What Happened to NATO?
This is the fourth in a series of sections of an extended essay entitled 'International Relations in the Twentieth Century: the Russian Snake'. All sections of this essay are published on www.the-paladins.com/blog. The entire essay will later be published online as a single document.
The failure of NATO effectively to oppose Russian aggression towards a NATO-friendly western-leaning sovereign state, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, was prima facie baffling. Deterring and defeating Soviet (later Russian) threats to the European peace by moving her ground forces westwards across was the principal reason NATO was set up. Its mechanisms for collective action in response to Russian aggression in Europe were never triggered until 2022. And when they were, they proved quite useless in achieving NATO's ostensible mandate.
How did NATO wither away to such institutional poverty in the 75 years since its establishment? Or was it a paper tiger, always ineffectual but this hypothesis was never tested save by a man so bold and aggressive as Vladimir Putin in 2022? What should be done in consequence of NATO's total failure? Should the organisation even continue to exist anymore? If so, then what adjustments are required? (No fool can pretend that nothing needs to be changed after so abject an existential failure on the organisation's part.) If not, then what should replace it and what have we learned?
Let us begin with the basics. The NATO Treaty was agreed between a series of western orientated smaller and larger military powers in 1947, as a pact for mutual cooperation in defence against any Russian military actions abroad that threatened western interests. The treaty contained a series of rules about how the contracting parties should cooperate militarily in resisting the threat of Soviet aggression, and they created an international military secretariat, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, with headquarters outside Brussels in Belgium, to administer those rules and in principle to serve as a command and control centre for NATO multi-state defensive military operations. The fact that NATO is not just an agreement but an institution, which contains multiple frailties, is often forgotten.
Some of the most important provisions of the NATO Treaty are as follows.
Article 5 is the best known and most important feature of the North Atlantic Treaty. It provides that an attack upon any member state shall be considered as an attack upon all of them; and that each state shall come to the military assistance of the attacked state both individually and in concert with one another. Article 6 provides that this includes an attack on the forces, vessels or aircraft of a member state when upon or over the territory of a member state. Read together, these are the nuclear clauses that give rise to a high likelihood of nuclear war if any NATO member state in Europe is attacked. They also give rise to "hair-trigger" sorties in which Russian military aircraft get as close to British airspace as possible to provoke a dogfight just outside UK territory (not covered by Article 6) as opposed to inside UK territory (that would be covered by Article 6). Finally, these provisions provide for military cooperation between member states that is covered by the treaty. If the United States and Poland agree that the armed forces United States will be present in the Republic of Poland, then those armed forces will covered by NATO Treaty protection.
Article 10 provides that European states may join NATO with the consensus of the current member states. Article 9 creates a NATO Council, which in practice has become NATO's Secretariat based in Brussels. Secretaries General of the Council of NATO are traditionally appointed by consensus. Article 8 arguably has the effect of providing that no state currently involved in an international military engagement shall be eligible to join NATO. The fact of the matter, however, is that because the consensus of existing members is required for admission of a new state, any state that a member has concerns about joining will not get in. Each member state has a veto right, and the fact that an applicant state may be in a position of conflict will surely be sufficient for one or more of her member states to veto her application.
Finally, Article 13 provides that any member state may by notice immediately denounce the Treaty. However there is no member for a member state to be expelled. The only way to expel a member of NATO is that ever state but one denounces the Treaty and then creates a NATO (II) Organisation with all the same members bar the errant one. Hence it is possible as a theoretical matter for a member of NATO to be expelled by consensus of all the other members. However this has never happened yet.
The principal friction that has arisen in NATO in recent years is between the Republic of Turkey and the United States. In July 2016 there was a coup d'état attempt by a part of Turkey's military leadership against President Erdogan. It was said to be financed and organised by the Fethullah Gülen, a businessman and scholar based in Pennsylvania in the United States, and his extensive movement of activists in Turkey and elsewhere. The coup came very close to being successful. A principal reason it failed was because Russian President Vladimir Putin, a sometime ally of President Erdogan, forewarned him and made arrangements to facilitate Erdogan's return from vacation to Istanbul without his aircraft being shot down. Turkey blamed the United States for complicity in the coup attack. Turkey had sought Gülen's extradition from the United States for several years. He alleged that both the CIA and the US Department of Defence at the very least knew of the coup attempt and did nothing to bring it to President Erdogan's notice. Accordingly Erdogan found himself deeply in Vladimir Putin's debt, for saving his life. What followed was an enormous purge of Gülenists from the Turkish administration, including many people alleged associated with US intelligence.
Turkey's relations with Russia according spiralled upwards, and those of Turkey with the United States plummeted. In 2017 Turkey spent US$2.5 billion on Russia's top-end S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, arguably the best in the world and so effective that the war in Ukraine has been confined to a land war: nobody dares use aeroplanes over Ukraine because S-400's are so effective at shooting them down. There is nothing in the NATO Treaty that prevents a NATO member state from purchasing armaments from a non-member state. Nevertheless the United States applied sanctions upon Turkey for her purchase of S-400's, one of the results of which was that a due order of US F-35 fighter jets was never delivered to Turkey, despite being part paid for. Turkey and Russia negotiated together to end the Syrian Civil War by dividing Syria into regions of influence; they undertook this process to the exclusion of the United States, whose proxies the Syrian Kurds become sidelined as a result whereupon the US Administration abandoned them to the terms of the Turkish-Syrian informal pact. In 2021 Turkey announced its intention to purchase more Russian military equipment, including more S-400's.
In June 2022 Turkey announced her intention to block new NATO applicants, Finland and Sweden. Finland and Sweden wish to join NATO because they understand that Russian territorial ambitions in Western Europe are imperial. President Putin has given a speech declaring the historical origins of Finnish and Swedish territories as being Russian. The fear on the part of the NATO member states as a whole is that Russia's land army, which is a slow and oft incompetent but nevertheless highly destructive monolith, may not rest upon her laurels after taking such parts of Ukraine as she decides are propitious. Instead she may continue. The United States is slow and hesitant to intervene in a European war, just as she was in both World War I and World War II. Nevertheless it is believed that the United States would uphold the NATO Treaty, entering the European war in western Europe's favour and against Russia, were a NATO state to be invaded. Hence Russia is now calling in her debts from Ankara, and asking Erdogan to veto new NATO applicants, presumably so that Moscow may maintain the option of invading those countries (or of achieving suzerainty over them through threat of destruction of their cities). One may remember the Winter War of 1939, in which Moscow demanded that Helsinki make various concessions in the nature of suzerainty and then invaded invaded Finland when she refused. It was only the bad weather, that it turned out the Finns were even better at fighting in than the Russians, that saved Finland as an independent state. To avoid provoking the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, Finland remained neutral and declined to join NATO. Now she wants to join, because substantially similar Russian aggression is perceived by Finland as placing her at risk in 2022. Sweden, with her large land border with Finland, would be an easy secondary target for Russia were Finland to fall.
Turkey's grounds for objection to Swedish and Finnish accession to the NATO Treaty are specious; she complains that those countries (in particular Sweden) are harbouring Turkish Syrian terrorists (that is to say, the Syrian group that the United States was supporting and then abandoned). Turkey is demanding a one-year (minimum) delay to Swedish NATO accession pending resolution of this irresolvable issue; Sweden rightly feels that she cannot change her refugee and asylum policy under pressure of such threats by Turkey. Finland, afraid that she might provoke Russia by joining NATO without Sweden's support, is now wavering. The net result is that Turkey is granting Russia a one-year window to invade Finland and Sweden. NATO's UN Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who once suggested that Russia herself should join NATO (contact this author for details), has supported Turkey's objections, thereby placing these two geographically large Western European allies at jeopardy of Russian invasion. Imagine if Russia did successfully invade, and Russian territory reached around Scandinavia as far as Denmark, thereby effectively encircling Germany. Would this be a good thing?
If Turkey needs to be expelled from NATO to prevent this sort of thing, it can be, by the process described above: the NATO Treaty can be denounced by all its members save Turkey, and then reformed. It actually requires no practical changes whatsoever, except signatures on legal documents and the expulsion of Turkish staff from the NATO headquarters in Brussels. Turkey appears to have entered the Russian very substantially. If Turkey is determined to block NATO expansion in such a way as to place European security at risk, then she should be expelled. Rump free Ukraine, whatever is left of it by the time the Russian tanks have trundled across the south Ukrainian flatlands via Nikolaev to Odessa and Bessarabia, will presumably will also be vetoed from NATO membership by Turkey, on some other pretext. Whatever is left of Ukraine after Russia has finished mangling her, must be permitted to join NATO straight away. This is the only way to prevent her future potential mangling by Russia, or the constant threats of that made whenever Russia wants to apply pressure on the western alliance. The United States to be persuaded that the NATO Treaty must use its de facto powers of expulsion to remove Turkey from NATO, and to permit all of Finland, Sweden and rump Free Ukraine to join. The purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was to maintain peace and stability in Europe. In Ukraine it has failed to do that, because it failed to see an obvious war between Russia and Ukraine coming (recall that Russia spent the best part of one year surrounding Ukraine with her troops) and hence it must be restructured so as to achieve its original objectives: deterrence of the imperially-minded Russian Federation against invasion of Western Europe.
There is a lot of work to do. Expelling Turkey from NATO will be hugely diplomatically controversial. Turkey may of course back down. But at the current time the Turkish armed forces are full of Russian weaponry; her relations with the United States are poor; the United States has applied military sanctions upon Turkey; Turkey is cooperating with Russia in the Middle East to the detriment of the US interests; and Turkey is not a reliable military ally of the United States. That might change in the future. Turkey may need to be removed from NATO, only to be readmitted later once she has realigned her geopolitical priorities. At the moment she has no incentive to do so.