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  • Writer's pictureŞafak Göktürk


Updated: Oct 10, 2023

In 2010, NATO declared in its Strategic Concept that Euro-Atlantic area was at peace and that the threat of a conventional war in Europe was low. And, this was after Mr. Putin gave notice at the Munich conference about his map and Georgia was dissected. In 2014, with Russia’s “green men” in Ukraine’s Donbas, and Crimea annexed, NATO entered its pensive mood. Russia certainly posed a threat, it mused, but not so much beyond the immediate “near abroad”. Which turned out to be a wishful thinking. Evidently, the end of the Cold War still had a strong impression in everyone’s mind.

I liken strategic forecasts to historical movies. They are more representative of the context and the mindset in which they are made than the time they attempt to reenact or understand. So, we keep letting ourselves shocked.

Another reason is, we tend to see the evolution of the international landscape in shorter processes. That is why phrases like “end of the post-Cold War” or “end of the end of history” have become frequent refrains of late.

Actually, Cold War itself was more an interruption in ideological garb than an era in its own right. It represented the stalemate between nations which learned their lesson the hard way on what it took to be a democracy, and a co-victor hegemon which could now singlehandedly pursue its perennial agenda of perpetual life-space. There is an umbilical-cord between the hegemon and that purported life-space. Let us remember, Putin’s “catastrophe”, that is the dissolution of the Soviet Union, followed the demise of the Eastern bloc, not the other way around. Consequently, the resurgent Russian autocracy is decidedly vindictive. When you see your soul in others, there is a big problem.

So, 24 February is a cautionary tale, not just because it presented us with an existential peril, but perhaps more so because it exposed the dearth of our anticipation. Late Zbigniew Brzezinski had once remarked, “Russia can be an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both”. In fact, the world history has witnessed an almost seamless transition from Czarist Russia to Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia, in so far as its existential identity is concerned. Already astride eleven time zones, territorial domination is the core of its security perception. The only factor that can tamper with this view is democracy and the rule of law, because it prioritizes people’s own security. Who knows, maybe we are on the threshold of a long process in that direction. Until then, Russia’s expansionist reflexes will continue to overlap with its authoritarianism.

This is where the challenge to the West acquires its systemic, rather than justinternational, character. Russia’s disruptive acts are targeted both at the rules based international order and democracy’s international footprint. A Belarus-like Ukraine would not have faced all that carnage. And crucially, a modern, ascendant China constitutes the backdrop this time.

Therefore, in Madrid, NATO’s future focus will have to be three-dimensional, apart from the outer and cyber spaces. These are NATO’S own territory, its Mediterranean neighborhood and Asia-Pacific. Facing Russian revisionism in Europe will have limited success unless it is seen and confronted as part of a wider equilibrium. When Russia and China veto a Security Council resolution on North Korea sanctions, NATO should take notice. That is a message to Europe and the U.S.

But this equilibrium will be markedly different from the Cold War balance of power. For starters, there is not much to offer to Russia, under current circumstances, in terms of common European security architecture. It is alreadymostly in place. The Council of Europe, but more precisely, the European Union and NATO had it established. The new security and cooperation architecture is the function of this combined foundational denominator of democracy and the rule of law. This is the current continentwide geopolitical ecosystem. The OSCE’s extended life has increasingly become its sideshow.

Also, neutrality was possible in a continental balance of power relationship, and became irrelevant once it was over. Exposure is highest if you rest on others’ dealings. People forget how non-aligned Yugoslavia and self-isolated Albania morphed in almost split second, three decades ago. Their communist regimes had actually rested on the wider ideological divide. Now, democratic Sweden and Finland find out that the Cold War balance was actually not replaced by shared commitment to sovereignty.

Second, although China and Russia have emerged as disruptive powers, that is also about where their similarity ends. Their assets, geopolitics and liabilities are decidedly different. While Russia seeks to reinsert itself into the new equation, China wishes to rebalance the international cooperative and security framework. These require completely different sets of method, and we are witnessing precisely that. While Russia chooses frontal assault when it feels sufficiently capable, China assiduously lays the building blocks and gradually capitalizes on its achievements. Challenge by Russia is more lethal, by China, more profound. Russia wants to remain as part of the global economy with its oligarchic capitalism, while China seeks ways to bend free trade withcentralized state capitalism.

Third, authoritarianism in and by itself is not a unifying ideology or even a common denominator in the way Soviet communism welded the eastern half of Europe together for almost half a century. Beyond the borders of Russia, China and few others in lockstep, autocracies across the world simply look for material gains and perks with no behavioral strings attached. It is admittedly a huge constituency of states, but not a cohesive and consistent one at that.

Therefore, bloc politics may well prove self-defeating for NATO. Its military muscle should continue to be perceived as a solely defensive asset. And, its dialogue and engagement beyond its territory should be pursued taking full account of the variable nature of the wider environment. NATO will have no interest in the transposition of the standoff in Europe to global scale. The systemic dimension of the confrontation in Europe pitting democracies against autocracies should be kept in proportion. NATO, and for that matter,democracies, should not induce others into thinking NATO and the EU as acause for countervailing unity.

This is the era of global rebalancing. In this new era, the bigger challenge to the community of democratic nations, including NATO, may less likely be physical, meaning outright warfare. Of course, much will depend on the strength and the cohesion of the Alliance.

(Speaking of cohesion, NATO’s expected expansion to include Sweden and Finland will be an immediate test. Objectively, Sweden and Finland’s admission into NATO will considerably bolster Turkey’s own security. These two advanced and militarily capable northern nations will widen and deepen the defensive posture of the entire Alliance that will in turn relieve pressure on NATO’s southern flank. The Turkish Government has raised its concern regarding the tolerance the PKK affiliated persons and entities enjoy in these countries, and made its termination condition for the approval of their admission to NATO. It is only natural for Turkey to expect better understanding and closer cooperation from its partners and future allies. However, if the intention is to achieve that, then strategic thinking should take prominence and stronger solidarity with Turkey should be made part of a stronger Alliance. Otherwise, lack of cohesion even in accepting new members at this geopolitical inflection point may weaken the standing of the entire Alliance without delivering any dividends for Turkey. Additionally, the Government’s current method carries the risk of indirectly raising PKK’s status to one of disruptive power in the Alliance).

That challenge will rather be to its normative credibility. “What is at stake?”, third parties will ask. After all, power politics is as old as human history, andwhile deplorable, Russia is not the first state to wage war in pursuit of its perceived interests. Many of today’s democratic states are better known, in the Southern hemisphere, for their imperial and exploitative past and greedy present. Why should others take sides now or at least stay away from Russia?And, mutually beneficial economic relations can be fostered with any willing partner. In sheer economic terms, if China is ascendant, it will be treated as one by everyone. In today’s competitive world, the West as such has no exclusive comparative material advantage to lure more countries into its sphere of interaction.

It is essentially democracy and the rule of law which distinguishes the West. And, it is mostly on this premise that it also has a markedly better track record in terms of quality of life, equality, justice, advanced economy, science and technology, and other human achievements.

But even for its most distinguishable strength, the West needs better public relations. Free-market capitalism, profit-seeking and geopolitical priorities -all legitimate in their own right- have mostly been the conduit of the West’s face outside its native realm. It has thus been expedient for autocrats of all stripes and plausible for deprived masses to view democracy with suspicion or outright scorn. Even their detractors have been quick in deploring the West’s double standard as it cozied up with dictators when its interests so necessitated. And all this lands on the still fresh colonial legacy. Populism also draws on the same resource.

The universality of fundamental rights and freedoms, democratic governanceand the rule of law hinges on the premise that they are actually recognized asuniversal. Yet, many Europeans themselves have long believed that their distinctive culture, including religion, was the cause of these values’ emergence.Islamists think the same way. Evidently, the context is mistaken for socio-economic dynamics. It was only after World War II that Europeans truly beganto accept their broader relevance in the face of a totalitarian challenge. When that ended, civilizational divide reemerged as a fashionable identification. And, they are not alone. West versus East dichotomy has global following.

People must see democracy for what it is, not as part of an alien agenda. Democracy needs to be decoupled from the West’s troubling legacies and reconnected to its great achievement in providing both freedom and prosperity, the conjoined twins. When people flee war, persecution or depravation, their coveted destination is unmistakably some democratic country. West-bashing antics at home stop at the borders.

The democratic nations are now under greater pressure to stand for what they are, because this is where they can actually make a difference. Democracies should reach out to the people at least as much as they maintain ties with their imperious rulers. In today’s connected world, it is doable. Echoing peoples’ call for dignity and freedom should become a contextual feature of bilateral relations. This cannot go unnoticed in those capitals and by the people on the street. The rulers will feel the limits in their pursuit of extractive political economies no matter which outside source helps them, and the people will more confidently realize that it is their consent which ultimately determines the fate of the government.

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