Heads of states and government of member countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) gathered, amid great pomp and mixed expectations, 3-4 December, in London to celebrate the 70th anniversary of organisation established under then clear and unmistakable American leadership as an Euro-Atlantic security partnership to deter the former Soviet Union from invading Western Europe from the East.
The London summit took place against major questioning of the relevance of NATO in a rapidly-changing international strategic environment, and doubts about American commitments to other member countries under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty of 1949 that stipulates that signatories in this politico-military alliance will come to the defence of any member country that comes under attack.
The questioning of the military relevance of the alliance also grew louder after the election of US President Donald Trump. On the one hand, he accused NATO early in his mandate at the White House in 2017 of being “obsolete”; on the other hand, he has insisted that other members should increase their financial contributions to the alliance’s budget to two per cent of their respective Gross National Product. On more than one occasion, he has singled out Germany for not meeting this ceiling.
A few weeks before the London summit, French President Emmanuel Macron created waves within and outside the alliance when in an interview he gave to The Economist, published in November, he said that NATO is “brain dead”. The French president wanted to sound the alarm that, in reality, the alliance has ceased to act in conformity with its charter. For instance, the US administration has pulled its soldiers from Northern Syria without prior consultations with other members; secondly, Turkey, a NATO member, invaded Syria without giving notice to or consulting with other member countries. He raised, in this regard, a very pertinent question; namely, what would be the reaction of the alliance if, in retaliation for this “invasion”, another non-member country would attack Turkey? Would NATO activate Article 5 of the Washington Treaty or not?
Of course, there have been other disagreements among NATO countries on a host other major international questions, such as how to deal with China in the years to come and whether the alliance should develop its own thinking and position in this context, not completely aligned with the American preoccupation with China as a great power that is bent on changing the international status quo. Read this as China challenging American hegemony not only in the Indo-Pacific region but also worldwide. Similarly, will NATO join the United States in its moves and decisions to counter the advances China made in communications technology and boycott Chinese-built G5 networks?
Another source of disagreement, and almost an existential one, taking history as a guide, relates to future relations of NATO with resurgent Putin’s Russia. France, for example, wants to engage Moscow, while Poland, the Baltic countries, the United States and other members in the alliance have opted for a more resolute policy against Russia.
Another bone of contention is the fight against international terrorism in light of varying policies, sometimes contradictory in purpose and means, and a lack of a strategic consistency in dealing with this scourge across different geographic regions. As an example, the Islamic State group (IS) operates in different regions and not only in Syria and Iraq. It has affiliated terrorist groups in northern Sinai, in Somalia and in the Sahel region. On 25 November, two French gunships collided mid-air, at night, while providing air support for French troops fighting terrorists of this group. IS claimed responsibility for the collision which, regrettably, cost the lives of 13 French soldiers.
Speaking of terrorism, the London Declaration notes terrorism, in all its forms, as a challenge that “remains a persistent threat to us all”, without further elaboration on unified operations against all terrorist organisations wherever they operate.
Another challenge has been the provocative and unilateral policies of Turkey in Syria, Iraq, the eastern Mediterranean and in Libya. Last month, Ankara signed two memoranda of understanding with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. One deals with the delineation of maritime zones, without any geographical contiguity between the two countries in the Mediterranean, and the second pertains to security and military cooperation. The two documents have raised tensions in the eastern Mediterranean and in North Africa.
The London Declaration on the 70th anniversary of NATO expectedly papered over strategic differences among the members. After asserting that NATO has been the “strongest and most successful alliance in history”, it affirmed that the alliance remains “the foundation of our collective defence and the essential forum for security consultations and decisions among allies”.
And in an attempt to lay to rest the present rift within the Euro-Atlantic security partnership, the declaration reaffirmed what it called “the enduring transatlantic bond between Europe and North America”. In a nod to American concerns about the rise of China, the London summit — and for the first time since NATO’s establishment — recognised that “China’s growing influence and international policies, present opportunities and challenges,” that NATO needs to address as an alliance.
As for Russia, it was quite apparent that the signatories to the London Declaration opted for a diplomatic formulation that combines realism, realpolitik and a wish to leave the door open for better relations with Moscow in the future, conditioned on Russia’s behaviour from a Western point of view. The declaration, after stating that NATO faces “distinct threats and challenges emanating from all strategic directions”, went on to affirm that “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security”. Note here that the talk is about “aggressive actions” and not about Russia as such. “Actions” is probably a reference to Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Moscow in 2014.
As an encouragement for Moscow, the London summiteers emphasised that they “remain open for dialogue, and to a constructive relationship with Russia when Russia’s actions make that possible”.
While Iran was not mentioned by name, nor North Korea, the London Declaration, implicitly, demonstrated a common position against the nuclear activities of both. It stated that the “allies are strongly committed to the full implementation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in all its aspects, including nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”
To respond positively to French concerns about the future of NATO in a new and challenging strategic environment for its member countries, the alliance invited the secretary general of NATO to present to foreign ministers of member countries “a council-agreed proposal for a forward-looking reflection process… to further strengthen NATO’s political dimension, including consultation”. Probably, the recommendations of such a reflection would be discussed at, if not finished by, the next NATO summit in 2021.
In the intervening years, we will watch closely how NATO deals with the aggressive policies of one of its member countries, Turkey, in Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and in Libya.
Egypt would like to believe NATO when it states that it is — in the London Declaration on 4 December — “a defensive alliance and poses no threat to any country”. Turkish expansionist and highly-destabilising policies and actions in our region do not augur well for security and stability, not only of Egypt, but other member countries in NATO; namely, Greece and Cyprus.
It is plain that members in the Atlantic Alliance do not share the same values, nor do they have common interests when it comes to central questions related to peace and security in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.
We share the same question raised by President Macron referred to above, but I frame it differently. What would NATO do if Turkey, an alliance member, poses a direct threat to Egypt’s security and sovereignty on land, in the air and at sea?
Egypt has the right to defend its security and sovereignty by all means at its disposal according to the Charter of the United Nations. Let us hope that NATO’s future reflection process will deal with Turkish adventurism in our part of the world.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.