“To succeed in the world, it is much more necessary to possess the penetration to discern who is a fool, than to discover who is a clever man”. – Charles Maurice de Talleyrand
June 22nd. The focus of NATO’s forthcoming Vilnius Summit will, rightly, be on Forward Defence and whether the Alliance can agree dynamic support for Kyiv and, short of immediate membership of the Alliance, Ukraine’s dynamic alignment with it. However, there will be at least two other implicit struggles at Vilnius that go to the heart of NATO: the future of the European pillar and Turkey’s place within the Alliance.
With the collapse of the Macro-Gaullist wet dream of an EU that is strategically autonomous of the US, Macron has now turned his sights on NATO. His aim is to turn the EU into the European pillar of the Alliance so that France can instrumentalise US, UK and other military assets to exaggerate French influence.
If Macron succeeds in establishing the EU as the European pillar of NATO, he will also ensure no Briton can ever again be Secretary-General. Macron’s vision of an Atlanticist pillar made up of America, Britain, Canada and Norway and a European pillar that incubates ‘l’autonomie strategique’ before one day it breaks off from NATO with France at its head like something out of a Predator movie.
The problem for France is that dynamism within the Alliance is far more likely to come from the Atlanticist end of NATO, rather than the EU end, which is why Paris is also seeking to lock both the US and UK into the vision. The US via implicit French support for the US in the Indo-Pacific – AUKUS or no. The British by the vague promise of vague inclusion in Macron’s vaguely intergovernmental European Political Community.
The first victim of this latest demarche is Ben Wallace, the current UK Secretary of State for Defence. He had hoped to be the next NATO Secretary-General, but Macron has effectively torpedoed his bid by insisting the appointee should come from an EU member-state. The British have only themselves to blame as once again they have proved incompetent at the game of strategy that is the Alliance. And, as ever, the British will complain a bit then roll over in the vain hope that appeasing the French will endear them to Paris. It never does. The hard reality is that the ever more money London claims to be spending on defence the ever smaller the British armed forces become, particularly the Army.
This is because behind the mask of ‘defence’ expenditure there are a whole host of rent seekers sucking money out of British fighting power. Most notably, the National Cyber Security Centre. Like most things British these days the Potemkin image is far less than the sum of its parts.
At Vilnius it will become evident whether Turkey’s blocking of Swedish membership of the Alliance is simply Turkish bargaining or something far deeper and far more invidious: an attempt by Ankara to stymie the Alliance in the middle of the most dangerous European war since 1945.
Ankara’s latest demand is that in return for Turkey’s acquiescence to Sweden’s membership of the Alliance Stockholm must prevent anti-Turkish demonstrations by its Kurdish minority. Quashing free speech is simply not what real democracies do. For many years I have been something of a ‘Turkije Versteher’. One only must only look at a map to see the importance of Ankara to NATO and European security and defence. Moreover, that same map reveals the imposed complexity of Turkey’s foreign, security and defence policy given the tough geopolitical neighbourhood in which it is situated. Unfortunately, since the post-September 2015 alignment/accommodation with Putin’s Russia, and the failed 2016 coup, Turkey has become a progressively more difficult Ally with which to deal.
There are several issues in contention between the US and Turkey. The July 2019 delivery to Turkey of the advanced Russian S-400 air defence missile system led swiftly to Turkey’s ouster from the F35 advanced fighter programme by Washington under the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Worse, Turkey’s decision to acquire the S-400, which was designed specifically to shoot down US F-16 fighters, also came with a commitment to jointly develop the new S-500 system.
Turkey’s frustration with its European partners is of a different hue. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that in June 2023 there are some 3.7 million refugees in Turkey. Ankara is Europe’s gatekeeper but feels it gets little by way of return, in spite of the 2015 deal struck between Erdogan and Merkel. The sense of alienation from ‘Europe’ Turks feel has been further compounded by the final realisation by Ankara that Turkey would never be offered full membership of the EU. For thirty years France and Germany pretended Turkey would be offered EU membership and the Turks pretended to believe them. No more.
It is against this changing grand strategic/geopolitical backdrop that NATO’s Vilnius Summit will take place. Given the location the focus should be on Ukraine. After all, both Lithuania and Ukraine border Russia and Belarus. One would hope that such a crisis would reinforce vital unity of strategic purpose and effort. To avoid a major argument with the French over Jens Stoltenberg’s successor, Biden is seeking a one-year extension, even though Stoltenberg himself has had enough. There was hope of a female successor. However, the most likely candidate, Denmark’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, has ruled herself out. The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte may be emerging as a compromise candidate. He would do a good job. However, France will at some point be faced with the contradiction at the core of its cleverness: to succeed Paris needs the support of the Americans and the British even as it alienates them.
As for Sweden, it must be made clear to Turkey that continued blocking of Stockholm’s membership might be possible under the terms of the Treaty of Washington (all 31 NATO members need to agree before a new country is offered full membership) but in practice Ankara will simply further isolate itself. Worse, if Turkey blocks Swedish membership, it is also likely to block any path to eventual Ukrainian membership. That would raise a further question. Just what value does Turkey really bring to the Alliance? Turkey needs to decide which side it is on in the emerging struggle between autocracies and democracies – it cannot be on both sides.
Photo Credit: The attached photo belongs to NATO and is used under NATO’s newsroom content policy.