An Alliance within an Alliance: NATO’s Internal Divisions, and Prospects for a New Bloc in East-Central Europe

BY STEVEN LUBER

The political divisions within the Euro-Atlantic space are no longer only apparent to careful observers. What was once only of interest to policy experts and security specialists has now begun to make major headlines. The North Atlantic alliance finds itself unable to find a central mission that can be agreed upon by all parties.

The political fallout of Europe’s migrant crisis and the significant uptick in terrorist incidents have brought to the surface serious divisions within the alliance, with ‘old’ Europe on one side, and ‘new’ Europe on the other. Old Europe, the core EU states and founding members of NATO, are preoccupied with domestic security and the increasing threat of Islamist terrorism. New Europe, the formerly socialist states to the east, are busy confronting a Russia challenge and intra-European rivalries.

Having seen the political fallout and social costs which followed the current migrant crisis, the states of East-Central Europe have opted not to participate in Brussels-organized resettlement programs. While this has brought them widespread criticism from Western elites, the near-total lack of terrorist violence in the region is considered worth the political price. Warsaw and Budapest have come to each other’s aid,[1] and have seen support from Prague, Bratislava, and other eastern states.[2] New Europe has shown no sign of backing down in the face of Western pressure, with the domestic security situation in the West only reinforcing their current positions.

Common opposition to the migrant influx has cultivated regional defense solidarity. Polish troops have been known to accompany Hungarian border guards along the latter’s southern frontier.[3] The Visegrad Battlegroup[4] – an EU battlegroup existing outside of formal NATO structures consisting of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic – seems to be shifting resources toward the defense of their southern flank.[5] Ukraine has even been offered a seat at the Visegrad table, a testament to the group’s expanding influence.[6]

The Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade is another embodiment of this new security reality.[7] The LITPOLUKRBRIG also exists outside of NATO formalities, and incorporates both NATO members – Lithuania and Poland, and a non-NATO member – Ukraine. Given the fact that NATO membership is not on the horizon for Ukraine (or Georgia for that matter[8]), regional states with common interests are making their own arrangements.

Politically, this strategic reality has embodied itself in the form of the Three Seas Initiative, in which the states of East-Central Europe have pledged to work together to promote “smart, sustainable, and inclusive economic growth” among themselves.[9] President Donald Trump announced his support of the project during his recent trip to Warsaw.[10]

While Russia is the short term strategic challenge for this emerging bloc, concern over Turkey’s trajectory is also receiving attention.[11] A long historical memory of Turkish invasions in the region, combined with Erdogan’s authoritarian and Islamist tendencies, has done Ankara no favors. Turkish membership in NATO notwithstanding, it is likely that there will be long term security anxiety in this direction.

This trend runs contrary to the stated aims of Brussels, but should not be considered a challenge to the existing NATO structure. Poland in particular is one of the alliance’s most ardent supporters,[12] and there have been no calls to change existing treaty arrangements. A replacement for the alliance is not being considered, but countries are looking for additional defense structures in an environment where there can be no political consensus.

This tension comes from the inherent geopolitics of the region, rather than from the election of Donald Trump and Brexit as some claim. A future map of Europe could include a Western region overwhelmed with domestic concerns and looking south and southeast in its foreign policy – toward instability in North Africa, Western Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Levant. It could include a Central-East European region, concerned with Russia in the short term and Turkey in the long term. Turkey will exist somewhere in between, likely remaining in NATO but not fitting neatly in to any of these unofficial blocs.

NATO is not in existential danger but the differing security priorities of the different regions may well prevent substantive cooperation.

The second epoch of the 21st century, following the immediate post-9-11 ‘War on Terror’, has been characterized by Robert D. Kaplan as an “Age of Comparative Anarchy”[13] and by Ian Bremmer as a “G-Zero World.”[14] It is perfectly logical for smaller states with common interests to form (even informal) coalitions regardless of pre-existing defense structures in such a global environment. A successful American foreign policy would take this into account so as to engage different parts of the world more effectively. These differing priorities within NATO must be taken into account by US policy makers if the transatlantic alliance is to have meaningful value.

References

[1] http://www.newsweek.com/hungarian-pm-refuses-support-eu-sanctions-against-poland-413043

[2] http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/03/28/central-europe-leaders-reject-eu-relocation-migrants.html

[3] http://www.defence24.com/271521,polish-border-patrol-units-in-hungary

[4] http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/natosource/visegrad-countries-may-turn-eu-battlegroup-into-permanent-v4-rapid-reaction-force

[5] http://www.politico.eu/article/how-migrants-brought-central-europe-together-visegrad-group-orban-poland/

[6] https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-defense/2030144-ukraine-joins-agreement-on-visegrad-four-eu-battlegroup.html

[7] http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/2016/01/25/lithuania-poland-ukraine-launch-joint-brigade/79318062/

[8] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-nato-enlargement-idUSKBN0F00IJ20140625

[9] http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/the-three-seas-summit-a-step-toward-realizing-the-vision-of-a-europe-whole-free-and-at-peace

[10] https://visegradpost.com/en/2017/07/08/three-seas-initiative-trump-in-warsaw-supports-the-project/

[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiG2gI05HE4

[12] https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/1175132/mattis-salutes-poland-for-its-support-of-nato/

[13] http://www.realclearworld.com/2016/04/23/entering_the_age_of_comparative_anarchy_174995.html

[14] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2011-01-31/g-zero-world

Image source: wikimedia.org

About the Author 

Steven Luber is pursuing M.A. in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. His research focuses on armed conflicts, political risk, and religious movements.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

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