Nato lives on

December 10, 2019

We are fast approaching the day when Donald Trump’s name will be added to the list of American presidents who had to face impeachment.On balance, the Democrats’ effort to remove Trump...

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We are fast approaching the day when Donald Trump’s name will be added to the list of American presidents who had to face impeachment.

On balance, the Democrats’ effort to remove Trump from presidency is unlikely to succeed given the Republican majority in the Senate. But he would likely be remembered as America’s ‘Wrecker-in-Chief’ considering the long list of casualties during his tenure. Obamacare, the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Paris Climate Accord, and the globalized trading regime – and the list goes on.

Trump’s fantasies included a wall on the border with Mexico and downsizing Nato because the US was paying too much for the allies’ defence. His flip-flops on a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban and the nuclear conundrum that is North Korea are not over yet. It was therefore with some trepidation that the other 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization traveled to London for a summit coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the bloc founded at the onset of the cold war. Matters took an unexpected turn when French President Emmanuel Macron sounded the discordant note about Nato becoming braindead and Trump defending the alliance. In the event, the summit was saved and so was Nato which has been facing doubts about its utility since the collapse of the Soviet bloc and its defence arm, the Warsaw Pact.

The existential threat of a hostile Soviet bloc having disappeared, Nato could have been wound up. The opposite happened as not only did Nato live on but Western leaders invited some erstwhile Warsaw Pact countries including Poland to join the Atlantic pact. The military alliance received a new lease of life after 9/11 when it was entrusted the UN mandated Isaf mission in Afghanistan that would grow into the largest allied operation after WWII.

Concurrently, Nato extended its activities beyond those of a defence pact, such as humanitarian aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and more importantly by setting up an air bridge to ferry relief and medical aid to the victims of the Pakistan earthquake of 2005. It identified other areas of operation like safety on the high seas and missions like curbing terrorism. Doubts about Nato’s future were put to rest until the election of Trump, followed by his jibes at the alliance, and exhortations to other members to raise their defence spending.

In a turn of events, Trump came to Nato’s defence after Macron’s justified criticism of an organization without a clear sense of mission. The French leader had proposed a review of strategy and focus more on terrorism and on reopening a strategic dialogue with Russia. He has also been critical of Turkey’s operations in Northern Syria, showing disregard to Ankara’s genuine concern about Kurdish groups carrying out attacks against Turkey. Macron managed to provoke the ire of Trump as well as Erdogan.

It was a happy ending for Nato’s future as the summit proceeded with approving space as a new area of international conflict, alongside land, sea, air and cyberspace, as well as a collective response to “China with its new assertiveness”. Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said that “the alliance had to jointly tackle China’s growing military capabilities, which include missiles that could reach Europe and the United States”. However, the summit declaration nuanced that by saying that China’s rise presents both opportunities and challenges. The declaration also stressed the need for secure communications, particularly 5G infrastructure, reflecting anxiety in the member countries about the growing role of Chinese companies, particularly Huawei, in building networks for the next generation of mobile communications.

In yet another measure to retain its relevance, Nato has floated a plan to bolster the defences of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia against a potential attack from Russia. This led Turkish President Erdogan to hold up the Baltic protection plan unless the other allies declared the Kurdish militias who fought with US and French forces against IS in northeast Syria as terrorists. Turkey reportedly dropped its opposition to the Baltic plan after a meeting between Erdogan and Trump. The 29 leaders attending the 70th anniversary agreed on a joint statement pointing out the threat posed by Moscow’s deployment of intermediate range nuclear missiles. However, the statement offered Moscow the possibility of a constructive relationship in the period ahead. They also recognized the growing strategic challenge posed by China. The statement stressed the need for a stronger coordinated response against terrorism.

China was quick to downplay Nato’s fears by denying it posed a threat, affirming that its power was the growth of peaceful power. In a reference to Trump’s America, Beijing pointed out that “the largest threat facing the world today is unilateralism and bullying actions”. The Nato leaders accommodated French and German concerns about the alliance’s strategic direction, by asking the secretary general to consult experts to strengthen the alliance’s “political dimension”.

The message from Nato leaders is that of readiness to squarely face Russia and China as the West’s strategic rivals. Cooperation in curbing international terrorism would also become an important mission for the alliance. With the area of conflict extended to outer space, Nato has worked out an elaborate agenda to live on for many years to come.


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