Quo Vadis NATO: A G-30 With Armed Forces?

NATO Summit in Brussels
Credit: U.S. Department of State from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

NATO is currently the only organization in the world that has the capability to conduct military operations effectively. Having managed to remain relevant in the global environment that emerged after the end of the Cold War and displayed an extraordinary adaptability, NATO has managed to survive. One of the most important indicators of NATO’s success is that no existing members want to leave the alliance and it is constantly expanding. However, these indicators are not sufficient for NATO to maintain its existence and relevance in the new security environment. Disagreement among the leading members of the alliance, the United States which shifted its focus to Asia, the failure in EU-NATO cooperation and the low public support are serious risks for the existence of the NATO today.

Today, the international security environment is experiencing its most fragile moment since the Second World War. The liberal international order on which the United States and Western European states form the basis increasingly gets weaker. Citizens of the democracies have started to believe less and less in their own systems and sought more nationalist solutions to their problems, and globalization and free trade policies slipped into background. On the other hand, as Western democracies lose their will and ability to shape the international environment, the non-liberal regimes show a more robust, successful and assertive image. At this point, Western states are reluctant to deal with the biggest security crises, as seen in the example of the Syrian crisis. Over the past four years, the United States’ protectionist attitude under Trump administration and its unilateral and ultra-nationalist policy has worsened this situation.

At this point, NATO’s existence has become even more questionable. As stated by its first secretary general, Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO was founded in 1949 with the aim of “keeping the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” It was only in 1950 that NATO became a real organization in its full sense. Although the needs for the security of Western Europe led to the signing of the Washington Treaty, the institutionalization of NATO as a military organization was caused by a crisis in Asia, not Europe. Although this is seen as a contradiction, it actually sheds light on today’s developments. When we look at NATO’s history, it will be seen that the Alliance did not change within the scope of big designs and a predetermined plan, on the contrary, it was shaped by reactions to the problems that emerged.

NATO has passed through three basic periods in which the strategic perspective has developed since its emergence as an organization: the Cold War Era, the Initial Period after the Cold War, and the Post-9/11 Period. During the Cold War, basic critics of the NATO have generally been directed towards its effectiveness. After the Cold War, the necessity of NATO has started to be questioned, as it is today. However, the failure of Europeans to intervene alone in the civil war that broke out in Yugoslavia put an end to these discussions and it was revealed that there was no alternative to NATO. Due to its command and force structure, NATO has become the most important tool of the United States, which is the hegemonic power of the unipolar world. In this framework, NATO did not produce grand strategy in this period, but tried to form its own strategy as a part of the grand strategy of the United States. The first leg of the great strategy of the United States was based on the main idea of ​​spreading liberal norms such as democracy, free market and human rights, and the NATO has adapted to this strategy.

In this regard, the NATO could not put forward its own grand strategy in both strategic concepts prepared in 1991 and 1999 right after the Cold War. In this period after the Cold War, the NATO’s main task, which was determined as ensuring the collective defense of its members, was replaced by ensuring international security. These two strategic concepts have met the needs of the security environment for about 10 years. However, the terrorist attacks carried out in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 radically changed the parameters of the security environment.

The September 11 attacks have awakened NATO member states to the importance of being under a common security umbrella. In this context, NATO has gained momentum in becoming a global security organization. The September 11 attacks caused NATO member states to put aside their disagreements and enter into a solidarity era.

Three important changes took place in the international security environment after September 11. The nature of the threat has changed, and terrorism and weapons of mass destruction have emerged as new threats. Attention of the United States has shifted to Central Asia and the Middle East. Besides, the United States has started to act unilaterally.

NATO accelerated its expansion after 9/11 and Baltic states joined the alliance. This fact has caused serious concerns in the Russian Federation, and it led Kremlin to occupy a part of Georgia in 2008.

After the adoption of NATO’s 1999 Strategic Concept, developments such as the September 11 attacks, the Afghanistan Operation, the Iraq War and the Russia-Georgia War have seriously changed the global security environment. Despite this, the fact that a new strategic concept was not adopted. Indeed, although the preparation of strategic concepts is a painful process, once accepted they contribute significantly to NATO’s holistic stance and strategic effectiveness. In the light of all these discussions and developments, the NATO Strategic Concept, which is in effect today, was ratified in 2010 and NATO’s main tasks were determined as Collective Defense, Crisis Management, and Cooperative Security. With the 2010 Strategic Concept, NATO has made it clear that it would focus outside the Euro-Atlantic area.

Today, NATO is at a crossroads again. The international landscape since the adoption of the 2010 Strategic Concept has widely changed. In the past decade, there have been quite significant changes in the global order and in the capacities of international players. Today, global politics is undergoing a profound shift. This change is largely due to the rise of China (or the ‘return of China’ as some claim), the deepening of globalization and countries’ interdependence, and the violent movements that transcend borders such as international terrorism. It is seen that the United States has started to lose its influence in every aspect, especially after the 2008 global crisis. As of the end of the 2000s, the unipolar moment has come to an end, and a new era emerges with all its symptoms. One of the leading actors in this new world order is undoubtedly China, and the new area of competition is the Asia-Pacific region.

This shift in the international environment pushes the United States to deploy its limited capacity to a region that it regards as a priority. This situation causes concern in European states. The fact that NATO is essentially a regional organization makes the situation quite complicated. It also made the present value of NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept questionable, as well as the relevance of the Alliance. As a result of this need, the Reflection Group, formed by NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, prepared a report titled “NATO 2030: United for a New Era” over the past year. The report seems to seek a balance between the United States’ pivot to Asia, European countries’ concerns, and the regional nature of NATO.

Against this backdrop, at the press conference he held at the 2019 London Summit; NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg emphasized the necessity of strengthening NATO’s political dimension. It is clearly seen that this issue comes to the fore in the report of the Reflection Group. So much so that it is very difficult to find issues related to defense or military matters in the group’s report. This leads us to the assumption that NATO will become an organization whose military and political dimensions stand out in the upcoming period. Of course, the hallmark that distinguishes NATO from all other organizations in the world is its extraordinary military capacity and, more importantly, its interoperability capability that it has developed over 70 years. With these features, it would not be an exaggeration to call NATO the most successful defense/security organization the world has ever seen. However, it would be very ambitious to say that the political will to use this extraordinary capability is as striking as its military capability. This holds true, especially since the beginning of 2017, when Trump came to the U.S. presidency. NATO displays a disconnected image within itself.

In fact, the focus of the 2030 Report is getting rid of this messy view. The report focuses so heavily on this issue that it is easy to have the idea that the Alliance will turn to a global G-30 with armed forces by 2030. Looking at the overall report, it is seen that the concept of collective defense, which forms the core of NATO, has lost its importance. In fact, after the Cold War, collective defense had already lost importance and NATO had begun to define itself as a security organization. In the 1991 Strategic Concept, the first strategic concept adopted right after the Cold War, the word ‘defense’ was used only 44 times, while the ‘security’ was used 95 times. In the past years, the concept of defense has been slipped into background and security has taken its place on the Alliance’s agenda as the main concept that defines NATO. Thanks to the prominence of the concept of security, NATO gained a legitimate ground for its out-of-area activities.

The political dimension of the Alliance was highlighted in the NATO 2030 Report, rather than defense, the following issues were emphasized: EDTs; Climate Change; Green Defense; Human Security and Women, Peace, and Security; Pandemics and Natural Disasters; Hybrid and Cyber ​​Threats; Outer Space; Strategic Communications, Public Diplomacy, and Tackling Disinformation. This leads us to the conclusion that NATO will look more like a G-30 with armed forces rather than a defense or security organization in the coming period.

Thus, NATO will be able to pay more attention to global issues and deal with the challenges China poses. In this way, NATO will try to get rid of criticism that it is a regional organization. This solution will turn NATO into an organization like the G-7 or G-20. However, with one difference: NATO will continue to have its military capacity.

The essence of the report is NATO’s having a more advanced political structure, maintaining its cohesion and having faster decision-making mechanisms. If these issues can be implemented, it may be possible for NATO to survive. Otherwise, it is obvious that NATO will lose its legitimacy and become brain dead with the words of French President Macron, especially if the dissidence between the allies cannot be overcome.

Undoubtedly, NATO’s hallmark is its ability to adapt to changing conditions. It owes its survival for over 70 years to this feature. As Stoltenberg expresses, NATO wants to stay strong militarily, to be more united politically, and to take a broader approach globally. The period ahead will show whether this new approach will be enough to keep NATO alive for another 70 years.

Dr. Hasim TURKER was born in 1976 in Antalya, Turkey. He graduated from the Turkish Naval Academy in 1998 and served at various units of the Turkish Navy for 19 years. Between 2014 and 2016, he commanded TCG Giresun, a guided missile O.H. Perry class frigate. In 2017, he retired with the rank of commander. Dr. Turker is the academic coordinator and senior researcher at Bosphorus Center for Asian Studies, which is an independent think-tank located in Ankara. In 2005,  Dr.TURKER graduated from the National Defense University ATASAREN with an MA degree in ‘International Relations’ and in 2008 from the Turkish Naval War College, with an MA degree in ‘National and International Security Strategies Management and Leadership.’ He is an ancien of the NATO Defense College (SC-118 of 2011). He received his PhD from Kocaeli University in 2018. Dr. Turker is the author of two books in Turkish: ‘European Security and Defense Policy,’ published in 2007 by Nobel Publications, and ‘Towards a New Cold War: Rising China, The US, and the NATO,’ published in 2019 by Cinius Publications.