NATO: Divided and without purpose

NATO: Divided and without purpose

The recent meeting of leaders of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member-states at London to mark the alliance’s 70th anniversary was hardly a celebratory event. Leaders were seen and heard engaging in name-calling, sneering and gossiping. Instead of being an event that would showcase the alliance’s strength and solidarity at 70, it laid bare deep divisions as well as a lack of purpose and focus. Founded in 1949, NATO linked the security of the United States with that of its European allies. It envisaged collective defence of its members against the Soviet Union. But with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO’s relevance came into question. Who or what was it collectively defending itself against? In the years that followed, NATO continued its aggressive approach to security, drawing in not only former Warsaw Pact countries but also the Baltic republics that were part of the Soviet Union. NATO also went to war for the first time in the Balkans in the 1990s and sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001 to fight the al-Qaeda. Its military interventions in Iraq and Libya were among several that were deeply controversial.

Differences among NATO states have frequently erupted to the fore, with the European allies resenting US bullying and its pursuit of agendas that Europe does not share. Such differences have deepened during Donald Trump’s presidency. The US contributes to the bulk of the NATO budget and Trump maintains that the European allies should fork out more. This was the focus of his tirade at the 2018 summit. The London meeting was doomed even before it started. French President Emmanuel Macron set off the wrecking ball by describing NATO as strategically "brain-dead" and calling US policy on Russia the product of “hysteria.” Trump hit back by describing Macron as “nasty” and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “two-faced.” Trudeau and European leaders were caught on video making fun of Trump. Underlying the name-calling are substantive differences. NATO’s European members still see the US as an ally but an unreliable one. NATO leaders are taking strategic decisions without consulting allies. This was the case with the US’ abrupt withdrawal of support for the Kurds and Turkey's related offensive in Syria as well as its purchase of air defence systems from Russia.

An issue that NATO is grappling with is how to deal with an “aggressive” Russia. Is NATO overplaying the Russia threat when the real threat comes from elsewhere? The intra-NATO sniping on display in London has triggered a debate over whether the alliance will last, and to what purpose.

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