Now that Turkey is threatening to reconsider its NATO membership, the long-uttered threat of the creation of an alternative EU army is more real than ever before. The question of a “common defence policy”, which will inevitably mean some form of EU army, has been on the table for a long time. One reason so many NATO actions have been taken in the last few years is to try and subvert this by keeping the national troops of EU member states under NATO command, but times do change.
Back in 2015 Samantha Power was in Brussels and elsewhere, telling everyone to give a larger share, at least two percent, of their GDP to NATO and bash the Russians. Collectively this is what prompted the EU to refloat the idea of the EU army – it not only wanted this money for itself, not NATO but as a way to distance itself from the US-NATO agenda.
As for spending money, the justification, as ever, was “the fight against international terrorism”, as if having two armies under “two” commands, with the forces split between them on unclear parameters and which would help more with this. But as always the powers in Brussels and Germany, try as they did, could not help mentioning the Russian Federation in the same sentence. The words “Russia” or “Bear” just slip out because that is the real reason they want such an army.
But now we are facing new realities. Erdogan’s chief adviser, Yalcın Topcu, has stated that it is time to reconsider the issue of Turkey’s membership of NATO, according to Turkish and Russian media reports. This is more serious for NATO than the EU because Turkey has the second largest army in the alliance after the United States. Though the EU is compromised, due to Brexit, its lack of democratic values and larger problems on its borders, Turkey’s threat leaves NATO on the verge of an identity crisis and PR debacle.
Tensions between NATO and Turkey escalated in mid-November, when modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan were depicted as “enemies” during NATO drills in Norway. Turkish troops were forced to leave these ahead of schedule after the names of Erdogan and Ataturk appeared in an embarrassing “enemy chart.”
Erdogan said the incident was an attack targeting “Turkey and the Turkish nation.” It is difficult to see how NATO could deny this, particularly when Ataturk is long dead, and therefore no exercise against anything he might do could serve any operational purpose.
So why present your second biggest contributor as the enemy? Turkey has been playing two ends, the Russia and US, against the middle. Nevertheless, it has been increasingly shifting its allegiance away from the West and the NATO alliance. As we have seen elsewhere, this makes it The Enemy Within – NATO members have to subscribe to an ever more abstract and opaque idea of what NATO is, for precisely this reason, rather than the responsibilities they signed up to as members.
Now the Cold War is long over, what is the point of NATO? It is having difficulty answering this question itself. It has become a cult – motivated by blind faith – bottled as a sort of snake oil for the EU, a cure all for all its ills both at home and abroad. It dare not take seriously the idea that it should actually mean something, and is therefore more afraid of internal enemies, who expect it should, than external enemies who don’t care either way.
Without Turkish troops both NATO and the EU are “toothless dogs.” Both need it to have any credibility. But Turkey is not going to join any military alliance involving Russia because it feels safer with friends further away. So if it wants to reduce its commitment to NATO, or even leave it, this puts the EU army right back on the agenda.
The EU has many business dealings with Russia. It wants to preserve those without becoming dependent on any of its partners. An EU army would serve Russia’s purposes, even if it were ultimately designed for use against Russia, because it could be presented as a piece of EU pragmatism. It would have more purpose to it than NATO is currently managing to find, and thus play a large part in undercutting US plans for the region: Russia can’t deal with a belligerent US, but could deal with a sensible EU.
NATO is only an alliance in name. It is in fact a means of extending US foreign policy around the globe whilst sharing the blame. If it was really interested in protecting the Western values of democracy and human rights it would intervene in all kinds of countries, but it only ever seems to enter those the US doesn’t like at a given time. NATO didn’t kick the Turkish invaders out of Cyprus in 1974, but did kick the Serbs out of administrative Croatia in 1991, even though Croatia was not yet a NATO member the others were bound to defend.
With Trump in the White House, it is understandable that EU nations are wary of being part of such an alliance, especially now with his recent announcement over the shift in policy in recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. They may have no choice geopolitically and in light of international law, but will be increasingly drawn to the idea of their own alternative as long as Trump promises to reduce US overseas military commitments and then does his best to antagonise North Korea, the Muslim world, the Arab world and his own European partners. An EU army could well prove a cost saving exercise, as the ultimate aim of the EU’s foundation was to secure peace, which cannot be said of the US at any point in its history.
Furthermore, when Trump claimed, with ample justification, that some countries are not paying their fair share into the NATO budget Cold War warriors began screaming foul, claiming that he was doing the bidding of Putin. His position on NATO was then linked to the investigations into Russian meddling in his own election. A new, pragmatic alliance would also suit Trump’s purposes if he wants a way out of his increasingly embarrassing domestic troubles. A successor to the old NATO led by the EU would still be pro-US, and continue the Cold War alignment, but also reduce US commitments and oblige the EU to pay more, creating a win-win situation Trump isn’t seeing many of right now.
Handwriting on the wall
It has been suggested that NATO should be “readjusted to address terrorism” to give it a purpose in the modern world. But interestingly, only when Trump mentioned that NATO needs to change its mission was there any response to this suggestion. Trump is first credited with calling NATO’s value into question during an interview with The Washington Post’s editorial board, in which he reportedly said that NATO “as a concept is good, but it is not as good as it was when it first evolved,” and it is only from this point onwards that there has been serious debate on what NATO is supposed to be doing in the post-Cold War world.
Like the EU, whenever Trump starts talking about terrorism he ends up actually talking about Russia. But this is because Americans find the concept of Russian aggression easier to understand. When countries which have seen it in the recent past – Poland, Romania, Bulgaria – disagree with what they see as EU “appeasement” of Russia, for example over energy projects, they are told to forget the past and address the practicalities of today. But those countries who never saw an invading Soviet tank still drag up that image when it suits them, because it served their own purposes so well, whatever their “friends” had to suffer in the process.
The problem with using NATO to address terrorism is that, by definition, terrorism consists of undermining regular things with irregular actions. If things get so bad you need to make a military response, the terrorists have already done a good job destroying countries, institutions and communities. Would a NATO force have any more success than all the other instruments of regularity and order have had until then?
Russia is a different case. It is a recognised country with a large conventional army. Whatever that army achieves, or has achieved, could be matched by a larger and more powerful conventional army. That is what NATO represents, and also why the Soviet Union existed for as long as it did.
The more the Soviets did to their neighbours, the more it demonstrated the power and might of conventional forces. Many Western politicians and contractors got rich on the backs of the Soviet Union by repeatedly denouncing it to build up NATO but making no practical effort to deal with the horrors it unleashed.
To this day, NATO’s role is dictated not by military imperatives but by how many Western weapons can be sold in the name of NATO expansion. Not only is this not what NATO is supposed to be for, it is this imperative which has created the debacles in Libya, Afghanistan and Ukraine. This is confirmed in the hacked emails from NATO General Breedlove, who nevertheless continues to make aggressive efforts to persuade the US to go beyond a proxy war in Ukraine to justify his original point, that NATO should fight, not sell weapons, if it is to fulfil its purpose.
If Turkey leaves NATO its role will be even more about weapons sales and less about fighting. Then Russia will be more in the market, even more than now. The US remembers Vietnam, and being forced to leave that conflict because public revulsion at that war was so great. With Trump himself having questioned NATO’s purpose, Americans may see an EU army as the best way to preserve the original NATO ideals before any US/NATO involvement, anywhere, becomes as deep a problem for a future US administration as it did for that of Lyndon Johnson, who withdrew after the first primary election for the 1968 presidential cycle because he had received the lowest vote a sitting president had ever recorded in such an election, on the back of his dismal Vietnam record.
The military intelligence journal Veterans Today was amongst the first to put on the table that a groundswell call to rethink NATO has to emerge. But that horse may already have bolted, after UN Resolution 1973 justified the invasion of Libya and left it prey to forces far worse than anything Gaddafi was even accused of inflicting on his countrymen.
Hole in the boat
As there are no longer any real threats from actual countries to justify the continued existence of NATO, or its expansion, it has taken to inventing them in concert with rogue actors like the major group of “private” special ops contractors, which are a modern version of “Murder Incorporated”. Many of the events in Syria can be traced to false flag operations, in which the allegedly humanitarian “White Helmets” have been particularly prominent, thus creating a situation where any agency present in any conflict, even those such as the Red Cross or Medicins Sans Frontieres, can be derided as fake by those in whose way they get.
Many EU countries want a way out of this, as their own populations are not as automatically chauvinistic and militaristic of America’s has become. Turkey in particular wants out because these forces are being unleashed against fellow Muslims, for the sake of it, and Ankara is tired of being asked to “prove its loyalty” by going along with such schemes when it unswervingly supported the West whilst all those around were Soviet satellites, or less willing to allow huge US bases on their soil.
Both Turkey and the EU also remember the words of Senator Pat Buchanan in 2008. He pointed out that “Had Georgia been in NATO when Mikheil Saakashvili invaded South Ossetia, we would be eyeball to eyeball with Russia, facing war in the Caucasus, where Moscow’s superiority is as great as US superiority in the Caribbean during the Cuban missile crisis.” Everyone wants to be in a military alliance which works and wins. If membership obliges you to go up a creek without a paddle, it is not surprising some of those members are not paying more into the NATO budget.
Whether those same members would pay more for an EU army is another question. They would soon discover that the very existence of an army would encourage those who weren’t part of it to treat it is an aggressor. But for the US too this would be a risk worth taking. It would prevent Turkey actually leaving NATO by simply transferring its membership to this successor body, a more appropriate place for this Eurasian nation to be. It would also preserve US bases in Turkey, as the EU army would still work in concert with the US, and thus make an auxiliary US presence more benign in nature.
NATO needs Turkey more than Turkey needs NATO. As reported by Russia media sources, US-Turkish relations have been on the rocks since Washington’s refusal to extradite the US-based Gulen to Turkey.
The support the US military openly provides to the Kurdish YPG [People’s Protection Units] militia battling against ISIS in Iraq is also hardly helping matters. Ankara views YPG as an extension of the outlawed PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], which has been embroiled in a decades-long military confrontation with the Turkish government in the southeast of the country. So one day this breach was likely to come.
The question is: did either side plan it? Neither the US nor EU can really deal with the concept of a friendly Muslim nation. Whenever things go wrong in Turkey this is explained as the inevitable by-product of its inability to conduct itself like a Western country because it is Muslim.
The US is longer able to use its bases to try and beat sense into Turkey. But the EU would welcome Turkish troops into its army, EU member or not, because it will be seen as the product of this US beating. Finally Turkey is prepared to be more civilized than Muslim because it is putting troops, rather than rhetoric, into European partnership, so the story will go.
Erdogan and Ataturk may have been made into enemies by that NATO exercise to ultimately prevent them becoming so. Turkey leaving NATO to join an EU army would provide so many ways out for all concerned that it would be surprising if the top policy planners in Washington and Brussels had not thought of it before.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.