On July 8, 1997, during his speech on the opening day of the NATO Summit in Madrid, US President Bill Clinton described as a “great step forward” the decision to admit Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to the Alliance. Moscow’s response was that it was “possibly the biggest mistake since the end of World War II.”
In the same scenario, 25 years later, the tables have turned. Sergei Lavrov, the almighty Russian Foreign Minister, has predicted “an Iron Curtain” once again on the continent, and US President Joe Biden, speaking of the invasion of Ukraine, perhaps the biggest Russian strategic mistake since 1945 in Europe, replies : “Putin wanted the finlandization of NATO and the ‘natonization’ of Finland has been found”.
The last quarter century is marked by the rise and fall of a dream, that of reconciliation, understanding and possible cooperation between the West and the heirs of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin did not go to Madrid then, because he considered NATO’s advance towards the East a “humiliation”. But, shortly before, the Founding Act of the relations between both blocs had been signed, a historical document in which “a lasting and integrating peace” was predicted.
It was not a paper with extensive legal commitments, but it was a giant political declaration, in which historical enemies promised to start looking at each other and treating each other as good neighbors. For years they aspired to make hostilities a thing of the past and, even, in 2010, in Lisbon, the Alliance described Russia as a “strategic partner”, represented there by President Medvedev. But it was a mirage.
To elucidate what is happening today, the NATO Summit, the political declaration and the new Strategic Concept, which again points to Russia as “the main direct threat”, it is inevitable to look at what has happened since February 24 in Europe, date of the beginning of the bombings, but, to really understand it, it is essential to extend the framework to 25 years ago. Everything is there, from the relations with the rival-partner-enemy from the East to the internal affairs in the Alliance (formerly the United Kingdom over Gibraltar, now Bulgaria with North Macedonia or Greece with Turkey), with the historical suspicion of some members in the face of Washington’s excessive power, influence and abuse at every turn.
In his remarks this week, Joe Biden has reiterated the message from the White House. “The war will not end with a Russian victory”, “the US will defend every last inch of Alliance territory”. Mentioning finlandization, he came to say that Putin wanted to force NATO’s neutrality in the face of aggression from a strategic partner (but not an ally) and suddenly found that he is going to have 1,300 additional kilometers of borders with the Alliance. But, using his similes, the most interesting reflection that comes out of the Madrid meeting is actually the internal debate about whether Europe is becoming ‘NATOized’ or if it is NATO that is, or should, be Europeanized.
In the last five years, the Atlantic Alliance went through one of its deepest crises. It had had others, such as the Iraq War or the temporary withdrawal of De Gaulle’s France. But this time, it was different and went far beyond the challenge of Donald Trump, who was one step away from wiping out 70 years of unwavering political and military cooperation. NATO was stunted, “brain dead” according to Emmanuel Macron. Without really knowing their role in a world of terrorism, hybrid threats and conflicts over water, migration and food. Not knowing what to do with its geographic reach and when its raison d’être, to stop Moscow, seemed like a thing of another time. The US, pivoting towards the Pacific, had left its historical allies in the background and was preparing to share the world with the great emerging powers.
The invasion of Ukraine, much more than the annexation of Crimea in 2014, has been a total shock. For the Alliance and all its parts, for the idea of collective security, for coordination with the EU and the search for partners in the Indo-Pacific. In 2018 it seemed that NATO could disappear and perhaps it would not be a drama, but, in 2022, traditional skeptics such as Sweden and Finland have asked to enter through the emergency door and a few more are waiting in line. China appears in the new Strategic Concept, and clearly and with very aggressive language of condemnation. NATO is not refounded, but wakes up, aware of the challenges, but also of its weaknesses.
In 1997, Jacques Chirac lashed out at Washington for limiting enlargement to three countries, leaving Slovenia and Romania for later. “The reasons that led to the creation of the Alliance have largely disappeared. NATO will not survive in a lasting way with an unbalanced relationship with the US, neither in the military structure nor in the political decision-making mechanism,” the Elysee lamented then. Those doubts and regrets remain. The US continues to be the engine, and the very low profile that Macron, Scholz and even Boris Johnson have maintained this week in the Spanish capital is a good example.
The language about China and assertiveness with Russia, too. There are Washington’s obsessions, her priorities and agenda. That coincides in part, a good part right now, with a threatened Europe in its backyard. But they don’t always do it. Two decades ago, Robert Kagan popularized the idea that the US is from Mars and the EU is from Venus, one thinking of war and the other of hedonism. In the last six months, the Venusians have reacted, but they are still light years away from being able to make their own decisions on the global board.
The secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and Biden himself, have described these days as “historic” the Madrid summit. Also President Sánchez and his ministers. It has not been, because the story begins now. The Madrid Summit has been a success in terms of organization, logistics and it has been a diplomatic success, as it managed to lift the Turkish veto on the accession of Sweden and Finland. It has come out round when it comes to approving the Strategic Concept for the next decade and a Political Declaration. And he has had no scandals, problems, mistakes. But no more, and nothing happens. There is a middle ground between the failure and the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the greatest danger at this time, when military operations are becoming chronic in Donbas, is complacency.
This week’s appointment sets goals, but nothing fundamentally changes, at least not yet. The Russian threat is dynamic, not static, and what counts is what is done on the ground now, not the intellectual exercise. Necessary, but not enough. NATO has reacted, but has not won. The bombs continue to fall and nothing indicates that Putin is going to rectify course. Upside down. Unity is not synonymous with triumph, and the spirit in Madrid has probably been more festive than the circumstances on the battlefield reflect.
If the Old Continent manages to Europeanize the Alliance, doubles investment and grows its specific weight, in decisions, financing and setting priorities, it can strengthen its security. If Washington ‘natonizes’ Europe, drags its partners along a path of national interests and uses the power of 1,000 million people and economic power for a distant agenda, dependency will be perpetuated. Illusion and hope are not enough, nor are good words. Defending freedom is difficult, very expensive and requires sacrifices. Winning a war, hot or cold, requires much more than epic speeches.
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