RAND’s Flanagan on NATO at 70; Turkey and Alliance


Stephen Flanagan, PhD, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation think tank, discusses the challenges facing NATO on its 70th anniversary, challenges, as well as Turkey and the alliance with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the NATO Engages: The Alliance at 70 event sponsored by the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund, the Munich Security Conference and other think tanks and organizations to mark NATO’s founding with the signing of the Washington Treaty on April 4, 1949. From those 12 founding nations, 29 nations are now members.

Vago Muradian:  Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report.  I’m Vago Muradian here in Washington, DC on the waterfront at the NATO Engages Conference, the 70thAnniversary of the Atlantic Alliance.  At this event cosponsored by the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund and the Munich Security Conference.  An extraordinary gathering of leaders from across the Alliance.  And one of them is Dr. Steve Flanagan, Senior Political Scientist at RAND.  A long-time Europe and NATO hand, whether you’re in Congress, we were just talking about this, almost four decades’ worth of NATO experience in your portfolio, a two-time National Security Council, so you must have screwed it up because they had to bring you back the second time.

Dr. Stephen Flanagan:  Thanks Vago.  It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

Mr. Muradian:  A pleasure of course.  We were talking about recidivism, getting you in there twice, but you served in the Clinton administration and the Obama administration.

Dr. Flanagan:  And Bush 41.

Mr. Muradian:  And Bush 41.  Absolutely. I’d forgotten about that.  So you have a long career of bipartisan service, actually.

Let me ask you, the discussion here is obviously engaging a new generation into celebrating the Alliance.  This meeting is a little bit different than ordinarily.  I remember the NATO 50th, the NATO 60th, they were much, much bigger events that were well attended from heads of state on down.  This one is a little bit more of a muted event on April the 4th, the day that those 12 nations came together to form the nucleus of the Alliance that’s now 29 nations.

How do you gauge the health of the Alliance now?  Is it as serious as folks say?  More serious? Less serious?

Dr. Flanagan:  I think it’s serious.  I think the Alliance remains strong, and I was happy to hear Vice President Pence reaffirm, as he has on a number of occasions, that the U.S. remains strongly committed to the Alliance and that there’s no questioning.  He didn’t specifically  mention the Article 5 commitment, but I think that has been reaffirmed and at least put aside for a bit, although we do know from other reporting that there does seem to be some sense that perhaps President Trump has been contemplating the notion of withdrawal.  So there’s a certain anxiety in the room I sense here.

And of course it’s important to remember, one of the reasons we’re having a Foreign Ministerial meeting and not a Summit is partly because of concerns about what President Trump might have said at a Summit.

Back in 1999 when I was then serving at the White House under President Clinton, I was part of the team that organized the 50thAnniversary Summit which was a huge celebration of the Alliance under stress at that time.  In fact I remember a friend of mine who was a long-time editor at National Defense University Press used to say he had a default type face that began “Any book on NATO began with NATO in crisis”.  Well, NATO was in crisis back in 1999.  It was going to war really for the first time in Kosovo, and there was a lot of uncertainty.  But the Alliance came together, it showed a unified face, and it also gave surrogate security guarantees to a number of partners who were working with us in the campaign to force Serbia to stop the cleansing in Albania.

So I think the alliance today is, the fundamentals are strong, but there are some important internal issues.  The deviation from a number of members from the principles, the founding principles of the Alliance that we have said all along throughout the process of enlargement over the last 20 years, that we’re an Alliance of democracies with shared values and common interests.  Well, we know that some countries, and I won’t necessarily name names here, but we all know who they are, that are moving away from talking about, first of all, moving towards authoritarian rule in some countries and repressing press freedoms and other civil liberties in others.  So that’s a problem that NATO needs to deal with.

There’s uncertainty about the commitment of the United States that I just alluded to.

There’s also disagreements on priorities.  Should we be focusing more on Russia?  Focus more on the South?  On counterterrorism and migration?  The whole 360 debate within NATO.  And so there’s differences over priorities.  The Black Sea, should that be the focal point now of NATO action and activity?  Is NATO doing enough?  That was one of the themes we’ve heard today.

So there’s still a lot of active debate and I think it will be interesting to see what the Foreign Ministers do agree to in terms of setting some of the priorities and what we hope will be then perhaps another Summit meeting down the road that will affirm the future direction of the Alliance for the next decade.

Mr. Muradian:  There is an old/young split on this.  If you talk to some younger participants in the conference they’re like hey, your guys’ generation, you’re really over-worrying this.  We think the Alliance is going to be much stronger and is in far better shape than you guys think it is.  And there are others who say actually the young kids may be a little bit optimistic.

How do you sort of gauge that?  You have a wide circle of folks that you’re dealing with all the time.  Do you think that there is sort of a generational rift, that the younger generation is a lot more relaxed about some of these things than the older generation is?

Dr. Flanagan:  Perhaps a bit.  Certainly we see even with all the turmoil, of course in Europe even, the number of young people in Europe who still, including in the UK, who consider themselves Europeans in the sense that Europe is falling apart.  Well, yeah, it’s falling apart at some level structurally, or there’s certainly this problem, and of course the whole breakdown in Britain about Brexit and the uncertainty about where it’s going.  But yet there’s still that strong impulse to stay together. I think it’s heartening to see the young people do buy into — the concern ten years ago was that younger people would say why do we need the Alliance anymore?  It’s kind of an old hat.  They don’t remember hiding in the basement worrying about Soviet nuclear weapons. They don’t remember the notion that Germany could be invaded in ten days.  So I think that’s encouraging that there is that.

I don’t see it completely as a generational split.  I do think there is generally more optimism among younger people and some of the old hands like myself who are concerned that they see some of this potential corrosion.  But the Alliance has proven to be remarkably durable and resilient.  When you look at the kind of changes that it’s made over the course — I remember back in the early ‘90s, mid ‘90s really, when there was this discussion about what to do about Bosnia and then Kosovo.  And the sense was wait a minute, NATO can’t do peacekeeping.  We do big wars.  We do tank armies.  Well, NATO adapted to that.

Then 9/11 came along.  Well, NATO doesn’t do counterterrorism, that’s police and intelligence work.  Well, NATO learned to come together and actually do some robust counterterrorism in the military and developed a sharing of responsibilities among allies in terms of what would be done by police service and intelligence services, counterintelligence, and what would be done by NATO in terms of the military structures through hard military power.

So I think NATO can survive.

As I said, my good friend Bob Salano at NDU Press used to always say we can say NATO’s been in crisis almost since the beginning.  And someone pointed out to me, even at the beginning, and this was a historical fact.  I was at a conference a few weeks ago.  Even when President Truman passed forward the Washington Treaty back in ’49 and he asked for this robust military assistance program, because of congressional Republican opposition in the Senate, or concern about this perpetual dependency that Europe might set up, he said listen, we know Europe’s on its heels but we’ve got to help them now.  We’ve done the Marshall Plan.  We’re now going to give them this robust military assistance.  But I want to review the bidding down the road and make sure that they’re doing their fair share.

So this is a cyclical debate.  We’ve had the Mansfield Amendment, the Nunn Amendment, all of these things you know through history.  This effort of who’s doing enough.  But I think this alliance continues to, my main message to a lot of people when I’m talking to people here who don’t know a lot about what NATO is, NATO is not something that we do for Europeans.  NATO is something that we benefit from enormously.  We would have to have done a lot more in Afghanistan, we’d have to have done a lot more in defense against the Soviet threat back in the Cold War without the Alliance.  And I think it’s important that people not forget that.  And the fact that those allies are still contributing enormously, as we just heard from General Ben Hodges who recounted all the things that Germany is doing, aside from not spending two percent of its GDP on defense.

Mr. Muradian:  Everybody tends to focus on the not spending part of it, but actually Article 5 that was designed for the United States to come to Europe’s aid, Europe came to America’s aid in the wake of that.  And the burden-sharing debate, absolutely, if you study NATO history it’s amazing.  President Truman in the original document being like you know, I’m, we’re going to put this, but we’re going to reconsider this over time.

Dr. Flanagan:  The defense commitment.  The sense that the spending, you know, that we want to make sure the Europeans are doing enough.

The other thing I thought was very encouraging is, you look at the Congressional Resolutions that have been taken recently and the strong bipartisan support for reaffirming and in a sense safeguarding any thought that perhaps President Trump or people around him had about well, maybe if the Europeans don’t live up to our standard we’ll just take our marbles and go home.  I think that was an important political warning and a reaffirmation that I hope a lot of Europeans saw and recognized as important because Congress has been trying to show it is still a co-equal branch of the government.

Mr. Muradian:  And that legislation as that the administration can’t use funding to unwind itself from NATO which is the power of the purse.

Two important speeches today.  One was Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General, to a joint session of Congress.  The first leader from an international organization to do that.  The first Norwegian to do that as well.  We also heard from Mike Pence.  Give us a sense on what we heard from your standpoint, how did each of them do in sort of making their cases?  Vice President Pence here, but of course Jens Stoltenberg over up on the Hill?

Dr. Flanagan:  Well, I only heard part of the Secretary General’s speech unfortunately because of this conference, the acoustics here or whatever.  But I thought he made a clear case and a clear statement of why NATO is a value to the collective good of both sides of the Atlantic.  And I think the fact that he has been extended for another two years is another sign of — in fact as I understand it, at urgings from the United States, which doesn’t always have that effect.  I think that was a very good sign, and a recognition that a strong leader of the Alliance, an international civil servant yes, but still as an important force for shaping and directing the Alliance and managing some of the turmoil that we’ve seen over the last several years.  So I think that was a very strong thing.

As I said, Vice President Pence, I thought his speech here, he said all the right things, but the applause in the room was a bit tepid.  I think some of the lines that he thought he would get. And I thought he was a little bit tough on some of our European allies in pointing out more of their failings and not all of the contributions at a time when we’re trying to bring the Alliance together.  So I do think that was a bit of a sour note.

Mr. Muradian:  You’ve had a bit of an extraordinary career, so that thing at the start was just me joking with Steve.  But everybody always talks about like oh my God, what did I do to deserve this job, but it’s great that we have folks like you who do go and serve on that 24-hour-a-day call.

We did hear the Vice President deliver a very tough message.  We heard from the Turkish Foreign Minister here today.  You asked a very pointed, very strategic question of him which he somewhat didn’t answer.  We heard a little bit of stuff that was seen as misleading.  His case was Turkey was forced to buy the S400 from Russia because the Obama administration wouldn’t do that. You were in the Obama administration at the time, which didn’t certainly appear to be the case.  Talk to us a little bit about what the strategic future is with the U.S.-Turkish relationship and Turkey’s relationship within NATO. Because increasingly I hear from close NATO friends, from a multiplicity of nations saying it’s time to consider whether or not Turkey is a liability or Turkey is an actual Alliance partner, which you don’t hear mentioned with the other questionable governments in Europe.  You don’t have somebody saying that as firmly about Orbán.  You don’t hear that about the Polish leadership. You certainly don’t hear that even about the Italian leadership that is alarmingly populist from the standpoint of some.  Talk to us a little bit about what is going to happen to this very, very important nation that’s at a crossroads.  It’s about location, location, location. But is increasingly seen as running its own potentially very, very dangerous agenda.

Dr. Flanagan:  This is a critical question, Vago, and first of all, let me correct the record a little bit on the Obama administration and then look forward to where the U.S.-Turkey and the Turkey-NATO relationship is going.

Back in 2013 as the height of the civil war in Syria expanded, Turkey was seeking further defenses against, there had been a series of missile strikes from Syria against Turkish territory, and there also had been some discussion for some time that Turkey wanted to acquire missile defense technology.  Turkey has been actively, throughout the Erdoğan governments — both as Prime Minister and President — has been trying to develop its defense industry and of course has been, as you know, well, was a partner of the F-16, is a partner of the F-35 program now, with production.  So it wanted to both have some enhanced missile defense capabilities present, which the United States and other NATO allies responded to very quickly, and also there was a willingness to discuss the terms of a sale of Patriot.

There were some concerns evidently at the time, and I was not fully engaged in those bilateral discussions, about technology transfer and limits, what the Turks wanted. The Turks, as I understand it, also were not quite pleased with the price that the U.S., between the contractors involved and the government was proposing.  So that deal began to unravel, and Russia came calling.  Turkey was also looking at some other European systems, the [French] and Italian alternatives, and they began to make the point.  And Erdoğan, as this began to unfold, wanted to make a political point too, that well, if the West isn’t going to give me what I want I have other options, and he very much is part of this notion of reaffirming his more nationalist agenda and his sovereign identity.  That we have these options and we can choose another means to go forward.  So that was one message.

Mr. Muradian:  And it was two warnings, right?  I mean they picked it once and then they undid it, and then they picked it again to further reinforce the message that we make our own decisions.

Dr. Flanagan:  Exactly.  And that is the thing that we heard from Minister Çavuşoğlu this morning, that no one tells — and Erdoğan made this point last week again — no one tells Turkey who we can.  But what was discordant and disconcerting and really confirmatory of some of my concerns, was Minister Çavuşoğlu said to the effect, well, no one can force us to choose between Russia and NATO.

Well, wait a minute, if you’re part of an Alliance that is not organized against Russia but at least worried about Russia as posing a threat, which Turkey certainly should be and at various points in time even President Erdoğan has said, as I pointed out, that he was worried about the Russian military buildup in the region, well, then you can’t say that well, I’m going to balance relations which is, in fact, I think exactly what Minister Çavuşoğlu said.  We’re balancing that relationship.  Well to be a balancer is not to be a strong ally.

I understand certainly Turkey’s desire because of its proximity and history of conflict with Russia, that it doesn’t want to go down that road again.  It had that approach a dozen years ago of zero problems in all directions.  Well, that hasn’t really worked out.  They’ve had their ups and downs with Russia, and I don’t think — I think they remain, as the Minister said, I think they remain a bit worried about Russia, they remain a bit concerned about Russian policies.  He said Turkey does not recognize what Russia is trying to do in the Kerch Strait, that it does not recognize the forcible incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation.

But on the other hand it’s continuing to build this relationship on the idea that somehow — including military cooperation with the Russians in the Black Sea, which is something they had tried in the ‘90s and early 2000’s which was I think a positive thing.  But in this current context it’s a little bit disconcerting and worrying.  And you couple that with the decision to press ahead with the S400 knowing full well about the concerns that the United States has made, and including General Scaparrotti in his hat as both Supreme Allied Command and senior U.S. military leader to say that well, I’d be very concerned about exposing our highest end airplane to the potential collection against one of Russia’s most advanced missile systems.  That is not something that you expect from an ally.

So I think it is important that Turkey be sent a strong message, but I think it’s also important that we leave a door open.  If you look back to the last elections and including the recent local elections in Turkey, in June of 2016 almost 47 percent of the Turkish population in an election that was very much skewed in the government’s favor —

Mr. Muradian:  That’s very diplomatic.

Dr. Flanagan:  Exactly.  Yes, there was great turnout —

Mr. Muradian:  Other people would call it rigged, Steve.

Dr. Flanagan:  Well, that term has been used, although I think the OSCE officially said that they were free and fair, there was no effort to deny people the right to vote, and there was an enormous turnout.

But my main point was, almost 47 percent of the people voted against the government’s policies in that election.  Almost a similar amount voted against the referendum where Erdoğan tried to accrue all this power to himself to become, to really undermine the parliamentary system and have a much stronger executive presidency.  And those main opposition parties, the CHP and the E party, the good party, ran on a platform of improving relations with the United States, NATO and the European Union.

So I think it’s important that we have a long-term strategy for dealing with Turkey, that I think we will see change.  And even just in the local elections just last weekend we saw that the AKP, the governing party, lost important electoral standing in Istanbul which is one of Erdoğan’s strongholds, in Ankara, the capital, and in a number of other cities across the country.

I’m not expressing any glee or sense that we should be interfering in Turkish internal affairs, but I think it does show that Turkey remains a very divided country.  Just as a Rorschach test, take a look at the electoral maps, just Google online and take a look at how polarized Turkey is. The center of Turkey very strong, AKP bastion.  The major cities.  The West Coast on the Aegean Coast, very much a mixed bag.

So Turkey is not on I think an inevitable sort of trajectory towards becoming aligned or developing a so-called Eurasian option or becoming really non-aligned which is in a sense where Minister Çavuşoğlu was partly hinting at today, that we’re going to balance relations between Russia and NATO.

I don’t think that’s inevitable.  I do think there are forces in Turkey as we saw very much in local elections who are saying we’re not happy where things are going.  It’s not just the economy.  We’re also not happy with the notion that we’re moving towards some kind of Eurasian vision where we’re a junior partner of Russia and we’re somehow dependent on Iran’s beneficence for our own security.  They know that the long term — I think there are a lot of Turks who know that in the long term Europe is its most important trading partner, and the United States is its most important security partner.  And absent that, Turkey could find itself again in a very difficult position.  I think there are a lot of Turks who know that and share that understanding, and we shall see what happens over the longer term in Turkey, but I think we need a long-term strategy.

Mr. Muradian:  One last question.  Leadership of both countries, though, have been very firm about wanting to either stick with the S400.  The U.S. has said that is incompatible because that system will have to — and the S400 is what’s called the triple digit surface-to-air missile system.  A very sophisticated system.  The challenge is incorporating a Russian weapon into NATO defenses.  Turkey’s position is that we can have this as a stand-alone system which NATO doesn’t think is acceptable.  Turkey is an F-35 partner, but the United States has said hey, look, if Turkey does this we will suspend the F-35.  There were some moves towards that effect but Secretary Shanahan yesterday had some conciliatory language in making that freeze and said look, the conversations and talks are ongoing for Turkey to acquire the Patriot, leaving a door open, as you said. The Turkish Foreign Minister shut that door today, rather firmly, and said there’s no exchange on that.

How does this end up?  So we have the long term which on a political standpoint, the Turkish population appears to, or at least almost a majority or a large chunk of the Turkish population would appear to favor close dealings with the United States and with NATO.  On the other hand, we have this issue.  And issues like this have a tendency of sort of quickly spiraling out of control.  Then it goes to tit for tat.  The Turks say okay, we won’t share any of the parts we’ve produced on the F-35. We will share this information, we have this information, we can share it with the Russians or anybody else.

How does this immediate play out?  And are we in a cycle, unfortunately, that’s more likely to get worse than it’s going to get better any time soon?

Dr. Flanagan:  I agree with you, it could spiral out of control, but I think with a bit of deaf diplomacy and some fudging, I mean the Turks always love a little bit of gray area, and I for one, for a long time, thought the S400 deal might collapse. I don’t think the Turks, from anything I’ve seen, have gotten the technology that they were seeking from the Western suppliers and certainly no coproduction.

So once again, it’s this kind of, they’re going to be dependent on a Russian system and Russian training, and I do worry about the corrosive effect that may have.  You’ll have a generation of the best and brightest in the Turkish Air Defense Corps going to Russia to get training.  What does that do to Alliance cohesion over the longer term?  That is a real concern.  I think we have to be careful here.

Nonetheless, Turkey remains engaged.  It’s engaged in Afghanistan still.  We’re still working together in Incirlik supporting Operation Inherent Resolve and the aftermath of that.  If we can find a way forward, it’s a very tricky road, certainly, but on the whole issue of the long-term U.S. presence and working with the Turks on the so-called Manbij Road Map in terms of how we prevent the resurgence of ISIS in Syria and at the same time providing the Turks assurances that we’re not going to let the YPG militias who we’ve trained and worked with over the course of the campaign, to have a border presence where they could threaten Turkish territory.

That itself, that whole Manbij Road Map looked like it could cause a real catastrophe in the relationship.  So far it hasn’t.  There still seems to be ongoing discussions.  So that’s another angle to be working.

Then I think just looking at the rest of the broader relationship, there are other ways that certainly working with our European allies and partners, Turkey is heading into a very difficult economic period.

Now Erdoğan, if the sanctions are enforced, he will begin, as he has before, to blame the U.S. and the West for Turkey’s economic miseries.  But economists across the board will tell you no, a lot of these miseries that Turkey is now, or the slowdown that Turkey is experiencing are of its own making.  And he knows that in the long term, especially because if his reliance on dollar-denominated debt and hot money that he’s going to have to have a good relationship with European banks and that Turkey’s going to need the support of the West in terms of regaining the long-term economic health as they head, it seems as most economists are predicting, into a recession this year.  And that’s an important part of Erdoğan and the AKP standing was their economic success over the last 15 years.

So now I think, again, there are other levers that we have in this relationship to try to muddle through.  It won’t be pretty and I think we will have some other disruptive events.  But look back a few years ago.  Erdoğan after insulting Angela Merkel and a lot of European leaders throughout his last electoral campaign and complaining, you know, talking about Nazis in Germany, nonetheless, a few years later he was back, you know, trying to get things back on a better track with the EU.

I think the good thing about, my sense about President Erdoğan and some of his inner circle is they also have a certain pragmatic streak.  They know in the end that they don’t have a lot of friends. In fact if you look at the opinion polling in Turkey, most Turks feel they have very few friends.  In fact almost no friends.  But I hope that Turkey doesn’t pursue this precious loneliness as one of Erdoğan’s senior advisors had called it, I do think that they realize that they do need some friends and they can’t truly make it on their own and will continue to find ways to work with the Europeans and with us, even as they continue to try to manage these relationships with Russia and Iran, which again, I think remain fraught with some risk for them too.

Mr. Muradian:  Dr. Steve Flanagan, Senior Political Scientist at the RAND think tank. Sir, thanks very, very much.  I really appreciate it.


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