Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

At the upcoming May 16-17 meeting between US President Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Turkish counterpart, and the May 25 Nato summit, serious issues relating to the status of Nato will need to be addressed — namely defense expenditures reform, clarification of the alliance’s approach to new security threats, and the status of Turkey’s membership.

Unconventional security threats challenge Nato

While Nato’s original purpose was to provide a shield for postwar Europe to recover and not fall prey to an expanding Soviet empire, over the past decades, the organization seems to have lost its way.

As a legacy Cold War institution, Nato retains a built-in bias against Russia and is focused on conventional warfare. However, in an era in which the mission defines the coalition and not the other way around, Nato’s coalition of collective security against a conventional threat is ill-equipped to address new security challenges such as terrorism, refugee crises, and conflict prevention and resolution.

Moreover, the US is no longer the wealthy nation it once was; it can no longer provide defense welfare to support Europe’s post-war reconstruction. It is also unfair for many wealthy European states to continue placing a heavy burden on struggling American taxpayers to underwrite 75% of Nato’s budget, while the US economy is flailing with its own $21 trillion debt burden.

‘Alliances should be a means to an end rather than an end in themselves, and in this case, that end should be to increase US security’

As Doug Bandow argued in a September 2016 Foreign Affairs article, “Alliances should be a means to an end rather than an end in themselves, and in this case, that end should be to increase US security.”  Unfortunately, over the past number of years, it seems US allies have actually been decreasing US security – especially Nato member Turkey.

 Turkey and the erosion of Nato as a “value-based” alliance

Despite repeated mantras from the US and other Nato members that Turkey is a reliable ally, since 2003, Turkey under Erdogan and AKP has been transforming into an Islamist and totalitarian country that stands in opposition to Nato’s professed values of democracy, human rights and rule of law.

It has also betrayed the US and supported America’s enemies. As confirmed by a German intelligence report and another by Columbia University, Ankara has been acting as an umbilical cord for Al Qaeda and ISIS, feeding them a steady stream of foreign fighters and weapons, as well as providing a market for their oil. Indeed, that is what provoked Erdogan’s regime to ban Wikipedia back in April – it refused to remove contents regarding Turkey’s role in promoting jihad in Syria.

Thus, despite recent Nato’s assurances to Trump that the military alliance will begin to reorient its mission on counterterrorism, there remains skepticism – it is problematic to declare that the alliance is countering terrorism when one of its members has been complicit in fomenting terrorism in Syria.

Turkey has been sabotaging US anti-ISIS efforts in Syria and Iraq, and repeatedly bombing Kurds who serve as the spearhead force for the coalition, sparking outrage among pundits and US lawmakers. The Pentagon also slammed recent Turkish airstrikes that risked the lives of American troops working with the Syrian Kurds (YPG) battling ISIS. Now, there is a halt to the momentum on the Raqqa offensive as US troops are deployed to the Syria-Turkey border to stop Turkish attacks, with Russian troops doing the same in Efrin.

Meanwhile, Erdogan is steadily populating northern Syria with Turkey-trained “rebel” security forces. Chanting and hailing Allah, Erdogan and Turkey, a batch of 450 troops deployed to Jarablus in January 2017, the first of some 5,000 security forces Ankara is training to occupy northern Syria as part of Operation Euphrates Shield launched in August 2016.

Coordinated with pro-Turkish Syrian rebel jihadi groups, including the Turkmen Sultan Murad Brigades, and taken together with coverage by pro-AKP newspapers such as Takvim that featured a map of Aleppo, Idlib and the north of Latakia as an eventual 82nd province, the August operation in Jarablus appears to be part of Ankara’s larger plan to annex northern Syria.

The ‘East Asianization’ of Europe?

Nato is clearly in a state of disarray: Washington has to confront a Nato member to stop it from attacking US allies, while Turkey has threatened to attack American soldiers in Syria.  This, in turn, has some observers wondering if Washington and Ankara might invoke Article 5 against each other. Article 5 commits each member country to treat an armed attack against one member as an act of aggression against all members.

It also begs the question of whether American taxpayers should continue to underwrite an organization that no longer seems to be enhancing American security – with internal bickering, an alliance structure not equipped to address new unconventional threats, and the failure of most members to meet their 2% GDP defense expenditures.

As such European security seems likely to shift from a “collective defense” concept to an East Asian hub-and-spoke model, centered on bilateral security guarantees with individual countries such as South Korea and Japan. In this “East Asianization” of Europe, Hans Kundnani from the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Academy observed that given the context of Trump’s demand that Nato members fulfill their defense spending pledges, and the deployment of Nato troops to the Baltic states and Poland, “What may be emerging is a system of implicit bilateral security guarantees between Nato countries, centered on the United States.”

Indeed, in January, 4,000 US troops arrived in Poland – a NATO member that spends more that 2% of its GDP on defense – while in Latvia and Lithuania, which spend roughly 1.5% of GDP on defense, non-US troops from NATO will be deployed. Kundnani noted the extent to which a Nato member can rely on US security guarantees may now depend on its defense spending and whether American troops are stationed on its soil.

He assessed the “transformation of collective security into a system of bilateral security guarantees may mean the de facto end of Nato as a collective security organization.” However, in the absence of Nato reform and in light of a new security environment, rebalancing European security with a hub-and-spoke model may perhaps turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Christina Lin

Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst. She has extensive government experience working on US national security and economic issues and was a CBRN research consultant for Jane's Information Group.

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