2. NATO. Things will not be okay
BSSB.BE warontherocks.com 04.10.2018
Germany USA Europe
* These are not negotiating tactics. They are the tactics of someone who does not want a deal.
Western Europe Versus Eastern Europe
There are many obvious risks involved in the current strategy of choice, and Trump’s inclinations and behaviour are not the only ones. American impatience with allied efforts could become systemic in the U.S. body politic and inside the defence establishment, or Europeans could come to demand too many diplomatic concessions of the United States. If either comes to pass, the dreaded prospect of full Europeanization presents itself. It will not be without costs for the United States, which would lose its staging area along with a significant number of operational and political partners, and would have to engage an emboldened Russia. Still, it is a prospect that cannot be written off.
The challenge for Europeans is then to contain flank diplomacy within a European framework of institutionalized cooperation, which is going to be difficult under the best of circumstances. It will involve France and Britain cooperating with Germany to maintain the collective institutions that are the precondition of Germany’s current restrained foreign policy. France will be the partner of choice in the European Union, while Britain will have a lead role to play in a fully Europeanized NATO — in effect taking over the offshore role from the United States. But neither institution will have much muscle power on the eastern flank.
Getting such a Western European construct to function would not be impossible, although it would be difficult. Britain seems particularly unprepared for the task as it has exited the European Union and become engulfed in a crisis of national identity. The political forces behind Brexit offer various dubious visions of global or transatlantic engagement that consistently depict Europe as being in contradiction to the interests and ideas of a mythic Anglosphere. For the foreseeable future, Britain will be preoccupied with its divorce settlement with the European Union. After that, it will have to start afresh in articulating its long-term interest in engaging a German and French-led European Union, on the one hand, and Russia on the other. Britain’s troubled relationship with Russia might seem to presage a leadership role in a Europeanized NATO, but the political strength of such a recast NATO presupposes Britain’s reconciliation with France and Germany.
France, meanwhile, seems as unprepared as Germany and other E.U. partners to contemplate the idea of extending French nuclear deterrence as a bulwark of continued E.U. integration, particularly in the domain of defence and hard security where the European Union hitherto has thrived in the shadow of a transatlantic NATO. Should the strategy of choice — Europeanization within NATO — fail, France and Germany will have to tackle this delicate topic. It will likely take the shape of a grand bargain involving financial integration (in addition to monetary integration) and security and defence policy integration.
It is unthinkable that France will engage this in a European Union of 28 or more members. Remaining in line with both its historical and current policy, it will demand the “deepening” of institutions along with the “widening” of common competencies, with deepening being a code word for a multi-tiered E.U. structure built around a core of Franco-German cooperation. The European Union would thus undergo a transformation, gaining political depth by returning to its point of origins — the geopolitics of Rhineland cooperation — and once again questioning the place and role of Eastern Europe in the European security order.
Eastern Europe is, then, where one most vividly encounters flank diplomacy. Most of Eastern Europe has made it into the two big western institutions — NATO and the European Union — but as the West diminishes, the Eastern European question reappears. The central issue is whether Western Europe can reorganize itself and extend security eastwards. In terms of collective defence guarantees capable of effectively deterring Russia, it seems implausible.
European diplomats will be aware of the history of the 1925 Locarno Pact through which the western powers and Germany, by settling the western flank, de facto exposed the eastern flank to the expansionary policy of Germany. By 1939, Eastern European questions led the world into the renewed world war. At Locarno, the issue was one of defence credibility: Western powers could offer credible assurances in regards to their own western borders but not those in Eastern Europe. Thus, Locarno became a de facto invitation for the revisionist power, Germany, to orient its appetite for aggrandizement eastwards.
In the post-Cold War world, transatlantic NATO has prevented such sacrificing of Eastern Europe. However, if the United States leaves NATO, the question is how a revisionist Russia will be inhibited from acting similarly. Russia is not Germany in the 1930s, for sure, but Putin’s repeatedly expressed regret over the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, stoking of eastern Ukrainian “insurrections,” and engagement in hybrid war more generally signal a return to this type of geopolitical question.
Russia’s fortune is that the coordination of U.S. and Western European détente policies is likely to remain difficult for the foreseeable future. The United States, if it leaves NATO to the Europeans, could be expected to focus its Russia dialogue on China and the wider Middle East: This is already the subtext read into Trump’s personal diplomacy with Putin by some observers (in effect, a reverse Nixon, opening Russia to contain China). Meanwhile, Western Europe would primarily seek a settlement — an accord — for the continent. They might bring in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to provide cover, but this really would be a de facto movement of the East-West frontier westwards, opening a wider space for dual or mixed influence. Naturally, Eastern European countries would not silently submit to this process, but they would have few options with U.S. priorities moving from NATO to containing China, and Western Europe struggling to cohere, and thus contain western flank diplomacy.
Geopolitically speaking, in such a new European order, countries in proximity to Germany, notably Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and perhaps Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia would have a fair chance of resisting Russian influence by adhering to the core E.U. powers — if that is their desire. However, political currents in both Poland and Hungary indicate it may not be. The litmus test would be the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania: Would Russia respect their sovereignty, or would its appetite for influence grow as NATO’s role diminishes?
Perhaps Western Europe and the United States could manage to coordinate their détente policies toward Russia to the point where Russia would become convinced of making gains elsewhere (e.g., central Asia and the Middle East), if it were to go easy on Eastern Europe. It is an uncomfortable hope for Eastern European nations, however, and the prospect for such hopeful thinking would, again, be easiest to detect in the Baltics. The underlying fact remains that, if the United States were to
leave NATO, the power underpinning NATO enlargement would be gone and geopolitical adjustments in Eastern Europe would be necessary.
NATO is unraveling and world crisis is upon us, writes Robert Kagan in response to the 2018 NATO summit. Kagan thus starkly depicts the worst-case scenario outlined in this essay. If Trump embodies a fatigue in the U.S. political system with enduring alliances, and if Russia becomes a U.S. partner of choice in tipping the scales of Eurasian land power against China, then NATO as a transatlantic alliance would indeed unravel, and Europe’s peace would be in question.
Still, even in this bleak scenario, it is unlikely that NATO would go away. Rather, Britain is likely to step in as continental Europe’s offshore power, though, of course, with diminished capabilities compared to those of the United States. A Europeanized NATO would tie Britain to the continent and perhaps become part of the answer to the troubled British-E.U. relationship. The European Union would not be able to stand still in the face of such a security transformation.
France and Germany would likely seek to rescue their institutional project by accelerating the construction of a core that would allow France to extend security guarantees to Germany in return for French access to German financial governance, and which would create an E.U. periphery, notably in Eastern Europe, alongside countries such as Ukraine and Belarus. It is probable that Western Europe could rescue its commitment to collective institutions, including collective defence, but it is unlikely that it could extend security guarantees far eastwards, as NATO today is able to. A revised bargain with Russia will then become necessary, one in which the sovereignty of Eastern European countries will be questioned.
Naturally, this is not the current strategy of choice. Rather, NATO diplomats are hoping to wait out Trump while simultaneously acting to secure Europe’s greater input into, and say within, NATO. The hope is that by Europeanizing NATO sufficiently, the allies can continue the transatlantic bargain that contains the geopolitical impulses of the European continent — keeping Russia at bay and keeping Germany embedded within a solid collective institution.
However, even if Trump were to go, such a renewed bargain raises difficult questions of how Europe can take on more burdens and gain a greater voice in an alliance to which the United States remains committed. In this regard, Trump has done the allies the service of exposing the scope of NATO’s geopolitical challenge. Perhaps enhanced political awareness thereof will make the strategy of choice — of continued transatlantic cooperation — more likely to endure, but there is no going back to “your daddy’s NATO,” to paraphrase former NATO secretary-general, Lord George Robertson. A geopolitical adjustment will take place. The question is whether western leaders will remain in control.
Sten Rynning is a professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Southern Denmark, where he also heads the Center for War Studies. He researches NATO and modern war.
The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at warontherocks.com