External threats, internal challenges loom as NATO holds 75th anniversary summit

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Updated 11 July 2024
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External threats, internal challenges loom as NATO holds 75th anniversary summit

  • Event in Washington, D.C. runs from July 9 to 11 and is being attended by 32 world leaders and dozens of other officials
  • Main tasks for NATO members include support for Ukraine, investments in their own defense and deterrence capabilities

WASHINGTON:  In an important milestone of transatlantic security, President Biden Joe Biden is hosting 38 heads of delegation in the US capital this week for a historic summit to mark the 75th anniversary of NATO’s founding.

Converging on the city are the leaders of 32 NATO members, with Sweden joining for the first time, as well as partners including Ukraine, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Australia and the EU. Large numbers of senior officials, foreign ministers, defense ministers and cabinet officials from NATO partners around the world will also attend.

The summit will commemorate the world’s most successful alliance, established in 1949 during the early days of the Cold War, and whose enduring existence has defied skeptics for decades.

NATO’s significance was renewed and underscored two-and-a-half years ago by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which analysts say has profoundly challenged the so-called international rules-based order, posing one of the most significant threats to transatlantic security in decades.

But beyond its officials’ assurances, NATO faces uncertainty about its future. External threats contribute a part, yet the primary concern stems from internal turmoil that could follow if NATO skeptics, such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Rally, assume power in 2024 and 2027, respectively.

Trump personifies the tension between European allies and the US that was there from the beginning. As one observer put it: Americans seemed to be from Mars, Europeans from Venus.




Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Doral, Florida, on July 9, 2024. (AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron recently has said that the alliance “only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such. I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States.” The US, in his view, shows signs of “turning its back on us,” as it demonstrated with its unexpected troop withdrawal in October 2019 from northeastern Syria, abandoning its Kurdish allies.

The official language of the Biden administration and NATO officials project an image of an alliance that is — in the words of Ambassador Michael Carpenter, special assistant to the president — “larger, stronger, better resourced, and more united than ever before.”

While US news media continue to focus on Biden’s fitness and ability to handle an event like the 75th anniversary of NATO’s founding, both US administration and NATO officials have nimbly sidestepped questions regarding the president’s health.

The “most urgent task” at the summit, according to NATO’s chief, will be support to Ukraine. Allies will unveil substantial new measures to assist the war-ravaged country.

These include stepping up security assistance and training, with a large command center in Germany; a financial pledge of $43 billion; further air defense systems and ammunition; and showcasing backing for Kyiv as it progresses toward NATO membership.

“This will not make NATO a party to the conflict,” said Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general. “But it will enhance Ukraine’s self-defense.”

He added: “Ukraine must prevail … they need our sustained support.”

Carpenter, the senior US diplomat, said: “Together, the Washington summit will send a strong signal to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin that if he thinks he can outlast the coalition of countries supporting Ukraine, he is dead wrong.”




Russia's President Vladimir Putin and foreign leaders lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall after the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2024. (Sputnik/Pool/AFP)

NATO will use the summit to highlight significant investments in its own defense and deterrence capabilities.

In 2020, only nine NATO members spent at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, a benchmark first set almost a decade ago. Today, a record 23 NATO members are at, or above, the minimum level of 2 percent of GDP for defense spending.

“Since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine began in 2014, NATO has fundamentally transformed,” said Stoltenberg.

“Defense spending across European allies and Canada is up 18 percent this year alone, the biggest increase in decades. Allies are taking burden-sharing seriously.

“Today, we have 500,000 troops on high readiness; combat-ready battlegroups in the eastern part of the alliance for the first time; more high-end capabilities, including fifth-generation aircraft; and two highly committed new members, Finland and Sweden.”

 

 

What Ukraine has also demonstrated, according to Stoltenberg, is the global dimension of the alliance’s security, with “Iran and North Korea (fueling) Russia’s war with drones and shells,” and “China propping up Russia’s war economy.”He added: “The closer that authoritarian actors align, the more important it is that we work closely with our friends in the Indo-Pacific.”

Deepening NATO’s global partnerships is the third goal of the summit. For that purpose, Stoltenberg has invited leaders of Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea to Washington.

“Standing up to authoritarian actors with our partners helps to uphold the rules-based international order,” he said.




NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a press conference during NATO's 75th anniversary summit in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 2024. (REUTERS)

Partnership with Middle East and North Africa countries will also be addressed in meetings and bilateral talks, including the NATO Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and includes UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar; and the Mediterranean Dialogue, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year as a partnership forum for promoting security and stability in the region, with participating countries including Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.

Carpenter said: “When it comes to the Middle East, I’m sure there’s going to be a range of discussions, including bilateral meetings on the margins of the summit, where this will come up. 

“The Middle East is not Euro-Atlantic territory, but obviously it impinges on the security of the Euro-Atlantic region. So, what’s happening now in the Middle East is, of course, of concern to all NATO leaders.”




The NATO-Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Regional Center in Kuwait City, which was inaugurated on January 23,2017. (AFP)

Luke Coffey, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, lamented the fact that neither the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative nor the Mediterranean Dialogue have been used to their full potential.

“I’m a bit disappointed that NATO hasn’t made a bigger deal out of the 20th anniversary of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (and) the 30th anniversary of the Mediterranean dialogue, which covers more of NATO’s relations with the Levant and North Africa,” he told Arab News.

“These are important milestones, and both of these platforms have been useful in the past in allowing NATO to engage with the broader community in the region,” he added.

“It would be very good to hold a NATO meeting at the heads of state, heads of government level, for the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. I know it would be very difficult to do. Someone should have thought of this earlier. But let’s make a big deal out of this anniversary.




Spanish, German and Dutch soldiers take part in a NATO military exercise in Romania on May 14, 2024. (AFP)

“NATO should make it very clear to the countries, especially in the Gulf, that if you’re not part of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, the door is open. Nobody, of course, is talking about membership for NATO or anything like this. This is ridiculous, but adding new members to the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative would be a positive thing, I think, for the alliance.”

The NATO-MENA security overlap, according to Coffey, includes concerns such as counterterrorism, and Iran’s missile and drone proliferation. He believes NATO should collaborate more deeply with MENA nations, starting with missile and air defense.

“From a European point of view, often many of the challenges that are in the Middle East find their way into Europe over time. So, it benefits Europe, and especially NATO, to work with countries in the Middle East to help them address their own security concerns.”

INNUMBERS

INNUMBERS 32 Members of NATO military alliance.

7 Canada’s rank in amount of money spent on defense.

3.5% Share of US GDP spent on military.

Coffey said Stoltenberg’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December last year was a step in the right direction “that would maybe get (the Kingdom) inside the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.

“Saudi Arabia is the dominant power on the Arabian Peninsula, and it shares many of the same security challenges that we have in NATO, such as, the proliferation of ballistic missiles and drones and the Iranian threat,” he said.

“So, it makes sense that NATO cooperates with Saudi Arabia whenever possible, and we have a platform in NATO to engage with countries like Saudi Arabia. So, let’s get Saudi Arabia inside of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.

“If they want to. NATO also has to be careful to make sure that we go at the speed and the comfort level of engagement of the Gulf states. We shouldn’t try forcing anything onto the region, but we should always make clear that NATO is open for deeper cooperation if there’s a willingness.”
 

 


British foreign secretary’s concern over former PM Johnson’s meeting with US presidential hopeful Trump

Updated 59 min 13 sec ago
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British foreign secretary’s concern over former PM Johnson’s meeting with US presidential hopeful Trump

  • Lammy admitted to LBC presenter Tom Swarbrick that he had not been aware the meeting was taking place

LONDON: British Foreign Secretary David Lammy expressed his concern on Thursday about a meeting between former UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Speaking on the LBC radio morning show, Lammy admitted to presenter Tom Swarbrick that he had not been aware the meeting was taking place.

Johnson posted a picture on social media of him meeting Trump at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, after which he said the former president was “on top form” and that they had discussed the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The foreign secretary was asked if Johnson had followed protocol by informing the UK Foreign Office of his meeting with Trump, to which Lammy replied: “I’m not sure that Boris Johnson consults either Keir Starmer or us on his plans. And I certainly didn’t know.”

Lammy refused to be drawn when pressed by Swarbrick on whether the meeting went against “UK national interests” or not.

“The record will show that I had a friendship with Barack Obama, prior to him becoming president of the United States of America, and about a year or so into office, he was dealing with David Cameron (as prime minister),” he said.

“I would never have done anything to prejudice the UK national interests at that time. So the point you’re making is a serious one. I would hope that all former prime ministers would act in the UK national interests and not cut across us, particularly two weeks into office.

“You know, I’m not interested, actually, in the past. I’m interested in the future.”


Scientists discover cause of Gulf War syndrome in landmark study

British soldiers from the First Stafford, well known as the “Desert Rats,” stand in a trench on January 6, 1991.
Updated 18 July 2024
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Scientists discover cause of Gulf War syndrome in landmark study

  • Thousands of 1991 war veterans suffered chronic fatigue, PTSD, joint pain and headaches
  • Findings a ‘significant step forward in understanding this baffling and complex illness’

LONDON: Exposure to chemical and biological agents has been identified as the cause of Gulf War syndrome in a landmark study, The Times reported.
In what was described as a “world-first discovery,” scientists found that thousands of soldiers suffering from the syndrome had faulty cell function due to contact with the hazardous agents.
The mysterious illness was first identified in the wake of the Gulf War, with victims suffering from symptoms including post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue, joint pain and headaches.
Many struggled to find medical help and claim compensation as doctors were left baffled by the illness.
Up to 33,000 British veterans who served in the war may be suffering from the syndrome.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence has long argued against the existence of the illness, referring to a 2003 study that found no research identifying a unique syndrome linked to military service in the Gulf.
Scientists in the US have also blamed sarin, the nerve agent, for causing the symptoms, after Iraqi chemical weapons caches were bombed during the war, causing aerial exposure.
But the latest study, in the journal Plos One, could open a path for the syndrome to be recognized as a unique illness.
Veterans who suffered from Gulf War syndrome had an “impaired ion channel function in their cells,” said one of the study’s researchers, Etianne Martini Sasso of Griffith University in Australia.
The impairment resulted in an inability of the body to properly transport calcium.
The element plays a crucial role in muscle contraction, nerve function and hormone regulation.
“The findings from our research provides clear scientific evidence that the health problems experienced by Gulf War veterans can be directly linked to their exposure to specific hazardous agents during their service,” said another of the study’s authors, Prof. Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik.
Discovering the link between exposure to hazardous agents and impaired ion channel function is a “significant step forward in understanding this baffling and complex illness,” she added.
The former Conservative government in the UK imposed a six-year limit on civil cases involving injury or death, preventing veterans of the 1991 war from claiming compensation.
Veterans can still claim a war pension, however.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said: “We are indebted to all those who served our country in the Gulf wars and have already sponsored significant research into the effects of this conflict on veterans.
“We continue to monitor and welcome any new research that is published around the world and financial support is available to veterans whose illness is due to service through the MoD war pensions and the armed forces occupational pension schemes.”


Sweden to phase out development aid to Iraq next year

Updated 18 July 2024
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Sweden to phase out development aid to Iraq next year

  • Sweden said current aid package to Iraq amounts to around $18 million a year

STOCKHOLM: Sweden will phase out development aid to Iraq over the coming year, the government said on Wednesday, as it focuses on giving more effective support to fewer countries.
“Sweden has contributed both humanitarian support and development aid to Iraq for many years,” Johan Forssell, Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, said.
“The conditions have changed and Iraq is now a middle-income country with good resources to support its own population.”
The government said its current aid package to Iraq amounts to around 190 million Swedish crowns ($18 million) a year. Next year, the total will be around 100 million, with aid being phased out by June 30, the government said.
Sweden, home to around 200,000 people either born in Iraq or with an Iraqi-born parent, currently gives aid to around 100 countries and Forssell said the money was too widely spread to be effective.


Mobile internet down, troops on streets as Bangladeshi students clash with police

Updated 18 July 2024
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Mobile internet down, troops on streets as Bangladeshi students clash with police

  • At least 32 people killed in violent clashes across Bangladesh’s main cities

DHAKA: Mobile internet services were down, businesses closed, and public transportation was disrupted across Bangladeshi cities on Thursday, as authorities ordered troops on to the streets amid deadly clashes with protesting students.
University students have been rallying to demand the removal of government employment quotas after the High Court reinstated a rule that reserves the bulk of jobs for descendants of those who fought in the country’s 1971 liberation war.
Under the quota system, 56 percent of public service jobs are reserved for specific groups, including women, marginalized communities, and children and grandchildren of freedom fighters — for whom the government earmarks 30 percent of the posts.
Clashes with police and government supporters began on Sunday after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina undermined the students’ cause by suggesting that they supported the “razakars,” or those who had collaborated with the Pakistani military, an enemy occupying force, during the 1971 war.
Since Wednesday, educational institutions, campuses and students’ dormitories have been shut across the country, forcing students on to the streets.
Tensions escalated early on Thursday and about 6,000 border guards were sent to assist police.
“Considering the present situation, we have deployed additional forces to maintain law and order, and protect the people’s lives and properties,” Inamul Huq Sagar, spokesperson at the police headquarters, told Arab News.
“During emergency situations, we always deploy an additional number of forces.”
Authorities have also shut down mobile internet to prevent further mobilization through social media, with Telecommunications Minister Zunaid Ahmed Palak telling reporters services “will be brought back to normal when the situation improves.”
At least 32 people have been killed and hundreds injured since the clashes broke out across Bangladesh’s main cities, according to an AFP count of victims from hospitals around the country.
Most of the violence took place in Dhaka, where students announced a “complete shutdown,” urging private sector workers and businesses to close operations for the day.
“The complete shutdown is a call from the students to the people not to go to offices, and businesses to remain closed. People will stay at home. All the students are on the streets now,” Umama Fatima, coordinator of Students Against Discrimination, one of the protest organizers, told Arab News.
“The protest is underway everywhere in the capital and across the country. In many places, police and the ruling party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chatra League, attacked the protesting students. As I heard, at least four students died in Dhaka on Thursday during clashes with police.”
More than a quarter of Bangladesh’s 170 million population is aged between 15 and 29. Unemployment is highest in this group, contributing 83 percent of the total jobless figure in the country.
The quotas for well-paid government jobs hit them directly.
Mohammad Nahid Islam, another Students Against Discrimination coordinator, told Arab News earlier this week that the protest was not seeking an end to the quota system, merely its reform, so that it continues to protect marginalized groups, but does not disproportionately distribute public service jobs prioritizing the descendants of the 1971 fighters.
“We are demanding the reform by reserving some quota for the underprivileged population,” he said. “We are demanding job recruitment on the basis of merit.”


EU Commission head von der Leyen elected for second term

Updated 18 July 2024
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EU Commission head von der Leyen elected for second term

  • Von der Leyen promises new ‘defense union’
  • Commission chief also vows to stick to climate targets

STRASBOURG: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was elected for a second term on Thursday after pledging to create a continental “defense union” and stay the course on Europe’s green transition while cushioning its burden on industry.
Members of the European Parliament backed von der Leyen’s bid for another five-year term at the helm of the European Union’s powerful executive body with 401 votes in her favor and 284 against in a secret ballot in the 720-member chamber.
In an address to the Parliament in Strasbourg earlier in the day, von der Leyen laid out a program focused on prosperity and security, shaped by the challenges of Russia’s war in Ukraine, global economic competition and climate change.
“The next five years will define Europe’s place in the world for the next five decades. It will decide whether we shape our own future or let it be shaped by events or by others,” von der Leyen said ahead of a secret ballot on her candidacy.
She stressed the need not to backtrack on the “Green Deal” transformation of the EU economy to fight climate change — a key pledge for Green lawmakers, who joined center-right, center-left and liberal groups in backing her for the post.
After pledging to support Ukraine for as long as it takes in its fight against Russia, von der Leyen said Europe’s liberty was at stake and it must invest more in defense.
Von der Leyen, a center-right former German defense minister, pledged to create “a true European Defense Union,” with flagship projects on air and cyber defense.
The plan sparked criticism from the Kremlin, which said it
reflected an attitude of “militarization (and) confrontation.”
Von der Leyen blasted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s recent visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow as an “appeasement mission,” winning broad applause from lawmakers.
Defense policy in Europe has traditionally been the domain of national governments and NATO.
But following Russia’s attack on Ukraine and amid uncertainty over how much Europe will be able to rely on the United States for its protection should Donald Trump win the US presidential election in November, the European Commission is seeking to push more joint European defense projects.
Von der Leyen also promised a raft of climate policies including a legally-binding EU target to cut emissions 90 percent by 2040, compared to 1990 levels.
She also pledged new measures to help European industries stay competitive while they invest in curbing emissions.
Green support
The Greens’ decision to join the informal alliance of parties that supports von der Leyen ensured her margin of victory was fairly comfortable. She needed 361 votes to secure a majority in the chamber.
Her own coalition of the center-right, center-left and liberals has 401 seats, but some of its members were expected to vote against her in the secret vote.
She might also promised tighter EU border controls and stronger police cooperation against crime.
Von der Leyen’s re-election provides continuity in the European Union’s key institution at a time of external and internal challenges — including mounting support for far-right and euroskeptic political parties in the 27-nation bloc.
In the coming weeks, she will propose her team of commissioners, who will face individual hearings from lawmakers before a final vote on the whole Commission later in the year.