Does NATO Still Exist?

Treaties are made to turn a will into an obligation. But what happens when this will changes? British voters have just given one example — however ill-informed — by dismissing the idea that European Union treaties deliver value to their country. Discomforting as it may be, there’s reason to take a critical look at an even older accord that binds the nations of the West: the NATO treaty.

Signed 67 years ago, the treaty holds the promise that an attack on one of the organization’s member states will be regarded as an attack on all. This solidarity clause, Article 5, was written by politicians of another generation, one with harsher experiences in a much simpler world order. Of course, you can never know until it is tested, but it’s worth asking: Is the thought that keeps the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alive already dead?

Sure, it was only a drill. But when Poland called on its NATO allies last month to help fight off hypothetical invaders who poured into the country from the east, Germany was, well, annoyed. The exercise, called Anakonda — with 25,000 troops from more than 20 countries, the biggest since the end of the Cold War — was intended as a message to Moscow, a show of force ahead of the alliance’s summit this week in Warsaw. Berlin sent a message of its own to Poland, contributing a total of 400 soldiers, none of them combat troops.

On top of Berlin’s modest commitment, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, attacked the latest NATO exercise in Eastern Europe as “loud saber-rattling and war cries.” The alliance, Mr. Steinmeier said, would be well advised “not to deliver up any excuses for a new, old confrontation.”

This is a logic you would expect to hear from the Russian, rather than German, foreign minister. Mr. Steinmeier also said that Germany wasn’t shirking its responsibility and that no one could regard the envisaged deployment of four additional battalions to Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as a threat to Russia. But even so, his statement was, at best, ambivalent.

Ambivalence can cause major damage to an alliance whose deterrence value rests solely in its credibility. Germany is not the only European country to blur the line between deterrence and warmongering. France, NATO sources tell me, officially didn’t want to call Anakonda a NATO exercise, for fear of displeasing the Russian government — as if the Kremlin had not greatly expanded Russia’s military budget in the past 15 years regardless of outside provocation.

If exercises can create splits in the Atlantic alliance, the Russian president needs little imagination to realize how to give NATO its ultimate test: use hybrid warfare to plunge the United States and Europeans into doubt over what military action is necessary and what diplomacy is possible. President Vladimir V. Putin could, for instance, stir up separatist feelings among ethnic Russians in Lithuania and provide weapons to the hotheads among them. Then all he would have to do is lean back and watch the most powerful military alliance in history disintegrate as it squabbles over how to react.

It’s easy to imagine how the scenario would play out: Poland and the Baltic countries would call for a strong response to pre-empt another annexation like that of Crimea. The Germans and French would call for negotiations with Moscow, doubting that Article 5 would be invoked. The Greeks, Italians and Spanish would make clear that their economies had already suffered enough from the sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. And much of the public across Europe, manipulated by Russian propaganda, would ask if the Russians weren’t somehow right in trying to support their fellows in the Baltic States. Wasn’t it actually the imperial United States who set all this up, some would argue, just like Washington’s agents were behind the coup in Kiev?

The authors of the NATO treaty in 1949 could rightly bank on something one could call Western patriotism. At least this sentiment existed at the government level. But today it has given way to relativism and self-doubt. What used to be rock-solid foreign policy principles are now bargaining chips in election campaigns, of both left and right.

Mr. Steinmeier’s Social Democrat Party is seeking a new coalition partner and trying to open itself up to voters who see NATO as, at the very least, a co-aggressor on the Eurasia chessboard. And Donald J. Trump pounces on NATO to inflame feelings of injustice in the United States by accusing European allies of “ripping off” the American taxpayer. Barack Obama has used different words to make the same point. He has called the Europeans “free riders” who were not willing to spend a “fair share” on defense — a claim that is certainly not wrong.

NATO attempts to counter this decline by rattling its biggest saber. Sources inside the alliance say that nuclear deterrence is a top priority. An article released days before the Warsaw summit in the magazine NATO Review appears to articulate the new position. What is needed now, the article says, is “emphasizing the last resorts and deterrent nature of nuclear weapons.” NATO headquarters want to make the Baltic States what West Berlin once was: a nuclear tripwire. But the German government might reject this as an even bigger provocation toward Moscow — and what is meant to strengthen resolve may well create more fissures in the alliance.

NATO was always a marriage of convenience, but not one without any affection. But with all these doubts wracking the alliance — its political cohesion, its cracked cause-effect chains and disputes over the costs of security — it is hard to imagine that Europe and the United States would, if they had the chance in 2016, write another Article 5 at all.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

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