NATO, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey:
An opinion on NATO's secretary general remarks
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Prompted by the remarks made by NATO’s Secretary General *, this opinion article attempts to explain NATO’s position on the Cyprus issue and why the Alliance cannot (and perhaps should not) undertake a more active engagement in the current crisis in Cyprus.
As a matter of principle NATO does not intervene and does not take sides in relations among its members, especially regarding issues that fuel tension and cause crises. Cyprus is only one case. On the Gibraltar issue which also causes tensions between two NATO members (Spain and United Kingdom) the Alliance has followed a similar stance.
This is not to say that NATO is not concerned with these issues. However, issues that cause tensions among its members are seen by NATO primarily as bilateral. Now, the term “bilateral” can cause confusion: That NATO considers these issues as bilateral means that it does not take sides. However, NATO’s stance is not exclusively based on the “bilateral” view and that is why I used the word “primarily”. NATO has expressed support in international (in the UN and EU frameworks) efforts for a resolution in the Cyprus issue.
NATO’s stance to regard contention issues among its member states as “bilateral” is understandable given its purpose and philosophy as an organization. The nature and the features of NATO somehow “dictate” the organization to consider issues and tensions in the relations of its members as issues that primarily concern the states themselves and to avoid taking sides.
The key-term to understand NATO’s purpose and philosophy is the word that the very NATO uses to refer to itself: Alliance. That is about what NATO is – an alliance, first and foremost military and political as well. This term is the cornerstone of NATO and underpins all of its aspects: its purpose, its philosophy, its institutional design and its mode of operation.
A quick look at NATO’s key documents is sufficient to understand that this organization has been founded as an alliance and is designed to operate as such. An indicative example is the concept (and the principle) of “collective defense” which is reflected in NATO’s founding document – the Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. This is how NATO views itself and its role: an alliance which is here to provide and guarantee the security of its members – i.e. the security of a community of states as a whole.
This is an important feature of NATO: its purpose is the security of a bloc of states as a whole. This implies that there are states which have common understandings of security (in other words what constitutes a threat and in what ways this threat can be dealt) and as a consequence these states share common security interests. This is the logic of NATO.
The fact that there are shared security interests among states and that these may result in an alliance (like NATO) does not necessarily mean that there is always agreement in security issues among the members of the alliance. But in some cases exists. And NATO is a forum which tries to compromise and bring together different (even conflicting) security views and interests. It is not always successful in this, but it has been created aiming at this – common understanding of security.
Shared interests – this is where NATO focuses. The emergence of a shared understanding of security – this is what NATO aims. It has been founded as an alliance and it is designed to operate as an alliance. The fact that its members in some cases may have conflicting interests and views on security issues does not exclude the cooperation in others. And the scope of NATO is exactly these issues.
Now, the fact that NATO is an alliance may lead one to the misleading view that this excludes the possibility that one member may see another as a threat and/or that tensions and crises cannot arise between them. This view is to overestimate both NATO’s scope and capabilities. It may seem paradox and even contradictory that two members of the same alliance (that have committed to defend one another in case of an attack) see one another as a threat and a potential attacker – the case of Greece and Turkey. However, it seems that NATO as well as Greece and Turkey can live with this contradiction. Just think of this fact: the two countries may see one another as a threat but this does not prevent them from being partners of the same alliance for 62 years now. Greece and Turkey have shown successful cooperation within the NATO framework.
That Greece and Turkey can be successful partners in NATO (and most important they want to be members of the Alliance) despite tensions and disputes in their relationship – which include the mutual view of the other as a threat – is an example of how NATO conceives itself as an alliance: it is an alliance dealing with threats coming from outside of the borders of its members and there is agreement among its members on what these threats are. NATO cannot have a role in every aspect of its members’ view of security and does not want one.
To put it simply, NATO cannot have a crucial role in differences and tensions among its members or in the resolution of their disputes because it does not want such a role. It was not founded and is not designed to play such a role. Its purpose and scope are different. NATO undoubtedly contributes to the improvement of relations among its members and offers frameworks for cooperation, but this is the limit. It helps the betterment of relations, but cannot have an impact on all aspects of how its members define their security. And it does not want to have such an impact. That’s why it is an inter-governmental organization.
The underlying philosophy of NATO is that of an alliance – the defense and security of the alliance (the community of its members) as a whole. This is its scope and focus. It is institutionally designed to operate as a security alliance. Threats refer to the alliance as a whole and are defined after unanimous decision by NATO members which have veto power. The concept “alliance as a whole” that underpins NATO is evident by the fact that there is not a formal mechanism or an institution dealing with the resolution of disputes among members and there is no will to have such a mechanism or at least a kind of initiation. The concept “alliance as a whole” is also evident in the founding document of NATO: there is not an explicit provision of what happens if a NATO member attacks another NATO member, an indication that in NATO’s logic this scenario is fictional.
Summarizing, the reference of NATO’s secretary general to the Cyprus problem as “bilateral” between Greece and Turkey did not actually mean that is a problem strictly between these two countries. It meant that NATO due to its character cannot take sides or undertake a more active engagement in the resolution of the Cyprus frozen conflict.
As with regards to NATO’s stance in the current crisis in Cyprus, its potential role is confined, once again, by its character and features. The Strategic Concept of 2010 may envisages a role for NATO in crisis management outside its territory (Cyprus can be considered to fall under this category), but in the case of Cyprus it is almost impossible (and not desirable) to have a strong and effective engagement on behalf of NATO.
I say almost impossible because NATO’s decisions require unanimity and every member has veto power. In this context, I do not see how Greece and Turkey would ever come to an agreement on a NATO mission or initiation to manage the current crisis in Cyprus. It is not only the conflict of interests between the two countries that make such an agreement almost impossible. Since one of the elements of the current crisis is the aggressive behavior of a NATO member (Turkey), any kind of action on behalf of NATO would mean in practice action against one of its members. It is easy to understand why this is a completely fictional scenario. It is completely outside NATO’s philosophy, principles, purpose and scope.
Now, it is not only that a NATO crisis-management mission or engagement in Cyprus is almost impossible due to the above mentioned reasons. It is also a question of what a NATO engagement would offer and how would contribute to a solution. Do not forget that Cyprus is a political problem and NATO is first and foremost a military organization. Its crisis-management capabilities include military aspects, not political. Would a NATO involvement create more favorable conditions for a peaceful settlement?
Perhaps it is easy to criticize NATO for not taking direct action or a more active engagement in managing the crisis in Cyprus. However, if we think what NATO actually is, what are its principles and features as well as its scope and purpose then we understand why it is not feasible, and possibly nor desirable, to have a strong NATO engagement in Cyprus.
Note*: 41st Minute and on - Excerpts from NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speech on 28 October 2014, available at http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_114179.htm)