When I was the NATO supreme allied commander about a decade ago, I would often point out to Americans the enormous capability of the alliance — combined defense spending near $US900 billion (outspending China and Russia by nearly three times); 24,000 combat aircraft; 3 million men and women under arms, almost all of them volunteers; and 800 oceangoing warships. It was the richest and most capable military alliance in human history.
However, I would also carefully point out its Achilles’ heel: the need for consensus to finalize any important decision, meaning all 28 members (there are now 30) had to vote favorably before a single soldier, sailor or plane could deploy.
I spent countless hours in Brussels briefing the North Atlantic Council, the highest governing body of NATO, to make the case to undertake an operation in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Libya or on the waters of East Africa on counterpiracy.
Today, the alliance has a seemingly easy decision before it — whether to allow Sweden and Finland, both imminently qualified nations, to join. Unfortunately, Turkey is holding up the vote, which could already have occurred without Turkish opposition.
What will be the ultimate outcome, and what can the alliance learn from this challenging moment?
Clearly, Finland and Sweden are excellent candidates. I commanded some of those nations’ militaries in Afghanistan, Libya and the Balkans — where they deployed under NATO leadership as partners. Both have highly capable armies, navies and air forces, and the Swedes produce the superb Gripen fighter plane. They are near-Arctic nations with deep experience in the high north, where Russia continues an aggressive posture.
However, Turkey, a NATO member for 70 years, objects to their membership, complaining that both nations harbor what Ankara considers Kurdish terrorists — members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Because all 30 nations must agree the accession of new members, Turkey’s objection raises a significant barrier.
When told they are on the losing end of a 29-1 argument, the Turks quickly point out that the Balkan nation of Macedonia had to wait 10 years and undergo a name change to Northern Macedonia before it was finally allowed to join NATO, because of a single holdout, Greece. The Greeks, who have a northern province also called Macedonia, objected to the original name of the country. A combination of pressure from the rest of the alliance and the negotiated name-change finally undid the logjam.
A key difference is that Macedonia, a tiny nation with a very small military, did not offer the kind of powerful military advantage to the alliance that the two northern nations do. All of this is unfolding in the face of the war in Ukraine, which portends further conflict by Russia.
During my time as NATO commander, I saw several other standoffs where one nation or a small group of countries tried to hold out against the overall pressure of the alliance. The most dramatic was in the case of the 2011 Libyan intervention, in which some members did not want the alliance to fulfill the UN resolutions establishing a no-fly zone and an arms embargo against Moammar Al Qaddafi’s regime.
This was ultimately decided by a compromise wherein all the nations agreed with the overall mission, but some chose not to send their armed forces to participate. Of note, Sweden, although not a member at that time, fully participated, and its Gripen aircraft did highly effective work.
During my time as NATO operational commander, the Turks were a strong supporter of our missions. They capably participated in every operation, and provided significant forces in Afghanistan (where they had charge of security in the capital of Kabul for more than a decade), the Balkans, Libya and on counter-piracy. Turkey has the second-largest army in the alliance, and hosts the NATO land command (a vital three-star headquarters) in the coastal city of Izmir.
No one wants to set up a situation where Turkey becomes isolated politically, diplomatically and militarily. There is already mutual discontent between Ankara and Brussels over the Turkish decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air-defense system; ongoing disputes with Greece in the Aegean Sea; and pressure on the military, media and judiciary after an attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. The Turks have been rebuffed from membership in the EU for decades.
Both sides need to tread carefully. NATO should listen respectfully to Turkish concerns, and encourage Sweden and Finland to do what they can — within the constraints of their own legal and political systems — to address the Kurdish issues.
Turkey needs to be mindful of the larger context of the moment given the war in Ukraine, and the very strong sentiment across the alliance to bring in the Swedes and Finns. Off-the-radar diplomacy must be key, as the glare of publicity and frustrated public statements cannot move the discussion forward constructively.
This is a deeply meaningful moment for NATO. The secretary-general or deputy secretary-general should consider undertaking shuttle diplomacy between Ankara, Helsinki and Stockholm. Senior military leaders must help their political counterparts see the operational value of bringing the two Nordic nations into the alliance. NATO’s supreme allied commander, the highly regarded US Air Force General Tod Wolters, should be quietly and respectfully making the case in Ankara for this accession.
Finally, as the most powerful member of NATO, the US, has a special responsibility to find a path toward untying this Gordian knot. Simply cutting through it by force cannot solve the underlying tensions that have been exacerbated by the EU’s long rejection of Turkish membership. There might be incentives the US can offer Turkey, ranging from military purchases to economic support for the Syrian refugees they host.
The path forward is narrow, and requires effort by all sides to bring these two superb candidates to membership. This mission needs to be at the top of the list for the US Department of Defense and US Department of State, for the military capability it could add to NATO and for maintaining the political unity that is required to keep the alliance healthy.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired US Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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