Support 100 years of independent journalism.

The second coming of Nato

The alliance has been revived – but it can’t save the West.

By Adam Tooze

In November 2019, from the salon doré of the Élysée Palace, where Charles de Gaulle once held court, Emmanuel Macron warned his fellow Europeans that Nato, the transatlantic alliance that had secured Europe since 1949, was on the point of “brain death”. President Donald Trump’s administration, to the horror of America’s own soldiers, had just unilaterally withdrawn support from the Kurdish forces in northern Syria, sacrificing them to Bashar al-Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Within a year, the US would impose sanctions on Turkey, a member of Nato since 1952, for its purchase of Russian anti-aircraft missiles. Disunity reigned.

In 2017 Angela Merkel had returned from a chaotic meeting with Trump to declare that Europe could clearly no longer count on America as an ally and must look to its own resources for its security. Macron’s concern over two years later was that little had happened to make good on that realisation.

The antics of leaders such as Trump and Erdoğan would be hard to contain in any formal alliance. But Nato’s problems went deeper than populism. What was still a compact, anti-Soviet alliance in the 1980s had, thanks to expansion in the 1990s and 2000s, grown into a sprawling and aimless organisation. As west European defence spending dwindled, the alliance relied ever more on America’s huge military budgets and eager new east European recruits. The failures of Nato intervention in Afghanistan from 2001 and Libya in 2011 were demoralising, something that in 2021 would be underlined by another unilateral American withdrawal – this time from Afghanistan on the orders of Joe Biden.

[See also: Does Ukraine need a Marshall Plan?]

For Macron, Nato’s old rationale of keeping the Soviets out and the Germans down no longer seemed relevant. Despite Vladimir Putin’s moves against Ukraine in 2014, Berlin was buying more Russian gas and Macron wanted to reopen diplomatic channels to Moscow, reviving one of de Gaulle’s great hopes of Europe as a balancer between Washington and Moscow. Meanwhile, from the American point of view, insofar as there has been a clean line of strategy in the last decade it has largely bypassed the Europeans and been directed against China and the battle for influence in the so-called Indo-Pacific – a geopolitical construct that gained widespread currency after 2010.

Now, in the spring of 2022, and thanks to Putin’s ill-judged assault on Ukraine, the picture is transformed. All eyes are on Europe and Nato. Sweden and Finland are applying for membership. For the first time in its history, the Nato Response Force has been deployed as part of a collective-defence mission. Even Germany’s government has agreed to increase its military spending. From Berlin the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has publicly affirmed the “deep cooperation and coordination that is at the heart” of the alliance.

It is hardly surprising that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has helped to revive Nato. But is this a sign of true mental reactivation? Does Nato have a new vision? Or is the reaction to the war in Ukraine more in the manner of a knee-jerk, an involuntary spasm induced by Putin’s hammer blow?

Content from our partners
“I learn something new on every trip"
How data can help revive our high streets in the age of online shopping
Why digital inclusion is a vital piece of levelling up

The Atlanticist jubilation is so loud that people seem to have forgotten that if Nato’s aim was to deter Russian aggression and keep the peace in Europe, it has failed. Whether or not the talk of Ukraine joining the alliance can really be said to have triggered Putin’s invasion, it certainly encouraged nationalist opinion in Kyiv to take a hard line against Moscow, and also fuelled Russian propaganda. And for all the assistance and training that Ukrainian forces had received up to that point from the US, UK and Canada, Moscow clearly assumed that it had military superiority. Western threats of economic sanctions were brushed aside.

If things had gone as most Western intelligence agencies appear to have expected, Russia would have rolled over Ukraine. That would have terrified its neighbours to the West and given existing Nato members every reason to reinforce their defences. But whether Sweden and Finland would then have rushed to join Nato is far from obvious. Would they have risked provoking Moscow if the Russian army was rampant? Moldova, for one, has no intention of applying. Even now, it would be far too risky.

What has created Nato’s moment – it cannot be emphasised too often – is what was least expected: Ukraine’s effective and sustained armed resistance. Despite Nato forces’ long interaction with Ukraine’s military – Ukraine deployed troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan – that resistance has been a total surprise, which is hardly a testament to the closeness of those operations. In terms of military intelligence about Ukraine, Macron’s assessment of Nato “brain death” seems not too inaccurate. Ahead of the war we had no real understanding of the true military balance between Russia and Ukraine.

It is the fact that Russia’s offensive has been both blatant and, thanks to Ukraine’s heroics, unsuccessful that makes Nato membership for Sweden and Finland so obvious. Whether their applications will be straightforward is unclear. The issue of Kurdistan, which in 2019 first prompted Macron’s provocative diagnosis, has resurfaced. Ankara has raised objections over Sweden’s alleged sponsorship of the Kurdish independence movement.

Once war began and Ukraine endured, Nato members rallied. But talk of a Nato response to Putin’s war is the kind of smoke-and-mirrors operation that is the organisation’s forte. In fact, while Nato has issued declarations in support of Ukraine, the aid is being supplied by the individual member states. And that aid follows an all too familiar pattern.

Proportionally, the Baltic states are providing huge amounts – around 0.8 per cent of GDP from Estonia and Latvia. Poland is contributing almost 0.5 per cent. But above all it is the US that is arming Ukraine and doing so on a gigantic scale – well over $4bn in defence since the war started, with tens of billions more in the pipeline. If anything, the crisis has confirmed the imbalances that have increasingly discredited Nato. Nor is Washington embarrassed to advertise that reality. From the American side the rhetoric is redolent not of the collective commitments of the Cold War, but the hub-and-spokes model of Lend-Lease, under which between 1941 and 1945 the US supplied allied nations with food, fuel and materiel, and cemented its role as the arsenal of democracy. But, if the US is leading the way, does Washington have a real plan?

On strategy, Washington has not one but several brains. Biden himself sounds bullish. His rhetoric towards Putin smacks of regime change. The defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, speaks openly of exhausting Russia. The CIA is more cautious, warning of the risks of further escalation. Using Ukraine to humiliate Russia is one thing that America’s warring parties in Congress seem to be able to agree on. The Ukraine Lend-Lease Act, which gives Biden the powers to accelerate further deliveries, passed easily through both chambers. Agreeing the additional aid packages proposed by the Democrats – an extra $40bn in additional military, humanitarian and economic support – will require horse-trading. Assuming they do pass, the question remains: is the US developing a new grand strategy for Europe and Nato or is grinding down Russia an end in itself – a project that plays well with the American electorate, while freeing the Pentagon to focus on China?

Beyond the immediate need to back Ukraine, what is America’s vision of a workable security order in Europe? Does it even need one? Barring a nuclear escalation, Russia is far away and irrelevant to America’s economy – the same cannot be said of its relation to Europe.

It suits governments in eastern Europe, the Nordic countries and the UK to talk tough on Russia. If anyone is truly invested in the idea of a Nato revival, they are. Better equipped, with steady American leadership, larger European contingents, squarely focused on the East. But everything has to work out just right. To imagine that this is going to be the outcome of our current situation entails hoping for the best on three fronts.

[See also: The new Iron Curtain]

The first and most important is the war in Ukraine itself. If Ukraine prevails and manages not only to stop but to roll back Russia’s offensives, do we really believe that Moscow can tolerate that outcome? If not, shouldn’t we expect Russia to escalate asymmetrically? The US director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, has recently warned of the risk that Putin may be “moving along an unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory”. If Putin reaches for his nuclear arsenal then what we have experienced so far is merely a prelude, a phoney war. The real test for Nato lies ahead.

If the war drags on, with America providing substantial aid, but Russia proving able to stop Ukraine’s counteroffensives, does Europe want the equivalent of another Afghanistan on its doorstep – a decades-long conflict with a devastating humanitarian fallout? That might suit Washington, but can Europe live with it? The dialogues between Olaf Scholz, Macron and Moscow in recent weeks suggest that Paris and Berlin are still looking to offer Putin a way out. If the Ukraine crisis extends into the distant future, what will be the impact on the front-line states, above all Poland? If Afghanistan is the analogy, we should be concerned that eastern Europe does not suffer the fate of Pakistan, where America’s anti-Soviet campaign helped to strengthen the deep state and stoke popular radicalisation.

Then there is the US itself. If Nato was facing an existential crisis in 2019, it was largely due to Trump’s erratic attacks on America’s European partners. The competent leadership from the Biden team during the Ukraine crisis – unlike over Afghanistan – has been reassuring. But here too we may be experiencing the calm before the storm. By November 2022 the Republican Party will most likely be back in control of Congress. The presidential race in 2024 will probably be closer than the midterms, but on their present showing, the Democrats will be lucky to hold on to the White House. The return to power of Trump, or one of his ideological protégés, would be a disaster for transatlantic relations. But we should not be under any illusions about the Republicans even without Trump. The political-cultural gap between the norms of European politics and those of the GOP is wide and growing. Already in 2014-15, the late senator John McCain and hawkish voices in Washington DC made life very difficult for European diplomacy over Ukraine. America’s eager new allies would be well-advised to bear that in mind.

Finally, there is the larger question of what lies beyond the Ukraine crisis. If America succeeds in its more or less open strategy of bleeding Russia dry, why should that betoken a reorientation towards European security, rather than the opposite? If the US is willing to take risks to weaken Russia as a strategic competitor, that is presumably to be better able to focus on China. And that poses the greater strategic question: on China, are Europe’s interests aligned with those of the US and what has Nato got to do with it?

So long as the current crisis keeps the focus on values and principles – democracy vs dictatorship – one can construct a master narrative of the free world vs the authoritarianism of Xi Jinping and Putin. But in other respects it takes a pretty fervid imagination to see France’s sprinkling of colonial possessions in the Indo-Pacific as equivalent to America’s stake in the glacis that consists of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Germany, for its part, continues to maintain close economic relations with China. As Herbert Diess, the CEO of Volkswagen, has frankly remarked: “If we would constrain our business to only established democracies, which account for about 7 to 9 per cent of world population, and this is shrinking, then clearly there would not be any viable business model for an auto manufacturer… If you are not in China, you have a problem. If you are in China, you have a chance.”

For Berlin, a pivot from an energy war with Russia to a trade war with China would be an economic worst case.

It would be vain to imagine that the Western powers will dictate the course of future relations with China – we ought to have learned the limits of our agency in Ukraine. In December 2020 Brussels, Paris and Berlin, to the horror of the Biden team, offered an economic olive branch with the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments, which Beijing spurned. That made it easier for Europe and the US to align on China during Biden’s first year in office than many expected. In the summer of 2021 Nato for the first time issued a statement on the security challenge posed by China. But then in January 2022 came the storm over Lithuania upgrading Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition. Faced with Beijing’s threats, the Baltics lined up with the US, presumably with a view to anchoring American support against Russia. Meanwhile, Berlin and much of the rest of the EU distanced themselves, refusing to get drawn into a clash with Beijing. For all the talk of partnership it is far from clear how Europe and the US align on China in the long term.

[See also: “Russia cannot afford to lose, so we need a kind of a victory”: Sergey Karaganov on what Putin wants]

That a Russian invasion of Ukraine should revive the energies of Nato is hardly surprising. But does this refute or rather confirm Macron’s diagnosis in 2019? With hindsight Macron’s advocacy for a rapprochement with Putin was wildly over-optimistic, but that optimism did at least have the effect of freeing him to call for Europe to face new strategic challenges. Those challenges might include China; conflicts with Turkey and in North Africa; migration; climate; or America’s own democratic crisis. By contrast, the new mobilisation against Russia has elicited a compulsive return to old antagonisms and Cold War ideological tropes. We are reheating images of “the West”, both in the élan of Ukraine’s national self-assertion and in the more technocratic, cold-eyed excitement over Nato’s “Vorsprung durch Technik” – “lead by technology” – exemplified in Javelin “top attack” anti-tank missiles or imagined scenarios of Finnish snipers hunting down hapless Russian invaders.

As incongruous as it may seem, in the 1950s and 1960s this cocktail of existential ideas of individual freedom, liberal constitutionalism and advanced military technology was the stock in trade of Natopolitan ideology. Through the 1980s, freedom, initiative and intelligent training combined with the right hardware was touted as the formula that would enable Nato to prevail despite being outnumbered against the invading hordes of the Warsaw Pact.

It is no doubt comforting to have that formula revived in the 21st century, and it seems to be working on the battlefield in Ukraine. But it should not be confused with an adequate answer to Europe’s security problems. What Macron was asking for in 2019 was greater European strategic sovereignty and greater imagination. Given the three great imponderables hanging over Europe – future relations with an even more resentful nuclear-armed Russia, the state of US politics, and the confrontation between the US and China – that call is more pressing than ever.

What Europe’s strategy should consist of remains undefined. Macron was asking for fresh thinking not patented answers. As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has suggested recently, Europe must surely recognise its historical and politico-cultural distance from the patriotic enthusiasm so spectacularly on display in Ukraine. Europe must own its own post-heroic state. It should also, however, stand at a distance from America’s technology-obsessed, militarised strategic culture, which has a track record in recent decades that no one would wish to emulate. If Europe’s bitter history of violence helps to inoculate against any great enthusiasm for militarism, that should be regarded as an asset, not a liability.

But Europe should not, on the other hand, fall into the self-deceiving vanity of imagining that its “values-based” politics places it beyond the hard choices and dirty-hands problems of power. The EU as it stands is far from harmless and the development of a real conversation about strategic autonomy will begin when it recognises that reality.

Not only do certain member states continue to have live military capacity with plenty of contemporary experience – most notably France – but we should also remember that the first people to wear EU uniforms are the officers of the Frontex border guard, who among other things are involved in pushing back migrants in the Mediterranean. A debate about strategic autonomy should start there. Is this what strategic autonomy looks like faced with the demographic and economic trends of Africa and west Asia? A primitive fortress Europe? If not, what is the alternative?

Or take the energy transition. How much are Europeans willing to pay to avoid dependence on Putin’s gas? That is a strategic question, and so too is the question of the commercial and ethical trade-offs in importing Chinese solar panels. It is not at all obvious what that has to do with the long-range anxieties about Taiwan, which preoccupy America. Slave labour in Xinjiang and European industrial policy, on the other hand, are immediately relevant.

Though air power has played a subordinated role in Ukraine, it may be relevant to debate how many hundreds of billions of euros should be devoted to developing an independent European Future Combat Air System to rival America’s gargantuan F-35 project. But if Europe is to have that discussion, it should not be as a shamefaced return to “proper” strategic debate with a ring-fenced budget allocation, but alongside and in light of other commitments that will also be vital to Europe’s security – the Green Deal, for instance, or digital investment programmes.

All of this may involve cooperation with the US and others, inside and outside Nato. Faced with Putin’s assault, Nato is an essential first line of defence. But as far as the future is concerned it is at most a partial solution, quite possibly a distraction, and at worst a historic dead end.

[See also: Europe’s new Iron Lady: Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas]

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato