There is no shortage of security threats to the NATO alliance: a resurgent and militarily active Russia; the territorial and global jihadist threat of DAESH; and the movements of over 4 million refugees.
Now, more than ever, would seem a time where solidarity of purpose and the coordination of logistical and security efforts would serve as a useful mechanism for minimum basic security. While NATO could hardly be described as a model of solidarity or efficiency, the outlook of NATO has not only dramatically changed after the November 24th downing of a Russian Su-24 warplane, its very purpose for existing may be now called into question.
While the data is insufficient at this point, the narrative is developing predictably. Turkish President Erdogan said that the Russian warplane violated Turkish airspace and that it failed to respect 10 warnings from the Turkish military. Ultimately, “Turkey is a country whose warnings should be taken seriously and listened to. Don’t test Turkey’s patience. Try to win its friendship.” Erdogan doubled down by highlighting the estimated 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey – a burden that far out paces any commitment by other NATO member states. These are nothing short of targeted threats and are intended to resonate more within the NATO alliance than act as a hedge against Russia’s military activity on or within Turkish borders.
Russia’s reaction has been equally predictable. President Putin has quickly adopted a more harsh tone, not only highlighting the consequences of this action on Russian-Turkish relations but directly calling this “a stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices.” Thus, the board is set, the die cast, and the pieces moving. The next steps are now what crucially matter. In this sense, it is easy to see why some are questioning how is this not the start of WWIII? We are witnessing a nearly global response to a series of meta-conflicts that have seen tens of thousands of lives lost and millions displaced. Meanwhile, global and regional powers are now openly brandishing military, economic, and political tools, bound in seemingly contradictory relationships as everyone has a web of shared/conflicting interests. Forces are gradually being amassed reminiscent of a situation preparatory to war and now the traditional security dilemma could be starting to unfold. The only ingredient missing is a modern day Ferdinand-Princip moment.
It would be overly pessimistic to say that this is a foregone conclusion. Similarly, it would be foolishly naive to say that the current state of affairs in the Syrian-DAESH conflict is not a potential tinderbox that could unravel the world’s strongest military alliance. Unfortunately, the varied and inconsistent reactions by NATO member states are doing little to prevent the pessimistic narrative from becoming reality. The brief moment of opportunity and unity of purpose between the U.S., Russia, and France in light of DAESH’s global strikes in Paris seem to have been as substantively robust as internet selfies transposed with the French flag on Facebook. The Turkish strike, which could technically be called a strike by NATO against Russia, has effectively sublimated any global sentiment for transcending traditional rivalries.
While the message from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was clear (“we stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally”), the responses from leaders of other NATO member states have been less clear. The responses have been a mix of passively enumerating international law, a call for calm and de-escalation, and confusion, given the many reports citing that the Russian aircraft was only in Turkish airspace for 30 seconds. This last claim, which comes out of an early report from the U.S., gives credence to Putin’s charge that this attack from Turkey was far from reactionary but premeditated. How, ultimately, can the NATO alliance move forward given the disparate reactions to the events of November 24, their competing goals in the two-front challenge of Syria-DAESH and Russia, and the increasingly emotional political discourse heavily-laden with nationalistic overtones?
It is important to put the NATO alliance into context. It is a military alliance intended to provide mutual security and protection against external threats. This function was a strategic priority of the highest order. The history of NATO was rather simple in this regard: it was designed to be a bulwark against the Soviet Union in a bi-polar world with inter-state security threats expected to be fought in conventional theatres. 25 years on, a lot has changed in the global political and security landscape. And while NATO has not adapted one cannot be overly critical: NATO, in effect, served its purpose. If its purpose now is to support and extend ad infinitum the status quo of ‘Pax Americana,’ then its aims are aspirational and its structure is subordinated to interests based upon values (or dogma) rather than security.
It is at this point where we ought to be reminded of another set of European values – the specific and changing interests of the state. To paraphrase the famous quote from Henry Templeton: “I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of [insert country]. We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and those interests it is our duty to follow.” NATO is not a single sovereign state and it is no longer singularly charged to defend the collective interests of Europe against the no longer existent Soviet Union. Security threats and interests change, as do individual state strategies toward pursuing those interests and defending against diverse threats. NATO, in its current structure, no longer adequately addresses the security challenges to its member states nor serves as a convening body to unite a set of similar interests among diverse parties. This alliance is in tatters and basically has been for 25 years. The Turkish strike on the Russian aircraft was not the straw that broke the camel’s back, therefore, but simply the removal of a blindfold long needed to be removed.