Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, NATO is facing a threat of a potentially existential nature. No, it’s not a would-be Russian invasion of Western Europe. It’s the possibility of a fratricidal war between its own members, Greece and Turkey. Before the unthinkable happens, the United States should reassess the future of NATO and its role in it.
Turkey and Greece have long had an antagonistic relationship. Since becoming members of NATO in 1952, they have twice been at the brink of war against one another. The first was in 1974 when a Greek military junta threatened to join all of Cyprus to the Greek mainland and Turkish military forces invaded the northern part of the Island. A tense standoff occurred and the island has been split since.
The second was in 1996 over a dispute in the Aegean Sea. The seemingly trivial dispute that began over a salvage operation of a Greek ship that ran aground off the Turkish coast almost escalated into a full-blown war between the two over conflicting claims of sovereignty.
Conflict was averted, but tensions and emotions never fully cooled. With the discovery of large deposits of natural gas throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, however, the stakes of which country is sovereign over those rocks have taken on considerably greater urgency. Turkey is taking a far harder stance, elevating its national interests above the common interests of NATO.
Turkish vice president Fuat Oktay said in an interview that if Greece attempting “to expand its territorial waters isn't a cause of war, then what is?’’ Ankara is butting heads with more than just Greece, however.
Relations between Turkey and France continue to fray over Paris’s displeasure regarding Ankara’s deepening involvement against French interests in Libya. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that Greece and Turkey were moving “closer and closer to the abyss,” and that if the two don’t resolve their disputes, then at some point a “spark, however small, could lead to a disaster.”
Meanwhile, as Nick Squires wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “France and the United Arab Emirates have sent aircraft and warships to back up Greece, while Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt also have a stake in prospecting for hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean.” If you’re thinking this doesn’t sound like the actions of closely aligned allies, then you are correct. What it does sound like, however, is increasing evidence of an alliance that has failed to adjust with the times.
The Cold War world that existed in 1952 when Turkey and Greece entered NATO was one in which a group of relatively free nations put aside their differences for the collective good of them all to balance the power of the Soviet Union. That world ended with the dissolution of the USSR.
Instead of acknowledging the changed global conditions and adjusting NATO accordingly, the West clung to the past and tried to ride the status quo into a static future. If we don’t take action quickly, then our unwillingness to acknowledge reality could cost us far more than merely the loss of an alliance structure.
Every president from Truman to Trump has understandably complained that European members of NATO have not been paying enough for their own security, forcing a major burden on America. But the issue is no longer about just making Europeans “pay more,” but as the potential for fratricidal war between Turkey and Greece is exposing, we need major reform and change.
The first step in this process should be for the United States to transition from being the frontline defense of NATO countries to a supporting role. European democracies in the 1950s were poor and destitute. No more. Germany, for example, has the world’s fourth-largest economy. It is more than financially capable of providing the bulk of its own security. U.S. troops, meanwhile, should be redeployed to home bases where they can focus on defending America’s borders and global interests.
Any military alliance system the United States enters into (or stays within) must include reciprocating benefits for both countries and result in a strengthening of U.S. defenses. It should not be a one-way street where America provides the majority of the benefits to other lands and shoulders the majority of the risks of a new war—especially one in which its interests would otherwise not be at risk.
U.S. policymakers have, for many decades, been unwilling to even consider adjusting the NATO structure. If the country fails to take the rational action to do so now, however, then the cost may be the self-destruction of the alliance when its members begin shooting at one another, forcing the rest to take sides. That would be the worst time to take the issue on and far worse for U.S. interests. Now is the time to act, while there is still time to avoid disaster.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.