NATO Summit 2018: President Trump and the Lack of a Mediterranean Strategy
A great deal of speculation has been surrounding the recent NATO Summit in Brussels. Speculation did not just concern the issues that were likely to be discussed, but, on a broader view, how robust NATO would prove with regards to the profound divisions amid the member states, starting from (but certainly not limited to) the US.
In other words, the meeting was implicitly supposed to prove how relevant an actor NATO is today, now that the crystallised world of the Cold War is gone, and mostly broken into a multi-polar order where international institutions and alliances are jumbled, fluid and mostly unstable. In such chaos, a lot was supposed (and expected) to be discussed on the table, but a lot was overshadowed by President Trump’s flourishes against the Atlantic partners, Germany in particular, and the NATO Summit institution itself, despite reconfirming the US commitment. Among the issues that should have been addressed was what would have been the best way for NATO to reshape its strategy in a political framework where the EU is crossed by dangerous tensions and the US has shown signals of bewilderment on the current status quo of the Atlantic alliance.
If history has taught NATO anything, that is a military involvement in areas external to the North Atlantic ideal perimeters is not going to be a success. This is why some analysts had assumed NATO strategy was likely to turn to, and strongly focus on, the South and Eastern geopolitical theatres, possibly enhancing organisations such as NATO Strategic Direction South (NSD-S). The NSD-S, also known as The Hub, was established in September 2017 by Jens Stoltenberg at the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy. The idea was creating an operational and strategic platform able to monitor, assess and share intelligence regarding the new interest towards the South European flank to substantially improve NATO decision-making. The Brussels meeting was expected to define a clearer strategy and therefore equip The Hub with a likewise clearer direction towards concrete objectives.
However, defining a Mediterranean strategy is not without significant constraints - given the status of the current Atlantic and European geopolitical framework, it is rather an arduous endeavour.
After attacking the NATO Summit as inefficient and accusing its member states of poor commitment, President Trump was seen – and was confirmed to be – a threat to the unity of the Alliance. His swinging attitude towards Russia had led many to think the POTUS would not have been too scared of causing a rift within NATO, and the talks with Putin set to take place soon in Helsinki did not augur well in that instance. The ongoing US military disengagement from the Mediterranean operations seemed to confirm President Trump's resolution towards breaking the unity of purpose, and combined with US withdrawal from the so-called 'nuclear deal' with Iran - a decision which is likely to cause backlashes on the regional stability.
NATO efforts towards a common Mediterranean strategy are also likely to be undermined by France. If there is something of any indication of how conflicting NATO and single member states' interests can be, Macron's case is paradigmatic. In fact, whereas NATO has developed cooperation programs with North African states, encouraging bilateral relationships with the multifaceted goal of controlling migration flows, mitigating the terrorist threat and contributing to secure the region, Macron has adopted a quite more iron-fisted approach. Not only do such conflicting policies risk to render NATO efforts fruitless, but also contribute to further spread chaos. With a less assertive US and a reluctant France, the already existing ties between Putin and countries such as Algeria and Egypt, mainly consisting of military cooperation, represent a non-trivial concern for NATO.
Another key actor for the regional strategy is certainly Italy. As natural landing country for migration flows, Italy has always had a privileged relationship with North African countries aimed at signing agreements to regulate the flows, but in doing so pursuing foreign policies that have often conflicted with French ones. From the Ustica massacre to the military operations in Libya that led to the killing of Gheddafi, there has always been a vibrant competition between Paris and Rome across the Mediterranean, especially regarding the immigration policies. Former Interior Ministry Marco Minniti had developed a particularly close relationship with the new Libyan government on one side, and the tribes’ leaders on the other. Through cooperation programs and strategic reconciliation of tribes, sealed by formal ceremonies in Rome, Minniti attempted to create a strategy aimed at containing migration flows by stopping them at the Libyan borders, hundreds of miles away from the embarking sites onto Sicily. The strategy, reprimanded for its ruthlessness and for causing migrants to be confined into Libyan imprisonment camps, worked, and the immigrants’ arrivals on the Italian coasts shrunk by 75%.
The new government, however, has proved to be even more ruthless. New Interior Ministry Matteo Salvini, who set his electoral campaign on tough immigration policy reform, adopted a decisively iron-fisted approach, denying NGO and international rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean the right to dock in Italian ports, as an attempt to raise awareness in the EU and obtain the issue to be treated as an European, rather than just an Italian, emergency. The arising tension with France, which had already implemented a hard immigration policy consisting of rejection of migrants at French-Italian border and shutting ports to rescue ships, and other countries, has underscored the national egoisms of the EU members - especially the so-called Visegrad Group – towards the resolution of a common problem, that not even subsequent official summits have been able to disentangle. In such climate, of course, to square the circle is quite an uphill task for NATO.
Looking at the bigger picture, the NATO summit in Brussels has not taken place under the most auspicious star. President Trump has strongly criticised NATO, getting at times closer to Putin - the only common enemy against whom NATO member states can still find a leeway to reunite, as demonstrated by the results of the Brussels meeting. France has diverging views than NATO and pursues foreign policies that makes it hard for Macron to digest a NATO-driven common strategy. Salvini's League has de facto questioned the traditional Italian belonging to the Atlantic Alliance (despite PM Conte denied a disengagement of any sort from NATO commitment), other than previously signing cooperation agreements with Putin's party ‘Russia United’ and promising to lift the EU sanctions against Moscow, irritating Merkel and several NATO officials, Stoltenberg on top of all. Both the UK and the German governments are walking through a potentially severe crisis, the former because of disagreements regarding the Brexit deal, the latter because of disagreements regarding the European immigration policies. In the meantime, Putin's influence in the Mediterranean slowly grows.
In such Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes, has NATO definitely become an irrelevant, obsolete actor? Looking at the European muddle, answering positively is tempting as leaders are either unwilling to cooperate (or more likely willing to cooperate with Russia) or too distracted by their domestic political instability. Yet, NATO continues being a bulwark to external influence, and is military committed in securing European regions such as the Baltics by promoting periodic military exercises (BALTOPS), and mostly securing the Mediterranean from the Jihadist threat (or giving a psychological reassurance to do so). While it is out of the purposes of this analysis to assess whether Trump’s statements were just another act of bravado or a necessary shake to re-set NATO’s course, it is true that the POTUS attitude towards NATO has deepened already pronounced divisions.
Such a chaotic framework suggests the only apparent option to reunite the EU partners is setting the agenda on a solid and forward-looking Mediterranean strategy – unfortunately a greatly missed chance at Brussels summit, where the only achieved goals were rather the reconfirmation of a strong commitment against Putin and a budgetary agreement. The lack of a Mediterranean strategy is both the cause and the consequence of today’s NATO disarray, because it is in the Mediterranean – in the stewing South-Eastern flank of the West – that every NATO partner’s interests lay and are at risk.
In this regard, a common strategy, from which everyone can benefit, might be the key to get things straight within the Alliance. Again, an arduous endeavour of course, but still easier than a cupio dissolvi scenario where NATO would be downgraded to a potential perilous insignificance.