NATO's 70th anniversary tells a tale of 'Three Kingdoms'
David Lee
National and NATO flags on The Mall in preparation for the NATO summit, London, UK, Dec 1, 2019. /VCG Photo

National and NATO flags on The Mall in preparation for the NATO summit, London, UK, Dec 1, 2019. /VCG Photo

Editor's note: David Lee is a Beijing-based consultant and author who focuses on energy, health, international politics and international development. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN. 

Here begins our tale. The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.

The opening remarks of China's historical novel,The Three Kingdoms, published over six centuries ago fit eerily well with the unease and anxiety surrounding the 70th anniversary of NATO, something closest to a modern-day military empire in today's world.

Apparently, the infighting between the "three kingdoms"although not literally – the United States, Turkey, and Europe – is ransacking the birthday party.

The United States, the long-time leader of the military bloc, is overthrowing its very foundation, as U.S. President Trump has labeled it "obsolete" and has attacked other members for not shouldering enough costs for their own defense.   

Turkey's military operations against the Kurds in northern Syria has dangerously pitted NATO members against each other in live skirmishes. Turkey's purchase of the "incompatible" Russian S-400 air defense system certainly does not help either. In terms of fiery divisive remarks, Turkish President Erdogan is on par with his American counterpart.

The third kingdom, Europe, appears angry at some points; lost and dumbfounded at most other times; but the overall trend points to Europe losing its united voice. While France's Macron is unapologetic about the "brain dead" diagnosis, Germany is not willing to bankroll the suggested joint European military force.

NATO's two core continental European members, despite growing estranged on potential strategic direction, at least remain to be on the united front against Trump's onslaught. Across the English Channel, Boris Johnson seems to be a very reluctant host of an inconvenient birthday party, just hoping to end the thing quickly. Even the ideological kinship between Johnson and Trump is collapsing, with the Tory leader warning his buddy in the White House not to meddle in the high-stakes UK election.  

U.S. President Donald Trump leaving the White House, Washington DC, U.S. Dec 2, 2019. /VCG Photo

U.S. President Donald Trump leaving the White House, Washington DC, U.S. Dec 2, 2019. /VCG Photo

The NATO summit last year saw some serious Trump attacks and ended in a "train wreck." This year, the situation has only grown even more complicated with divisions between the "three kingdoms" at an all-time high, threatening to tear down the empire.

Some quick-paced face-saving actions have been taken, including raising the share of German payment to NATO central budget. However, the symbolic gesture to appease Trump alone won't resolve a fundamental, strategic divergence.  

To again borrow from the traditional Chinese wisdom, NATO conservationists might as well heed the old Chinese saying, "Lookers-on see more than players" before they bombard Trump, who doesn't have realpolitik credentials, but does have a good point as a looker-on. Why is NATO not obsolete when the Soviet Union, its arch-rival and the purpose of its creation, is long gone?

Interestingly, from Yeltsin to Putin, Russian leaders have applied for NATO membership multiple times, but rejected as many times. Does it mean NATO has to create an excuse for its own existence? This question has not been answered, and in fact has barely been mentioned at all, by Western pundits and media.

It's extraordinary that Trump has raised the obvious question, apparently touching a Western taboo and risking to expose the true nature of NATO. In doing so, Trump is ransacking a whole prevailing system of the Western narrative about global security and world order too.

To sum up, the tale of "three kingdoms" within the "NATO Empire" is intertwined with both conflicting realpolitik pursuits and fundamentally divided world views. With the end-of-history high spirit dying down in the West following the 2008 global financial crisis, NATO's 70th anniversary offers a new candid look at the gradual unraveling of Western dominance.

A big anniversary will remind people to do a round of stocktaking. Players within the military bloc of NATO may choose to appease the angry and the dumbfounded in the "three kingdoms", for as long as can be done, observers in the global community may as well know better about NATO and its troubled future.

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