John Humphrys - NATO at 70: still alive (and kicking?)

December 02, 2019, 3:31 PM GMT+0

A visit to Britain by Donald Trump in the last lap of an election campaign is probably the last thing his friend, Boris Johnson, would want. Paradoxically, Jeremy Corbyn (no fan) will almost certainly relish it. Trump’s presence here will give publicity to Labour’s claim, strongly denied by the Tories, that if Mr Johnson got back to power, he would cook up a trade deal with the President in which the NHS would be ‘sold off’ to the American pharmaceutical industry. But President Trump will be here this week to talk neither about trade nor about the NHS but about defence and security. It’s NATO’s seventieth birthday and the leaders of the twenty-nine member nations will be in Watford on Wednesday to celebrate. Or, more likely, to squabble. One of its leaders has described the organisation that has been the lynchpin of the security of western European democracies for all that time as ‘brain dead’. If he’s right and NATO is on life support what should we do with the switch?

It was famously said when NATO was created in 1949 that its purpose was to keep the Americans in, the Soviets out and the Germans down. But since then, the Soviet Union has disappeared, Germany has long since ceased to be a military threat to anyone and the United States has found itself with bigger fish to fry, notably China, the rising threat to its global dominance. All this suggests to some people that having spectacularly succeeded in its original aims, NATO should now pack up. Mission accomplished. Certainly that’s what many predicted would happen after 1989 when the Soviet empire started to break up, with many of its members in the old Warsaw Pact joining the European Union and even NATO itself.

But that’s not what happened. NATO, like many organisations that don’t want to die, found itself new things to do and then, as the world changed again, it seemed that maybe it still had a role after all.

The main reason for this was the realisation that although the Soviet Union may have disappeared, Russia was still very much there. And Russia, under President Putin from 1999, seemed confrontational. This was in response in part to the expansion of both NATO and the EU right up to Russian borders including not just countries like Poland, which had been Soviet-dominated ‘buffer’ countries beyond Soviet borders, but even countries that had been part of the Soviet Union itself, namely the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. President Putin told the Russian people that NATO was a threat and he gained kudos at home by showing that Russia was not going to be cowed.

Russian aggression has been mostly of the ‘unconventional’ sort rather than the directly military: cyber-attacks, meddling in western countries’ elections and the like. But 2014 changed the western perception of the Russian threat. That’s when Mr Putin used military force against Ukraine, not itself a NATO country, but a former Soviet state with ambitions to join it and also the EU. Russia annexed Crimea, declaring it once again to be Russian territory, and it continues to support pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. These actions immediately raised the fear among NATO members on Russia’s border, especially the Baltic States and Poland, that they did still face a real military threat from Russia. If ever NATO had seemed past its sell-by date, it didn’t seem so now.

At the centre of the NATO treaty is Article Five which commits all members to come to the aid of any member that is attacked. Post-2014, NATO countries have set up four battle-groups in Poland and the three Baltic countries as a signal of intent. And at a military level, NATO has updated its capabilities and the systems in which forces from different NATO countries can work together. The issue, though, is whether NATO has the political will to activate Article Five if ever push comes to shove.

The first and perennial problem undermining NATO’s political cohesion is money. The United States has long supplied the bulk of funds to pay for NATO. During the Cold War this was just about politically acceptable to the American electorate because defending Western Europe (and its big export market) was seen as vital to American interests. But since 1989 and, in truth, even earlier, American presidents of all political persuasions have railed against rich European countries for not pulling their weight and for free-riding on US defence spending. A long-standing commitment for all NATO countries to spend 2% of their GDP on defence is currently honoured by only nine of the twenty-nine member states. Germany, the richest of them all, is planning to reach the target only in 2031. President Trump has been characteristically outspoken in his condemnation; few would argue he hasn’t got a case.

But even more than money, the fracturing of its decision-making processes now poses the main threat to NATO’s survival. NATO has traditionally taken its decisions by consensus but this has broken down. Most recently, Syria has provided the focus for NATO disarray. President Trump did not consult his NATO allies when he decided to announce the withdrawal of American forces from Syria earlier this year. One of the consequences - a wholly predictable one - was that Turkey would immediately invade northern Syria, to take on Kurds it regards as anti-Turkish terrorists but who had been part of the American-led operation fighting Isis in the country. Turkey is a NATO member and is in a crucial geostrategic location for the alliance. It took the decision unilaterally, without consulting its NATO allies. What’s more, Turkey has recently bought an air-defence system from Russia, NATO’s supposedly prime enemy, further indicating the weakness of NATO’s political cohesion.

It is this failure to demonstrate political unity and discipline that led France’s President Macron recently to call NATO ‘brain dead’, a remark that seemed to echo Donald Trump’s opinion, before he became president, that NATO was now ‘obsolete’. Mr Macron’s specific criticism of Turkey’s actions in Syria has led the Turkish foreign minister to accuse him this week of being a ‘sponsor of terrorism’, a remark that is unlikely to produce amity in Watford on Wednesday.

The blunt question now is whether Article Five is still functional or whether, if it were tested, it would prove useless: in short whether NATO is not just brain dead, but actually dead. This is not a purely theoretical problem, certainly not if you live in the Baltic States. There, it seems wholly plausible that President Putin might ‘do another Crimea’, especially if he saw his popularity at home plummeting as a result of economic stagnation and fancied a bit of military adventurism to boost it. It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to manufacture a crisis in which he might claim that the sizeable Russian minorities in the Baltic states (left over from the days when they were part of the Soviet Union) were being ‘victimised’ and Russia needed to step in to defend them. Would the rest of NATO rush to the military defence of these tiny countries? Many observers would advise us not to hold our breath. But if NATO failed to act that would be the end of it and nowhere would this be greeted with greater enthusiasm than in the Kremlin.

To some, this would only bring about what should have happened anyway. In the world we now live in, they say, it’s mad for Europe to be so dependent on the United States for its security. It doesn’t make sense either economically or politically. Mr Trump may be quite close to taking this view himself, having been reported as musing with his advisers as to whether the United States should simply pull out of NATO.

Some Europeans, notably in France, think this would be a good thing too. France has always been ambivalent about NATO. Back in the Sixties, President de Gaulle pulled the country out of NATO’s joint military structures and ordered all American troops off French soil. The US president at the time, Lyndon Johnson, wryly asked whether de Gaulle wanted the thousands of American troops under French soil to be removed too. President Macron is seen as a successor to de Gaulle in wanting a purely European defence system.

But there are real problems with this alternative to NATO. The main one is that for Europe to be solely responsible for its own security it would need much greater political integration in defence and foreign policy than seems on the cards. Attempts to turn the EU into some sort of super state have been even less successful in these fields (notwithstanding talk of a European army) than at the economic level. And Britain leaving the EU is likely to make it even more difficult. That’s because Brexit will leave France as the only nuclear power in Europe and would essentially make France top dog in any solely EU-based defence and security system. That’s not what the Germans fancy at all. Even if, somehow, Britain were to end up remaining in the EU, there would still be real difficulties because British governments of all parties have resisted any moves that might lead to an EU-exclusive security system replacing NATO.

So even if NATO is currently on life support there will be fierce resistance to turning off the switch. Instead, there will be a strong wish to bring it back to life. But that will involve some difficult decisions, including much greater defence spending in European countries, to appease the American taxpayer. There would also have to be an end to the squabbling, name-calling, and unilateral decision-making that have characterised NATO now for a long time.

Is it possible? That remains to be seen. The question for you is: do we still need NATO or should we let it go?

Let us know what you think.