Greece-Turkey: "NATO Deploys Diplomacy Behind the Scenes, Barely Visible, But Vigorously"
On September 10, GMF’s director of the Paris office, Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, sat down with Pierre Alonso from Libération to discuss recent tensions between Greece and Turkey, and how NATO can respond.
Libération: Is this the first time that tensions have been so high between two members of NATO?
Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer: When Greece and Turkey joined NATO in 1952, they did so on the principle that the accession of both countries to the alliance would contribute to the pacification of their relations. NATO thus finds itself with two member states that are officially allies, but whose mutual suspicion is never far away. Tensions between Greece and Turkey are not new. The novelty lies in the willingness of the United States to stop playing the role of mediator.
In 1974, when Greece and Turkey were on the brink of war over Cyprus, it was not NATO as such that prevented hostilities but the involvement of its most powerful member, the United States. At the time, the United States became heavily involved in easing tensions and imposed a ceasefire on the Turkish forces operating in Cyprus. In 1996, during a Greek-Turkish incident in the Aegean Sea, it was thanks to the mediation of President Bill Clinton and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke that tensions quickly subsided. Today, the United States has taken a step back and is without a coherent policy for the Eastern Mediterranean. This lack of U.S. leadership is accelerating the emergence of competing regional hegemons that are fighting to preserve or expand their spheres of influence. This U.S. reticence precedes Donald Trump,with Barack Obama’s 2013 volte-face in Syria, and will outlast him. The current crisis shows the extent to which U.S. leadership is not replaceable.
Libération: What can NATO do to stop the escalation in the current conflict with an absent United States? Does it have mechanisms for conflict resolution or mediation?
Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer: The various NATO secretaries general have constantly played a mediating role in these conflicts and have proposed solutions, such as the recognized aerial photo over the Aegean Sea or the recent arbitration of the Military Committee concerning the Franco-Turkish incident of June 10. NATO uses low-profile but vigorous behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has a facilitating role, but the issue could also be put on the agenda of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal decision-making body, to allow an exchange of views between Turkey, Greece, and France. Finally, NATO could be more active in developing more technical deconfliction measures in the Eastern Mediterranean by putting in place mechanisms that would prevent the reoccurrence of the maritime incidents of recent weeks and the risks of military escalation.
NATO has long-standing deconfliction mechanisms that have already been used and have been reactivated to address issues such as minimum distances between aircraft and ships. The alliance also functions as a platform for Greece and Turkey to talk to each other, explain their positions, and exchange information. As relations between the EU and Turkey have deteriorated, and as the EU itself has no clear and united policy on Turkey or Libya, NATO plays a significant political role. Within NATO, Germany once again assumes the role of diplomatic leader, with the difficulty of having to deal with the strong tensions between Turkey and France and a deliberately absent U.S. policy.
Libération: To what extent does the need to fulfill national mandates take precedence over the overall coherence of the alliance?
Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer: This crisis shows to what extent internal political dynamics within a member state can have an impact on the overall cohesion of the alliance. The strategic cleavages between Turkey and the other members of the alliance are multiplying over Libya, Syria, Iraq, Russia, and the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is accelerating its political and strategic autonomy within the alliance and vis-à-vis the United States, while wishing to remain anchored to it.