NATO ministers need to have difficult conversations to keep everyone honest
Nearly two weeks after Turkish forces and its proxies launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, Vice President Mike Pence flew to Turkey and struck a deal that pauses Ankara’s campaign and facilitates a peaceful Kurdish withdrawal. In the meantime, the United States and its European partners continue to deliberate on a punitive response.
The Trump administration has sanctioned three Turkish ministries and two senior officials (per the agreement, those sanctions will be lifted once the Turks end their operation). France, Germany, Finland and the Netherlands have suspended arms sales. The Pentagon is even evaluating plans for the removal of the 50 nuclear gravity bombs stationed at the Incirlik Air Base.
However, the most significant idea discussed by members of Congress, commentators, and European officials was the termination of Turkey’s membership in NATO. Defense Secretary Mark Esper suggested the Turkish incursion against the Kurds in Syria could jeopardize its relations with other NATO states.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely NATO could kick Turkey out of the alliance even if it wanted to. Whether or not Ankara should in fact be removed is up for debate. But going beyond Turkey’s unique situation, the general question of introducing a punitive clause to the NATO charter is very much a legitimate one to consider. Indeed, it is a discussion that should have taken place at the end of the Cold War.
There is no mechanism to remove a NATO member. While Canada proposed an expulsion provision in discussions leading up to the establishment of NATO, the British were hesitant about the idea because it could send a message to the Soviet Union of NATO infighting.
Testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1949, Secretary of State Dean Acheson commented that including an expulsion provision in the North Atlantic Treaty would cause considerable “doubt” among members before they were even inducted into the alliance.
Such a decision was logical at the time, when NATO was competing with a Soviet Union that threatened to dominate the European continent. But to state the obvious: The world changed dramatically between 1949 and 2019.
The Soviet Union has been dead for nearly 30 years. Europe has been a center of peace and prosperity for two decades. NATO has ballooned from 12 founding members to 29, stretching as far East as Montenegro. And modern-day Russia, while prolific in asymmetric and covert operations, is an economic basket case that spends about one-tenth as much as the U.S. on its defense.
The only potential peer competitor today is China, a nation that is playing a much more sophisticated and multidimensional game than the old Soviet apparatchiks played during the Cold War.
NATO’s charter, however, has remained stagnant. Much like the alliance itself, the charter has not changed with the times. It is as if the world is still stuck in the year 1949, with the one big difference being that NATO has expanded far beyond its original intent, incorporating small, geopolitically insignificant countries that either have meager defense budgets or militaries so small that they don’t contribute to NATO’s combat power. The larger NATO has grown, the more unaccountable its members have become.
Presidents for years have rightly decried the wide disparity in defense spending and military capacity between the United States and the rest of the alliance. Washington’s share of NATO’s total defense expenditures is nearly 70 percent, with only 7 of 29 member states meeting their 2 percent of GDP defense spending obligation.
The problems bleed into capability as well. Germany, for example, would be lucky to muster a brigade on short notice. Those forces that are deployable could very well be unprepared and under-equipped. European militaries in general have atrophied, with budgets only recently getting out of the red after years of cuts. If a conventional conflict occurred in Europe, the United States would be doing most of the fighting and suffer most of the casualties.
Much of this goes to the lack of accountability within NATO as a whole. As it stands, there is no mechanism in the North Atlantic Treaty to enforce compliance with NATO’s Article 3 commitment, which calls for all members to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” Wealthy nations have shirked their responsibilities and Washington has enabled this bad behavior by picking up their slack.
If there were ever a time when all 29 members should address what has turned out to be the most glaring omission in NATO’s founding document, it is now. Letting the status quo continue, where the only way an offending member can be removed from the privileges NATO offers is by the offender removing it, is unsustainable and breeds further unaccountability.
No change will be easy. Reform is likely to cause friction internally. Member states pursuing policies that run counter to the alliance’s core tenants (like Turkey) will fight any formal amendments to the NATO charter in order to spare themselves the punishment.
In Turkey’s case, it would be simpler for individual members to take unilateral but coordinated action against the Erdogan government by withholding security guarantees for as long as Ankara is in violation of the letter and spirit of the treaty.
Whatever the form, business as usual is not an option.
The sooner NATO ministers engage in the difficult conversations required to keep everyone honest, the sooner the free-riding and malign behavior can be punished and contained.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.