Westlessness: how cracks within NATO signal a new balance of global power

It is easy to treat Trump as the cause of Western fragmentation. But it is much truer to consider him merely a symptom.

By Jeremy Cliffe
8 September 2020

Last week was a reminder of a subject that looked set to define 2020 before the pandemic hit: Westlessness. The term was coined in the annual report of the Munich Security Conference. It referred to the way in which the old Western alliance, and particularly NATO, seemed to be fragmenting such that one could no longer talk about the “West” as a single entity. The term echoed Emmanuel Macron’s eye-catching description last November of NATO as “brain-dead”.

Several recent events serve as reminder of how true that was.

One of the world’s most alarming geopolitical showdowns is taking place not between NATO and a rival but within the alliance. Greece and Turkey, both members, are in a standoff over oil and gas rights in the eastern Mediterranean; particularly around Greek islands and the coast of Cyprus. The disagreement has been mounting for months, with the German broadsheet Die Welt even claiming on 2 September that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had ordered his generals to sink a Greek ship (they reportedly refused).

The striking thing is not just that two fellow NATO members should be on such poor terms, but the starkness with which this illustrates the alliance’s wider cracks. On 3 September NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg announced that talks had started between the two sides, only for Athens to reply that it had agreed to no such thing and would only negotiate once Turkey had withdrawn its naval vessels from the contested waters. France is enthusiastically siding with Greece. The US is largely absent.

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The Turkey-France rivalry is also playing out in Libya; following the ceasefire there on 21 August, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on 4 September accused Macron of having “gone crazy” in reaction to the French-backed forces of warlord Khalifa Haftar being pushed back by the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord in the spring.

In both the eastern Mediterranean and Libya, Germany has been the “good” NATO member, marshalling the so-called Berlin peace process between the two sides in Libya (now given a new lease of life by the ceasefire) and calling for dialogue between Greece and Turkey. But Germany too is guilty of transgressions against the spirit and goals of NATO.

On 2 September, German officials announced that Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader now in a Berlin hospital, had been poisoned by a novichok nerve agent. If there were ever a moment for Germany to drop its support for Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline currently under construction between Germany and Russia that serves the Kremlin’s financial and geopolitical interests and undermines NATO’s eastern members, now would be it. But the German government continues to stand by the project; publicly claiming that it has nothing to do with geopolitics and privately claiming Germany’s current energy mix leaves no alternative. Neither explanation is convincing. This, more than the (rising) German defence budget that so bothers an American president who thinks about NATO in purely cash terms, is Berlin’s real offence against the alliance.

And what of the US? On 1 September the New York Times writer Michael Schmidt published his book Donald Trump v. The United States, which reports that former White House chief of staff John Kelly told others that one of the most difficult tasks he faced with Trump was trying to stop him from pulling out of NATO. On 16 August John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, had suggested to the Spanish newspaper La Razón that Trump might announce American withdrawal from the alliance as an “October surprise” to shake up the election campaign. That seems questionable. But it remains perfectly possible that after the elextion an emboldened, second-term Trump might opt to pull his country out of NATO.

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Those who think a Biden administration would, by contrast, summon up a new NATO heyday are misreading American politics, foreign policy and the Democratic candidate. Biden as president would certainly be more diplomatic than his predecessor. He would rejoin multilateralist agreements like the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris agreement on climate change. But he would also know that he governed an America with less tolerance for foreign entanglements, more domestic woes of its own and a destiny that will be decided in the Pacific rather than the Atlantic.

Those willing to look at the long-term picture might note that 31 August saw the US deputy secretary of state Stephen Biegun compare the emergence of the increasingly important “Quad” (US, Japan, India, Australia) to the rise of NATO. Any suggestion of an Indo-Pacific NATO is unlikely to fly in today’s India. But the very fact that senior, established US officials like Biegun are mulling parallels between Asian alliances and NATO is an illustration of new realities.

NATO’s future vocation, such as it has one, will probably be to enact priorities in eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space for which there is residual consensus between the US and Europeans. The EU, in turn, will probably have to take more responsibility in its neighbourhood, particularly in the Mediterranean region. And the overwhelming focus of future American governments will be the balance of power between it and China in the Indo-Pacific.

It is easy to treat Trump as the cause of Westlessness. But it is much truer to consider him merely a symptom of it.

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* Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

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