NATO-EU: Squeezing Big Change into Small Boxes


By Julian French.


Alphen, Netherlands. 24 January. The new US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, made an overnight phone call to his British counterpart and new/old bestest friend, Michael Fallon. During the call Mattis reaffirmed his and the Administration’s “unshakeable commitment” to NATO. Late last week I had the honour of addressing leaders and parliamentarians of the Baltic States at the outstanding George C. Marshall Center in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on matters strategic. What struck me as I spoke (brilliantly of course) was how the West is managing change the wrong way round. Rather than properly adapting our ‘boxes’ – NATO and the EU – to meet change, we are trying to squeeze big change into what in relative power terms are ever smaller boxes. Why?

Leadership must be judged by outcomes and if you’re a European, or an American the outcomes of late have too often been rubbish. Now, I know it is fashionable in Chicken Little Europe to condemn everything the new #POTUS says, and yes not only does #POTUS sound like a domestic vegetable but Washington’s new Tweetocracy does indeed risk reducing one of the great offices of great state to little more than a strategy-free, reactive, angry tag-line. However, the simple truth is that the so-called Euro-Atlantic ‘community’ DOES need a bloody good kick up the many well-upholstered arses of the politics before strategy leaders who claim to lead it, but frankly too often do not.

Trump has a point. At some levels NATO IS obsolete and the EU IS dysfunctional. This makes all of us UNNECESSARILY weaker and poorer at one and the same time. The reason for this decline is essentially simple; as the various Euro-Atlantic powers have diverged in their respective world views maintaining the appearance of unity has become more important than trying to agree on the real change both the Alliance and the Union desperately need if they are both to remain credible. In other words, preserving the appearance of structure has become more important than adapting structure to change.

NATO is at least having a go at change. The 2014 Wales Summit and the 2016 Warsaw Summit agreed a programme of ‘adaptation’ that is on the face of it impressive. Indeed, I have the honour of sitting on a steering committee of a group of very distinguished colleagues committed to examine NATO adaptation. We are charged with the challenge of finding a ‘One NATO’ adaptation vision for the Alliance that will not only reinforce the credibility of NATO deterrence and defence posture, but also future-proof the Alliance. We are making very good progress. However, the mission is not an easy one as it is clear to me that such is the strategic divide within the Alliance we have at least three NATOs; eastern NATO, southern NATO, and  America.

The EU is particularly good at change-speak, but hideously bad at acting on it. With Brexit the EU will soon lose some 10% of its budget, but speak to EU officials and it is as though nothing has happened. EU security and defence efforts have been and are particularly lamentable. Last week I happened upon my PhD thesis. Written many years ago and entitled, “The Security and Defence of Western Europe”, the final chapter laid out what was in effect a blueprint for what in time became the European Security and Defence Policy, then the Common Security and Defence Policy. As I re-read it I was struck by the paucity of strategic ambition in Europe over the intervening years. Names are changed, meetings are held, a few adjustments are made, hyperbole is applied, but sod all that is actually relevant to the defence of Europe actually happens.

Which brings me back to the question why? Both the Alliance and the Union suffer from a common problem that will need to change if either NATO or the EU are to be made fit for the twenty-first century – the strategic inferiority complex of many of their respective members. NATO was born in 1949 primarily of arranging Europeans into some form of order so that America could protect them. With the 1954 accession of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Alliance, NATO also took on the additional task of preventing Germany again becoming a threat to Europe. In a sense the European Project, which began its long and winding road with the 1950 creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, suffered from the same strategic inferiority complex as NATO. However, whilst in NATO Europeans over time became strategically incompetent under America’s protection, which is certainly the case today, the EU evolved into a mechanism for the small Europeans to strategically castrate bigger Europeans in the name of European stability. The result? A ‘Europe’ that is still far too obsessed with structure for structure’s sake, too inward-looking, and incapable of either understanding or responding to change beyond its completely ill-defended borders beyond the odd, and quite often hideously expensive gestures.

If NATO and the EU are to change Europeans must finally expel the last remnants of a mutual-constraint culture that has turned Europeans into strategic prey. To do that Europeans must abandon once and for all the idea that Europe can only achieve stability through mutual weakness. Instead, both the Alliance and the Union must be adapted to act as mutual aggregators of legitimate power, complete with the full, credible and capable panoply of state-owned security and military capabilities and capacities. That is exactly what Sec Def Mattis will demand of his European allies, because that will be the only way he can sell NATO to his Eurosceptic boss when he comes to Europe in May.

Like many Europeans there is much about President Donald J. Trump I find distasteful. However, I am a pragmatic, hard-bitten Realist. For that reason, and because I respect both the United States and the Office of the President of the United States, I will examine each policy position on its merits.  However, Europeans should not wait for President Trump’s prejudices to be confirmed. Even at this time of division they should endeavour to offer the Americans a more equitable vision of the future transatlantic relationship. European states are grown-up and can be trusted not to go to war with each other and they must stop using the past as an excuse not to properly prepare for the future.  The danger is that if the appearance of structure is deemed to be more important than adapting structure then sooner rather than later change will win and our structures could collapse catastrophically.

Big change is coming to transatlantic relations, and NATO and the EU must be adapted to cope with it. President Donald J. Trump is just the beginning…

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