Does The NATO Alliance Still Embody Western Values? Lukewarm political cohesion creates doubts about Western resolve within the Alliance and beyond

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WASHINGTON – The NATO Summit in Wales is sadly yet another tired display of Western countries getting together and essentially going through the motions, without any conviction.

Plenty of words, no real action

There are solemn reaffirmations of solidarity, without any meaningful commitments. Pledges to work together for a strong defense, without any real new money allocated for it. The announcement of a new rapid deployment force –the purpose is to “send a message” to an aggressive Russia– that is so small (4,000 troops) to be frankly negligible, (and as a result laughable).

Ukraine has our sympathy

Plenty of sympathy towards embattled Ukraine, (not a NATO member); but no military help. Announcement of possible additional sanctions against Russia, but an olive branch offered to Putin, so that he can rejoin the community of nations who behave in a civilized way. (Any idea why Russia has chosen not to behave in a civilized way regarding Ukraine?)

A united Western front?

Given all this, what do we make of this Wales NATO Summit? My (rather pessimistic) interpretation is that this display of timid commitments, and half-hearted pledges indicates that there is no longer a united Western World conscious of the values that supposedly inspire it, rightly proud of its heritage, and fully aware of the threats it is facing.

What does NATO stand for?

Since its beginning in 1949, NATO was (and it should remain) a defensive alliance. But the question is: “Beyond our territories, are we defending anything else?”

Ukraine sovereignty?

It is abundantly clear that most Europeans care very little about the sacrosanct, universal principles of international law, when it comes to the territorial integrity of Ukraine, a European country now knocking at the door of the EU and NATO. Most Europeans care a lot more about continuing business as usual with law-breaker Russia, no matter how contemptuous Putin is about respecting the territorial integrity of a weaker sovereign state, a most basic  principle of international law.

Our civilization

But it was not supposed to be like this. There was a time in which Western states stood for something. Indeed, if you go back and read the Preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty, (Washington D.C., April 4, 1949), you will see that NATO was not just about protecting territory, but about upholding the values of the Western Civilization:

“The Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments. They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.  [Emphasis added]. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area. They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security. They therefore agree to this North Atlantic Treaty …”

The language is not ornate. But it is clear. We (NATO countries) join forces in order to safeguard a civilization founded on the principles of “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law’.

This NATO Treaty Preamble assumes that our shared goal to protect our Western civilization provides the justification and supplies the energy for participating in a military alliance, with all the obligations and costs that this effort entails.

Pledges yes, but only a little money

Well, the very fact that in most NATO countries defense spending, solemn commitments notwithstanding, is in free fall, (in most cases way below the pledge to keep defense spending at least up to 2% of GDP), is an indication that upholding Western values is ok, as along as it does not cost any money. And this frankly means that few care that much about what is included in the NATO Treaty Preamble.

Europe and the US far apart

As to Western political cohesion, the necessary glue provided by shared values, not much there either. As all opinion polls reveal, most Europeans hold negative views of the United States, while most Europeans cannot come up with any meaningful notion as to what “Europe” stands for in the world, except for meaningless notions of “soft power”.

Weak West now under attack 

And yet, fate has it that this tired and confused West today is the identified target and designated mortal enemy for crazy Islamists and for a revanchist Russia that is now really unhappy about the way the Cold War ended. (The West won, Soviet Communism lost).

In other words, like it or not, the West is under attack. Not in the old-fashioned way of Red Army tanks rolling into Western Europe. But it is an attack nonetheless. Putin argues that the West is in decline, and of course its failed model is clearly inapplicable to (culturally superior?) Russia. And in the meantime, he helps himself with pieces of Ukraine, correctly interpreting European “protests” as mostly harmless noise.

The Islamic fundamentalists, now coalescing around the newly formed Islamic State, (established on land that belongs to Syria and Iraq), in their own crazy ways truly believe that they are the wave of the future, and that it is their mission to attack and destroy the West.

Of course intentions and real capabilities to harm are two different things. But, to the extent that the West is indifferent and therefore unprepared, its enemies may get lucky.

Do we have what it takes to face major challenges?

Therefore, as Ezio Mauro, Editor of La Repubblica, a major Italian daily paper, put it in a very well argued editorial, (L’Occidente da Difendere, translation:The West to be Defended, September 5, 2014), this is the moment for the West to look within, and find in its proud heritage the strength that will be necessary to face this challenge. That said, does the West have what it takes? Here is an excerpt of what Mauro writes:

“…But, right at the moment in which two parts of the world [Russia and the Islamic radicals] describe it at the same time as the ultimate enemy and the eternal adversary, has the West a notion and a degree of self-awareness that is equal to the challenge? Does it have at least the awareness that the Islamist dagger is aimed at the throat of the West, while Putin is recreating a political and diplomatic wall that will stop America, recreate a Europe divided into blocks, while limiting the sovereign rights of nations? There is an inconclusive political response to all this, while diplomacy is not going beyond sanctions. We are left with NATO, the Summit in Wales, the polemic about [insufficient military] expenditures, the project of a European Army. But the question is posed again: beyond military measures, can NATO function and have a meaning as a key player in these two crises without the West being a clear political actor?…”

Shared values? Not really

I agree. The Western countries that long ago created the Western Alliance have lost any sense of what they are and what they stand. As a consequences there is no longer any vision about a shared destiny and shared sacrifices in order to face a mounting threat.

Unfortunately, already in the bad old days of the Cold War, by default the NATO Alliance had become an American unilateral security guarantee offered to a perennially weak Europe.

Later on, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the (hoped for, but unexpected) sudden end of the Soviet Union and of the Warsaw Pact allowed the Europeans to essentially disregard defense spending.

Look the other way

And now that there is sustained turmoil, (Russian aggression, ISIL’s Caliphate), the temptation is to pretend that these problems are really small, or not there at all.

Worse yet, many European governments would like to believe that if we just stand still and do not do anything provocative all these troubles will magically melt away.

The truth is that tired Western countries plagued by non performing economies, astronomic debt, armies of pensioners, and chronic fatigue cannot face additional crises.

That said, our enemies are watching. Putin is not going to be impressed with the NATO pledge to field a force of only 4,000 soldiers.

And there is more. Constantly repeating that all NATO countries are “really, really committed” to consider an attack against one an attack against all raises serious doubts about the actual strength of this pledge.

A real commitment should be self-evident to all, friends and foes. If it needs to be constantly repeated, it means that there are doubts about the sincerity of at least some.

Helping Estonia?

Indeed, let’s assume that tomorrow Putin engages in semi-covert subversion (a la Crimea) in Estonia, a NATO country. Will geographically removed NATO members, (say, Portugal), rise to the occasion and immediately dispatch all their troops to the embattled Baltic state?

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