Looking Past NATO: Europe Must Plan to Defend Itself

Looking Past NATO: Europe Must Plan to Defend Itself
It is, perhaps, the least expected opening to a German editorial at the moment: Donald Trump is right. But it's true. At the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, Germany announced that it would soon dramatically increase its defense spending. When Trump and his Defense Secretary James Mattis now admonish Germany to fulfill its pledge, they are right on two counts. First, on principle: Promises should be kept. Second, on merit: There is no reason that, more than 70 years after World War II, the United States should continue carrying the main burden for ensuring European security.

Unfortunately, this isn't just a question of money. America's justified demand comes right in the middle of an internal crisis in the West so deep that nobody knows how much of the West will be left in the end. NATO always aspired to be something more than a defense alliance. It viewed itself as the protective power of liberal democracy, the West and Western principles. It was a moral framework, the foundations for their existence. But are we certain that the West is still a community of shared values? If it's not, then what is NATO defending? Countries like Hungary and Poland, where right-wing populists are eroding the separation of powers, minority protections and freedom of the press? A Turkey that President Erdogan is currently in the process of transforming into a dictatorship? And are we really ready to stand at America's side if Trump goes to war against Iran, North Korea or some other country?

Defense spending among NATO members 

Defense spending among NATO members

NATO is not obsolete, but it's importance is dwindling. It has become hollow. One could view that as a delayed symptom of its own success. It helped bring democracy to Europe, it contained and integrated Germany and it drove the Soviet Union to collapse. Ultimately, it was inevitable it would eventually fall into crisis. A defense alliance whose opponents disappear will face an existential crisis sooner or later.

The alliance followed up its greatest success with a profound failure. NATO was unsuccessful in turning Russia into a partner. The fears harbored by the Baltic and Central European states are thus understandable. As are Russian suspicions of the alliance. Either way, an alliance whose sole justification is its opposition to Russia is out of date. America has long since viewed its most vital security interests to be in the Pacific region and the Middle East. And for Europe, North Africa and the Middle East are at least as important as Russia.

Europe Needs Stronger Defense

The era in European history when the Continent could delegate its security to a partner across the Atlantic has passed, irrevocably. That will remain true even after Trump is no longer in the White House. Trump, after all, is a symptom of the crisis in the West, not its cause. America remains a possible partner for Europe, but it is no longer a reliable one. Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference, rightly warned Europeans not to write America off as a partner. That would be premature. But it would also be reckless and naïve if Europe were not to prepare for the fact that it can no longer unconditionally rely on the United States.

In the medium-term, Europe must be capable of sufficiently defending itself and providing for its own security. What is most needed in order to make that happen is unity. If Germany and other Europeans now spend more on defense, they will also have to increase their military cooperation as well as massively expand the EU's Common Security and Defense Policy. Europe's alliance should not replace NATO, but it must enable Europeans to stand by each other if the Americans will no longer do it.

America's withdrawal actually represents an opportunity for Europe. The idea of Europe being a junior partner could finally be consigned to the dustbin of history and lead Europe to begin defining its own interests. That includes a reasonable relationship with Russia that isn't based exclusively on deterrence. That also includes making clear to Turkey that there are limits to solidarity if Ankara plays with fire in Syria or if the conflict with the Kurds further escalates. That could also include making some trade-policy concessions during the Brexit negotiations in exchange for British participation in a joint European defense partnership. Ultimately, a Europe that is serious about its own security will also have to consider nuclear deterrence. This doesn't mean that Germany needs to build a bomb, as some have pondered. But it would require a level of trust in the nuclear power of France that Germany has so far only reserved for the United States.

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