WASHINGTON, Nov. 27, 2015 – Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian jet on a mission against ISIS targets in Syria not only killed a Russian pilot but also mortally wounded NATO. Whether the Russian jet was in Turkish airspace and whether warnings were issued and received are all but irrelevant.
NATO, the collective defense alliance the U.S. and its Western European allies formed in 1949, was designed to balance the military threat posed by the Warsaw Pact and deter Communist aggression against the territory of member states. Article 5 of the NATO treaty states that an attack on any member is an attack on all and commits the entire alliance to the defense of the victim.
Throughout the Cold War, NATO served its purpose, but with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, some opined that NATO’s success had effectively rendered the alliance obsolete, too expensive financially and politically to maintain, and potentially threatening to the new Federation of Russian States.
Despite the absence of the threat it was created to check, NATO, like all bureaucracies, has struggled to survive. For the last quarter-century, NATO has cast about for and found things to do to justify its existence. Its political-military planners invented the concept of “out-of-area” missions to authorize peace-making and -keeping roles in places outside NATO’s geographic boundaries such as Bosnia and Kosovo and to provide European troop contributions to the war in Afghanistan. Since 9/11, NATO has stayed busy enforcing no-fly zones, executing stabilization and humanitarian missions far beyond the territory of member states, and even absorbing former Warsaw Pact members.
Yet when NATO has been most necessary, such as when the U.S. and the UK solicited its authorization of the Iraq War in 2003, the alliance balked—compelling some to suggest that NATO had outlived its usefulness.
The failure of NATO to invoke Article 5 and rise as one in battle against ISIS following the Friday the 13th attacks on Paris further revealed the extent to which NATO has become an ossified, dysfunctional, anachronistic talk shop.
Making matters worse, U.S. claims that a grand coalition of 60-odd nations, many of which are NATO members, are united behind American “strategy” and power and are taking the fight to ISIS is a contemptible lie. To date, the only nation that has demonstrated the combination of political will and military capacity to battle radical Islam is Russia. NATO has no plan and no resolve, and its members cannot even come together to acknowledge that the West is at war with radical Islam.
And now, the potential confrontation between a resurgent Russia and an Islamist Turkey, coupled with ill-considered calls by several leading U.S. presidential candidates for NATO to rally behind the latter as an alliance obligation, threatens to reawaken cold hostility with Russia and forfeit the opportunity for genuine and effective cooperation between like-minded and capable military powers in the destruction of radical Islam.
Disturbing as the downing of the Russian jet and the rising tensions between NATO and Russia are, they present a precious but fleeting opportunity to undertake a complete re-evaluation of Western collective security requirements, architecture, membership, and purpose. Here is how that re-evaluation should proceed:
First, the West—a construct that includes Russia but by definition is incommensurable with Islamist nations—must acknowledge that it is at war with radical Islam and that it cannot maintain collective security arrangements or otherwise provide support or assistance to nations governed or influenced by this wicked ideology. The West no longer needs to stand guard against and deter Communist aggression. The threat has changed, the mission is now war-fighting rather than deterrence, and the orientation of collective security thinking and action and the institutions which manage this must transform.
Second, the radical Islamist threat is global and mortal. All instruments of national and alliance power must be used to reduce and defeat it. Any effective international effort against radical Islam will thus by definition not be regionally based but rather transnational in membership and scope. It will include partners across the globe that share an understanding and appreciation of the threat and thus are committed to and do in fact collaborate across the world and along the full spectrum of military, intelligence, law enforcement and other measures.
Third, such an effort cannot be led by NATO, an organization whose reason for being is gone, whose purpose, membership and decisionmaking processes are relics of a bygone threat, and whose existence—particularly insofar as it rattles sabers at Russia—impedes collaboration with the most willing and able anti-radical Islamist nation. Moreover, a NATO member like Turkey has at least one toe in the Islamist pond, to the point of engaging in trade, diplomacy and military support of Islamist groups in the region, and threatens to draw the U.S. and NATO into, if not a shooting war with Russia, then at least a new era of distrust and suspicion. Booting Turkey out of NATO, however, while it would absolve NATO of any responsibility to that nation, would not yield the coalition that can defeat radical Islam. What is necessary, therefore, is to pronounce NATO dead and create the grand alliance that can defeat the existential threat of our time.
To achieve this, the U.S. should shun calls to back Turkey in this current phase of its centuries-old conflict with Russia—a feud that spawned the Crimean War and created a major front in the Great War—and instead cast the net wide to draw in all those nations that are willing, able and ready to fight radical Islam. Many members of NATO, along with Russia, Israel, the Gulf Arab states, Egypt, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, China and others could form a vast and powerful force that, supported by sufficient resolve, proper strategy, leadership and the domestic support of their peoples, could use all instruments of their power to shatter the appeal of radical Islamist ideology and end, perhaps forever, the global scourge this phenomenon represents. Commitments from these nations would be based on capabilities. Burden-sharing in terms of troops, treasure, and willingness to sacrifice both would be a requirement for membership. Free-riding by this new alliance on the back of U.S. power, and the expectation that the U.S. would continue to do most of the spending and dying to protect the West, would no longer be tolerated. In exchange, this community of shared interests would reap the benefits and distribute burdens in a manner that has never been the practice in NATO, and as a result its reach, power and results would exceed that organization by orders of magnitude—ensuring the survival of the West in a way that NATO simply cannot and will not.
Pronouncing NATO dead and assembling an alliance that will not merely hold policy coordination meetings but will fight side by side against radical Islam until the extinction of the common foe will take domestic political courage and international diplomatic skill absent from U.S. policymaking for decades. And it will mean that alliance members can no longer rely on the U.S. to do all the deterring and fighting for them. Many nations, long sheltered under the U.S. security umbrella, will need to build and deploy the sort of armed forces they have not had to maintain or use since World War II in order to be true partners. German and Japanese forces will need to deploy globally to fight ISIS. Language, culture, geography, interests and other complicating factors will need to be overcome or aligned.
Thus, achieving this alliance against radical Islam will require harnessing military, diplomatic, economic, and information power in a much more complex manner and dynamic environment than has ever been attempted. Under the Obama administration, which refuses even to recognize that radical Islam is the enemy, there is no hope to even begin this effort. This work will thus await the entry on duty of a new president, for whom creating this alliance will be the foremost U.S. national security imperative.
The international security architecture upon which the West has relied for the past seven decades is woefully inadequate to the threat imperatives and military and political realities of the 21st century and even constitutes a basis for Russian refusal to collaborate. The great army of the West cannot be built on the skeleton of NATO, an organization designed for a long-vanished threat that, by its continued existence and the unwarranted belligerence of its Islamist member, threatens to divide the West, fragment a potential anti-ISIS coalition and reawaken the Cold War.
Simply put, NATO is dead. Rather than foolishly back Turkey in its ancient feud with Russia, the U.S., as soon as its leaders will permit, should consign NATO to the pages of history and get on with the hard and serious business of building and leading a grand coalition to destroy radical Islam.