there is the third issue, which is what will the relations with Turkey be? There is a perennial conflict between Greece and Turkey. Historically, other NATO members have worked hard to contain it and, for the most part, they have been highly successful. Both the U.S. and Germany have been keenly interested in ensuring that Turkey and Greece get along and resolve their differences by diplomatic means. This is changing. In addition to substantive issues that is generating pressures for change, the lack of clear leadership has invited a form of problematic behavior in NATO where individual members are increasingly using the Alliance and its platforms for advancing their narrow national agendas.
Adnan R. Khan: Pompeo’s tirade is particularly perplexing considering that President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly have a good relationship. How do you explain it?
Ilter Turan: Pompeo appears to be particularly enthusiastic about pursuing domestic agendas on international platforms. Let me point out here that Mr. Pompeo is supposed to be leaving office and the only thing he should be doing at this moment is saying goodbye. Instead, he is trying to make major policy pronouncements, many of which appear to be based on a scorched earth policy of making the job of the incoming Biden administration more difficult. Some have also argued that he may be setting the stage for his own political ambitions or even a potential return of Donald Trump in 2024. In both cases, Pompeo’s behavior at the NATO meeting could be designed to appeal to a certain subsection of American interests and lobbies, as well as a segment of American voters.
Adnan R. Khan: Has this utilization of NATO for domestic political purposes happened before?
Ilter Turan: Everything a country does in the international arena causes some vibrations or echoes in the domestic chamber. But to use NATO with little consideration for other members and forgetting that this is an organization where countries have come together for a very explicit common purpose, seems to me something new, particularly for the U.S. It is extremely dangerous because it can be very dysfunctional for a military alliance to have its cohesion undermined by trying to use it as a platform for domestic political purposes. Without consensual political will and a certain level of mutual trust, you cannot have an effective military organization performing security functions. Treating the alliance as a platform for pursuing narrow national purposes or as an instrument of domestic politics renders the alliance ineffective and, ultimately, useless.