Why do the four major NATO allies have different views and what do some cases tell us about the future of the organisation?
On April 4, amid Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, NATO turned 73. An old man guarding liberty and democracy in a world at war.
Over the past several weeks, the Ukraine conflict has seen the 30-nation security alliance come together—especially the US, UK, France and Germany—against a common “enemy” in Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But on closer look, no one can miss the bandages that are holding the grouping together. The ravages of time and age appear to be catching up with NATO.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2019 description of NATO as “braindead” is ringing through the visible signs of divisions within the grouping as the Ukraine conflict drags on.
Despite the show of unity, it will be quite challenging for the NATO powers to stay on the same diplomatic page through the crisis.
The 2021 AUKUS deal between the US and UK, which broke the submarine contract between France and Australia, had incurred Paris's wrath. French officials accused Australia, the US, and the UK of behaving in a duplicitous manner that betrayed and humiliated France. According to France, the AUKUS deal was far more than just a diplomatic spat; it was a complete failure of trust between allies and doubted what NATO exists for.
For NATO, the Ukraine conflict was seen as the best hope for the allies to mend fences.
For example, the UK — which was charting a new course since Brexit — is now standing shoulder-to-shoulder with its old allies in the EU in supporting Ukraine over Russia.
However, the issue is whether the conflict in Ukraine will have a long-lasting gluing effect on the Western NATO allies. Put differently, it is a primary concern of Washington whether the conflict will serve as a backdrop to strengthen trans-Atlantic cooperation.
The divergent individual interests of the four major NATO powers have been visible through the Ukraine conflict.
Germany is a case in point. Despite the bold declaration of “Zeitenwende” — which means a turning point in its foreign policy — that led to suspension of the Nord Stream 2 project, a massive boost in defence spending, and a promised end to Russian energy imports, Germany continues to rely on Russian oil and gas.
From Washington's perspective, Germany's dependence on Russian energy would always put Germans at the mercy of Russia. The US’ fears were threefold. Firstly, it was apprehensive that Germany’s dependence on Russian oil and gas would enhance Moscow’s regional importance at the expense of Berlin’s relations with Washington when the US became the world's largest gas producer and a global player in gas markets.
Second, Germany's improving energy relations with Russia would threaten trans-Atlantic cooperation. Third, Germany and France’s hesitancy over sanctions on Russia and their reluctance to provide Ukraine with heavy weaponry could deepen the diverging interests among NATO allies.
The worst-case scenario for Germany and France is a prolonged Ukraine-Russia conflict — with the US and UK making more and more provocative statements against Putin and waging a proxy war by sending heavy artillery, ammunition, and drones to Ukraine to bring about a "grinding war" that nobody wins.
Such a war of attrition would spill across borders and automatically threaten the European continent rather than the US, whose main aim is to keep Russia busy in Ukraine and thus lessen the Kremlin's military influence in Syria, the East Mediterranean and Libya.
Is Germany an outlier?
Speaking at a joint news conference with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola in Berlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said European countries should carefully assess the sanctions on the Kremlin.
Warning that “sanctions should have an effect on the aggressor, but at the same time, we should make sure that they have minimal repercussions for our economies, and we should be able to uphold them," Scholz drew attention to the fact that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine could destabilise European economy and security.
Interestingly, Scholz's refusal to travel to Ukraine after President Zelensky rebuked German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier clearly shows that Germany is seen as an outlier than the others, including Boris Johnson, who paid a visit to Kiev.
The UK's ability to use "democracy” as a bargaining chip to pressure Germany and France to serve Anglo-Saxon interests is also noteworthy. For example, the UK has seized the opportunity to raise its voice as a defender of democracy and freedom and reaffirm the role of a “great power” that Britain has been looking to play since World War II.
Much more realistic and threatening is the UK and US’s policy of holding democracy and human rights as the Damocles sword over these two pivot countries; Germany and France.
Both have no choice but to make a preference between the two alternatives. One is to support Washington's policy of moving weapons and equipment to Ukraine at "record speed" and applying sanctions on Russia to rescue Ukrainian civilians from Russia's assaults.
The second is to continue energy relations with Russia under Putin, prioritising their economic interests at the expense of being stigmatised as an outlier, anti-democratic at a time when the Bucha incident has put an end to the prospect of a peaceful resolution — the first steps of which were taken in Istanbul, Türkiye — to the war in Ukraine.
The differing views in Berlin, Washington, Paris and London on dealing with Putin's aspiration to rebuild a sphere of influence in ex-Soviet territories have always been in flux, with different capitals taking different views at various points.
The Ukraine conflict is not only a part of the general western perception of Russia, which fulfils the role of being the "other" but is also a severe test to understanding the durability of the unity of the West or NATO.
In a nutshell, leaving aside futurology, two points should be stressed: first, NATO has not been designed to withstand proxy conflicts — Germany against the Russian Federation, France against the AUKUS, Ukraine against Belarus and the Russian Federation. All these have severely weakened the alliance and endangered world peace.
Second, NATO is in a risky situation because of differences in security or foreign relations issues between member states and because of their domestic compulsions. After all, every country rides out the rough on a simple principle: safety first.
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