Carnegie Europe was on the ground at the NATO leaders meeting in Brussels on May 25, giving readers exclusive insights into the high-level event.
NATO has some good news for Donald Trump.
When the American president visits the alliance’s spanking new headquarters later this afternoon, he’ll be told two bits of good news.
The first is that total defense spending by non-U.S. allies rose by about $10 billion in 2016. Of course there are still laggards, including Canada and Croatia among others. But the fact that NATO is spending more might be enough to convince Trump that the alliance is taking its security seriously and carrying more of the burden.
The other good news—depending on the views of individual NATO members—is that the alliance will join the global coalition against ISIS. Agreement was reached earlier this week after Germany and France lifted their opposition to the idea. As it is, all the allies actually participate in the coalition but not under a NATO flag.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said joining the coalition would “send a strong political message of NATO’s commitment to the fight against terrorism.” But he added: “It does not mean that NATO will engage in combat operations.”
Speaking on background, one NATO diplomat said the move had symbolic significance. “NATO will have a seat at the table,” he explained. “But we have a seat already,” another diplomat said.
Still, Trump might be reassured. But now that it is formally part of the coalition, one does wonder if Washington would at some stage ask NATO to play some kind of a combat or more robust military role.
Behind these headlines, NATO has had to cope with a stubborn Turkey and a complete unwillingness by the alliance to play a substantial training role in Iraq.
Since 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia in order to end the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the alliance has been deployed in this part of the Western Balkans. Called KFOR, the Kosovo Force Trust and Commitment, the mission has 4,352 troops based there. The interesting aspect about this mission—apart from the fact that eighteen years later, KFOR has still to provide security and stability—is that non-NATO members are part of it.
These non-NATO contributing nations are part of the broader NATO partnership program, which includes several North African and Middle Eastern countries. Their participation in any alliance mission requires the consent of all NATO members.
Austria, an EU but non-NATO member, is one of the main contributors to KFOR. But Turkey recently blocked Austria’s role in Kosovo and in effect put a complete halt to this partnership. The reason? Austria said the EU should stop all accession talks with Turkey because of Ankara’s deteriorating human rights record.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to react. The Turkish president vetoed plans by NATO to cooperate with Austria. Not only that. He blocked the entire NATO partnership relationship that stretches from Georgia and Ukraine to Israel and Jordan.
KFOR could of course ask NATO countries to compensate for Erdoğan’s veto. But the fact that he was prepared to punish NATO by blocking the partnership showed how the Turkish president could hold the alliance hostage.
Unwilling to have this dispute mar today’s leaders meeting, a compromise of sorts was reached. “In future, things will be done on an individual case by case basis, not collectively,” a NATO diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity said. “Erdogan got what he wanted. The Austrian soldiers will stay at home. But at least the partnership is intact.”
Meanwhile, another mission, this time in Iraq, has gone almost nowhere. Back in 2004, NATO had a mission to train the Iraqi security forces. It ended in 2011 after the alliance failed to seek an agreement with Baghdad on the legal status of NATO troops serving there.
Attempts have recently been made to revive the mission. NATO has about ten people in Iraq, which is grossly inadequate for training purposes. One NATO diplomat on May 25 described the NATO mission as “very modest.” That’s an understatement. He added that NATO didn’t want to duplicate efforts by other players involved in training the Iraqi forces.
The reality is rather different. It’s about how the trainers would be financed. Britain has already put up one million pounds while some NATO members wanted to finance the mission from the alliance’s common fund. France objected to that.
“It’s shameful how little we are doing in Iraq,” an East European diplomat said. “We have no strategy whatsoever for the country, let alone how to deal with the situation on the ground when Mosul [which has been captured by ISIS] is completely liberated.”
Speaking about NATO’s role in Afghanistan, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on May 24 that “we have moved from a combat role to a training role. This has shown the value of supporting local forces in their fight against terrorism.” Iraq was not mentioned.