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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

A new approach to Nato: what kind of security alliance would we choose now?

Put aside who might be saying it but it might be sensible to rethink the role of Nato and end the enmity with Russia, writes Sholto Byrnes

Experts have expressed fears that US President Donald Trump may give away too much in any upcoming summit with his Russian counterpart. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Experts have expressed fears that US President Donald Trump may give away too much in any upcoming summit with his Russian counterpart. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Donald Trump’s unpredictability once again has the established order in the West having a collective fit of the vapours. They fear he will “blow up” the Nato summit on July 11-12 just as he did the G7 meeting last month, and that when he subsequently has a bilateral with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin he will make unilateral concessions that only embolden the Russian president, rather than punish him, as many European leaders would prefer.

A clear, consistent and coherent philosophy behind Mr Trump’s actions may indeed be hard to discern. A British diplomat told the Guardian this week that the US president’s strength was not that he thought outside the box. Mr Trump, he said, “does not even know what the box is”.

But being unconstrained by the commonly accepted norms and attachments of the past means that Mr Trump may be more likely to ask the kind of question that ought to be posed when the 69-year-old alliance meets in Brussels next week, but almost certainly won’t. Such as: if Nato didn't exist, would it be necessary to invent it today?

After all, why - unless your aim was to stir up geopolitical tensions - would you set up an organisation that looks specifically purposed to target one country in particular? An alliance that does everything possible to make that country suspicious, including encroaching on states that were historically within its sphere of influence or even used to be in union with it, and which holds hostile war games right up to its borders?

There was certainly good reason to treat Russia's predecessor state, the Soviet Union, in a mistrustful manner during the Cold War. Rapidly escalating conflict was a very real and genuinely feared possibility and the West had to be prepared. But the Berlin wall came down in 1989. Communism in the Eastern bloc collapsed shortly afterwards, and Boris Yeltsin became Russia's first democratically elected president in 1991.

Nato should have been radically rethought or dissolved then. But the opportunity was missed, and this relic of antagonism towards the East persisted. It needlessly provoked Russia with its foolishly hasty expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries, with two unintended and harmful consequences.

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First, far from keeping the peace in Europe, it has arguably done more to risk it, for Russians know very well at whom these bellicose manoeuvres and defence capabilities are aimed. (Answer: not Iran.) Secondly, it has undermined Nato's credibility, since nobody really knows if Article 5 of the treaty - by which an attack on one member state is taken to be an attack on all - is truly sacrosanct any more.

As Jochen Bittner, the political editor of Germany’s Die Zeit, put it two years ago: “It is hard to imagine that Europe and the United States would, if they had the chance in 2016, write another Article 5 at all.” The political will is not there, or not uniformly so. The resulting uncertainty is dangerous, and may well have contributed to Mr Putin’s sense that he could get away with annexing Crimea (not then part of a Nato country, but one that the West was courting nevertheless).

President Trump may not be thinking on these precise lines. But given his desire to forge friendlier relations with Russia no one should be surprised if he concludes that Nato is a barrier to that goal rather than a facilitator. Again, some may believe that Mr Trump’s approach to recalibrating America’s relationship with Russia is naïve and rests far too much on his self-image as the supreme deal-maker. It may be. I do not credit him with the diplomatic skills of a Kissinger, nor should anyone be under any illusions about how benign a government Mr Putin runs.

But Mr Trump’s doctrine of principled realism, which he has stated means that “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others” but seek “to build new partnerships in pursuit of peace”, at least implicitly recognises that other great powers have reasonable expectations of their own. If the US could assert the Monroe Doctrine, effectively declaring the Americas its backyard, why shouldn’t Russia claim something similar? (Mr Trump reportedly told the G7 that “Crimea belongs to Russia because everyone who lives there speaks Russian.”)

To concede this is not to agree to the dismantling of national boundaries (for all sorts of reasons, Crimea was an exceptional case). It is really no more than to accept what nearly every power has insisted on throughout history. And a real rapprochement with Russia, apart from the alliances during the Napoleonic and the First and Second World Wars, is overdue not just by decades but by centuries.

A new approach to Nato and to Russia could extend to thinking about what kind of security alliance one might choose to set up now; and at least consider how that could include Russia in a way that would commit it to a rules-based military order in which it could be a willing and responsible player.

It may be nigh on impossible to put such an arrangement into practice. That doesn't mean it would not be helpful to imagine it as a guide to current and future policies and actions.

So again, put aside out of whose lips the words may come. Wouldn’t it be entirely sensible to rethink the role of Nato and bring an end to enmity with Russia? The only people who would disagree either want confrontation or think it's inevitable – an attitude which contains the seeds of making it so. Bear in mind, too, that all previous attempts to address these issues have failed. So why should Mr Trump be dismissed out of hand? He should surely be given the latitude to see if he can succeed where others have not. You never know, he may surprise us all.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia