Is NATO still a major political organisation?

(B2) The Atlantic Alliance has experienced serious crises in the past. What is happening today with the uncoordinated Turkish offensive in north-eastern Syria is out of proportion

NATO Defence ministers will try to agree on Turkey. A (difficult) meeting this Thursday at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels (© NGV / B2)

A political and military breakdown within the Alliance

That one NATO member country (Turkey), with the consent of another (USA) – both core members of the Alliance – intervenes in a sensitive area, disrupting the strategy patiently built by the Allies in the area, is quite extraordinary. That this should be done without any delay or prior discussion between the Allies, particularly those present on the ground within the coalition against Daech, is even more surprising. Add to that mix the Americans, whose political line is difficult to define and erratic (1). And you have an unprecedented cocktail that raises many questions about the Alliance’s reliability.

Asking help from Russia: what a paradox

The first result of this intervention is already visible. The only valid international interlocutor in the area, at both the political and military levels, is Moscow. The United States has thus succeeded in placing Russia, the hereditary enemy, NATO’s raison d’être, in a position that cannot be ignored, neither politically nor militarily, in one of its main fields of action: the Middle East and the Gulf. Vladimir Putin can be happy. He no longer has to manoeuvre. By deserting the battlefield, the Allies offered him victory without fighting. Great. Tactical withdrawal = strategic defeat.

Political scuttling

The second effect of the intervention is more inconspicuous. Anger is growing in the muffled circles of the Euro-Atlantic organisation. This action constitutes a breach of the very concept of the Alliance, which is asserting itself as a solid, organised, indestructible political entity. Its credibility is at stake, both at European and global level. The questions that arise are fundamental. What is the point of showing Russia your muscles if you facilitate its action at the gates of Europe? Who will be able to trust allies who turn overnight? Will the Allies themselves be ready to follow the Americans in a coalition tomorrow with their eyes closed? (2). Will NATO not be forced to withdraw to its historic area: Europe? Isn’t the organisation condemned in fact to wander around without a political goal, like a rooster whose head has been cut off?

A necessary internal reflection

Saying that “NATO is dead” as François Mitterrand’s former adviser Jacques Attalli proclaims, is going too fast. The force of attraction and inertia of the Euro-Atlantic organisation remains because it has no equivalent or substitute. But what is certain is that in the space of a few days, the United States and Turkey have erased all Western gains since the fall of the Wall in 1989, highlighting the Alliance’s weaknesses and brittleness. Europeans will have to think very quickly about what they want to do. Are they ready to invest NATO to make it their ‘organisation’? Are they ready to equip themselves, in parallel, with certain instruments of power, at least at the political level? It is not yet a done deal….

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)


2003 Crisis : A singular difference

This is not NATO’s first major crisis. A similar crisis happened in the summer of 1974 with the Greek coup in Cyprus, followed by the Turkish military intervention (3). But it seems so far away: almost half a century. The 2003 crisis is more recent, when the US and some of its allies went to Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime and another party led by the Franco-Germans refused. A real schism. Among the Allies, the words were harsh. The battle was tough, but it was at the political and diplomatic level. There was not an Alliance country fighting the other indirectly on the ground. The French and Germans had simply refused to participate in a military action that they considered contrary to the international law and their interests. They had not then decided to, militarily, take Saddam’s side…


  1. The US government has gone from allowing Turkey to intervene in Syria, to threatening fierce retaliation if it continues its offensive, with a request to the Allies for major sanctions, to (temporary) ceasefire mediation and a request to the Allies to assist Turkey, all within a few days.
  2. The American failure to form a maritime coalition against Iran in the Straits of Hormuz is a precursor to this state of affairs. Read: L’opération américaine dans le détroit d’Ormuz : comme un goût d’échec diplomatique
  3. Crisis that led (among other things) to the establishment of a military embargo against Turkey by the United States and the withdrawal of Greece from the Alliance.

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).