Why Nato is still essential for peace

Europe still lacks a serious substitute for the collective might of the Western alliance. 

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There is nothing like the threat of nuclear Armageddon for focusing minds. That, at least, was true for Nato over the decades from its foundation in 1949. During the Cold War the alliance had a common purpose (collective defence), a common space (the North Atlantic) and a common adversary (the Soviet bloc).

The fundamentals were simple. So they were, too, when from 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell, states in central and eastern Europe joined Nato. Yet on 3 December, as its leaders gathered in London to mark Nato’s 70th birthday, big questions loom over its future. Emmanuel Macron even declared Nato “brain-dead” in an interview with the Economist last month.

His intervention aimed to provoke – and succeeded. Shocked Atlanticists from Washington to Warsaw decried its irresponsibility. “That is not my view of cooperation in Nato,” tutted Angela Merkel. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was less diplomatic. Macron, opined Turkey’s president, was the one suffering from brain-death. Donald Trump called Macron’s comments “insulting”.

True, the French president’s language was inflammatory. Nato’s Article 5, collective defence, still enshrines the principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. It might feel abstract from the comfort of Paris but on Europe’s eastern fringes it is entirely meaningful: visit the Baltics, which look nervously at the build-up of forces in the neighbouring Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Here Article 5 means the difference between peaceful sovereignty and the hybrid warfare that Russia has applied in Ukraine and Georgia. Then there are ongoing Nato deployments in Afghanistan and Kosovo to take into account. An odd sort of brain-death, one might think.

But Macron’s intervention wasn’t wholly unwarranted. Intellectually and strategically, Nato is, if not dead, distinctly peaky. If its mission is to shield the West from Russia, then why is Turkey buying Russian S-400 defence systems and, with the US’s tacit blessing, now fighting the Kurds with Russia in northern Syria? If Nato’s mission is to uphold its security guarantee, why has Trump suggested that the US might not intervene to protect smaller members such as Montenegro? If its mission is to counter-balance non-Western powers, why did Macron himself declare recently that “our common enemy is terrorism”? Muddle and fragmentation abound.

Nato has failed to build a common strategic culture, has ducked big debates about its future and has under-nurtured public opinion. But bigger forces are at work, too. A new multipolar world order is emerging in which the interests and priorities of Nato’s members are no longer as cleanly aligned as they once were. Europeans often take the alliance’s protection for granted while flirting with outside powers; the same German leaders who gasped at Macron’s comments are merrily inviting Beijing-backed Huawei to install their new 5G mobile network. Today’s polarised and distracted US despairs of its naive and freeriding allies, bridles at its international obligations and fears China’s rise – trends that will not end with Trump’s presidency.

Macron rightly singled out events in Syria, where there “has been no Nato planning, nor any coordination”. The French president asked whether Article 5 should apply if Syria retaliates against Turkey and wondered how committed the US remains to enforcing the guarantee in a region that it is effectively ceding to Russia’s sphere of influence; a region, moreover, from which terror and extremism have spread to the streets of European cities.

The lesson, Macron concludes, is that “Europe must become autonomous in terms of military strategy and capability” and that, realistically, this means resetting relations with Russia and concentrating instead on stabilising the crises in the continent’s periphery.

Such was the backdrop to the summit in Watford on 3 December. At the time of writing, the best-case scenario was that the summit passes uneventfully, rather than providing a stage for yet further illustrations of the alliance’s tensions. The more dysfunctional Nato seems, the more momentum Macron will have.

Europe is making progress. Its defence budgets are creeping up towards an average of 2 per cent of GDP, Nato’s target. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defence minister, responded to Macron’s comments by restating her country’s commitment to this goal. And Europeans are getting better at spending the cash. In Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Intervention Initiative they have two new frameworks for common military missions.

Ursula von der Leyen’s incoming European Commission presides over an expanding European Defence Fund that is financing technological research and aligning the union’s patchwork of procurement policies.

But Europe’s efforts are small steps in the right direction rather than a serious substitute for the collective might of Nato. Putin’s Russia remains a geopolitical threat. The gap between the wider demands of the unfolding 21st century and the capacities of a post-Nato Europe remains huge. (Germany may be aiming for 2 per cent but will reach it in the 2030s at the earliest.)

The alliance may lack a common strategic culture, but so does the EU. A salutary reminder of these realities came earlier this year when the Körber Foundation, a German think tank, invited defence experts and planners from France, Germany, Britain, the US and Poland to play a policy game that imagined a second-term Trump withdrawing from Nato and Russia using the chance to invade a western Balkan member state. The result was disarray, with members of the rump alliance squabbling, failing to summon the necessary capacities and ultimately seeking bilateral military support from the post-Nato US.

Macron’s destination, in other words, is realistic. The US really is becoming less reliable, and Europe really must hedge its bets by doing more for its own security and ultimately striving towards defence autonomy. But realism must also be applied to the journey, which will take at least a generation – and probably longer.

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want