The shifting sands of NATO

America’s authority, which has been central to the Transatlantic alliance, is waning. Unfortunately, some in Europe are inclined to see an opportunity in this.


FOR the first time in NATO’s history, the sitting American president arrived to one of its summits in an atmosphere of mockery, ridicule and contempt. Stories of European NATO officials striving to “dumb down” the proceedings to suit Donald Trump did the rounds for days prior to the meeting on 25 May. Even at the highest political levels, only the strictures of diplomacy put a stop to the torrent of criticism that used to rain liberally on candidate- and president-elect Trump from European capitals.

There used to be genuine worry, in the early days of 2017, that the new American president was set on upending all old certainties. But his appointment of irreproachable figures like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster to key national security posts, as well as growing signs of geopolitical moderation – in practice, if not in language – from the White House, had banished the worst fears of NATO allies through the spring. Trump rowed back on “obsolete”, reaffirmed the importance of allies, and his much-touted détente with Russia never took off.

The expected fireworks fizzled out, and the early panic morphed into a grim tension mitigated by widespread disdain for the “clownish” and “boorish” occupant of the Oval Office, epitomised by Emmanuel Macron’s assertion of his strength through a vice like handshake with Trump.

This unofficial European attitude towards the American president conceals more than simply distaste for his personality: it is also a measure of the increasing self-assertion of the Old World’s grand federative project, the EU, in relation to its erstwhile military and political patron, the United States. This amounts to a tectonic shift underway in the political heart of the Western alliance, an “increasing lack of synchronicity” between the Atlantic and European halves of NATO.

A certain dose of European irreverence towards American leaders is nothing new, but it has always observed certain limits or been tempered by a shared ethos. Barack Obama was criticised, in muffled tones, for his foreign policy weakness and strategic aloofness; but ultimately he was well-liked in the Europe for his liberal establishment views and elegant conduct. George W. Bush trailed a record of gaffes, and his hated neocon doctrines were matched, in European eyes, only by his supposedly dim wit. But Bush Jr. was also feared for what his powerful America could do, and his “Vulcans” ran policy with authority and decisiveness (for better or worse). Trump is neither liked, nor truly feared for his power but only for his whim. His lot is the most abject of all, and while it is indeed loaded with his own personal faults, it also fits a pattern of decreasing European deference to American might.

None of this is a secret – quite the opposite. More than once European leaders like former French president Francois Hollande and EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker have bemoaned “American diktats”, while the EU’s ambitions for “strategic autonomy” from the United States are a matter of official policy, laid down in EU’s Global Strategy issued in 2016.

At the same time, there is genuine willingness and interest in Europe for maintaining a strong alliance with the United States. Not out of pure love – witness EU’s menacing attitude towards its own departing English-speaking member, Britain – but primarily because protecting the rich, welfare-based European project with the expensive arms of the world’s leading superpower, for free, is the most advantageous and lopsided geopolitical deal in history, and remains an objective military necessity.

There should be no confusion over this: the American security umbrella, consisting chiefly of strategic capabilities – especially nuclear – which are unique at this scale to the United States, comes at zero cost to European defence budgets. The NATO spending increases demanded by the last few American presidents would boost European, not American, military forces.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that essentially, the Europeans would like to have it both ways: retain American protection, but refuse American political influence. There is no other way to interpret the European insistence – even demand – that Donald Trump restates the US’s unconditional support for NATO’s Article 5, while at the same time aiming for Europe to become strategically autonomous from the US.

The entire question of Euro-American relations – and NATO itself – ultimately turns on the same old security issue: Russia. It is at times of credible Kremlin menace that Europeans feel truly vulnerable and look tot he United States for help amid moving professions of affection for “shared values”. After 1945, America obliged by erecting NATO itself; after 2014, it answered the call by stepping up its reassurance and deterrence activities in Eastern Europe.

A different calculus ensues in the halls of European chanceries, however, when the immediate danger subsides, the Russian bear grows somewhat weary, and the overall story moves on. The protective mantle of US power starts weighing heavy on Europe’s political shoulders and the primacy of US interests over those of “Europe” no longer seems quite such an acceptable price to pay for guarding against a politically-diminishing threat.

On the face of it, there is certainly nothing diminished about the Russian threat now. On the contrary, apprehension at the Kremlin’s dark arts of cyber and propaganda, its subversion campaigns against Western democracies, and its ongoing military expansion and modernisation, is well-founded. Ukraine is not restored to sovereignty and peace, and Russian power remains implanted in Syria in support of the Assad regime.

Yet, more than three years on from the Russian moves into Ukraine that kicked off the current cycle of East-West tensions, the urgency and shock of that initial outrage have worn out. The presumed imminent Russian onslaught in the Baltics never came, and the 2014 narrative that Russia was en marche to re-create the Soviet empire by force fizzled out. As some observed at the time, if Russia was minded to really test NATO’s Article 5, it would never have had a better chance than in the confusion of 2014. The longer it delayed its action, the more time NATO would have to review its defences – which is exactly what has happened.

Besides, quite why Russia would seek a general war with NATO – for what gain – was never convincingly explained and as time goes by the proposition is increasingly difficult to understand. None of this obviates the necessity for opposing a strong NATO posture to Russia’s military build-up. But as the spectre of imminent war recedes, politics also shifts.

Indeed, re-engagement with Mr Putin is in full swing. Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the Kremlin recently, as did Italy’s prime minister Paolo Gentiloni. And the Russian president was received by Mr Macron at Versailles on 29 May. Russian-German trade is booming, and the Russian economy is growing again – which is crucial to Mr Putin’s re-election plans for next year. The fears of “war-war” are yielding to the anticipated benefits of “jaw-jaw”. Indeed, for all European criticism of Donald Trump’s intentions of engaging with Vladimir Putin, it is Europe which has led the way, in practice, on this front.

The atmosphere among EU leaders is changing, too. Confidence is back. There is a sense that a corner has been turned, that Europe is now emerging from its “darkest hour” when it had to face, simultaneously: a migrant crisis of biblical proportions; the troubles of the Eurozone; the“ravages” of populism; the outbreak of ISIS terrorism in European cities; and Russian pressure in the East. There have been “losses” along the way – Britain, Turkey – but Europe, the great federal dream, has survived.

As fortunate as this outcome is, it carries important strategic implications. The political sands of the Alliance are shifting as the EU is now set to double down on its own plans for defence integration – which were one reason why Britain left the bloc – and pursue them at full speed. Emmanuel Macron is especially keen for France to assume within the EU, by virtue of French military power, the same security-leadership role and authority that America has had in NATO. Both Paris and Berlin can see a clear path for France towards that goal, now that Britain is out of thepicture – but only one of these two capitals would consider such a prospect to be good news.

This is a fundamental reason why Berlin is already taking steps to build up its military and also to create its own network of allies within the EU, having already agreed to integrate Czech, Romanian and Dutch brigades with the German 10th Panzer Division. Once this German “balancing policy” runs its course, the EU could well end up with both a French and a German military force each on par with what Britain possesses today, plus a number of other smaller EU militaries integrated under a Franco-German command. At that point, why would Europe need either Britain or America – especially if the quarrel with Moscow can be solved through the same sort of “difficult decisions” that sorted out the migrant crisis?

Europe is therefore busy – and will become even busier – with its own plans for defence and creating an “alliance within an alliance”, a separate EU structure in NATO’s area of responsibility. EU defence integration appears to be far higher on the agenda, politically, than meeting requests from the Trump White House for NATO’s sake.

There are no illusions among European leaders that a viable “EU Army” capable of holding off, say, the Russians, can be created easily or quickly, even if that is clearly the end goal. For that reason, American military support remains very important to Europe. But EU politics make it look increasingly like a “stop-gap” solution rather than the heart of the Western alliance that it used to be.

Gabriel Elefteriu

London, 31 May 2017

This article is written in a strictly personal capacity.

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