Will NATO exist in post Covid World? An analysis
Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed, Former DDG of Bangladesh Ansar & VDP, Writer, columnist and researcher
The post-coronavirus world, whenever it arrives, will likely be profoundly different from the one we knew before Covid-19 killed its first victim in Wuhan. While it seems too early to determine all the long-term consequences of this global health emergency, there should be little doubt that the strategic ramifications of the current crisis will be multi-faceted, profound and far-reaching.
After the establishment of the Soviet Union, they opposed imperialism in principle, supports nationalist movements around the world. As a result, the people of those colonies remained vulnerable to the Soviet Union. So after World War II, when those colonies gained independence, a soft attitude towards the Soviet Union could be noticed. This fact does not escape the attention of other British-American colonial powers. Moreover, the establishment of socialist China after World War II made them even stronger. An example is India. To protect the Wahhabi caliphate from the bite of British imperialism, thousands of people marched from this country to Turkey and formed the first Communist Party in Tashkent. Not only that, the Communist Party was formed in different countries of the Middle East by establishing the harmony of Islam with socialism. Although none of them were Marxists. That is to say, after World War II, the former colonial powers did not ignore this fact, and the whole ‘free’ world is afraid of being subjugated to socialism and is busy forming one regional military alliance after another. At one stage, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed.
Depending on how long Covid-19 continues to ravage Europe, North America, Asia and other continents, economic recovery will take years, not months. Despite substantial financial support from the European Union’s financial institutions, the vast majority of European countries will be extremely reluctant to assign their limited financial resources to upgrade national defence capabilities and maintain costly procurement programmes. Making the case in favour of spending billions of euros on increased defence budgets – something that was agreed prior to the outbreak of the pandemic – will neither be acceptable to the public nor to policymakers, across Europe. Habitual finger-pointing exchanges across the Atlantic about security free riders will not be helpful. Rather, NATO Allies will have to find smart ways to adjust defence capability requirements geared towards traditional security threats (nuclear, conventional, cyber and hybrid) and new challenges that stem from climate change, pandemics, mass migration or disruptive technologies. All this is bound to turn into difficult political discussions in Brussels.
The 12 countries that formed the NATO Alliance in 1949, expressed their confidence in the UN Charter and their desire for peaceful co-existence with all peoples. At the same time, they expressed their determination to maintain peace and order in the North Atlantic region and to establish the freedom of the people, common history and tradition, individual freedom and the rule of law. Article 3 of the NATO Charter states, NATO’s purpose is to prevent attacks. In case of attack, any member of the UN can take necessary steps in self-defense. However, it must be reported to the Security Council immediately. The Security Council will take the necessary steps to maintain international peace and order. Article 5 of NATO states that after the Security Council has taken the necessary action, all activities of the affected member shall cease. This is the basis of Article 5 of the NATO Agreement signed in Washington.
In recent years, political relations between the two sides of the Atlantic have turned sour, due to US President Trump’s transactional policies and his erratic style.But transatlantic solidarity hit another low point since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis. Instead of garnering political solidarity among America’s closest allies, providing practical support for Europeans in dire need and leading a consolidated effort to mitigate the global health crisis, President Trump has made abundantly clear that he is solely eyeing his personal and political gains. More significantly, he continues to question the urgency of the threat. The prospect of building a US-led grand coalition to combat Covid-19, using, for example, NATO or a coalition of the willing, seems remote. Meanwhile, evidence is growing that the US is being dramatically affected by the pandemic; both in terms of the skyrocketing numbers of infected people and, more broadly, economically and politically. America’s economy seems to be on the verge of suffering a major blow with potential long-term consequences for its status as the world’s leading power.
It may prove difficult for President Trump to survive the pandemic politically. If the November elections still take place as planned, plausible arguments can be made that either a Democrat or a surprise candidate could win the White House. Top leadership changes could eventually also occur in those NATO and EU countries where governments are gravely mishandling the coronavirus crisis, public health systems are severely stressed, and governments lack financial resources to relaunch the national economy. Whatever the long-term political fallout of the current health crisis for individual NATO member countries, America’s reputation as a global leader has already taken a heavy toll.
Disagreements between NATO allies must also be expected about their future relations with China. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, Washington pressed European capitals hard to ban Huawei G5 technologies from their markets. Under US pressure, China was described as an “aggressive strategic competitor” in NATO documents. But will this view be as strongly held by all Allies now that Beijing has provided considerable medical support to Europe? Whilst China’s Communist leadership will not reconsider the country’s long-term strategic goals, in the absence of a credible US leadership role in this global emergency, a number of European allies may be tempted to look more at Beijing and somewhat less towards Washington as they absorb the many ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic.
How the global pandemic will play out in terms of the West’s relationship with Russia is difficult to judge at present. Much will depend on the degree to which Russia is affected by the disease in the next few months, and whether President Putin will be prepared to use the current political crisis management mood across Europe to signal his readiness for “emergency cooperation” with some European countries. We should however, expect him to try to benefit from the current political turbulence in the US and, once the time is right, to suggest Russia is a partner for Europe’s economic recovery. For this to happen, one can expect Putin to stress the importance of lifting economic sanctions against Russia.
The Alliance has already started to feel the effects of the pandemic in a number of ways. Norway called off an important regional exercise (Cold Defender 2020) and another major exercise “European Defender”, aimed at demonstrating both NATO’s steadfast resolve towards Russia and the US’s ability to quickly reinforced the continent, has been radically restructured and trimmed. Meanwhile, the US European Command has published a list of other long-planned exercises that will be cancelled or postponed until later this year. On 25 March 2020, the Pentagon ordered all US forces abroad to stay put for 60 days; meaning they are not allowed to move in any direction. The British, German and Dutch decisions to withdraw remaining forces from NATO’s training mission in Iraq in order to redeploy them for domestic services may well be followed by other NATO Allies. Other missions and operations abroad, like NATO’s Resolute Support in Afghanistan, must also be expected to face postponement of troop rotation and withdrawal plans because of quarantine measure affecting both contributing troops and Afghan security forces. Moreover, Germany, France and Italy have started to rely on their militaries to set-up medical facilities and provide transport in support of hospitals at home, and other NATO allies may follow suit.
Another trend that the coronavirus may accelerate is the loss of intra-alliance cohesion and solidarity. Just prior to the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic in the West, the Pew Research Trust released its latest findings (February 2020) on how NATO is viewed by the publics of the alliance members. There is widespread reluctance to fulfill the collective defense commitment outlined in Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty. When asked if their country should defend a fellow NATO ally against a potential attack from Russia, a median of 50% across 16 NATO member states say their country should not defend an ally, compared with 38% who say their country should defend an ally against a Russian attack. The next NATO summit scheduled to be held this October in Beverly Hills, California. When alliance leaders left London after their annual conclave in 2019, they were not planning on a pandemic upending NATO. But coronavirus makes the London agenda obsolete. NATO will be challenged to pivot to the new realities that will be the result of the pandemic both in Europe and the United States—or else it risks being stuck in the past.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently urged that the current health crisis should not become a security crisis. To stay secure in the years to come, the Alliance must become more resilient and ready to meet the challenges of a post-COVID environment. This is especially true for the most vulnerable part of the Alliance – its Central and Eastern European (former Communist) member countries. They require increased attention and enhanced support from NATO’s most powerful and capable allies – the United States in particular. Shifting NATO’s focus further to its Eastern Flank is the right path to take if the Alliance wants to be prepared for the challenges of the 21st century, exacerbated by the long-term impacts of COVID-19. COVID-19 poses a new set of security challenges. Shocks caused by the pandemic open new areas of vulnerability for the Euro-Atlantic family, many of which could be exploited by Russia and China through hybrid campaigns. Resilience to hybrid activity is critical to ensuring states are prepared for all military challenges. The 2015 NATO strategy on countering hybrid warfare must be updated to incorporate lessons learned related to COVID-19 and intensified Russian and Chinese hybrid activity against NATO, EU and their member states. Priority must be placed on building sufficient capabilities within the NATO Eastern Flank, equipping the most exposed states to be resilient against hybrid risks and threats.