The North Atlantic Alliance is an international military-political organisation that was formed in 1949 and remains a contributor to security and peace in the Euro-Atlantic area. Over this period, the Alliance has become the mainstay of the security architecture in the region and is perceived by its members as an essential and stable element of their foreign policy. However, in recent years, the monolithic status of the Allies raises more and more question. Just recall Donald Trump’s thoughts of leaving NATO and his decision to withdraw part of the U.S. contingent from Germany, and a new outbreak of Greece–Turkey confrontation, which almost escalated into a military phase last year.
Now, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia formed the AUKUS defence alliance without consulting their partners last month, and France and Greece signed defence agreement in early October. Does it mean that the Allies have despaired the North Atlantic Alliance and are looking for other ways to implement their policies? And won’t the emergence of new alliances result in further NATO fragmentation?
New era and need for transformation
Speaking of the Alliance’s current problems, it is worth starting with a few words about the overall, existential crisis it has been trying to resolve in recent decades. The point is the relevance of the existence of the North Atlantic Alliance as such. NATO was formed to counter the Soviet Union in 1949. Since then, the world has changed dramatically and moved from a bipolar system of international relations to a modern one lacking a structured hierarchy between the states and any hegemons. In addition, the world has made the transition from conventional wars (the use of conventional weapons and military tactics) to hybrid ones, opening up information and cyber fronts. The Alliance must transform itself to meet the challenges of the new era and offer its members a new vision of the organisation’s role in the world, a qualitative transformation has not yet taken place.
NATO currently identifies the Russian Federation and China as its main challenges. However, in addition to Russia’s growing militarism and cooperation with such Member States as Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, etc., as well as China’s growing influence around the world, NATO faces internal competition between the Allies, a lack of trust and solidarity, and a lack of understanding of a mechanism of collective counteraction to the hybrid warfare.
Therefore, on 4 December 2019, at NATO’s 70th anniversary in London, the leaders of the Member States asked the Secretary General to launch the NATO Reflection Process to strengthen the military-political alliance. The idea of the NATO 2030 initiative is to identify how the Alliance should act to adapt to new challenges. One of the main tasks is to use NATO politically, as well as to take into account all issues that have an impact on security and to use military, non-military, economic, and diplomatic instruments.
Another point of the development strategy is to strengthen the Allies’ defence capabilities and for member states to take a broader and coordinated approach towards sustainability. The initiative provides for military cooperation with non-member states, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. Another task is to pay more attention to NATO as a training alliance. However, NATO 2030 is not so much about transforming the role of the military-political alliance and changing approaches but about strengthening mechanisms within the old, traditional paradigm.
What’s wrong with AUKUS?
AUKUS is a defence pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, signed in September 2021. Its main goal is to strengthen the influence of Western powers in the Indo-Pacific region with the opposition to China read between the lines. The agreement provides for joint developments in the military and cyber fields, as well as assistance to Canberra in the construction of nuclear submarines. Australia long sought to strike a balance between cooperation with the United States and close economic ties with China but did not side with any of the partners, adhering to the “multi-vector” policy. However, after a series of diplomatic disputes and economic confrontations in recent years, relations with Beijing reached extreme tensions, prompting the continent to choose its side.
China’s reaction to the formation of AUKUS is predictable: Beijing claims that the new partnership will foment an arms race in the Indo-Pacific region. The Chinese government believes that the union members are trying not only to compete but also to restrain China’s growth. However, AUKUS also quickly dealt a blow to relations of two NATO Member States with important partners in Europe.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the launch of a new strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific region between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom “sobering” for Germany and other European allies. He also noted that the United States should consult with Allies on such important strategic decisions. The NATO Secretary General, in turn, stated that this cooperation agreement should not split the alliance. However, the strongest criticism of the defence pact came not even from Beijing, but from Paris.
What has it to do with Fifth Republic?
One can only predict how the creation of AUKUS will affect regional stability, but France has already felt the negative effects of the agreement. Due to the signing of a pact with Great Britain and the United States, Canberra gave up on a submarine deal with Paris. In 2016, Australia chose the French company Naval Group for replacing the Collins-class submarines, which have been in operation for more than two decades. After the Australians withdrew from the agreement, the French Foreign Minister immediately said that it was a “stab in the back.” At the transatlantic level, this situation once again demonstrates a lack of trust and solidarity between the Allies.
It is difficult to underestimate the importance of the agreement with Canberra for Paris. This contract for the construction of a submarine fleet was to become a key part of France’s regional cooperation. The Fifth Republic has island territories that cover the Indo-Pacific region: Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, as well as Nouméa, Wallis, Futuna, and French Polynesia in the Pacific. Therefore, back in 2018, Macron called for a strategic alliance between France, India, and Australia to respond to China’s growing influence and said, “This new Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis is absolutely key for the region and our joint objectives in the Indian-Pacific region.” Those actions showed that it was not just a contract for the construction of submarines but a symbol of France’s intention to become one of the main actors in ensuring the security of the region through partnerships with Canberra and New Delhi.
Against the background of the AUKUS launch, France signed a defence agreement with Greece, which includes the obligation of Athens to purchase three French warships with the possibility of buying a fourth. Among other things, these two NATO Member States agreed on mutual protection in case of a third party attack, and thus Article 2 of their treaty repeats Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Turkey’s response was obvious: Ankara noted that Greek policy of arms buildup, isolation, and alienation of Turkey was a confrontational policy that would harm itself and the European Union, as well as pose a threat to regional peace and stability.
What does it mean for NATO?
The signing of new defence agreements demonstrates that the North Atlantic Alliance should get ready in the decade ahead not only to respond to external threats but also to finally learn to settle the bloc’s disputes. For Emmanuel Macron, the Paris–Athens partnership bypassing the United States is a good move, as he has long sought to boost Europe’s defence capabilities. And it was Macron who said in 2018 that Europeans cannot be protected without a “real European army.” Although there are no indications so far that the other EU Member States will support the idea of a European army, this once again proves that the Fifth Republic still believes that NATO is experiencing the “brain death.”
The agreement between France and Greece is sure to increase tensions between Athens and Ankara. The North Atlantic Alliance has long been trying to reconcile these neighbouring countries, but even the outbreak of an armed confrontation will not come as a surprise. On 11 September 2020, there was an armed incident between the states because of their long-time apple of discord – the continental shelf in the Ionian Sea – or rather because of gas fields. If the conflict gains steam, NATO will find itself in a difficult situation. The NATO membership of Greece and Turkey does not help them resolve their disputes. NATO avoids taking sides, while France has long sided with Athens. Having signed a new defence deal, the Greeks realise that Paris actually pledged to support them during an armed conflict if both countries acknowledge that the sovereignty of Greece is under threat.
The formation of such new alliances also shows the regionalisation of the North Atlantic Alliance, i.e., the formation of small blocs within NATO. Since November 2015, there has been Bucharest 9 – a union of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. The nations signed a declaration to join forces on NATO’s eastern flank to ensure a strong balanced military presence in the region. Such regionalisation of NATO only complicates the development of a common vision of the Allies’ future within the military-political organisation. It also calls into question the coherence of the process, if Article 5 of the Washington Treaty is to be used due to a complicated consensus mechanism.
Anastasiia Hatsenko, Euro-Atlantic cooperation expert at ADASTRA think tank