If NATO is not obsolete, what does that mean for Arab states?
Debate about NATO being a relic of the Cold War is not new but the past few years have seen its employees and other proponents reasserting the case for its raison d’être and future. There are, however, aspects of NATO that are difficult to reconcile with the emerging order of global power.
During his presidential election campaign, Donald Trump called NATO “obsolete” — his reasoning being “because it was designed many, many years ago”. When NATO was formed following the second world war it had a straight-forward mission — “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”, in the words of Hastings Ismay, the chief military assistant to Winston Churchill during the war.
Since then, NATO’s mission morphed into an overtly Russia-centric collective deterrence mechanism despite the collapse of the Soviet Union as NATO became busy inducting members from Eastern Europe while others were drawn firmly into its sphere of influence.
A resurgent Russia is looking to reclaim its identity as a leading global power and that is creating anxiety in Europe and the United States. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its reported meddling in the 2016 US presidential election represent the contemporary Russian threat to the West.
But Europe has also changed drastically. Germany, blamed for the 20th century’s world wars, dominates the European Union. It is leading the European Union to decisive generational transformation towards deeper economic and political integration
Europe is antagonised by Russia but European political culture approaches issues of securitisation, arms control and confidence building in starkly different tones to its American friends. The European Union would welcome greater independence from the United States insofar as it could enable more constructive engagement with Moscow.
The United States has traditionally taken a highly competitive and hard-line approach with Russia and this has proven politically restricting for Europe because of how NATO’s primarily military-focused agenda is interpreted by Moscow.
The European Union has entertained the idea of a European army for some time and a resolution in November 2016 finally paved the way ahead. Notably, the decision came after Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. It had resisted the idea of a European army.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in January that Europe’s future was “in our own hands”. Trump’s NATO comments prompted French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve to tell the country’s parliament: “[W]e need European defence with European means, with European investments, with a European projection capacity that will make the EU, the peoples and the nations that make it up independent.”
France has traditionally found it difficult to accept the extent of European security dependence on the United States.
Until now, the EU Common Security and Defence Policy has made only tentative progress but the political environment emerging is changing the equation. The United States and Britain may struggle to block the European Union from moving towards a future security set-up that many European intellectuals view as a logical evolution.
NATO itself may not disappear altogether but the NATO era, which has defined European security, has begun to fade.
On the American side, there has been serious debate about the future of NATO, which could not survive without US financing.
In any case, the United States can no longer focus its competition with Russia solely in and from Europe. It must compete with Russia increasingly in the Middle East and in Central Asia.
It is China, however, that poses the greatest challenge to US global primacy. In a potential conflict with China, the United States could very well find that many of its traditional European allies prefer to sit out a fight where the stakes of national interest are much different for them.
The United States must also confront terrorist threats, including the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda, a host of problematic rising military powers such as Iran and North Korea and an array of complex hybrid threats emerging from the failing states of Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
The United States will inevitably have to take a step back from NATO to effectively re-pivot its attention towards establishing the global collection of political-military alliances its needs to support its security agenda.
Previous US experiments to develop such alliances in the Middle East and Asia fizzled without a lasting effect but the United States is again in growing need of new military alliances in the Middle East and Asia that can help it preserve its future global power and role.
In the Middle East, Iran, Russia and the Islamic movements will be the primary factors defining the regional agenda for the Americans. For Arab states, there are two potential futures: Firmly as an ally of the United States with ties closer than before or the prospect of systematic disengagement by America that stops short of a complete break-off that could create sufficient space for its strategic competitors to exploit.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) belongs to the former group and its members can anticipate their strategic relationship with the United States — especially military-to-military ties — to be upgraded massively over the next decade. The United States will likely be more willing than ever to service deeper operational integration, intelligence sharing, access to new technologies and expanded training for its most important GCC partners.