NATO, the Middle East and Eastern Europe

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George Friedman [Georgi Gotev]

Interests within NATO diverge, particularly between the United States and many European countries. George Friedman takes a closer look.

George Friedman is an internationally recognised geopolitical forecaster, New York Times best-selling author and the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, a global analysis company.

Over the past week, American officials have attended meetings of NATO and the Munich Security Conference. The topic has been the future of NATO, with the US demanding once more that the Europeans carry out their obligation to maintain effective military forces in order to participate in the NATO military alliance. At the same time, many European countries raised the question of whether the United States is committed to NATO. The Europeans are charging that Americans may have military force but lack political commitment to Europe. The Americans are charging that the Europeans may be politically committed to NATO but lack the military force to give meaning to their commitment.

The real issue is that NATO has achieved its original mission, and no agreement exists on what its mission is now. NATO’s original mission was to block a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. That was achieved in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Having achieved the mission, NATO could have dissolved, but the problem with multinational institutions is that they take on a life of their own, independent of the reason they were created. Disbanding NATO because it had achieved its goal was never an option. So it continued to exist, holding conferences, maintaining planning staff and acting as if there was political agreement on what it was supposed to do.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States, as the only global power, created a coalition going far beyond NATO to repel the invasion. There was great satisfaction at the outcome, without a realisation that the Iraqi invasion was not a stand-alone event but the beginning of a massive restructuring of the Middle East that would include vast instability and terrorist attacks on the US and Europe. From 1945 until 1991, the fundamental global issue was the status of Europe in the wake of World War II. From 1991 until today, the fundamental issue for Europe and the United States has been the status of the Islamic world in the wake of the end of the Cold War, which had the effect of imposing a kind of stability in the region.

NATO was created to address post-World War II Europe. That is no longer the pivotal issue. NATO was not built to deal with what came after its success. There is consensus that chaos in the Islamic world is undesirable, but no consensus on three other points. First, there is no agreement that NATO as an institution has an obligation to take collective military action to pacify the region. Second, there is no consensus over what pacification would look like. Third, there is no consensus that a coordinated and collective effort to prevent terrorist attacks on NATO countries should be undertaken.

NATO’s institutions were created with a crisply defined mission, an understanding of the consequences of failure and, therefore, an allocation of military resources appropriate to the mission and to member states’ resources. There is no such agreement on the current conflict and, therefore, NATO does not have a unifying mission. The Cold War was seen as an existential threat to Europe. The Islamic conflict is seen in different ways by different countries at different times. No military strategy can exist based on this political base of sand. Therefore, interests within NATO diverge, particularly between the United States and many European countries. The US has fought a war for 15 years in the Muslim world designed to contain those forces the US perceived as a danger to its security and interests. Some European countries, such as the United Kingdom, have joined this war with major resources. Some have given what I can only call symbolic gestures, considering the resources they could have devoted. Others have been deeply sceptical and critical of US strategy.

Therefore, these countries cannot fully agree on the strategic problem NATO faces and, as a result, can’t adopt a unified strategy. NATO members’ view of the world and willingness to act decisively varies widely. Therefore, the reasonable question is what is the point of NATO? The general feeling is that while the US’ 15-year war did not compel Europe to act as a matter of collective security, other interests bind members together.

The problem is defining what other issues require an organisation such as NATO, and whether, having defined the issue, the Europeans are prepared to devote the resources required to carry out the mission. It is vital to constantly point out that NATO is not a political framework where discussions take place but a military alliance that rests on military goals and resources. It is about soldiers and sailors, and if the issues being faced do not involve these, then NATO has no use. Some other sort of institution may be required to address these issues instead.

NATO is an alliance of habit. We used to need NATO and, therefore, surely we still need NATO. It is also an alliance of convenience. Rather than being committed to the military management of current problems, which is its mission, it has become selective in its engagements. The difference between NATO prior to 1991 and now is simple. Prior to 1991, it had a clear purpose and all members were committed to that purpose. It no longer has a clear purpose, and when some members, such as the United States, become involved in wars, participation is elective. To be more precise, participation can be broad but militarily insignificant. Europe’s military force is rationally shaped to the risk it is prepared to take and not to the requirements of the conflict at hand. Participation in conflict is not automatic but optional. Therefore, NATO is no longer an alliance, as an alliance requires mutual interests and support. NATO members have no mutual interest.

In trying to find a reason for NATO to continue operating, the obvious solution is to once again address NATO’s founding mission: deterring Russia. From 1991 until 2008 and the war in Georgia, NATO’s assumption about Russia was that it was the crippled remnant of the Soviet Union, incapable of posing a military hazard and interested primarily in evolving into a variety of liberal democracy with a vibrant economy linked to Europe. It seemed a reasonable assumption, but it was defective. The Russians increasingly saw European and American help as undermining Russia’s economic viability, and saw NATO expansion as designed to strangle Russia. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 was the breaking point, along with the admission of the Baltic states into NATO. The Russians saw the latter as a violation of the West’s pledge not to expand NATO into the former Soviet Union, and the former as a desire to build anti-Russian regimes in areas of vital interest to the Russians.

Whatever the subjective intentions of the two sides, NATO’s perception was that Russia was crippled and did not have to be taken into account in planning actions. Russia’s perception was that NATO continued to fear Russia and would not be content until it did become crippled. That evolved into the current issue over Ukraine’s future, as the Russians seem to be modernising their military force in anticipation of further pressure from the West. The West faces a Russia apparently returning to the patterns that made NATO necessary in the first place.

This issue is particularly important in what used to be called (and should be called again) Eastern Europe, which finds itself caught between two forces. One is the European Union, still functional but increasingly fragmented and unable to act in concert. The second force is Russia. It is increasingly insecure and seeks to stabilise its western frontier, which means the Baltics, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are feeling the winds of a rising Russia.

From these countries’ standpoint, the EU’s fragmentation is replicated in NATO. Eastern European countries are aware that except for the United States, NATO lacks the will and the force to create a major blocking power. A few battalions are shuffled around but nothing that would actually have military significance if the Russians were able to mount an attack.

Russia is posturing as a great power, but its internal economic problems are enormous. Much of its military force is a shadow of what it was under the Soviets, and its modernisation program depends on finances, which are strained to near breaking point with declining oil prices. Still, Russia’s military force is greater than Eastern Europe’s, and NATO’s ability (excluding the United States) to deploy militarily decisive forces is limited. This region, which is part of NATO, may be able to count on some countries in the alliance, but cannot count on NATO itself because it lacks effective military force.

In fact, Eastern Europe, with some help from the rest of Europe and the United States, is quite capable not only of defending itself militarily against the current Russian reality but also of protecting itself politically against Russian influence. If Eastern European countries were to work together, they would be a formidable force. But the Slovaks and Hungarians have little trust in NATO, and the Poles and the Hungarians are under constant attack from the EU because their people elected governments the EU disapproves of.

NATO’s original mission was to contain Russia. But in this case, countries like Germany do not carry the primary burden. That burden falls on Eastern Europe. But the minimal support needed to secure the region – a few first-rate divisions and air wings – is not available. The US is recovering and perhaps preparing for another round of conflict in the Middle East, and the rest of Europe lacks the minimal capabilities needed for extended deployment a few hundred miles from home. Therefore, NATO’s core strategy cannot be implemented. Something that is well within the brief of NATO, and ought to be well within the ability of countries like German, is undoable. NATO solidarity on protecting Eastern Europe isn’t nearly as strong as it could be, and all the commitment in the world will not create anti-tank capabilities designed to make an unlikely Russian attack scenario impossible.

From a strategic point of view and regardless of internal politics, Poland and Hungary, as examples, are indispensable for deterring the Russians. While NATO’s brief includes this deterrence, the EU retains the right to lecture and condemn both countries even in the face of the political disorder in the rest of Europe. In other words, Eastern European countries have one relationship with NATO and another relationship with the EU. So at a NATO meeting, the Germans speak one way, and at an EU meeting, they speak another way. And the coalition that would protect Germany from far-fetched events (in a time when the farfetched has become routine) can’t take form.

The United States is a key member of NATO, and the US is trying to figure out NATO’s usefulness. The answer is far from clear. In the one area where NATO can be helpful and can act within its mission, European members’ behaviour is both contradictory and primarily theoretical. They simply have not built a military for a mission even clearly within NATO’s purview. To the extent the Russians have the ability to increase their influence on their western frontier, their European adversaries are inadvertently providing the opening.

In the end, there is no NATO problem. There is a European problem. A European consensus on defence does not exist any more than a consensus on economics does. Being in an alliance so unstable is too complicated for the simple and unsophisticated Americans. The sophisticated Europeans in the end are proving too much for the United States. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has laid down the price members must pay for NATO protection. The Europeans will assume it is just talk and continue as they were. Having opted out of collective responsibility in the Middle East, the Europeans are also opting out of collective responsibility in Europe. US action in Europe will take place as needed, but it will not be constrained by the votes of those not incurring some of the risk. This is not an opinion on my part, but simply a rational analysis by the US. Why submit to an organisation that cannot share the risk?