Nato, one of history’s more durable alliances, is — not for the first time — about to celebrate a big birthday amid bust-ups between major partners, and questions about its existence.
Come the first week of December, an A-list of world leaders, including America’s Donald Trump, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will blow into town here in London to celebrate the alliance’s 70th anniversary and launch its new strategic concept, practices and principles.
No doubt Trump will berate the allies for not paying their way. Though the European allies’ expenditure on defence and security has gone up, it is nowhere near the two per cent of GDP pledged at the last major Nato summit in Cardiff five years ago.
The European partners will quietly vent their worries that the heavy-lifters in the alliance in military terms — the US and Turkey — are becoming semi-detached and going their own way.
This came to a head with the infamous phone call between Trump and Erdogan on October 6 — more or less giving the Turks the go-ahead for their invasion into northern Syria, whick took place days later.
Trump said he would withdraw the light screen of US special forces stationed there. Neither saw fit to inform, let alone consult, Nato allies — though Britain, France and Canada had specialist troops there alongside the Americans, and were firmly against Turkey’s precipitous, and as of now inchoate, offensive.
“What we are currently experiencing” from this debacle, Macron told The Economist, “is the brain-death of Nato”. Given “the exceptional fragility of Europe”, said the French president, Europe must now forge its own military alliance, and do what Nato can’t.
What is the point of Nato, 30 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall ending the Cold War — the campaign it was designed to win by containing the threat from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact alliance?
There could hardly be a better time and place to raise this question than at the beginning of December 2019 and in London, in the middle of the Brexit general election. I doubt if you will hear even once the mention of the Nato acronym — so retro, so old fashioned — during the Brexit debates.
But you should. Nato will be the keystone alliance for Britain, whatever shape it is in, post-Brexit. It will govern how this country must relate to European neighbours, the US, and regional allies even further afield, as well as potential foes such as Iran and the “frenemies”, from the Mediterranean running east through the marches of Europe to central Asia.
“We have to prepare against a 360-degree threat,” says the UK’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter. Militarily the UK doesn’t have the funds or human resources to go it alone.
Europe will get its defences together through its defence initiative — it has just announced 25 new joint programmes through its PESCO (permanent structured cooperation). But these will take a long time, and likely prove more expensive than the EU budget would allow.
Furthermore, as even Macron seems to acknowledge, it will have to work with Nato and not against it — for instance, over developing a new manned and unmanned strike aircraft. Currently France and Germany are working on a project to rival a UK-Italy partnership.
The 29 partners now face the trickiest decade in Nato history, in which the rules of the game for war, truth and our very survival are changing radically.
Nato offers, first and foremost, a framework of international law and conduct, though some, such as the Trump administration, may try to ignore this. We have just witnessed the cancellation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces — INF — treaty of 1987, by mutual consent of Moscow and Washington. More may follow with the end of the strategic weapons treaty START 2 due to run out in 2021, with no realistic replacement in sight.
Under threat, too, is the less visible, but important, Open Skies Agreement — governing overflight and surveillance. On the back of this, there are signs that a new arms race, particularly in tactical nuclear weapons, is under way, with Russia and the US preparing new missiles and programmes. This would persuade regional players — Turkey has already gone public on this — to join the nuclear club, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and possibly Brazil signing up.
In their London discussions the allies will need to focus on low-end, low-tech, as much as high-end warfare, which has to include cyber, space and sophisticated dissemination of information and disinformation. Key oil facilities were knocked out on September 14 in Saudi Arabia by a mix of cruise missiles and drones — a blend of tactics and technology of eye-watering crudity.
They should note that fighting from Syria and Yemen, to Afghanistan and Iraq, is carried out by militias and mercenaries more than formed armies. It might be termed the “hezbollahfication” of contemporary warfare. Many militias live by crime, drugs, weapons and, above all, human trafficking.
Famously, Trump doesn’t do allies and treaties — more goodfella pals and transactional deals. So that means the end of the INF, the JCPOA with Iran, a stillbirth for an Israel-Palestine peace plan, and the trashing of the Paris Climate Accord. But all of the above have a legacy to be reinterpreted and maintained. Nato will be a prime guardian, and at times facilitator, to the process.
The UK government should be a gracious, but trenchantly critical, host to the alliance’s anniversary summit. It should be in no doubt, at the same time, that Nato is going to be more important than ever to post-Brexit Britain — the vital link between security management at home and Britain’s interests and security in the rest of the world. For this it must be fit for purpose, as it is the only game in town.