The future of NATO and European defence

In contrast to the 50th and 60th NATO anniversary gatherings, hosted by presidents Clinton and Obama respectively and attended by 28 other foreign ministers, its 70th birthday on April 6 in Washington was not visited by heads of government which made clear the diminished status of this organisation.

This situation to a great extent was facilitated by declarations made by D. Trump, who put under the question advisability of alliance’s existance together with the key idea of mutual assistance. This gives rise to worries about prepared complete US withdraw from NATO. This decision may be made quite soon, during summit in London at the end of this year.

However, with $2.3 billion increased funding over the past four years, NATO`s positions in Eastern Europe strengthened. It shows that NATO takes seriously their security on the Eastern borders and still retains a lot of power and committment to act.

Russia’s attempts to destabilise Ukraine, Georgia and Crimea have warranted a more robust NATO response. International efforts to resolve these conflicts through dialogue have so far proved fruitless. Support for Ukraine and Georgia risks escalation, but also raises the stakes for the Kremlin. Despite all this, it will take more than token initiatives to hold the alliance together. 

Today NATO find itself in front of four main challenges. The most pressing issue is to halt Turkey`s drift away from NATO into the arms of Moscow. Earlier this year, the US suspended deliveries of F-35 jets to Turkey in a failed attempt to convince President Erdogan to rethink his purchase of Russia`s S-400 missile system, an act which flew in the face of NATO policy against acquiring Russian military hardware. This has posed questions about Turkey`s reliability as an ally just at the time when its outstanding value as the pathway to the Middle East and Asia and the most strategically located country in the alliance has become even more crucial.

NATO`s second challenge is to respond to Trump`s legitimate frustration, shared with previous administrations, that most alliance members are failing to meet a commitment to spend two per cent of GDP on defence. The US cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of collective security alone and indefinitely.

The third challenge is to convince Trump of NATO`s relevance as the bedrock of Western security. Both the US and European governments have a responsibility to maintain an alliance that has preserved peace for 70 years. The US may be more preoccupied with its long-term rivalry with China but, as President Xi\u2019s visit to Europe earlier this year underlined, China is building its own strategic relationships in Europe that risk deepening divisions.

The fourth challenge is how best to manage – in President Macron`s words at the Bastille Day parade earlier this month – “the construction of a Europe of defence in connection with the Atlantic Alliance”. Closer European cooperation on defence has been a priority for Macron. Trump`s seeming indifference to NATO and his threats to European trade have hardened EU resolve to put defence at the centre of future priorities for the Union.

President Trump has been predictably scathing about a proposal to create a European Army \u2013 possibly separate, in some eyes, from NATO. This is the latest fault-line in deteriorating US-EU relations.  

All talks of European defence arrangements are flimsy.  No European countries have the military weight now, or in the foreseeable future, to replace American military clout to defend Europe either through conventional forces or, more importantly, in nuclear terms – notwithstanding France’s and Britain’s contributions. Without America, the balance of terror tips overwhelmingly in favour of Russia.

The concept of a “European Army” as a project is militarily absurd. Armies do not exist in a vacuum. They need communications, intelligence and logistics, together with air and maritime support and command and control. On all of these, Europe is heavily – often utterly – dependent on US capabilities. For anything more than the lightest peacekeeping duties, an autonomous European Army is a fantasy. The most plausible basis for European defence co-operation is the strengthening, or reinvention, of the European pillar of Nato as the US becomes a less reliable partner. 

The question marks over the US commitment to European security are greater than at any time since the Berlin Airlift 70 years ago. As Brexit looms and American engagement ebbs, the old dividing lines around NATO and the European Union are blurring fast. An Anglo-French Expeditionary Force aims to be operational by 2020. President Macron has also launched a nine-country European Intervention Initiative, which is independent of both NATO and the EU.

European defence cooperation can add value by integrating European defence markets and coordinating multinational procurement projects. This would be a realistic ambition, leading to a larger number of better equipped, more flexible forces, greater specialisation and hard-headed equipment procurement, and the removal of bureaucratic and physical obstacles to the speedy movement of troops and equipment. These capabilities would be of use to NATO and reinforce the European pillar. 

Few would disagree that closer European defence cooperation has become imperative. A poll in 2015 showed that Germans would not support NATO military intervention even to protect an ally from Russian aggression. Since then, trust in US leadership has evaporated further. European policymakers agree that they need to take security more seriously and spend more on defence. But in most countries they struggle to do it, even under a NATO label. 

The question which any discussion of European defence raises is the most fundamental of all. What is NATO for? The answer is still: to counter Russian threats. This is why President Putin is committed to the dissolution of NATO and why it is vital to ensure that the talk prompted by President Macron’s Bastille Day speech focuses on the need for European nations – including Brexit Britain – to create a stronger European pillar of NATO.  

NATO, not the EU, is the cornerstone of Europe’s collective defence and, crucially, it must strive to retain the US as the leading member.

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