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Alliance for Hard Times

With Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas about the weakness of the Alliance in time of security, its power – in time of threat, and the world without NATO talks Małgorzata Schwarzgruber.


Pessimists say that 70 years of NATO celebrated this year may actually be its last round-number anniversary. Do you agree?

More symptoms actually give way to an optimistic prognosis for the Alliance. International or interstate organizations very rarely just disappear, they more often simply become powerless. Indeed, some alliances led by the USA in the Cold War period were in fact dissolved – such as, for instance, SEATO, a quite similar to NATO organization uniting the USA, Great Britain and France with several Southeast Asia countries. Other alliances – for example the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance – are valid only on paper. It’s not however forejudged that NATO will last forever. Today, on both sides of the Atlantic popular is the opinion that maintaining the North-Atlantic Alliance and its reinforcement lies in the interest of the USA as well as the European states. When international situation stabilizes, NATO will get weaker. That’s what happened at the beginning of the 1990s, when the Cold War ended. Now it’s the other way round, and a significant number of pessimistic prognoses about NATO is exclusively the result of President Donald Trump’s statement.

Even The New York Times quoted his words, and this article resonated widely in political and military community. How seriously should Donald Trump’s words on the USA leaving NATO be received?

The research results of public opinion institutes show that about 60% of American society supports the membership in NATO, as this organization is important for the security of the United States. President has great authority, but still it is the US Congress which holds the main power. Without the consent of the Congress, presidential foreign or military policy would be very limited. It is however not quite clear whether the US President has the right to terminate the treaty ratified with the consent of the Senate. Most senators claim it’s not possible. Not so long ago, a bipartisan bill draft denying such power to president was drawn up. The US House of Representatives enacted it with overwhelming bipartisan majority, and sent to the Senate a separate bill draft on prohibition of spending any budget money on the US exit from NATO. That’s a serious signal.

NATO was formed in 1949, when Europe was very much destroyed after World War II, and the United States were the main financial supporter of the programs strengthening the European countries. Now, reality is different. How does an obligation of collective defense fit to the challenges of today?

Collective defense is still the main task of the Alliance. Some say we have now a new cold war of the West with Russia and China. In my opinion, there isn’t any world cold war, which however doesn’t mean that we can enjoy perfect peace, which was counted on after the end of the conflict of many years. There are many regional and local cold wars in the world. This kind of conflict has been going on between North and South Korea, and Japan with the distant participation of the United States, which automatically relates to NATO, too. If North Korea attacked the territory of the USA, Article 5 of the North-Atlantic Treaty is automatically on.

It does not however determine any automatic intervention of the rest of NATO members.

The member states are free to decide on what kind of help they can provide. Military support is one of the options. There’s no however any interpretational freedom as to the beginning of Article 5 – it’s clear that an attack on one of member states is recognized as an attack on entire Alliance. It is essential in the face of increasing threats, also those of global nature or covering simultaneously several regions of the world.

What threats do you mean?

I mean Russia – not only in the context of the war on Georgia or Ukraine, but also modernization and expansion of the Russian Armed Forces. Particularly threatening is such offensive weapon like for example the Iskander missiles. These are provocations towards NATO and Far Eastern countries, mainly Japan. Apart from that, the Russian war doctrine puts an emphasis on the development of nuclear weapon, but also on the plans of rebuilding the empire, not necessarily in its old form, but certainly of the superpower status, equal to the United States.

Do the Russian military bases in Syria serve that goal?

It is the sign of Russian neo-imperial policy. NATO cannot remain neutral to such doings. Here, the reaction of the Alliance was to “refresh” collective defense: Article 5 was given new power. When in 2010 at the Lisbon Summit the current NATO strategic concept was adopted, collective defense was a primary issue. Right behind it was crisis management, understood as an operation to introduce or support peace outside the treaty territory of NATO, and “cooperative security” – diplomacy.

This hasn’t been the only breakthrough in NATO’s policy in recent years…

Since 2010, the Alliance has been reinforcing its deterrence capability, and – if need arises – offensive defense. For that reason, at the NATO Warsaw Summit, there was an important breakthrough regarding the question of nuclear forces. The Alliance decided to increase the significance of nuclear weapon, which had been being decreased since the end of the Cold War. For the first time in history, in NATO documents of high importance the Nuclear Sharing Program was recognized as a substantial contribution to ensuring security to NATO member states. What’s more, NATO leaves itself the freedom to use nuclear weapon also in the case of conventional attack.

Was this decision inspired by the situation on the Korean Peninsula?

To some extent – yes, but the main reason was still Russia. It was Moscow, which – during Zapad Exercise – introduced simulated nuclear attacks on NATO member states, including Poland.

How did the conventional forces of the Alliance change?

They were substantially expanded. NATO Response Force was tripled – not only the number of soldiers increased, but also of equipment and weapons. Part of it is the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, VJTF. There have also been changes on the eastern flank of NATO, and I mean here the enhanced Forward Presence, eFP. Previously, NATO or international forces in this region were scarce and – contrary to now – they were not of combat nature.

Since the Lisbon Summit in 2010, every summit had been fruitful in important decisions changing NATO. Has the transformation ended?

We shouldn’t forget about cyberspace. The Newport Summit declared cyberattacks as armed attacks in the sense of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. At the Warsaw Summit cyberspace was recognized as the fourth operational domain of NATO, next to land, sea and air. Later on, a decision on forming the NATO Cyber Operations Center was taken. It could become the origin for the cyber commands of the similar status to the three existing commands of the branches of the armed forces, namely: the land commands in Turkey, naval – in Great Britain, and air – in Germany. Other idea is to transform the center into a combat command. It would be a novelty in respect to the fact that the existing combat commands in the Netherlands and Italy already function as joint force commands.

NATO membership stimulates development of national armed forces. Which countries did use this pretext?

One of NATO member states – Iceland – does not own any armed forces at all, and being part of the Alliance is simply its guarantee of security. In the case of other members, NATO membership creates more possibilities for the procurement of weapon or technologies. Among the Eastern and Central European member states, the leader in this respect has recently become Romania, which has been purchasing in great numbers such equipment as, for example, combat multitask aircraft or the Patriot anti-missile missiles. Such acceleration in modernization was influenced by the events in Ukraine. Among the Western European member states, the leader is France – also if it comes to nuclear weapon – while the economically bigger and more high-tech Germany allocates for defense twice less money than NATO requires. In the scale of Europe, a considerable diversity in national politics of different member states is quite visible.

NATO ensures that it continues its open-door policy, according to Article 10 of the Washington Treaty. In 2017, Montenegro joined the Alliance, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was invited. Next in line are Georgia and Ukraine. Who else?

The countries of former Yugoslavia are also considered for accession, but NATO’s further expansion towards the East will be difficult and slow. The North Atlantic Treaty allows for inviting only European countries, so the most probable members in the perspective of several years are Sweden and Finland. From among neutral states of Europe, they are the closest partners of NATO, they even sometimes participate in the sittings of the North Atlantic Council. Some statistics indicate that majority of the Swedish support joining the Alliance, while the Finnish do not. The remaining European neutral states – Austria, Switzerland, and the Republic of Ireland – are not interested in NATO membership.

In the Alliance of 29 members, there is diversity of threats, even if only for geographical location. Is it possible to achieve common goals in such a situation?

Theoretically, the more parties are engaged, the more difficult it is to make decisions. This doesn’t apply to NATO. Despite the fact that here, contrary to the European Union, unanimity is required in every case. The Alliance is about finding a consensus without public demonstration of different opinions. Thus, even when there is an argument, which is very rarely revealed, silent diplomacy enables to overcome differences and end disputes. There were exceptions to this rule, but this was many years ago. The most known example was a disagreement between USA and France in the 1960s about nuclear weapon – it ended long time ago. Apart from that, the leadership of the United States facilitates achieving common objectives as it’s not about imposing the USA’s will on their partners, but rather stems from the US potential. First, the US defense spending is about 70% of the amount of all NATO members. Second, over 90% of NATO’s potential in the area of nuclear weapon – recognized in the strategic concept of 2010 as the highest guarantee of Allies’ security – also belongs to the United States.

They pay, so they dictate their conditions?

NATO members see it differently. Such superpower as the United States is for the much weakest countries a guarantee of their security. Apart from that, the USA are not always successful to push their point of view through. Important example: the USA and Great Britain moved the proposal for NATO to be the party in the war in Iraq in 2003, but France and Germany rejected it. Today, similar differences may appear in the case of potential assistance to South Korea and Japan – these countries are outside the treaty territory of collective defense. I think NATO diplomats for quite a long time have been thinking how to respond to such challenges.

NATO considers Russia its adversary. Does President Trump think alike? Do you think that in case this conflict kindles, he would risk the clash?

There is no clear answer to this question. The US President sends mixed signals and expresses contradictory opinions. On the one hand, Trump praises Putin, on the other hand – the US administration shows continuous support to Ukraine.

Turkey’s casus is interesting – it is a NATO member who’s flirting with Russia, and in Syria fights the Kurds supported by the USA. Is it still a reliable member of the Alliance?

Based on what politicians of member states say, Ankara’s credibility has been a little shaken. The Americans do not trust Turkey, either, as in 2016, during Turkish coup d’état, for several days they didn’t have access to their own nuclear weapon in Incirlik Air Base. All which considers nuclear weapon is potential world war menace.

Turkey is however important for the Alliance due to its geographical location.

For that reason, NATO will try to keep it as its member, though not at all costs. Ankara doesn’t like to leave NATO either, but it wants to be more independent, for example in order to engage in local wars with the Kurds. It’s hard to say where the line will be drawn. I can only remind that according to the North-Atlantic Treaty, the Alliance is a civilizational community, and reacts when its member state starts to neglect common values. When Greece was ruled by military junta, many member rights in this country were suspended, despite the fact it played a significant role in politics and strategy of NATO in the Cold War period, and had on its territory American-Greek nuclear military base.

Another example of different opinions between the European NATO members and the USA is also Iran.

NATO will never be unanimous in that matter, so no actions will be taken. Iran is not a problem for the Alliance, as it is located far from the treaty territory and its activity is not aimed at member states. International terrorism reaching Europe and both Americas is of Sunni character, and in Iran, there is a Shia version of Islam. To the world – and to NATO, too – the problem would be the Iranian nuclear weapon, but the European states believe that diplomacy, not war, is the solution.

Will Brexit weaken NATO?

Brexit can even increase the engagement of the British in the Alliance, as they will want to show that despite their leaving the EU they are a good member of the West. These are however only suppositions, because Great Britain itself does not have any idea on what it’s going to be like after Brexit. What’s more, the United Kingdom may stop to be united, as there is an increased probability of Scotland exiting from it, as it would like to remain the member of the European Union. We don’t know, however, if Scotland would remain NATO member. Fortunately, the fate of the Alliance does not depend on it.

What would the world look like without NATO?

In the 1990s, US President Bill Clinton suggested that NATO took action to ensure global peace. European allies rejected the idea, as they didn’t like to be obliged to much greater responsibility and to higher spending on defense. Today NATO de facto plays such a role, because the entire world knows that if a serious, menacing the world, war broke out, only NATO would have enough potential to step in. If it was not for the Alliance, there would probably be more wars in the world, and greater chaos in the regions where NATO’s influences are scarce and where its global role is of little significance, such as for example in Africa. Also, the world would be divided into the areas of influence: American, Russian and Chinese. The rising powers of the South would try to create their own areas: India in the South and Southeast Asia, and Brazil in Latin America. There’s no certainty whether Europe would be capable to remain independent. The world would look just like it looked right before 1939.


Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas is a research worker at Military University of Technology (WAT) in Warsaw as well as a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, USA (PhD in Strategic Studies) and Georgetown University in Washington, USA (MA in National Security). During 1990–1992, he was the head of departments in the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and the main negotiator for forming the Visegrad Group and the treaty on the Russian Army leaving Poland. In the period of 1978 to 1989, he was active in anti-communist opposition movement.

Translated by Anita Kwaterowska

Małgorzata Schwarzgruber

autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz

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