The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was an enduring feature of the Cold War, and it was therefore a something of a surprise that — not only did it survive, but expanded in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country that had been its raison d'être.
The central plank of NATO was collective security — that an attack on any one of the members, even the smallest nation, would be treated as an attack on all. And all its members also recognised that the organisation could only be viable if the United States was ready to lead it. Yet, a major bio-threat, something that a modern military organisation like the NATO should have been prepared to confront, has revealed a response that has been neither robust, nor united, and devoid of US leadership.
In essence, a major assault, albeit by a virus, on the security and well-being of the United States and its allies, is being largely handled by individual states, with some uncoordinated help from others. Indeed, in this situation, even the conventional military posture of NATO could not but have been compromised. The abrupt blocking of most visitors from Europe on 12 March, without a heads up to the European leaders stoked a great deal of anger in Europe. An EU statement bluntly said
that it disapproved of the ban “taken unilaterally and without consultation.” To add insult to injury, in his statement, Trump, without any real evidence, had blamed the Europeans for the American infection clusters.
A major bio-threat, something that a modern military organisation like the NATO should have been prepared to confront, has revealed a response that has been neither robust, nor united, and devoid of US leadership.
As the virus ravaged Italy and Spain and took a grip of the US, the situation became worse. The US reportedly diverted
a delivery of Chinese made face masks made of the 3M corporation, en-route to Germany, at Bangkok airport. The administration ordered
3M corporation not to export masks to Canada and Latin America and officials in Brazil and France complained that the US was outbidding them in the global marketplace for critical medical supplies. The Trump administration was, of course, responding to a national emergency (which it helped to create with its tardy response). But as the American giant began to move desperately, it had little time to reflect on issues of collective security where its role is pivotal, leave alone provide the leadership that was expected of it.
The first report of NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) was issued only on 1 April
, eight days after it had received its first request for assistance. It noted that five allied and two partner nations had requested assistance. Subsequently as the EADRCC record shows, NATO countries did provide some help to each other, but nowhere in the scale that it was needed in the nations most affected — Spain and Italy. Neither was there any evidence of American leadership or help. On 2 April, NATO foreign ministers met in Brussels and claimed in a statement
that allies were “supporting each other” and carrying out its core tasks — collective defence, crisis management, and cooperative security.” The record, however, shows that they are talking more about expectations, than reality.
Even as the coronavirus raged, NATO expanded on 27 March, inducting North Macedonia as its 30th member
. But the big question, deepened by the Covid19 response, is whether the organisation has the capacity and will to defend each and every one of its members. The cat has already been set amongst the pigeons in July 2018, when President Trump wondered aloud in a TV
programme whether the US would come to the defence of Montenegro that had been admitted to the organisation in 2017. NATO may have an impressive spread, but it has taken someone like Trump to question whether the US could, or would, commit itself militarily for small countries who bring more liabilities than assets to the alliance.
Even as the coronavirus raged, NATO expanded on 27 March, inducting North Macedonia as its 30th member.
Trump’s grouses with America’s allies in Europe and East Asia are well known. As presidential candidate he had called NATO “obsolete.” As President, he nearly derailed the July 2018 NATO summit
if the allies did not boost their military expenditures. What came across the chaotic summit was an implicit US threat to walk away from NATO unless the members hiked their defence spending by 2024. The differences were quietly papered over with the European leaders defending Trump.
Actually, money is not the kind of issue it is made out to be. On the eve of the NATO summit in 2019, the organisation’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
noted that Europe and Canada had added more than $100 billion to their defence spending since 2016. But, as Peter Beinart has pointed out
, NATO already spends more than 13 times as much as Russia on defence, and even Europe minus the US, spends four times more. This said, it should be pointed out that the US-led collective defence system has been largely successful and has had a continuing relevance.
Note that Putin has intervened militarily in Georgia and Ukraine, neither are NATO members, but he has steered clear of targets like Estonia or Lithuania. But the other point to notice is that Russian tactics of what is called “grey zone” warfare are things the NATO finds difficult to confront. This perspective becomes even more salient now that the NATO has confronted a “war” and has had to come to the realisation that it may have been preparing for the wrong war.
Russian tactics of what is called “grey zone” warfare are things the NATO finds difficult to confront.
This is a pattern that has been seen in East Asia as well. In December 2019, the US broke off talks
with South Korea, with both sides blaming each other for not compromising on key issues. The US has been seeking $5 billion a year as against the earlier $890 million to defray the costs of deploying some 28,500 US military personnel in South Korea. According to the Koreans, the Americans threatened to pull out.
Earlier this month, in the midst of the Covid19 epidemic, the US put 4,500 South Korean civilian employees, some half of their local workforce, at their bases in South Korea on indefinite unpaid leave
. The US officials said that they had run out of funds to pay them. Reports now say that the US has dropped the original demand for a five-fold increase and would be satisfied with a three-fold one, while the Koreans themselves are only ready for a 10 percent hike.
The situation with Japan is similar. The US has reportedly asked Tokyo to pay four times mor
e to offset the costs of more than 50,000 troops stationed in the country. Currently Japan pays some $2 billion per annum for US forces, but the current agreement expires in March 2021.
It needs to be noted that the US alliances with Japan and South Korea, or for that matter Europe, are not some favour that the Americans are doing on their allies. Being the dominant power on both flanks of Eurasia is the key to US global hegemony and ultimately its homeland defence. That these flanks also comprise of countries with substantial economic and technological prowess has been a bonus. Even the December 2017 US National Security Strategy pinpoints China and Russia as two key emerging adversaries; having strong alliances in Europe and East Asia is clearly in America’s own national interest.
A president other than Trump could have understood the situation and gone along with it, but with Donald Trump, expecting a sensible response is asking for a lot.
The Covid19 outbreak and its geopolitical fallout could deepen fissures between the US and its allies. First, it could add to the tensions that had already emerged in the relationships in the 2016-2019 period. Second, the economic recession that the outbreak is bringing along with it will make it more difficult for countries to meet US demands for higher defence spending in the coming years. A president other than Trump could have understood the situation and gone along with it, but with Donald Trump, expecting a sensible response is asking for a lot.
In the meantime, is it any surprise that China is seeking to play the White Knight? Look at any map and it will reveal that the target of China’s Belt and Road Initiative is Europe. It has made considerable efforts to woo it, especially its central and eastern parts. Chinese laxity may have led to the global Covid19 outbreak, but that has not stopped Beijing from deepening an initiative it had first mooted in 2017
— the Health Silk Road — which calls for increased collaboration on research and health education. For the present, China has stepped in
to provide assistance to European countries like Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, Serbia and other countries hit by the virus or anticipating it.
Even now, it’s not too late for NATO to reorient itself to fight a different, more insidious kind of a fight. It will demonstrate its continuing relevance only if it can begin operating like an effective alliance, demonstrating a unity of purpose in dealing with the coronavirus and its fallout. As for its leader, the US, it needs to know that it may be the dominant global military and economic power, but even it cannot, by itself, cope with the globalised threats of today, be they pandemics, climate-related threats or financial instability. What the Covid19 experience has told us, that even the US needs the cooperation of its allies, and adversaries in dealing with them.
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