The question of whether the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an alliance between the US and major Western European countries, or an alliance that only benefits USA, has been doing rounds since Donald Trump assumed presidency. In spite of reservations, NATO has supported the US in its various ‘failed’ military operations. From providing bases to sending thousands of troops to Afghanistan, NATO allies have never resisted from either providing security to the US or assisting it to register its imprint around the globe.
The alliance has also been beneficial to the US military-industrial-complex – the biggest arms industry in the world – that earns hugely from arms sales to the NATO members. Yet, the recent annual summit of the NATO in Brussels saw the US pouring anger at the Alliance for its meager contribution in defense spending. This reservation wasn’t new; US president often have raised it in the past, however in a more diplomatic manner. In case of Trump, it was the style, the manner and the frothing that made the demand brasher and aggressive compared to his predecessors.
James M. Dorsey, a veteran journalist and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, sees Trump’s straining of US-NATO relations as, “a result of his dislike of the post-World War II order that he sees as detrimental to US interests as well as his inflated assessment of the US power in a changing world. At this point, the jury is out on the degree of damage he will be able to do. He certainly is damaging US credibility, but not irreparably.”
NATO has been at the forefront of the US war in Afghanistan, taking over the command of the International Security Assistant Force – a conglomerate of armies put together by the United Nations Security Council from countries other than the NATO states. This move by NATO, to move out of Europe, to oblige the US took many by surprise at the time. However, the sailing was not as smooth as it apparently looked initially.
While many allies approved of the central goal of the mission to stabilise and reconstruct Afghanistan, a few restrained from participating in the counterinsurgency and other missions; a practice known as “national caveats.” The NATO mission, with 130,000 troops, ended formally in December 2014. From 2015 onwards, NATO assumed a noncombat role, which was aimed at training, funding and assisting the Afghan government. In mid-2018, the alliance has now sent a further 16,000 troops to the mission, of which more than half is contributed by the US.
The problem is that the NATO mission, with the US in the lead, is not winning the war in Afghanistan. The longest and the toughest war; which the US can neither leave, nor win or halt. Though until last year, the US was adamant to first break the proverbial back of the Taliban, and then talk to it. It is now ready to engage with the insurgents without any preconditions. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg while wrapping up the 29 member summit this July, had also said that only a political solution could bring the Afghan crisis to an end. The alliance has also pledged to fund the Afghan government through 2024.
On this matter, Dr Syed Qandil Abbass, Assistant Professor, School of Political Science and International Relations, Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad, says, “Apparently it looks that the US and NATO are on the same page on Afghanistan, in reality, however, the US is ‘Unilaterally’ managing things there. In all the three meetings the US has had with the Taliban leaders, in Afghanistan, Qatar and UAE, the NATO representatives were absent. It is this attitude of going ‘Unilateral’ that may sting their relationship, especially when Trump is least concerned about alliances and has been using harsh language to keep the US interests ahead”.
In the midst of the US showing frustration over its fast depleting cash flow to sustain the NATO, the war investment in Afghanistan could become a major issue among the allies. Especially when the US is annoyed at Germany for nurturing business ties with Russia while condemning the country’s role as NATO’s potential enemy. Germany buys more than half of its natural gas from Russia.
In simple terms, every NATO member is now allied to Russia either through trade or militarily. Turkey, a key NATO ally, is all set to buy S-400 missile defense system from Russia. Washington is annoyed over this decision and its lawmakers are attempting to block the transfer of F-35 jets to Turkey; fearing the Russians might get an insight into the radar-evading technology.
NATO had come about in response to the Russian aggression on the eve of the Cold War. For 70 years, the alliance’s security concerns have revolved around Russia’s potential belligerence. Trump sees a contradiction in NATO’s business relationship with Russia while considering it an enemy.
Dr Abbas, however, sees NATO’s engagement with Russia from a different perspective. “Europe has understood that the future does not belong to militarization, instead to those who hold economic power. It is in this context that Europe has engaged with both Russia and Tehran. Here again, the US is trying to ‘Unilaterally’ sabotage the gains NATO and the US have gained prior to Trump’s arrival in the White House”, he argues.
NATO is experiencing rifts on matters pertaining to US policies that have changed since the Trump administration has taken over. From climate change and Iranian nuclear deal to trade tariffs, the US wants to take a path dissimilar to the one the rest of the NATO states want to tread. A glimpse of this tension was seen at the ill-fated G7 Summit in Canada, which ended in the US refusing to sign to the Communique.
In the new world order that Trump is drawing up, there will be less of smokescreens and more of a real-world view. A worldview that may not suit the West, which is long accustomed to hypocrisy and made-up foes.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.