Split within NATO will continue unless allies have a shared threat perception

The transatlantic alliance, which is at the core of NATO, is crumbling due to Trump’s unwillingness to further invest in European security.

Split within NATO will continue unless allies have a shared
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media at a press conference held after the 2018 NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Summit on July 12, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. Anadolu Agency

NATO is considered as the most potent and successful military alliance of modern history. Every year leaders of NATO member countries meet in order to discuss the critical issues and the agenda items of the alliance. This year the Leaders’ Summit met in Brussels with some pessimism due to significant disagreements among member states. U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticism of some European countries and his initiation of trade wars with European economies was one of the catalysts of the NATO skepticism and pessimism concerning the future of the transatlantic alliance. The transatlantic alliance, which is at the core of NATO, is crumbling due to Trump’s unwillingness to further invest in European security. European powers, on the other hand, are disturbed by Trump’s restrictive trade practices. It is still unclear whether the NATO allies will maintain their solidarity in the face of a significant threat. NATO’s Brussels Summit was unable to clarify the alliance’s primary concerns, and the allies were unable to hide their disagreements. Therefore, the Brussels Summit cannot be considered as a success story.

The main problem within NATO is the diverging threat perceptions among the principal partners of the alliance. The second issue, which also disturbs actors such as Turkey, is the ambiguity related to the commitment of NATO members to their obligations concerning the security of their allies. It is not clear for members such as Turkey or the Baltic states whether NATO member countries will be committed to their obligations to defend their allies in a situation of dire threat. For the U.S. President, the focal problem is the material cost of defending Europe. Trump feels that the transatlantic alliance is not sustainable unless European actors do not increase their share in the defense budget of the alliance. While European actors benefit from the NATO alliance as a collective good in maintaining their security, according to Trump, they are “free riders” in terms of the share of the cost of defense investments. Germany, especially with its massive trade surplus and productive economy, is at the spot of Trump’s criticisms. Those three problems need to be sorted out in order to move forward in the strengthening of the cooperation among members and in order to further invest in the security infrastructure of the alliance.

The U.S., Germany, U.K., Turkey and France no longer have the similar list of threat perceptions. Soviet expansionism, the spread of communism and nuclear apocalypse are no longer shared threats that thrill all these actors. The U.S. President does not consider Moscow as its arch enemy or rival, whereas Turkey has begun to see Moscow as one of its key partners in trade, tourism and strategic infrastructure investments. Baltic states have a very skeptical perception of Russian military activism in the Baltic Sea and other surrounding regions. NATO member countries such as Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria on the other hand, have warm relations with Moscow. More, Germany has a long-standing strategic energy cooperation with Russia. While the U.K. has been confronting Moscow due to the Skripal Crisis, the rift between the two countries seems to be much broader on the strategic level.

NATO needs more forces on the ground in order to counter-balance Russian influence over the Baltics, Poland and Eastern Europe. However, the U.S. is not willing to invest more in European security – as this means a fundamental investment in European troops for Washington. There is a need for more investment, but mainly from the European side. Some countries prefer to deepen their ties and cooperation with Moscow rather than perceiving Russian military presence as a strategic threat. The diverse perspectives that NATO allies have on Russia, which previously used to be a shared threat in the past, is just one example that demonstrates the lack of consensus on threat perceptions. The views of member countries concerning terrorist threats, ethnic separatism, and cybersecurity are even more diverse. It is therefore challenging for NATO member countries to harmonize their medium-term agenda.

Shortsighted politicians in Europe do not shy away from making statements about their unwillingness to cooperate with Turkey if Ankara faces significant national security challenges. Many NATO members still question the extent to which their “allies” are willing to commit to their obligations about the fundamental national security issues they are facing. Turkey is not the only country that is frustrated about the uncooperative attitudes of its allies in its struggle against extremist terror networks. Almost all member countries have their frustrations about the critical security issues that threaten themselves but that are not taken seriously by other allies. They try to invest in their stand-alone security concerns rather than contributing to the common macro challenge. It is usually the U.S., who takes initiatives to address those significant problem areas on behalf of NATO as a whole. Within such an ambiguous context, all other member countries try to focus on bilateral relations and on maximizing their core security and other security-related interests on their own.

The new threat: China

The U.S. no longer sees Moscow as an actor that may challenge its global supremacy. Moscow may eventually threaten European powers, but the major challenge for the U.S. is the rise of China. Today, the rapid rise of China in the fields of economy and trade seems to be a driver for the growth of the world economy. Washington expects for this economic and political growth to eventually have strategic and geopolitical consequences. Initial zones of confrontation seems to be the South China Sea, but if China feels more confident, this geopolitical confrontation may be extended to other domains as well. The most likely zone for the next battle round seems to be the Af-Pak region, where Beijing is making strategic and military investments via Pakistan. China’s growth in economic and political fields may be quiet and peaceful, but Trump’s administration feels that European actors will either be too weak or unwilling to help the U.S. on counter-balancing the Chinese strategic challenge. Global trade wars are a strategy to confront China “peacefully.” However, this confrontation also hurts the interests of Washington’s transatlantic partners. The U.S. administration feels that its allies will not be too helpful in confronting a more aggressive and potent China threat.

NATO member states lagged behind in reaching a consensus on the critical issues during the recent summit. However, at least these issues were taken as priority agenda items. New security issues such as cybersecurity and migration were also discussed during the Leaders’ Summit. None of the actors within NATO want the alliance to be tested with a significant challenge in such a period of fragmentation and ambiguity.

Talha Köse
Dr. Talha Köse is a researcher at SETA Foundation. Dr. Köse completed his doctoral studies at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR)-George Mason University in January 2010. Köse’s doctoral research focuses on the transformation of Alevi identity within the post-1980 milieu of Turkey. Köse worked as a research fellow at the Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University (2010). Köse served as a visiting lecturer at George Mason University and University Maastricht (Netherlands). Ethnic-sectarian and identity based conflicts; approaches to inter-cultural reconciliation, community mediation in Turkey, Alevi issues in Turkey, and Conflict Resolution approaches in foreign policy are some of the research interests of Dr. Köse.