NATO defence ministers will meet in Brussels over 13-14 February. Member states will struggle to find any accord in the face of an array strategic and political challenges from internal and external sources. Overshadowing all else will be the vagaries of American policy and the Administration’s undisguised lack of enthusiasm for NATO, or any multilateral arrangements.
While most European governments have accepted as justified the US criticism of their defence spending against agreed targets of 2 percent of GDP progress has been glacial. The Defence budgets will continue to be a point of contention within NATO for the US.
Of more concern for the Europeans is the American failure to consult with allies on major policy shifts. The abandonment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran deal) was a defining juncture in the relationship. The major European allies disputed the factual basis and the American logic, even as their concerns were disregarded by the US. The lack of forewarning of the announcement of the withdrawal from Syria has just compounded the sense that the US is no longer a reliable ally. An apprehension not helped by reports that Trump has weighed the prospect of pulling out of NATO altogether.
The US will also exit the Cold War era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; based on President Trump’s comments last year and the failure of US-Russian talks. The Russians are likely in violation of the Treaty but to a degree the willingness of the US to withdraw derives from the desire to acquire an intermediate range missile capability itself to match the Chinese in East Asia.
Secretary Mattis tried to mollify allies surprised by Trump’s announcement and kept the Europeans appraised of US thinking on the arms control treaty before his lamented departure. Although the Europeans fell in line behind the US last December, the demise of the INF Treaty will complicate greatly European defence planning. Russia will now feel free to openly build and deploy nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges between 500–5,500 km that directly threaten Europe.
NATO’s Russian problems extend well beyond the INF Treaty, and, apart from the ongoing weeping sore of the Ukraine intervention, mounting Russian influence in the Middle East, and in Syria especially, the Russian presence is becoming entrenched with the re-establishment of Assad control, the defeat of ISIS, and the US withdrawal. Russia’s warm relations with Turkey, a NATO member, and Iran, the US’s nemesis of choice, greatly complicate NATO’s strategic picture.
Both proximity and history make the Middle East a more immediate and pressing strategic problem for Europe than the US. US encouragement and support for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel as part of its anti-Iran strategy, has increased the danger of a conventional conflict in the region. The US’s misunderstanding of the strength of Turkey’s concern over armed Kurds on its border is unlikely to increase European confidence that US policy is well thought through or takes their interests seriously. Potential Turkish military action against the Kurds will likely be a contentious and vexed issue for Europe’s NATO members
In addition, the European members themselves are not a cohesive group. On top of widely varying views on the nature European Union, immigration, and liberal values within the bloc; attitudes to NATO and Russia are diverse and potentially divisive. The proximity of Russia creates heightened enthusiasm for NATO among Baltic and Balkan states, and also for continued US membership. In Western Europe France and Germany are leading proponents of the drive to establish some strategic autonomy in Europe, in part driven by the unreliability of the US. Italy is less attached to NATO under its new government and is pushing for closer relations with Russia and sanctions relief, along with some other more illiberal Central European states.
The Republic of Northern Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine all harbour ambitions to become NATO members. The termination of the INF Treaty, and uncertainty about the US’s ongoing commitment to Europe, will only increase their anxiety. The accession of Georgia could trigger another Ukraine-style crisis. It was, after all, Russian anxiety over Ukraine’s moves towards the EU and NATO, and the concern that Russian naval assets in Crimea would fall under NATO control, that sparked the intervention.
The Europeans will be hoping also avoid being pressured in to taking an anti-China position in the current strategic competition between the US and China. For the US China is a strategic adversary while it is more of an economic than a strategic issue for the Europeans. A fundamental transatlantic difference might emerge if the Americans attempt to push the Europeans to emulate its aggressive policies towards China. They will be conscious not just of similar trade tensions between themselves and the US but also of the opportunities the Chinese -American confrontation hold.
European security now more complex and uncertain. Struggling to arrive at agreement on major issues internally, the Europeans see Russia’s relative military position being strengthened and the Middle east becoming less stable. The US, which has been the guarantor of European security and the backbone of NATO’s military capability, is becoming a divisive force whose unreliability is disruptive and unsettling. This comes as the European economy slows and Brexit chaos builds.
The stresses within the alliance are symptomatic of the major geopolitical shift from a strategic environment dominated by an unchallenged hegemon to the re-emergence of great power competition and spheres of influence. Over and above its security value during the Cold War, NATO has survived because it is emblematic of a common set of liberal, democratic values. Perhaps its decline is inevitable under the new global circumstances, and the coming meeting will prove a way station on that path. If so, Russia and China would be the beneficiaries and the US diminished.
I wouldn’t like to be drafting the communique!
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.