At the dawn of 2020, as the U.S. and Iran pulled back from the brink of war, U.S. President Donald Trump called for expanding NATO’s role in the Middle East. He did not elaborate on what that might look like, except to propose a new acronym: NATO-ME. But in the context of his “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian regime, it is reasonable to assume that Trump is appealing to European allies to help deter and contain Iran.
His remarks were met with some skepticism. NATO’s core purpose — safeguarding its member states — is generally understood to mean “ensuring European security,” not “confronting rogue regimes in the Middle East.” However, such a narrow understanding of the alliance’s potential misses the point. Greater involvement in the Middle East would not be mission drift. Quite the opposite: NATO-ME could Make Trans-Atlanticism Relevant Again.
Consider NATO’s founding purpose. During the Cold War, the alliance was forged to defend free Europe from an expansionist totalitarian regime in Moscow. Today, as Vladimir Putin seeks to redraw the borders of Europe by force, NATO’s raison d’être remains the same. It is a grave mistake to underestimate Russia’s ambitions in the Middle East — and the role NATO could play in stabilizing the region.
Over the past several years, buoyed by the gains from his offensives in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin has turned to the Middle East as the latest proving ground for his imperial ambitions. Russia’s game in the region is characterized by ever-shifting alliances of convenience, as well as staunch support for authoritarianism. But why?
To Putin, ruling a great power is not enough. He will not be satisfied until Russia is again a superpower. That means projecting power beyond the former Soviet Union, and it means challenging the U.S. directly. Russia’s intervention in Syria, which began in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has enabled Putin to do both.
Consider his motive for backing Assad in the first place. Putin perceives all uprisings against authoritarian regimes as personal threats from Washington. (I was elected president after Georgia’s Rose Revolution, which Russian propaganda blames on the CIA). During the Arab Spring, Moscow derided anti-Assad protests in Syria as Western “provocations.” Later, in rescuing a fellow dictator, Putin was able to expand Russia’s influence in the Middle East. And in his zero-sum view of foreign policy, Russia’s gain was America’s loss.
Moreover, Putin uses military adventurism to energize his voter base. By asserting Russia as a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East, Putin believes he can ensure the survival of his regime. The recent reshuffle of Russia’s government underscores his ambitions to rule long past his presidential term expires in 2024. But last summer, discontent with the status quo flared up during mass demonstrations in Moscow. In tightening his grip on power, Putin inflames domestic opposition. If this trend continues, which is highly probable, Russia will likely ramp up interference in the Middle East.
It is clear that Putin aspires to supplant the U.S. as the power broker in the region. As U.S.-Iran tensions reached a boiling point, and Iran prepared to launch missiles at Iraqi military bases housing American troops, Putin paid a surprise visit to Syria in a show of support for Tehran-aligned Assad. Putin went on to Turkey, where he and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inaugurated a new gas pipeline and discussed a ceasefire in Libya. Days later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Moscow at Putin’s invitation. Such overtures to NATO members Germany and Turkey demonstrate Putin’s success driving wedges in the alliance.
Clearly, persuading allies to support NATO-ME will put Trump’s negotiation skills to the test. But Turkey, at least, has a compelling reason to come to the table. Iran and Turkey are fundamentally rivals; Iran’s religious authorities claim to be the rightful leaders of the Islamic world. Naturally, most Turkish Muslims — including, but not limited to, Erdogan’s voter base — would not be inclined to agree. And despite Putin’s flirtations, Erdogan understands that Russia will never back Turkey against Iran. In short, Turkey needs the U.S. to remain a key player in the Middle East.
Bringing Germany and other European allies on board may prove more difficult. However, Trump should make every reasonable effort to do so. A stable Middle East is in Europe’s interests, too. Germany, like Turkey and other NATO members, has struggled to support inflows of refugees from the region. NATO-ME could help mitigate the migration crisis by addressing its root causes: terrorism, war, and oppression. By backing the region’s most tyrannical regimes, from which millions of refugees have been forced to flee in recent years, Russia is already doing the opposite.
Despite Putin’s efforts to deepen rifts in the alliance, Trump may have better chances of convincing his European counterparts of the necessity of NATO-ME as Iran becomes more belligerent. Alongside fellow NATO members France and the U.K., Germany has remained a party to the Iran nuclear deal, which the U.S. withdrew from in 2018. But, amid heightened U.S.-Iran tensions, those three European allies have accused Iran of violating the agreement. In response, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened that European troops in the Middle East “could be in danger.”
In light of escalatory moves from Moscow and Tehran, NATO-ME is justified. But is it practical? Trump’s comments about expanding NATO’s presence in the Middle East raised questions as to whether NATO is already overextended. However, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis argues convincingly that the alliance’s unparalleled military capabilities — and the experience of European allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya — mean NATO could indeed “step up” to contain Iran.
But skeptics point to another potential stumbling block for NATO-ME: Trump’s harsh rhetoric. The U.S. president once called NATO “obsolete,” for example, stoking anxiety among allies. But in a quantifiable sense, the alliance has actually grown stronger since 2016. Amid Trump’s demands for financial burden-sharing, NATO members are increasing defense outlays by $100 billion by 2021. And, when it comes to the security of Central and Eastern European allies, Trump’s actions speak for themselves. Spending on the European Deterrence Initiative, launched in 2014 by the Obama Administration to counter Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, has more than tripled since Trump took office.
If Trump demonstrates the same commitment to NATO-ME, European allies may well follow. Eastern European countries that aspire to join NATO, including Ukraine and Georgia, could also seize opportunities for deeper cooperation with the alliance in the Middle East. Given its strategic location, Georgia — already the largest per capita contributor of troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, despite not being a NATO member — may prove to be particularly important.
NATO is well-positioned to become a stronger force for stability and security in the Middle East. Though deterring Iran should be the immediate priority, NATO allies ought to consider that Russia is playing the long game in the region. A liberal world order, enshrined by international laws and norms, does not benefit Putin. He will therefore stop at nothing to overturn it. Given what we know about Putin’s ambitions — and his rapid progress toward fulfilling them — NATO-ME would not be a departure from the original purpose of the alliance. On the contrary, it may even make NATO great again.