NATO has an EU problem as well as a Trump problem: What role can Britain play in helping mend the alliance?
Sixty years after the Treaty of Rome was signed on 25 March 1957, leaders of the EU27 gathered in the same place, Capitoline Hill, to add their names to a statement of unity. Theresa May was not present at the ceremony last weekend, as she prepares to trigger Article 50 and begin the Brexit process. The question of security and foreign policy – once secondary to trade and economics – is playing an ever more important in the calculations of those who see Brexit as the opportunity to transform the EU into a truly federalist project. It is also an area in which Brexit Britain can still play an active and responsible role in European affairs.
In the lead up to the Rome celebrations, much was made of the fact that the EU has made such an important contribution to preserving peace and stability on a Continent once torn apart by war. But just as one foundation stone of Europe’s peace and stability is celebrated, so it has become fashionable to run down another: the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, which announced the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It is not to criticise the EU to point out that there is a rather jaundiced version of the historical record doing the rounds, which rather plays down America’s role in European affairs since 1945. The truth is that NATO, for more than seventy years, been a far more important factor in maintaining peace and security in Europe. It is NATO that forms the bedrock of the western alliance. We let it unravel at our peril.
NATO faces an immediate threat from those hostile to the alliance: chiefly, Russia. Against this growing challenge, however, NATO is also undermined by the internal fragmentation of the broader Western alliance, which is more strained than at any time for decades. The lack of synchronicity between the United States, the United Kingdom and the key European partners in NATO is becoming a growing problem, and must be addressed before it gets out of control.
Much has been made of President Trump’s statement that NATO is “obsolete”. The United States’s position is more complex than this. Trump has since expressed his “100% commitment” to the alliance, though he continues to ask for NATO allies to share more of the burden. Meanwhile, to an extent that has not been fully appreciated, it has become increasingly clear that NATO has an EU problem. It is political in nature and rests on the fact that many within the EU see the organisation as an alternative to American – and now, more so after Brexit, British – influence in the European neighbourhood. For those who hold this view, Trump and Brexit represent something of an opportunity.
As I will tell the Defence Committee on Tuesday, we need a new grand strategic rethink for NATO that addresses its role in the Western alliance more broadly – one that goes beyond practical questions of efficiency, balance sheets and coalition management and addresses these changing political realities. At the risk of simplification, the Western alliance designed in the post-war years was built on an unspoken contract: America would provide a security umbrella so that Europe could rebuild its political systems and economies after the devastation of the Second World War. The shared end goal was to see the flowering of stable, successful and wealthy democracies.
This project has, to some extent, been the victim of its own success. A competing political force to American-led NATO has gradually emerged in the expansion of the EU, with its stated desire for “strategic autonomy” from the United States; aspirations to a “global strategy”; and a plan for a common EU defence. The formation of NATO did not provide for this eventuality, even though more European economic integration and political harmony was always the desired end goal – for the US as much as any European state.
Until recently, Brussels’ stated policy position was that EU defence would be realised “within NATO”. European defence integration, officials said, was necessary in order to reduce waste and “take more responsibility” – and of course for the purposes of advancing the federalist project. Until recently, in other words, thanks largely to Britain’s efforts, there was recognition of NATO’s primacy in European defence.
Brexit has changed much of this calculus in the EU. With British resistance (almost) out of the way, some EU leaders are now discussing schemes of European defence integration which raise the prospect of an EU Army. The 2017 Munich Security Conference Report called on EU members to “set aside” concerns that investing in EU defence schemes would divert resources away from NATO, on the grounds that it was now time for “Brussels’ clout in the world” to be “top of the menu”. A desire to distance the EU from Trump’s America may encourage this trend further.
Although the President’s national security team have tried to reassure their allies of the administration’s commitment to NATO, it is probably a mistake to believe that the “Trump scare” on NATO has passed entirely or that his views on NATO are uniquely idiosyncratic. In an interview with TIME magazine last week, the President claimed that “nobody knew [many NATO members] weren’t paying. I did. I figured it”. It is worth remembering, however, that in 2016 President Obama also talked about his “anti-free rider campaign”, singling out European allies for failing to pay their fair share within NATO.
Much hangs on the strategic decisions made by the EU27 in the next few months. The development of the EU army idea will be driven by the primacy of European politics rather than concerns about the future of NATO. Will the more overtly federalist grouping within the EU seize the initiative to press for ‘more Europe’ across the board (including defence) Or will other reformist forces – Angela Merkel is key here – combine to blunt the federalist impetus, allowing for a more flexible structure?
The biggest problem Europe will have in attempting to break free from US “diktats” (a word used by Jean-Claude Juncker) will be that of nuclear deterrence. Who will provide the nuclear deterrence that a “strategically autonomous” Europe will need against Russian nuclear capacity, not to mention the other strategic capabilities like stealth aviation which are needed to counter conventional Russian power? Is French power sufficient for this role and what does that entail for the balance of European affairs? This nuclear question is already being asked in Germany and Poland, but there is, as yet, no definitive answer to it. What is clear is that discussions on EU defence continue to be driven by political dynamics within the EU rather than genuine strategic calculations.
The UK should be at the forefront of discussions about the future of NATO, even if this means confronting some difficult home truths. There have been seven Strategic Concepts in NATO history and the time has come for another to be crafted. The next one must not only go back to first principles but show more appreciation of how the strategic environment has changed. Hard questions need to be asked about NATO’s future purpose and potential value to the West in the next quarter to half century. But Britain can play a constructive role in that process in an area – defence and national security – in which it still has signficant leverage.