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Façade of public unity conceals underlying tensions within NATO

President Biden
Greg Nash
President Biden speaks during a ceremony to sign NATO ratification documents for Finland and Sweden in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 9, 2022.

When Foreign Affairs published an article by John Mearsheimer titled, “Playing with Fire in Ukraine,” the pushback from NATO leadership was swift and indignant. Central to the rejection of Mearsheimer’s critique was the insistent narrative of a unified NATO alliance led by the United States that had rallied the world in opposition to Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine. This narrative, however, was belied by the fact that most of the world’s people were led by governments that took no position on the war, many of them viewing the hostilities not as a “global crisis” but as a “regional conflict.” 

Observers of NATO also have noted that over the past 20 years, beginning with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the alliance has been anything but unified on questions of war and peace. Furthermore, with the passage of time the peoples of NATO countries have shown an increasing disinterest in the risks of military conflict. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that among NATO countries, only in the U.S. and Canada did a majority of the public support the use of military force if a fellow NATO country was invaded. Last year the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) polled 60,00 people in its 11 member states and found that, by margins of well over 2 to 1, public opinion believes their countries should remain neutral in any conflict between the U.S. and Russia or China. 

What these troubling indicators tell us is that the reality and attitudes of Europeans today are very different from those that prevailed at the birth of NATO in 1949.

Nonetheless, the volatile events of the past few weeks have shown that Mearsheimer’s warnings about the “risks of catastrophic escalation” are anything but theoretical and now Europeans find themselves potentially in the midst of a looming conflict between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers — a contest in which, for varying reasons, neither side can afford to back down.

Adding to the toxicity of NATO’s current challenges is the energy crisis triggered by Vladimir Putin’s weaponizing of Russia’s vast energy resources, upon which Europe had become far too dependent. Ironically, Europe set itself up for this dilemma by its aggressive pursuit of a green agenda, which effectively decimated the continent’s nuclear and fossil fuel options. Writing in the Wall St. Journal, Joseph Sternberg illustrated Europe’s self-inflicted wounds by pointing out the approaching “tsunami of energy price bankruptcies.”

As these economic woes engulf NATO countries, generating attendant political instability, the fissures in the alliance’s “unity” regarding Ukraine may continue to multiply. The anticipated accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO has been blocked by Turkey until at least 2023, pending those countries’ fulfillment of promises made to curb the terrorist group, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan views as threatening to his country. With Black Sea ports effectively blocked by Russia, Ukraine has begun to export large amounts of its grain to Europe at cut-rate prices, which reportedly has antagonized European farmers and generated street protests from France to Bulgaria.

Pending elections may further erode NATO’s fragile commitment to the economic costs of the war in Ukraine, according to former U.S. diplomat Kathleen Doherty. And with Rasmussen’s recent polling showing 80 percent of Americans regard national security as an important electoral issue in November and 42 percent consider the Ukraine war harmful to American security, even the United States — NATO’s leader — is not immune from shifting tides of often volatile public opinion.  

European memories of how the Biden administration did not consult their NATO contingents in Afghanistan before America’s sudden and incompetent exit haven’t faded and clearly contribute to current anxieties about our potential for unpredictability and unreliability as an ally. In this vein, the “America First” fixation of many prominent U.S. politicians is also not reassuring.

In light of continuing economic deterioration as Europe faces a grim winter and volatility on the battlefields of Ukraine, public protestations of NATO unity must be viewed as an increasingly uncertain trumpet. 

William Moloney is a Senior Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University.  He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.

Tags NATO Russia–NATO relations Ukraine war

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