AMSTERDAM, July 19, 2016 – As discord within the EU is on the rise, one task of last weekend’s NATO summit was to demonstrate continued unity against Russian antagonism. NATO members agreed on July 8 to deploy troops on a rotating basis to Poland and the Baltic states, including forces from the U.S., Germany, Canada and Britain. Also, the alliance plans to deploy 4,000 soldiers to Ukraine’s eastern border.
These moves come as a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of rebels in eastern Ukraine, and more recently, what appears to be campaign of intimidation by Russia against Western ships and aircraft. Russian aircraft have taken to close fly-bys of military and civilian planes, apparently in response to economic sanctions provoked by Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The NATO summit, held in Warsaw, was widely noted to represent a pivotal moment in the post-Cold War history of the organization, as Russian aggression, continued instability in the Middle East and the resulting refugee crisis pose challenges on multiple fronts. But is this enough, or should NATO hang its hat out to dry?
A rising sense of nationalism in Europe inherently challenges multinational organizations such as NATO and the EU, evidenced by the Brexit vote and the continued rise of inward-looking politics throughout the continent. Even beyond Brexit, this trend has created some friction from EU countries towards NATO policies.
French President Hollande stated, “NATO has no role at all to be saying what Europe’s relations with Russia should be. For France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat.”
Additionally, a continent-wide focus on the Brexit vote has sapped many member states’ interest in more urgent collective security concerns. It is important that this pattern of disunity among EU states does not spread to NATO, an organization which is as essential as at any point it its history to solving the problems facing Europe and the West.
While NATO is not suffering from the divisions facing the EU, having recently reversed a decline in overall spending, a large majority of member states are still not meeting their commitment to spend 2 percent of their GDP on NATO defense. Despite signs that NATO is still going strong, such as increased spending and the prospect of a new member state, aspects of the summit hinted at European disunity threatening NATO’s collective security objectives.
Alexis Tspiras, Greece’s firebrand leftist prime minister, broke ranks with the rest of NATO, going even further than Hollande in advocating a rapprochement with Russia. He called for a partnership with the Kremlin, and by extension, acquiescence to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. These comments follow last month’s announcement by the Greek defense minister of a new partnership with Russia to manufacture Kalashnikov rifles, a deal he claimed was essential to prevent a collapse of the Greek defense industry. In the words of one NATO official, “The fact that a strategically important Nato country like Greece is trying to build its own relationship with Moscow could seriously undermine the alliance’s ability to present a united front to deter further acts of Russian aggression.”
In the wake of the Greek debt crisis, many observers have hoped to rein in Mr. Tspiras toward the European consensus on a number of issues, and Greek plans for reform in the face of ongoing economic crisis have raised these hopes even further. However, delays and backpedaling of plans for privatization and other measures have raised questions as to how serious Tspiras is about reform. The government is on the verge of scaring away foreign investors after the firebrand prime minister offered the Chinese company Cosco the shipyards of Skaramangas. It’s not clear how this would be accomplished, considering that the Emirati-based group Abu Dhabi Mar owns the shipyard. The Chinese politely refused. Furthermore, electoral overhauls to the Greek constitution sought by the Tspiras government threaten to undermine long-term stability while boosting Tspiras’s ability to hold on to power in the short term.
The growing relationship with Russia, delays in reforms and this move to alter the Greek democratic process indicate that Tspiras is not coming around to a more centrist position as many have hoped. These actions leave doubt as to whether the interests of either the people of Greece or Europe, more broadly, are a priority for the leftist administration.
Tspiras’s comments were an example of how disunity and rising nationalism among EU member states has a strong potential to bleed over into NATO and international affairs. A similar line of thinking can be found in the move for Brexit, in the rise of the far right in France and in the tone of Donald Trump’s campaign in the U.S. This turn towards nationalist self-interest threatens to undo the progress of multinational institutions such as the EU and NATO – organizations that, despite rough patches, have indeed made progress in limiting conflict between states within their areas of influence. Instead of seeking to stall globalization, these countries must look to the wider global community so that the process of forming a more global society yields the best possible results for all involved.
Organizations such as the EU, NATO, and the UN were formed to ensure peace after an era in which nationalism tore apart the very fabric of a continent – a mistake that must not be repeated.