The trans-Atlantic alliance has been significantly weakened, forcing Europe to build up its own security structures without inflicting even more damage on NATO. Is such a thing even possible?
The timing of the article could hardly have been better. On Feb. 12, just three days before the beginning of last weekend’s Munich Security Conference, it was published on the website of the U.S. magazine National Interest. And it quickly became a topic of fevered discussion among conference participants, particularly those from Europe. “Dump NATO,” blared the headline.
The piece wasn’t written by a no-name. Its author is Christian Whiton, a former State Department adviser during the administrations of both President George W. Bush and Donald Trump. His central message in the piece is that the United States should back out of NATO. The sooner the better.
“A rich continent with a $17 trillion economy — more than 10 times the size of Russia’s — does not need America to underwrite its defense,” he writes. NATO, Whiton believes, “is little more than a mechanism for Old Europe to freeload off of America.”
Freeload. That’s the tone in which the entire article is written. It is both hostile and scornful in the extreme. And along with NATO, Whiton also throws the entire canon of Western values onto the trash heap of history. “Most of the countries in Old Europe have chosen atheism, globalism, multiculturalism and decadent decline,” he writes. “What exactly are we defending?”
In normal times, it would be simple to just dismiss the “Dump NATO” article as the ramblings of a fringe lunatic — as a provocation or aberration that has little to do with reality. But not these days. Not in an era in which Whiton’s article likely reflects exactly what the American president is thinking.
Piling On the Pressure
Donald Trump has publicly called the Western defensive alliance into question on several occasions and has reportedly discussed with his advisers whether the U.S. should simply withdraw from NATO entirely. According to participants in those discussions quoted by the New York Times, he doesn’t see the point of the alliance. Not only that, but he orders European countries around as though they were his subordinates, he piles on the pressure and he carries out secret talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To be sure, Trump has not thus far taken any military steps that have actually harmed NATO in any way. In fact, the Americans have bolstered their military presence in Europe, a fact that Europeans at the Munich Security Conference turned to for comfort.
But when it comes to security, words are the equivalent of deeds. Guarantees of security are only worth something if they apply unconditionally and are not attached to an expiration date. That has thus far been the foundation of NATO. If the U.S. president calls the American nuclear shield for Europe into question, then Europe is no longer secure. “Despite our public proclamations, no reasonable person believes that Trump would sacrifice Seattle for Riga,” said a senior German diplomat in Munich.
NATO has protected Germany for 70 years, the anniversary is to be celebrated this December in Washington, D.C. But the event could ultimately be reminiscent of the 40th anniversary of East Germany, which was observed in October 1989, just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The structures still exist, but they have become fragile and basically everyone has come to realize that they are no longer stable.
The problem, though, is that Germany is dependent on NATO. Indeed, all of Europe is militarily dependent on the U.S., both on America’s conventional armed forces and on its nuclear capabilities. And for the foreseeable future, there is no alternative to the alliance that might be able to guarantee Europe’s security. That is the uncomfortable truth Europe currently finds itself facing.
“Very, Very, Very Serious”
“NATO still exists, but the alliance hardly exists anymore,” says French political scientist François Heisbourg. He says the relationship is similar to that between the church and religion: The church is still standing, but faith has evaporated. “A church without religion loses its mission,” he warns. The situation, he adds, is “very, very, very serious.”
Security is a complex matter and relies on a mixture of hardware and soft power, threat and dialogue, propaganda and psychology. And complexity breeds competing viewpoints. “Everything is interaction,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in her Munich speech, quoting from Alexander von Humboldt.
Germany needs NATO but can no longer depend on it as much as it could in the past. That means that Germany must reexamine its national security; not doing so would be the height of negligence. But what exactly does that mean? How is it possible to think beyond NATO without accelerating its collapse? How can Europeans develop their own, stronger security structures without weakening NATO?
“The structures in which we operate,” said Merkel, “are essentially those that emerged from the horrors of the Second World War and National Socialism.” These structures, though, she said, are now coming under intense pressure. Reform, she insisted, is necessary, but “I don’t think that we can simply take an axe to these structures.”
More than two years ago, the EU set forth the goal of “strategic autonomy.” In Washington, however, the initiative was met with suspicion rather than enthusiasm. Now, Europe is faced with the reality that every step it takes toward security autonomy could give Donald Trump an excuse for saying: You don’t need us anymore.
It is an immense project, and it will take a long time: Europe must massively upgrade its conventional forces and take a closer look at its nuclear deterrence capabilities. It must push the Germans and others to spend more on defense and it must clarify what future role the British will play in security. It must figure out how to protect Eastern Europe, develop its own relationship with Russia and grapple with cyber threats, hybrid warfare and autonomous weapons systems. And Europe must truly unite.
But as difficult as that may sound, there is no other way. Europe is at the very beginning of the process — and anyone who claims to have a solution to the immense issues facing the Continent is a con artist.
Still, the debate, the rethinking, the recognition that we are now living in a different world — all of that must start immediately. In Germany, the discussion hasn’t yet begun because the country’s politicians are afraid of it. The message that our security is no longer guaranteed and that we have to do much more ourselves is one that is extremely unpopular.
Instead, the discussion has been massively restricted to the question as to whether Germany should increase its defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, in accordance with the NATO resolution reached in Wales in 2014. How great would it be if our security problems could be solved so easily, with just a bit more spending?
Germany is completely unprepared for the new era. The country has not yet bid farewell to the mental comfort zone that emerged at the end of the Cold War, when threats appeared to evaporate almost overnight. Now, a realistic understanding of danger is altogether absent. For almost a quarter century, the Germans have been debating whether it should participate in overseas deployments, and if so, which ones. The fact that the country’s own security could now be at stake is a realization that has yet to hit home.
NATO, too, has shied away from taking a sober look at the future, perhaps understandably so. There is widespread unease at NATO headquarters in Brussels, with some in Munich even saying that certain subjects cannot even be broached. “We can’t even address the necessary questions internally,” said one NATO insider. “We’re not allowed to talk about them because otherwise we’ll be accused of calling NATO into question.”
“Two years ago, when representatives from the Trump administration appeared at the Security Conference for the first time, we were in a period of denial,” says François Heisbourg. But times have changed. “We are living in a different era.”
To explain the global situation in this new era, Markus Ederer needs a number of props. The diplomat is standing in the lobby of the luxury Munich hotel Bayerischer Hof and digging in his coat pocket. First, he pulls out his two mobile phones and sets them on the poseur table in front of him. The phones represent the U.S. and China, the two power centers — both economically and militarily — of this new world order.
The pen in between is Europe. “It’s an unpleasant middle position,” says Ederer.
He moves the ballpoint pen back and forth between the American and Chinese mobile phones. “China and America are both trying to claim us for their own agenda,” he says. “Europe must position itself.” The pen remains above the two mobile phones: “It’s not an equilateral triangle — it’s closer to the U.S.”
Ederer reaches back into his jacket pocket and replaces the ballpoint pen with his diplomatic passport. The passport is now Europe, the pen an axis. He pushes it back and forth — the NATO axis between Europe and the U.S. Or the trade axis between Europe and China.
Ederer is used to thinking in terms of axes, of big strokes and long periods of time and of scenarios for the future. He spent years as the head of the planning staff at the German Foreign Ministry and later as a state secretary. He’s currently serving as the European Union’s ambassador to Moscow.
Russia, he says, is also in a middle position. He takes off his conference badge and sets it down right next to the Chinese mobile phone: “Russia is very close to China. We in Europe must not resign ourselves to this in the long term.”
In Ederer’s world on the table, the only role left for NATO is a subordinate one. The world in which NATO once functioned no longer exists. And the truth is that Trump has played only a marginal role in this development. As such, it is misguided to think that everything might return to the way they used to be once Trump’s tenure has ended.
The End of the Trans-Atlantic Era
The trans-Atlantic era will not return, despite assurances in Munich by former Vice President Joe Biden that: “We will be back!” In the future, the competition between the two mobile phones will determine the world’s fate, and the U.S. will view Europe in terms of whether it is a help or a hindrance in its competition with China.
For Europe, that means it must begin thinking about the “post-Alliance era,” as François Heisbourg describes it. The good news is that the first indications of such considerations could be seen in Munich, even though most of the speeches given were still filled with clichés about trans-Atlantic loyalty.
There are a number of considerations that follow from the changing reality. First off, if the Americans continue backing away from their role in NATO, their European allies may one day find themselves all alone with Russia. That potential outcome necessitates a redefinition of Europe’s relationship with Russia to one that is more independent from the U.S. On the one hand, Europe must better arm itself against possible Russian aggression, which primarily means protecting the countries located between Germany and Russia, such as Poland and the Baltic states.
These counties are particularly concerned about America’s shrinking commitment to the alliance, particularly given that Russia is likely to station a larger number of land-based, medium-range missiles following the foreseeable end of the INF Treaty. The leading candidate of the European People’s Party for the European elections, CSU politician Manfred Weber, made a proposal in Munich aimed at showing East Central Europeans that the rest of Europe is serious about protecting them.
Germany, Weber suggested, could propose setting up a joint missile defense system together with the Central/Eastern Europeans. That would provide credible protection and could even form the core of a genuine European defense union.
Not Defenseless Against Russia
Even without the U.S., Europe is not defenseless against Russia. Its military expenditures in recent years have been around four times higher than Russia’s. “A major conflict, even one with nuclear weapons, would not be possible for Europe without America’s help,” says political scientist Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution in Washington. “But Europeans should be able to manage smaller to medium-sized conflicts on Europe’s periphery themselves.” At the same time, the new global situation could also make improving European relations with Russia easier in the longer term.
Russian foreign policy veteran Sergey Karaganov has spent more than 30 years advising Russian governments and the Kremlin, and his striking bald pate is a presence at almost every conference focused on security. In recent years, Karaganov has warned repeatedly that Russia, repelled by the West, is in the process of reorienting itself eastward.
Last weekend, he could be found sitting at the bar in the Bayerischer Hof hotel lavishing praise on Europe. “We are ready to connect culturally and economically with Europe as a junior partner,” he says. “The Russians love Europe — they’re more European than the Europeans.”
Does that also apply to security policy? “NATO and the OSCE are dead,” Karaganov argues. “The old institutions are like ruins that only stand in the way.” Karaganov proposes a security dialogue between Russia and Europe, with cooperation in concrete areas like cyber security or migration. “Russia and Europe have mutual interests and face common threats,” he says. “Even if it seems very far-fetched now, they could one day work together on security issues.”
‘A Guest Room for the Americans’
A second consideration is that of Europeanizing NATO. Supporters of this line of thinking believe that the NATO apparatus in Brussels actually works well enough and argue that there is more to NATO than just Article 5. Rather, it is a gigantic defense bureaucracy that functions wonderfully on the technical-operational level. The church, in other words, is still standing. It is up to Europe, according to this line of thinking, to fill it with a new faith.
If the Americans wanted to get rid of NATO, the Europeans could just take over the building. “The EU could use this functioning structure, even without the Americans,” says François Heisbourg.
“It could be that NATO will become a structure for European defense,” says Stelzenmüller, “with a guest room for the Americans.”
The third consideration revolves around Franco-German relations. It is, in fact, the prerequisite, because European defense can only work if Germany and France work much more closely together.
A Grand Bargain
Chancellor Merkel positioned herself surprisingly clearly in Munich on a first controversial issue: arms exports. She advocated for a “common culture of arms exports” because it is the prerequisite for joint arms projects. That’s also why the Germans have gone a long way toward accommodating the French in a secret supplementary agreement to the Franco-German partnership treaty signed in Aachen this month.
That agreement needs to set an example: Germany and France must finally begin tackling issues on which they have divergent views for historical and cultural reasons. They need to find compromises, which also means that the Germans will have to make concessions, including some painful ones. “Cooperation between France and Germany doesn’t work because we agree on things,” says Heisbourg, “but because we are able to reach agreements.”
Germany and France could agree on a grand bargain that puts everything on the table. Germany would have to show some movement on arms exports and limit parliament’s ability to impose restrictions while France would have to Europeanize its permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The issue of France’s nuclear weapons, the force de frappe, would also need to be addressed.
“I think Paris would be willing to discuss a common nuclear deterrent,” says Heisbourg. Many decades ago, at the NATO summit in Ottawa in 1974, France already agreed that its nuclear arsenal was part of Europe’s common defense. As such, the idea that the force de frappe isn’t exclusively there to protect France is not a new one. Still, it is a far cry from Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
For Heisbourg, though, one thing is clear. “The idea that the French would expand their nuclear shield and the Germans would pay for it will not work,” he says. “This can’t be a mercenary relationship. Nuclear deterrence is existential — you can’t buy it.” Once again, that means that Germany will have to become more engaged militarily.
It sounds completely unrealistic: a European nuclear shield; a NATO in which the Americans are only guests; a European army deployable by the European Parliament; arms exports conducted according to rules that don’t necessarily correspond with Germany’s ideas of a values-based foreign policy; and much greater German commitment. But perhaps that’s just how it is when a new era begins.
Who would have once thought that Germany would ever give up the deutsche mark? We are living in a time when the impossible not only needs to be conceivable, but also attempted.