What a wicked game to play…: Turkey, Russia, and the obsolete NATO

dreamstime_l_13265318“1945-1990 – Russophobia
1990-2015 – Islamophobia
2015- ?? – Russophobia AND Islamophobia. 
Isn’t it time the MI Complex created a new bogey-man?” 
― Arindam Mukherjee

A couple of weeks ago, two Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian bomber near the Syrian border. It is unclear whether the collision happened over Syrian soil or Turkish soil. Anyway, normal procedures would have been for the Turkish army to redirect the Russian plane to other territories, not in any manner to shoot it down. Even so, Turkish Prime Minister Sir Davutoglu was fast to consult the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), complaining about his airspace having been violated and seeking reassurance that the alliance would stand by Turkey’s side.

These events were a wake-up call for observers to realise the implications of having Turkey as a NATO member as the situation in the Middle East is becoming increasingly fragile. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which stipulates the core principles of the organisation, mentions that an attack on any member is an attack on all members. Any retaliation from Russia could potentially lead to a confrontation with the 28 members that form the alliance. In short, the world could see the start of WWIII as many commentators were fast to claim.

Who would have started that conflict? Turkey. Yes, the same country that is playing a pivotal role in supporting and financing Sunni extremist groups such as Al-Nusra and ISIS, notably by buying their oil and allowing their people’s movements through its porous borders. It is also accused of having joined the US-led coalition against ISIS in July just to allow its air force to target the Kurdish front, ignoring ISIS. At a domestic level, it has been through a radical shift towards power centralisation, authoritarianism and Islamisation in the past decade. The Turkish government has been increasingly curtailing freedom of speech, notably by jailing journalists, and has been using all kinds of rhetorical methods to maintain some political stability in the country.

Erdogan has a tendency to picture himself as the regular subject of foreign powers’ manipulations, the victim of an international plot. Well, looking at recent events, it seems legitimate to think that the Turkish government is rather in control of a very smart game. Erdogan probably knew that any assertive move towards Russia would have the backing of NATO. What a wicked game to play… These expectations were soon confirmed by the organisation’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, who announced that “as we have repeatedly made clear, we stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally”. In short, he confirmed that Western countries were ready to fight alongside a government that is being supportive of ISIS, the same terrorist group that François Hollande declared war against after the Paris events. Funny, or maybe not.

To understand how we ended up in such a mayhem, it is necessary to go back to the roots of NATO, in order to analyse what such an organisation stands for and its implications for world politics. NATO was an alliance formed in 1949 at the start of the Cold War by the Western bloc. Its alleged purpose was for the latter to defend itself against a potential aggression from the Eastern bloc. Its power was supposed to balance the power of the Warsaw Pact through a deterrence effect, and would, therefore, provide stability to the world order. As part of this framework, Turkey was playing the strategic role of hosting a large number of American military bases close enough to the USSR, offering the perfect deterrent. It also allowed to block the Russians access to the Middle East. NATO’s own legitimacy, logic, and purpose were to be found in the very existence of the Soviet bloc, it seems.

When the Cold War ended, one could have therefore expected the organisation to be dismantled. If one side of the balance disappears, then the other side loses its justification for existing, in theory. Most surprisingly, NATO was not. Rather, it expanded further to enrol most of the ancient Soviet satellites countries, redefining its boundaries up to the doorstep of Russia, despite a promise having been made to Gorbachev in 1990 not to expand further east of Germany – the famous “Not an inch” expression. This expansion has been highly critiqued since then by successive Russian governments, fuelling a discredit and a feeling of threat towards Western countries that undoubtedly participated in making the Russians more offensive in recent years.

This crucial fact reveals something about the organisation that critics of American hegemony had been highlighting for long before the Cold War ended: the original purpose of NATO was less to contain the Eastern bloc through defensive means than to project American political and military supremacy over Europe and beyond. Everything that happened after the Cold War seems to confirm this hypothesis.

Across the 1990s, NATO’s mandate was progressively renewed and its methods of operations redefined. It is during this period that Western policy makers started identifying new types of security threats, what they called ‘global risks’, global terrorism being one of them. These new risks were more diffuse and unpredictable compared to the good old USSR. In addition to this discourse, another argument started to get prominence in Western countries, the discourse on moral interventionism and the duty to protect civilians in foreign regions. It was alleged by NATO members that the alliance had a new role to play in managing global risks and providing stability abroad, acting as the moral enforcer of the globe. Inside of this new framework, there was no need for NATO to get approval from the United Nations Security Council anymore before making use of force, as preemptive actions were justified by the logics of global risks and moral interventionism. In short, this new strategic direction paved the way for an era of offensiveness for NATO.

Unchecked, unbalanced, the alliance intervened in Kosovo in 1999. Some critics will say that the Kosovo offered a compelling case to act on the basis of protecting the lives of civilians. Some have said that even if they were not legal, NATO’s actions were legitimate. Then can someone explains why NATO does act in some conflicted areas and not in others? Because it is not only moral and security considerations that are weighing in the balance, it is also America’s desire to maintain its hegemony and to protect its own interests, the same interests that should be put in check by an international body like the United Nations.

As the French philosopher Regis Debray wrote to Hubert Vedrine in 2013 when the latter was in charge  of assessing whether France should stay in NATO, this continuous attempt to maintain the alliance alive through finding new justifications for its existence has disastrous consequences. A major one is that NATO undermines the legitimacy of the United Nations. The UN is the sole institution that has some form of universal recognition to maintain peace and security globally. Its charter guarantees that no use of force should be made except in defensive cases. Every time NATO has been using force without a UNSC mandate it has violated the charter treaty of the United Nations, each time discrediting a little the role of the latter.

It is also crucial to recognise that NATO was formed on the basis of a view of the world that was as binary as what the Cold War offered. Policy makers would picture the world as two ideological blocks facing each other. Even if NATO has been through a complete rethinking recently, its structure and alliances still leave the organisation totally obsolete and illegitimate considering the complexity of today’s world politics and the specificities of each power’s agenda concerning peace and security. This makes NATO in constant craving of a new purpose, of a new strategy to defend its own survival and to maintain the American supremacy in disguise that it fulfils, in a world that has no need for it.

The appalling consequence of all this is the multiplication of interventions through ad-hoc coalitions, ones that better represent everyone’s diverging interests, as pictured by recent actions in Iraq and Syria. In order to exit this nationalist zero-sum game tendency, a drastic reevaluation of everyone’s priorities and a real effort to find common grounds will be needed. Otherwise, one can assume that real and legitimate multilateral efforts such as the ones made through the United Nations will lose credit for good, creating more instability and reducing chances of establishing long-lasting peace globally. Ad-hoc interventions are, as history is increasingly telling us, quite counter-effective in bringing stability.

Finally, maintaining an obsolete NATO in place even as world developments call for institutional innovation renders the relationship between the West and Turkey extremely tricky. Some commentators in the United States have judged the presence of a Russian bomber over Turkish air an aggression and have affirmed that the West needs to show a stronger stance towards Russia. Well, the truth is that the West is being too soft not on Russia, but on one of its own elements, Turkey. This one is taking advantage of its presence in the alliance to advance its own agenda, behaving erratically on the international scene, supporting radical Islamism and inflicting suffering on the Kurdish people. It is often said that Putin has been testing NATO’s resolve on the past decade, but the recent confrontation with Turkey tends to prove instead that it is Erdogan which is testing it the most.


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