Why NATO Needs A European Pillar
Why NATO Needs A European Pillar
When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?
When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Why NATO Needs A European Pillar

If Europe tries to protect the alliance only by ‘buying’ American commitment through increased defence spending, it will fail.

Europeans have every reason to worry about U.S. President Donald Trump. He has declared NATO “obsolete.” He’s spoken more glowingly about Russian President Vladimir Putin than about most Western European leaders. And he’s suggested he will apply his transactional vision of diplomacy to his country’s alliances. A president who has unabashedly made “America First” his guiding principle is telling Europeans America’s commitment to them will depend on their willingness to pay for it.

The Continent’s leaders should listen carefully. For too long, European countries have not been serious enough about their own defence; most spend much less than the two per cent of GDP goal set by NATO. If they do not change course, a president who has little understanding of soft power and, in his own words, only respects “strength,” will not take them seriously.

A European security landscape defined in bilateral talks between Russia and the U.S. is a serious possibility, one that would be terrible news for the Continent. Trump might care most about fighting Islamic terrorism; for Russia, the priority remains dividing Europe to gain the upper hand.

If Europe’s only response is to “buy” American commitment through increased defence spending — as NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has indicated alliance members should do — it will fail. NATO cannot sustain itself as a political alliance if it is guided by monetary transactions. Its European members must show unity of purpose and vision: The time has come to create a European pillar of NATO.

Today, there is no shared vision of what NATO stands for, and apparently little interest in the White House for the principles that gave substance to the NATO security commitment during the last 67 years. The transatlantic solidarity defined by Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty is only credible if it is underpinned by a set of shared values.

NATO is about North America’s engagement in Europe, and Europeans, working with Canada, must take the initiative in proposing a vision adapted to the 21st century. Otherwise, they run the risk that a president who has little time for the Continent will see his European allies simply as adjuncts to an “America First” strategy — and blatantly ignore their interests.

A European pillar should be conceived as a means to strengthen NATO, not as an alternative to it.

The idea of a European pillar is not new, but was deemed unnecessary for many years because the alliance’s members shared a solid consensus on its functions. As a proposal, a pillar now makes sense in terms of realpolitik. With a U.S. president who appears more than happy to play nations against one another, European countries are unlikely to make themselves heard unless they can present a coherent, united position.

The move would also benefit intra-European political dynamics. Europeans are unlikely to support increased defence spending if it is perceived simply as a response to American bullying and support for Washington’s somewhat incoherent policies. Increased effort must come with a renewed sense of political ownership for NATO’s European members. A stronger EU that regains political momentum by making its own security a political priority, is an indispensable partner to a strong NATO.

The specifics of a more integrated effort, whether a European headquarters or an expanded role for the European Defense Agency, or ideas to implement the EU global strategy in the area of security and defence as agreed by EU member countries in November, should be discussed between EU nations.

National governments will want to retain a central role in matters of national security, but the European institutions can help coordinate the effort and give it a broader European dimension.

A European pillar will first have to decide on its membership. Germany and France, whose military capacities are increasingly compatible and complementary, should take the lead once elections in both countries have taken place.

A caucus needs to emerge within NATO. It should include the six founding members of the EU, as well as more recent members, which could agree on two founding principles: that the emergence of a European pillar is made necessary by the changed strategic landscape; and that a European pillar should be conceived as a means to strengthen NATO, not as an alternative to it. In fact, one of its key goals will be to keep the U.S. engaged.

Separated from the question of EU membership, a European pillar within NATO could bring countries with varying degrees of EU adherence into the fold.

That core group should in time be opened to other members of the EU and should establish close consultation mechanisms with EU non-NATO members, such as Sweden, and with NATO non–EU members, such as Norway and Turkey.

An informal political approach is probably the only viable path to this European pillar, since a formal institutional approach would likely stall very quickly. A formal arrangement with Turkey, for example, will remain difficult until its problems with the bloc — the question of Cyprus’ reunification remains a sore point — are solved.

And within the EU, serious differences have emerged on what role the Union should play in its own defence. Separated from the question of EU membership, a European pillar within NATO could bring countries with varying degrees of EU adherence into the fold. The United Kingdom — one of the Continent’s most important military powers — for example, is about to leave the EU but could find its strategic interests best served by a close relationship with the new group.

In an era of rising nationalism, creating a European pillar of NATO may sound ambitious. But opinion polls show that Europeans, while critical of many aspects of the EU, consider defence to be an area that warrants more, rather than less, cooperation. The EU will not get out of its present malaise by renouncing its ambitions. On the contrary, it needs to be more ambitious if it wants to respond to the security concerns of its citizens. The exceptional circumstances confronting Europe require an exceptional response.

Op-Ed / Global

When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?

Is a more connected world a safer and more resilient one, or is it more brittle and fragile? It all depends on how we organize our defense. But the failure to stem the rise of terrorism over the past 15 years suggests we’ve not got it right. How can we restructure our defense systems to take into account the immense changes taking place, and the blurring distinction between war and peace?

An Out-of-Date Model

Today’s defense model is one of state-centric centralized defense. Each state is expected to protect its citizens against external threats by deterring state-to-state aggression and by intervening in those states whose failure provides a safe haven to non-state enemies.

States are also expected to protect people against internal threats; they do so through increased police and military presence in our cities, and through ever-expanding digital mass surveillance to detect anomalous behaviours and identify potential threats.

A Thin Line Between War and Peace

This model is not working. Whether it is little green men in Crimea or cyber-attacks, the line between war and peace has been blurred, and in a world no more structured by an ideological divide, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the enemy is a more effective way to wage war than confronting it head on.

As for failing states, 15 years of costly interventions should have taught us the limits of military intervention: foreigners may help but they can’t substitute for locally driven state building.

We need an alternative model of decentralized defense that will reflect the profound transformation brought upon us by the digital age...

Lastly, finding the needle of terrorism in the haystack of law-abiding citizens is proving to be a frustrating pursuit, which at worst could turn democratic countries into police states, and at best, generates many false flags and will never guarantee complete success, even if the record of security agencies is better than often alleged.

We need an alternative model of decentralized defense that will reflect the profound transformation brought upon us by the digital age and the increased connectivity.

A New Approach to Defense

What we have at present is the worst of both worlds: traditional centralized systems are inefficient at identifying and correcting local vulnerabilities, but connectivity increases vulnerabilities because it accelerates and multiplies the psychological, political and in some cases physical impact of an attack on any part of a system. This is very different from the terrorist attacks of the seventies, which were not a threat to our societies.

What, then, should our new approach towards defense look like? That’s not an easy question to answer, but whatever model we end up with needs to take into account five important points:

The enemy within

Internal fragilities are a greater risk than external threats. By any objective measure, terrorism and external aggression are low risks to our personal safety, but they exacerbate our pre-existing sense of vulnerability. The biggest risks are the political upheavals that such a sense of vulnerability can trigger and that malevolent actors can exploit.

We can’t let fear win

Communities brought together only by fear are vulnerable because fear destroys trust, which is the foundation of any long-term human community. A much greater effort is needed to foster a positive sense of common purpose. Civic organizations and public debate have a critical role to play in strengthening the fabric of society from the bottom up.

Cities will supplant states

Physical proximity is becoming more relevant as a counterweight to the anonymity of globalization: in an urbanized world, cities are likely to become increasingly important as political units and standard bearers of identity. Over time, they may become more relevant to our security than states, provided that mechanisms are put in place to ensure effective sharing of data.

The only way to restore some symmetry and stability is to organize defense at the lowest possible level...

The changing nature of warfare

Top-down provision of security, based on the Weberian model of the state enjoying a monopoly on the legal use of force, is ill-suited to the growing diffusion of power, including lethal power, which multiplies the capacities of individuals to wreak havoc in a society. Attack is becoming much cheaper than defense, especially, but not only, in the cyber world. We should not be surprised if this makes asymmetric warfare the most rational way of conducting war, which would generate increased instability.

The power of devolution

The only way to restore some symmetry and stability is to organize defense at the lowest possible level, empowering individuals to protect themselves against cyber-attacks through point-to-point encryption, and empowering cities to strengthen local connections among its citizens, making it more difficult for outsiders to launch attacks. Devolving power to individuals and to lower levels of government will also deprive enemies of targets whose value resides in their symbolic value as centres of great power, reducing the advantage of asymmetric attack. Nuclear warfare, but also cyber warfare, will be less likely if there is no target of strategic importance.

A Brave New World

The implications of this transformation will inevitably be gradual but they will be far-reaching.

Nuclear weapons for instance, are the ultimate expression of the traditional centralized state system: they need its resources to be developed, they require extreme concentration of decision for the threat of use to be credible, and they require similarly structured enemies for the threat to have a target. Their elimination – essential for the long-term survival of humanity – is unlikely to come from a decision to abolish them, but it may eventually happen through an evolution of political structures that will make them irrelevant, for lack of resources, centralized decision makers, and targets.

At the strategic level, the evolution of the world towards ever-bigger building blocks – the US, China, Europe, Russia – ­will be reversed. The ongoing backlash against a European super-state is partly an expression of nostalgic nationalism, partly an acknowledgement that big structures can be dangerous because the stakes are just too high when a change occurs at the top. But now the era of the big state is coming to an end.

At the same time, the world has benefited enormously from the economies of scale of globalization and from the dynamism brought about by diversity. Individuals, cities must be connected, but the connections are unlikely to replicate the pyramidal model of traditional federalism. The European Union will need to adapt to that new situation if it wants to stay ahead of its time.

More likely, in a flatter world, interoperability and communications between smaller entities will be achieved through a multiplicity of issue-specific arrangements that will balance democratic and technical legitimacy: think of the evolving governance of the internet.

The ongoing backlash against a European super-state is partly an expression of nostalgic nationalism, partly an acknowledgement that big structures can be dangerous...

At the operational level, just as “know your customers” has become an obligation for any law-abiding bank, know-thy-neighbour is likely to become a feature of tomorrow’s societies. If applied to big entities such as mega-states, or even mega-cities, it could destroy anonymity, which has been an essential dimension of freedom, and could make our societies oppressively Orwellian.

However, if there is a multiplicity of political entities, allowing us to choose our neighbours, and if we can protect privacy through robust encryption, that risk will be largely eliminated. Freedom will be ensured less through separation of powers and more through a juxtaposition of multiple powers.

Why Decentralization Makes Sense

The present experience with increased flows of refugees pouring into Europe provides the best example of the value of decentralization. When human beings are just part of a statistic, they can easily be perceived as a threat. When they acquire a human face, natural human empathy reasserts itself, as has been the case in many German small towns welcoming refugees.

Decentralized defense will operationalize that intuition: the abstraction of the nation feeds dangerous nationalism; the empowerment of individuals connected by proximity strengthens the fabric of a resilient and open society.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.