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As tensions intensified between Turkey and Russia over Idlib, defense ministers were in Brussels on Feb. 12 to discuss key issues that would shape the future of not just the treaty itself, but also the world at large. 

Criticism of NATO

The defense pact between Northern Atlantic members has lately come under criticism, first from the US President who has time and time again lashed out at European states for not meeting their military commitments, and then from French President Emmanuel Macron who has called it “brain dead”. 

But the allies, despite their infighting, have persisted for now in not only identifying new challenges as they arrive but also by evolving over time. Originating in response to the Cold War by bringing together all the Western allies and creating a military buffer against Russia, NATO has shifted its focus to new threats as they emerged. 

NATO’s Mandate Has Become Variable In The Post-9/11 World

First with the pivot towards the Middle East post 9/11 and then the War on Terror, the treaty has been rather fluid in its mandate. Even more recently, in December 2019, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged the challenges emanating from China’s continuous rise. 

At the latest summit, defense ministers gave particular focus to the Middle East, and reached a consensus to enhance NATO’s training mission in Iraq by taking on some of the global coalition’s training activities there. 

Another topic in the agenda was Afghanistan, but nothing new was brought to the table, especially with regards to the ongoing peace process. All that was communicated was related to how NATO will extend its support to US forces and called on the Taliban to reduce its violent activities if they are interested in a truce. 

Regarding the challenge posed by Russia’s deployment of SSC-8 missiles, which led to the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, allies took a unanimous stand and agreed to a “package of defensive measures while being committed to arms control”. 

The event was also attended by the European Union High Representative on Foreign Policy Josep Borrell for the first time since he took office. The allies further met with Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zahorodnyiuk to review the country’s reforms and extended NATO’s support for the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, a major criticism of the treaty ever since its failure to react strongly against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. 

As part of the Land Battle Decisive Munitions (LBDM), an initiative that provides a framework to acquire key munitions for land domain, the allies welcomed two new members — the Czech Republic and Sweden — bringing the total number of participating NATO states and partners to 23. 

The Growing NATO-US Split

While the summit saw western states gather and deliver a consensus on some key issues, one can’t help but notice the growing divergence between NATO and its most powerful member, the United States. Just a few weeks back, President Trump had urged the alliance to do more in the Middle East and even suggested that it be renamed NATOME — which includes the Middle East’s initials in its title.  

Even if one ignores the US President given his history of such outlandish suggestions and over-the-top remarks, a more serious crisis might be brewing within the EU involving France. Only days after the summit, Macron had proposed a strategic nuclear dialogue at a European level, thus hinting at his growing disillusionment with the alliance. Both Stoltenberg and the German Defense Minister quickly dismissed the suggestion, reaffirming their faith in NATO, but voices and perspectives such as Macron’s are only likely to grow with time. The alliance’s problems are only likely to continue. 

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