Like other recent NATO meetings, the 2019 annual summit meeting of the defence alliance, held in London at the beginning of December, was controversial and marred by cracks in unity that have been increasing throughout the decade. Despite the celebration of the 70th anniversary of an organisation that was established in 1949 to face the threat of the then Soviet Union after World War II, it is an unmistakable fact that the alliance has seen better days.
Determining the level of the threat that Russia and China pose towards the alliance was a major point of contention during the recent summit meeting. French President Emmanuel Macron downplayed the threat emanating from Russia, saying that it was no longer an enemy and there was already ongoing cooperation with the country on different levels. The real threat, he said, came from global terrorism and jihadism.
Nevertheless, NATO as a whole has expressed its wariness regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “destabilising” influence in many parts of the world. It has also called for taking precautions about China’s growing influence, even if France, which has had more of its fair share of terrorist attacks over recent years, perhaps cannot be blamed for taking the stance that it has.
However, the main point of contention remained Turkey’s aggressive and expansionist policies in the Middle East and beyond. Prior to the NATO meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj and signed a memorandum of understanding on naval demarcations, gas exploration, naval and aerial access, and permits to construct military bases in the region. This illegitimate deal was condemned by Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, along with other European and international powers, as the latest provocation by the Turkish president in his aim to establish a larger foothold in the region and particularly in North Africa.
Meanwhile, Libya’s besieged Islamist prime minister is still desperately attempting to prevent the capital Tripoli from being taken over by Libyan army forces led by Khalifa Haftar. In the light of the Turkish-Libyan deal, Greece expelled the Libyan ambassador, since the memorandum of understanding had carved up the Mediterranean near its own island of Crete. Cyprus, on the other hand, is seeking to appeal to the International Court of Justice in The Hague against the expansionist ambitions of Turkey, with its position being supported by the European Union which views Turkey as a growing threat.
Prior to the NATO summit meeting, Turkey threatened to block voting on defensive plans for Poland and the Baltic States, seeking NATO approval to designate the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a terrorist group instead. However, Erdogan was forced to concede this position despite his attempts to blackmail NATO members by threats to allow further illegal immigration into the EU and the return of Islamic State (IS) group fighters to their European countries of origin. The YPG remains one of Erdogan’s most important opponents and an unresolved headache for the Turkish leader over the years.
Macron openly accused Erdogan at the NATO meeting of working with terrorist groups such as IS, something which remains the world’s most open secret in global politics. Nevertheless, Erdogan was still received as the president of a member state of the alliance despite his being responsible for destabilising the security of a large number of its members.
As a result, while the NATO leaders may have discussed the possible security threats facing the alliance nations and may have identified some of them, including the jihadist terrorist groups, ironically at the same time they ignored the elephant in the room and the real threat to European and possibly global security in the shape of Erdogan. Erdogan’s relationship with IS and the financial and logistical support his regime provides to it is an open secret, but he still took part in the summit meeting’s photoshoots and delivered a speech at the meeting like the rest of the NATO members.
It is becoming more and more apparent that the divisions in the NATO alliance can no longer be hidden through smooth diplomatic statements. US President Donald Trump cancelled his press conference following the summit meeting, and though he used his official Twitter account to announce that other NATO members had pledged to pay an extra $130 billion towards NATO expenses over the next few years and $400 billion by 2024, that did not change the impression that NATO is marred by divisions and is suffering from a lack of unity. Cancelling a press conference following NATO’s 70th anniversary meeting is not exactly a display of unity.
The fact remains that each member state had a different agenda and priorities other than those officially promoted at the meeting in London. Trump was concerned at the increasing costs of NATO, mostly borne by the United States, and he was adamant in pressing other members to increase their military spending and in questioning the financial viability of the alliance.
Erdogan attempted to acquire a seal of approval for his regional invasions and the mass murders committed in Syria and Iraq, while attempting to label his enemies as terrorists. Macron of France had a different priority in fighting Islamist terrorism and jihadist groups, and he was frank in naming Erdogan as a chief conspirator with the enemies that his country is fighting and that he said NATO should be fighting too. Meanwhile, the Eastern European countries saw Russia as the chief threat facing them, and they hoped that NATO would take a stronger stance against it.
Undoubtedly, these divisions in NATO will reflect on its ability to tackle any future challenges that may face its members. For instance, there is no definite answer on how NATO will respond to Turkey’s expansionist ambitions regarding other member states’ naval borders and natural resources, as has been the case with Turkey’s gas exploration in the waters surrounding Cyprus. Moreover, there has been no answer on how NATO will respond if Erdogan’s ambitions get him into confrontations with non-NATO members such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia or others, should these countries decide to defend their interests against Turkish provocations. Will NATO enter a military conflict to protect the military expansion and caliphate dreams of the Turkish tyrant?
Just as importantly, there has been no answer to the question of how reliable Erdogan’s Turkey will be as a military ally should a conflict erupt with the likes of Russia or Iran, given the recent strong political, economic and military cooperation between Turkey and these two countries.
The Turkish president has abused his country’s status as a longstanding member of the NATO alliance, and he cannot now be trusted as a military ally as his policies are in a direct conflict with alliance goals, especially concerning terrorist groups such as IS and the other jihadist groups under his wing. At one time, the former Ottoman Empire was labelled as the “sick man of Europe” as it weakened until its final fall in 1920. Erdogan is now a latter-day sick man, desperately gambling away his country’s interests without any sound calculation of the consequences for it.
To all intents and purposes, there has been no period over the 70-year life span of NATO when the alliance has looked as divided as it does today. This raises important questions about the long-term effectiveness of the alliance and its ability to face future challenges.
*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.