Nato must stop growing if it wants to survive
The alliance’s expansion eastward needlessly provokes Russia and exposes its own weakness
The American diplomat Theodore Achilles, one of the architects of Nato, was also a snitch for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, informing on State Department colleagues suspected of pro-communist leanings. The North Atlantic Treaty that emerged from his drafts in 1949 is suffused with a similar sentiment: Nato’s enemy was destined to be the Soviet Union. It was to be the West’s sharp end in a battle against an evil ideology.
Nato ducked the essential debate when the Soviet Union died in 1991, and in the absence of any real ideas about what it should do next, decided to expand eastwards. Its mission became to re-educate the military elites of the defunct Warsaw Pact.
Now, though, Nato is paying the price for not tackling the big questions about its purpose. Nothing better illustrates the alliance’s conundrum than the meeting this week — the eighth in 15 months — between Europe’s two heavy-hitting autocrats, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, the presidents of Turkey and Russia. Top of the agenda was Turkey’s plan to buy a Russian-made S-400 missile defence system. Turkey boasts the alliance’s second largest army and yet is now about to spend $2 billion on missile defences that cannot be integrated into the radar network of its allies. The result: hundreds of Turks will need to be trained by Russia and the Russian and Turkish defence industries will start to intertwine.
What happens if a Nato member goes rogue? How do we deal with an ally intent on dragging the alliance into an unwanted war? Article 5, the Nato clause promising armed solidarity with any member under attack, has been activated only once, after 9/11. That allowed Nato members to join in America’s war against terror. Since then only Turkey has sought to invoke Article 5 when a Turkish military jet was shot down inside Syrian airspace in 2012. Ankara has tried other ploys to draw Nato into the Syrian conflict. Every time Nato shies clear it seems to license Erdogan to embark on fresh adventures: a purge of officers associated with Nato, joint military exercises with the Russians and Chinese, help with the Iranian nuclear programme.
Believing that Nato has lost its sense of direction, Erdogan and Putin are putting the alliance to the test. Russia’s strategy of hybrid warfare — its cyber-offensives and, as Theresa May highlighted this week, its use of social media to polarise communities — is a way of circumventing Article 5. At what point can an ally be considered to be under attack? The annexation of Crimea, the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine to prevent it edging towardsthe EU or Nato, looks more and more like a dress rehearsal. Putin has become disruptor-in-chief because he exploits the gap between what the West promises and what the West is ready to deliver.
The only way to stop the rot is for Nato to speak clearly to its challengers. To Erdogan, it should say that membership means respecting the contours of alliance policy. If he is determined to use Nato as a cover for a subversive policy in the Middle East, if he thinks himself so indispensable to the wellbeing and safety of the West that he can trample on his own democratic institutions, then he must be shown that the alliance can live without him. That means removing nuclear weapons from the Incirlik base, cancelling F-35 jet sales, blocking intelligence sharing, halting the training of Turkish soldiers.
Humiliated in this manner, Erdogan might huff and puff and formally leave Nato. Or, fearing the disgruntlement of his armed forces, he might try a little harder to be a loyal ally. Either way, Nato would have clarity rather than the drip-drip erosion of its authority that is making it look like a feeble relic of the 20th century.
Dealing with Putin requires a different approach. The extraordinary range of his challenges — the latest is the use of social media to stoke Catalan separatism and pull apart Spain — is encouraged by the idea that Nato no longer has the will to defend itself. The history of empires shows that this is what happens when they embark on endless expansion.
The correct response to Putin, then, is a paradoxical one. It is to take seriously his fear of encirclement and end the process of Nato enlargement. To do so might appear to be handing Putin a gift, even acknowledging that he has some kind of sphere of interest. In fact, it’s a simple statement that to stay credible a defence alliance has to live within its means, stay alert and regain the will to act. That has to be better than the present enfeebled ambiguity. Were we really intending to go to war on behalf of the last three Nato recruits: Albania, Croatia, Montenegro? Was it ever part of a Nato blueprint to stabilise the Balkans? Or just mindless corporatism, “growing the brand”? No wonder Putin is moving into southeast Europe. Sometimes, as Turkey’s bolshy approach to membership shows, emboldened new boys use their club cards to stir up trouble; sometimes Nato involvement ignites the dry tinder of an ancient conflict.
Suspending all future Nato expansion is a way of adapting the institution to real-world dilemmas. It doesn’t mean shelving rigorous sanctions policies against Putin, and it doesn’t mean we should recognise his illegal annexation of Crimea. We have to resist his attempts to drive the US and Europe apart; that hits at the essence of Nato. But we have to accept a stark truth: an alliance of 29 members is close to breaking point.