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Seventy Years Old and Showing Signs of Age: NATO and the Future of European Defence

As NATO enters its eighth decade, Europe must think hard about what it wants from the alliance, writes Edward Knudsen.

As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) celebrated its 70th anniversary in Washington, DC, last week, European leaders greeted the festivities with a combination of relief and apprehension. The refrain ‘NATO is the strongest, most successful alliance in history’ was certainly uttered countless times during the festivities, but waxing poetic about NATO’s past does little to ensure its future relevance and effectiveness for European allies.

On the one hand, European leaders should be pleased with the progress NATO has made. NATO’s operational capacity is more impressive than at any time in recent memory. Last year’s Trident Juncture training brought together 50,000 troops for the largest exercise since the end of the Cold War. The alliance is spending more and is cooperating more efficiently. Demand to join remains high. Following the resolution of its name dispute with Greece, North Macedonia will become NATO’s 30th member. Georgia and Ukraine are keen to follow.

Despite the increased harmony on the ground, the political underpinnings of NATO look increasingly shaky. President Trump, who once called the alliance “obsolete”, has taken a more favourable view of the alliance recently, but continues to berate Germany for its lack of military spending. Germany openly states that its domestic politics prevents it from meeting the 2 percent spending targets agreed in Wales in 2014. Additionally, the Turkish purchase of a Russian air defence system has sparked American consternation and the decision of the US to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty has rattled European allies.

Three Challenges for NATO

Given this instability, Europe needs to think critically about what it wants from NATO, and whether it should trust the alliance to provide for its long-term security. In particular, three trends mean that Europe would be wise to hedge its bets on NATO in the coming years: rising illiberalism in Europe, increasingly explicit linkages between foreign economic and security policy, and divergent foreign priority policies.

As some eastern European nations lurch in an increasingly authoritarian and illiberal direction, the ability of NATO to function in unison will be diminished. As Jacob Parakilas of Chatham House notes, the alliance is largely powerless to prevent these shifts. The core of the alliance’s success stems not from liberal ideals, but from the realist logic of deterrence and collective defence. NATO has tolerated the 20th century dictatorships of Greece, Portugal, and Spain, and counts increasingly illiberal Turkey and Hungary among its members today. The rise of populism throughout Europe means that it will be harder to rely on unity within NATO.

President Trump’s view that “the U.S. is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade [sic]” gives Europe another reason to be cautious about its role in NATO. The link between trade and security policy is not new, but making it so explicit is. As the EU’s economic success increasingly relies on running a trade surplus with the US, and the US has used this figure as a cudgel against Europe, economic growth and collective security may increasingly come into conflict with one another. This is particularly true for Germany, which is both heavily export-reliant and among the most hesitant to devote a larger share of its GDP to defence.

Divergent strategic priorities present the most significant reason for the EU to be wary of over-reliance on NATO. US Vice President Mike Pence’s demand that European nations also leave the Iran nuclear deal was met with silence by European policymakers, but the US presenting its NATO support as conditional on such acquiescence is not beyond the realm of possibility in the future. Deterrence of Russia—NATO’s original goal—looks to also be a point of divergence. The US now sees ‘great power’ rivalry with Russia and China as its top priority. Although some eastern European countries surely see Russia as a threat, that opinion is not shared among many of the wealthier nations. For example, more Germans say they trust Russian President Vladimir Putin than US President Donald Trump.

Additionally, the emerging consensus in Washington that China poses a dire threat to the global order is simply not shared in European capitals. The United States’ increasingly confrontational stance towards China stands at odds with European strategic goals, which include maintaining Chinese investment and addressing its trade practices through the World Trade Organisation, rather than through unilateral tariffs. A recent EU–China summit demonstrates that Europe is willing to take a harder line against China than it once was, but it has little desire to be dragged into a second Cold War.

How Should Europe Respond?

Given these challenges, pursuing a degree of ‘strategic autonomy’ will become ever more important for European nations. Calls for an independent security policy are known to irritate American officials, so Europe must strike a delicate balance to avoid alienating the US. In the near term, losing American support would surely be a dramatic setback for Europe. Accordingly, it must pursue autonomy without dramatic proclamations—such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal of a ‘grand European army’—and while painting its efforts to achieve greater autonomy as moves toward more equal burden sharing.

Despite some redundancies and outdated equipment, the EU defence posture may not be as weak as is often assumed. NATO’s EU members have a combined GDP ten times that of Russia, and defence spending three and a half times greater. Kori Schake of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) estimates that, even without American help, EU nations could defeat Russia if it were to invade Europe. EU initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), and the European Defence Fund (EDF) offer good starting points for a more independent European foreign and defence policy. The EU27 can also improve partnerships with external countries such as Norway and the United Kingdom, which is one of the few European nations with full-spectrum military capabilities.

To be sure, NATO is still the most important pillar of European security and will remain so in both in the short and medium run. Filling all of the gaps in European defence capabilities is likely to take roughly 15 years. But political shifts—both within the alliance and beyond it—mean that European foreign policy goals may be increasingly hard to square with an un-hedged bet on NATO. EU aims of fostering democracy and political unity internally, ensuring economic growth, and avoiding great power competition may be increasingly incompatible with the alliance in the future. Europe would be wise to slowly shift away from reliance on NATO—but to do so quietly.

Edward Knudsen is Research Associate at the Hertie School of Governance.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.