Guest Post: Mr. Butch Bracknell on “Underestimating Allies: NATO’s Strategic Misjudgment”

Today’s post unpacks for us some of the complexities associated with Finland’s and Sweden’s bid to join NATO.  Few are better to undertake this analysis than my friend Butch Bracknell who spent most of the last decade working in NATO.  Now in private practice, he shares his personal assessment of the challenges we are seeing from Turkey and Hungary, and finds there are lessons to be learned.  Take a look at his essay as it will give you important insights into NATO’s operation as well as offering valuable recommendations for the future.

Underestimating Allies: NATO’s Strategic Misjudgment

By Mr. Butch Bracknell

The NATO alliance took another step forward toward expansion this past week, as Finland’s accession finally was guaranteed.  Yet Sweden’s membership remains at the discretion of Hungary and Turkey.  Sweden’s accession is far from certain, and in any case is unlikely to occur before July’s NATO Summit.  The delay in Sweden’s joining, which has taken months longer than any other new member, is due exclusively to NATO member states’ political misjudgment. 

Twenty eight allies assumed Turkey and Hungary[1] would follow the Western European prescribed blueprint to add Sweden and Finland as alliance members without adequately planning to account for Hungary’s and Turkey’s domestic political concerns.  This miscalculation allowed these two aligned allies to flex their power, augmenting their clout in the alliance, while embarrassing the pact and undermining international perceptions of NATO’s unity. 

Turkey’s and Hungary’s conduct vis-à-vis Swedish accession serves as a warning sign for future alliance strategic decisionmaking:  rather than assuming states will fall in line, consultations have to be substantive and must accommodate individual states’ interests.  The political misjudgment is a classic case of western liberalism versus realism in international relations, and realism often prevails.

Sweden and Finland seeking membership by fleeing into the apparently open arms of NATO’s security umbrella was, of course, prompted by Russia’s naked aggression in Ukraine.  NATO requires consensus for all decisionmaking, from the political/strategic levels, such as new membership accessions, down to routine budget matters. 

Consensus decisionmaking is the key political and legal feature of the alliance – by requiring unanimity at every level of decisionmaking, NATO constantly and consistently signals its solidarity – political, strategic, and military.  Making decisions by majority, or even super-majority, demonstrates fissures in the alliance.  The nations have correctly decided in an alliance, total unity is far more important than efficiency.  NATO is not fast, but it is strong.

Usually, consensus decisionmaking, in which only one nation can delay or prevent a decision – a minor matter in a board or committee all the way up to major strategic decisions within the senior most decisionmaking body, the North Atlantic Council – is thwarted when a state “breaks silence.” 

Under the silence procedure, matters are placed before the allies at every level in a procedural move by which nations do not affirmatively agree, but are presumed to agree unless a nation indicates nonagreement (“breaking silence”). 

Breaking silence signals formal disagreement, which in turn demonstrates a lack of unity – breaking silence is a major issue.[2]  Noting the premium on consensus, usually nations work between and among each other to negotiate issues so that consensus usually is guaranteed when the issue is considered publicly. 

These discussions occur privately and behind the scenes, and accommodations are reached, so the public-facing decision indicates unity and consensus.  Public breaks of silence are due to a failure of diplomacy. 

Turkey and Hungary, forming a 2 state bloc inside the Alliance, initially refused to ratify alliance membership for Finland and Sweden.  Finland’s membership became a casualty of Turkey’s irritation with Sweden over Turkey’s perception of Swedish intransigence on extraditing alleged PKK terrorists living in Sweden, as well as Hungary’s irritation with the two states over political criticisms of Hungary’s government. 

These makeweight reasons cleverly mask the true, underlying purpose of sweating Finland and Sweden:  Hungary and Turkey have merely flexed their power to remind the other allies of the need to consider each allies’ political positions, needs, and priorities. 

In dragging their feet on this important strategic area, both Hungary and Turkey have enhanced their power within the alliance, and put the other Allies on notice Hungarian and Turkish positions must be carefully considered in future issues about which Ankara and Budapest really care. 

Eventually, with the proper signal having been sent by Turkey and Hungary and received by the other allies, Turkey and Hungary lifted their holds on Finland’s admission to the Alliance, while prolonging delay on Sweden.  Message received.

NATO’s eager and unquestioning acceptance of Sweden’s and Finland’s bids for admission demonstrates the alliance takes Turkey and Hungary for granted; by not foreseeing Turkey’s objection to Sweden’s admission over the PKK issue, and by assuming accession by all 30 Allies, NATO demonstrates bias in its decisionmaking that fails to take seriously the sovereign concerns of all its members. 

Moreover, this political miscalculation elevates Turkey’s and Hungary’s standing in the future, as Turkey has demonstrated a willingness to slow NATO decisionmaking to enforce full and rigorous consultation. Turkey’s irritation with Sweden over the PKK issue was no secret; on the contrary, it was both foreseeable and predictable that Hungary and Turkey would join forces to slow the process and send a clear message.

For future alliance decisionmaking, whether on accession of new nations or other important issues, it would be prudent for other allies to take a few lessons on board:  (1) consider all allies political positions and know the controversial areas before they are publicly manifest; (2) utilize back channel and track 2 diplomacy when intractable domestic issues are encountered, to reduce the obstacles before they trigger public crises; and (3) don’t take Turkey or Hungary (or any other “difficult” state) for granted — deal with them as they are.

The allies cannot eject a challenging state from the alliance – the signal to solidarity in the alliance would be unacceptable and troubling to many of the new members, and there is no mechanism in the North Atlantic Treaty for expelling a member.  Allies must simply think ahead in a sophisticated way and deal in political realities over wishful thinking. 

Allies must also accompany alliance-growth passion with humility and temperance in terms of scoping the alliance’s expansion ambition and according proper respect to the political realities as they appear in all the capitals, not just Washington, Ottawa, London, Brussels, and Paris.


[1] Turkey and Hungary have drifted away from alliance solidarity recently, as their internal politics trend right-wing and authoritarian.

[2] With accessions, however, all member nations have to make affirmative decisions by completing internal national procedures required to ratify the addition of a state party to the North Atlantic Treaty, and depositing an instrument of accession with the United States of America.  See The North Atlantic Treaty, Article 10, Washington DC, April 4, 1949 (“The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty. Any State so invited may become a Party to the Treaty by depositing its instrument of accession with the Government of the United States of America. The Government of the United States of America will inform each of the Parties of the deposit of each such instrument of accession.”)

About the author:

Robert Gray “Butch” Bracknell is an attorney with the Norfolk, Virginia law firm of Crenshaw, Ware & Martin PLC and is a consultant with Lexpat Global LLC and The Charles F Bolden Group.  He served 22 years on active duty in the US Marine Corps and 9 years a NATO legal advisor.  BA University of North Carolina, JD University of Maryland, LLM Harvard Law School.


The views and opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of NATO, the U.S. government, or any other person or entity.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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