Do We Still Need NATO?

December 4, 2019

Macron said the alliance is brain dead, and Trump tweeted about Europe not paying its fair share. Bureaucratic inertia and vested interests are keeping NATO alive.

Macron said the alliance is brain dead, and Trump tweeted about Europe not paying its fair share. Bureaucratic inertia and vested interests are keeping NATO alive.


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Well, NATO is now 70 years old and some would say not doing well, depending on your perspective. Trump swinging from demanding that all nations spend more on defense and refusing to say he’ll support Article Five, which is the article defending Europe if it is attacked; and now, having to defend NATO from France’s president Macron, who called NATO brain-dead; which increased tensions not just with Trump, but also with Germany’s chancellor Merkel and Erdogan, who is leader of NATO’s erstwhile ally and member, Turkey.

Then, there’s Boris and Brexit. And of course, speaking of Erdogan, we can’t forget the Syrian incursion. Is NATO splitting apart at the seams as it struggles to redefine itself in this century? NATO seems to be pushing the envelope against Russia while it attempts to tackle what they call “international terrorism”; a war, in some ways, it fueled itself, when it attacks Gaddafi in Libya. Should NATO exist at all anymore? Has there been a need since the demise of the Soviet Union?

A lot to cover here in a short amount of time, but we’ll do that with our guest. Professor of History at the University of Arizona David Gibbs joins us once again; his latest book, First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. And David, welcome, good to have you with us.

DAVID GIBBS: Thank you for having me.

MARC STEINER: So there’s a lot to parse through here, because I think many people are kind of confused about what’s really going on, since things have been turning their head so many times. But, let’s just take a gander first, at this interaction between Macron and Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: Would you like some nice ISIS fighters? I can give them to you. You can take everyone you want.

EMMANUEL MACRON: Let’s be serious. A very large number of fighters you have on the ground are ISIS fighters coming from Syria, from Iraq, and the region. It is true that you have foreign fighters coming from Europe, but it’s a tiny minority of the overall problem we have in the region.

MARC STEINER: Well, Trump himself is not very good at confrontations that we’ve seen in the past. But let’s get to the heart of what this might mean, David. This is a major push by Macron leading up to this. This is not something new. So how deep and how real is this?

DAVID GIBBS: Well, hard to say. I had the impression that some of this is Macron trying to appear in the tradition of Charles de Gaulle, the first president of the French Fifth Republic.

MARC STEINER: I never thought about it like that. That’s interesting.

DAVID GIBBS: Yeah, that’s how that looked to me. He talked somewhat vaguely about the possibility of a more… I don’t think he used this term, but the idea of a more independent European foreign policy given the perceived American weakness and American unreliability. And he’s doing two things. One, he’s taking a swipe at Trump, who’s not very popular in Europe outside of a couple of countries like I believe Hungary. That’s always a popular thing to do in many circles since Trump is famously a loose cannon. But also, the thing Charles de Gaulle was famous for was withdrawing France from the Integrated Military Alliance of NATO in 1966 and effectively kicking NATO headquarters of Paris and establishing a somewhat independent French foreign policy during the Cold War. So he sounds a little bit like Charles de Gaulle here and is trying to assume that mantle.

The idea of an independent European foreign policy has been discussed many times before. I think it was a real possibility in the 90s, but it failed then for a variety of reasons. I think now it’s very unlikely to take off simply because Germany does not seem very interested in it. Merkel distanced herself quite publicly from Macron’s comments. And any Europe independent of NATO would probably have to include Germany to be successful, and that doesn’t look very likely. So I don’t really see that much to this particular dustup that’s occurred. I may be wrong about that, of course, and it may lead to something, but I would think it’s just a bit of publicity seeking by Macron, and then a counterattack by Trump, and not much more than that.

MARC STEINER: So this is Macron with the economists, trying to explain with a greater definition of what he was talking about. Let’s check this out for a moment.

EMMANUEL MACRON: The questions I ask are open questions that we have not resolved; peace in Europe, the INF treaty, the relationship with Russia. The subject was Turkey. Who is the enemy? So until we resolve this issue, let’s not negotiate cost-sharing or burden-sharing. Maybe we needed a wake-up call, if you permit the English expression.

MARC STEINER: So I mean, it seems in some ways that the rest of NATO is kind of belittling what Macron is doing at the moment, at least publicly. But there clearly seems to be, with this and other things happening… Is there a potential of a split inside of NATO? Is this an unraveling of NATO? Between Trump saying, “You must raise more money,” not saying we’re going to support Article Five to Macron’s kind of messages; and then, the attacks again by Erdogan and Merkel, against what he said.

What does this mean politically, do you think, for the future of NATO?

DAVID GIBBS: Well, Trump has been in many ways a fairly interesting character politically, including in his foreign policy; and he’s made periodic anti-NATO noises. He hasn’t actually acted on any of these noises. He, as far as I could tell, has strengthened the U.S. commitment to NATO, to some degree; and intensified the U.S. confrontation with Russia, contrary to what a lot of his critics say. By, for example, giving weapons to the Ukraine, something Obama refused to do. But he does nevertheless make noises about questioning the U.S. commitment to NATO; that at least verbally, goes beyond any president since Harry Truman, when NATO was created in 1949.

Until Trump, the party line of the United States was that NATO is an absolutely rock solid commitment by the United States, and the United States would never waiver in its commitment to NATO publicly. That was where the U.S. always stood. Trump is the first one, verbally, to raise questions about that. Again, even if he hasn’t acted on those.

Publicly, at least, the main objection that he has had to NATO, is that it’s too expensive and the U.S. is bearing too much of the financial burden, and the European States aren’t spending enough on the military budget; pointing, especially at Germany, which has had a military budget, I believe now it’s a little over 1%, nowhere near the 2% level the U.S. has insisted upon. And so, the main Trumpian objection to NATO is the financial one, and the lack of European financial commitment to NATO. And that is something of a departure. I don’t really see this as really pulling NATO apart.

Again, I think Macron’s comments, I see them more as a kind of grandstanding by a politician. Even the split on the issue of Erdogan and the Kurds doesn’t seem to be sufficient to justify a likely outcome of NATO breaking apart. As I said, there was a time in the 90s, when that was a possibility, but it did not happen. I think that’s unfortunate, because I don’t really see NATO as having any legitimate function after the Cold War.

This is a Cold War anachronism that has been held together largely by political and bureaucratic inertia to serve vested interests in both sides of the Atlantic, as well as to act as a kind of instrument of American prestige and a symbol of American power. But as an instrument of global security, it has been wanting. And as far as I can tell, it has greatly increased global insecurity in many obvious ways. So I don’t think it would be a terrible thing if NATO would break apart. I think that would be an advance for global security. But I don’t see the current controversy as leading to that outcome.

MARC STEINER: Well, I mean, if you look at NATO and its history–before we turn to Erdogan, which I’m going to do in just a moment–whether you take it from its demise and what you’ve written about and intervening for humanitarian reasons to stop a genocide going on. Whether you take it from there, all the way to Iraq; both Iraq Wars, and to Libya. I mean, it is a play, this military function, but in a very different way. And so, is that the new alliance? Is that what we’re going to see? Is that one of the reasons some of the contradictions are taking place, because Russia’s in that position now in Syria and more? I mean, is that the setup we’re about to watch?

DAVID GIBBS: As I would see it, NATO is an institution that’s basically been trying to self-justify for the last 30 years; and coming up with what seems to me, at least, one contrived justification after another. In the case of Bosnia, as I would see it, the NATO bombing made the Mediterranean situation worse than it was before. It basically killed several peace arrangements and negotiations that were in the offering at the time. In Kosovo, it even more dramatically, greatly ratcheted up the level of Serb atrocities and ethnic cleansing, in a way that was quite unnecessary.

And then it had the disaster of Libya, which was, you know, an overwhelmingly NATO intervention that destabilized the whole of North Africa. NATO also played a role, basically, in enabling European involvement in the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it’s been central, I would say, in helping to create the tensions between the West and Russia. So I see this, basically, as an insecurity-generating institution, accepted as an instrument of global security. But, as I would see it, I think a close reading of the evidence would suggest exactly the opposite.

MARC STEINER: So, let’s take for example, Erdogan. I mentioned him earlier, and we’re going to play this very short clip. This is him going after Macron and Macron’s comments, but I want to take it beyond that, but let’s just get a sense of Mr. Erdogan himself.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: He said that NATO is brain-dead. I’m talking to France’s president, Emmanuel Macron. I will also say this about NATO; first of all, have your own brain checked. These statements are more suited to people like you, who are in a state of brain death.

MARC STEINER: So that was Erdogan doing his best Trumpian imitation. Or maybe, Trump’s doing his imitations. Tough to tell sometimes, with the two of them. But the issue is real, and the issue is Turkey and the future of NATO. Between Turkey taking the weapon system from Russia; to its incursion into Syria, which upset a number of people in nations in NATO; to the continuing battle there, and his attacks on NATO and not being sure whether he’s in or out.

So the question is: how does that affect the future of NATO? And I know you were saying earlier, you did not see a great unraveling here, David; but this has to play a part, because it has to do with NATO’s… One of its reasons for existence, is to kind of confront Russia; which it’s attempting to do. And then, you’ve got what happened with Turkey. So, I mean, this has to really kind of complicate the future, doesn’t it?

DAVID GIBBS: It’s unclear to me. You know, as far as I can tell, Erdogan’s actions in Syria appear to be coordinated with the U.S. actions as well, in Syria. I could be wrong about that, but I don’t really see a clear split between the U.S. and Turkey, on the specific issue of Syria. And of course, the United States is the country that really counts on NATO. Now, on the issue of weapons sales from Russia. That’s a different story. Turkey has purchased, and insisted it will continue to purchase, anti-aircraft weapons systems from Russia. That is something the U.S. has definitely objected to. Russia is now seen as effectively, an enemy country of NATO.

The claims that Trump is a puppet of Russia and so on, are wild as far as I can tell, because he’s been very confrontational with Russia. And, I think the objection to Turkey’s purchases of Russian equipment are part of this anti-Russian policy that the United States, including president Trump, has been following. And that is a significant split, as far as I can tell. I doubt it’s going to be sufficient to actually lead to a rupture of NATO. That seems unlikely to me.

There have always been, since NATO’s existence, issues of countries adopting independent foreign policies at odds with the United States. There was Suez in 1956. With regard to Turkey, there was the 1974 war between Turkey and Greece, over Cyprus; which involved two NATO allies going to war. A very odd event, but nevertheless, it occurred. And so, this is not the first time you’ve had a problem like this occur. I don’t think those is going to break up NATO. And again, I could see breaking up NATO as not being a bad thing at all, but I just don’t see that happening at the moment.

MARC STEINER: So taking the breakup of NATO aside for a moment; because I mean, as you do, and many others, would argue that, “What is the reason for its existence, now that the Soviet Union has fallen?”

DAVID GIBBS: Right.

MARC STEINER: And, “Why is it there?” But, if you look at what Trump has said earlier, when he was saying, “I’m not going to send troops into defend Montenegro, they’re leading to another war.” And then the other day, when he was responding to Macron, this is what he had to say. Let me just play this for a moment.

DONALD TRUMP: But he needs NATO more than friends. And frankly, the one that benefits, really, the least, is the United States. We benefit the least. We’re helping Europe. Europe unites, and they go against a common foe that may or may not be a foe. Can’t tell you that. But there are other foes out there, also. But I think nobody needs it more than France. And, that’s why I think that when France makes a statement like they made about NATO, it’s a very dangerous statement for them to make.

MARC STEINER: So, it seems Trump is a loose cannon in all of this. And clearly, he has his doubts about NATO, wherever coming from in his brain; who’s whispering in his ear? So, doesn’t that play into this? Isn’t that part of the unknown, about the future? At least as long as Trump is president?

DAVID GIBBS: Well, again, Trump, since his campaign for president, has made a lot of noises about NATO possibly not being essential to U.S. foreign policy; and contemplated, hypothetically, the possibility of leaving NATO. That does break with precedent. I can’t think of any other president of the United States since Harry Truman saying anything like that. Always, there’s been a very strong sense of U.S. support for NATO. And so, questioning it verbally is unusual.

But as far as I could tell, everything he’s done as president has been to reinforce American involvement with NATO and hasn’t gone beyond verbal discussion of hypothetical possibilities. As far as I could tell, Trump is continuing the American commitment to NATO largely unchanged. Again, except for the verbal level.

MARC STEINER: Well, David Gibbs, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. I’m glad you could join us once again here at The Real News. I appreciate your work and your thinking on these issues. Look forward to talking to you a great deal more. And have a great class before the end of the semester.

DAVID GIBBS: Thank you very much.

MARC STEINER: All right. Take care. And I’m Marc Steiner here with The Real News Network. Let us know what you think. Take care.