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First Responders: Europe Reacts to “America First”
First Responders: Europe Reacts to “America First”
Why NATO Needs A European Pillar
Why NATO Needs A European Pillar
Op-Ed / Global

First Responders: Europe Reacts to “America First”

Originally published in The Security Times

As the Trump administration threatens to retreat from America's longstanding alliances, it is time for Europeans to take the lead in guaranteeing their own security.  

It is unclear whether US President Donald Trump is aware of the history behind the expression “America First,” the term he uses to describe his foreign policy vision. The catchphrase was first used just before World War II by isolationists who opposed any American engagement in the mounting European crisis. The echo of that dark period has relevance for today. At that time, the structures that had been put in place after World War I, in particular the League of Nations, were disintegrating, and a growing number of leaders around the world were exclaiming: “My country first!” We know how it ended. Today, in an age of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, the principle of “my country first” would have even more devastating consequences.

Europe, which has suffered more than any other continent from the scourge of nationalism, is positioned best to vigorously counter the narrative of “my country first.” Europeans must present a united front in order to be taken seriously by the Trump administration. They also must stand their ground in relation to a more assertive Russia, which is reported to be backing nationalist and populist movements across the continent and staging cyber attacks intended to alter the course of key elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

2017 is a crucial year for Europe, as these elections can decisively advance or reverse the trend towards nationalism and fragmentation that began with the Brexit referendum and became a global phenomenon. If nationalist forces prevail in these contests, it is likely that the “my country first” narrative will gain momentum, with terrible long-term costs for all – including Russia.

Europeans must present a united front in order to be taken seriously by the Trump administration.

European states need a shared strategic approach to meet these challenges. Priorities should include: a greater commitment to their own security, made visible through defense spending; greater organization, possibly through a European pillar in NATO; and seizing the initiative to advance arms control arrangements that would help avert the risk of a major war.

Trump has given the Europeans ample cause for concern. He has declared NATO obsolete; he speaks more glowingly about Russian President Vladimir Putin than about many Western leaders; and he suggests that he will apply his transactional vision of diplomacy to longstanding alliances. Some of his pronouncements suggest that the US commitment to defend Europe depends on the willingness of Europeans to pay for it, rather than on shared values. The person rumored to be the next American ambassador to the European Union, Ted Malloch, has bragged that his role in bringing down the Soviet Union is relevant experience to the goal of “taming” the EU. Some members of Trump’s entourage are reveling in the discussion of which country will follow the British example and leave the EU.

The Europeans should take a position that is firm but nonconfrontational. For a start, they need to become more serious about investing in their own defense. Most European members are spending significantly less than the NATO goal of 2 percent of GDP. If they do not change course, the Trump administration will be less likely to take their interests into account.

There is a real risk that the US and Russia will not consult the Europeans in making a deal to redefine the regional security landscape. Trump, who considers terrorism the numberone threat for the US, may prioritize cooperation – or the appearance of cooperation – with Russia in the Middle East, while making concessions on issues that are at the core of European security interests. For instance, if the US chooses to scrap sanctions against Russia, there would be little leverage left to convince Putin to withdraw completely from Eastern Ukraine.

However, Europeans cannot simply buy American commitment through increased defense spending, and NATO cannot sustain itself as a political alliance if it is viewed only in transactional terms. It is time to strengthen the alliance by reviving the concept of a European pillar of NATO. Given the current mood in the White House, it will be up to the Europeans to present a clear and compelling vision of what NATO stands for in the 21st century.

The principle of collective defense, as set forth in Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, is only credible when undergirded by shared values. Europeans are more likely to be heard – by Trump, as well as by Putin – if they speak with one voice on defense issues. Europeans will need to have political ownership of this effort, the modalities of which – whether through a fully separate European headquarters or an increased role for the European Defense Agency – should be discussed among EU members. The European Defense Action Plan, proposed by the European Commission in late 2016, may provide the basis for greater coordination, even if intergovernmental mechanisms remain the driving force in matters of security.

Europeans cannot simply buy American commitment through increased defense spending, and NATO cannot sustain itself as a political alliance if it is viewed only in transactional terms.

Deciding which countries would constitute a European pillar is a tricky issue likely to stall any formal institutional approach. There will be disputes over the involvement of European NATO countries that are not members of the EU, such as Norway or, even more contentious, Turkey. The United Kingdom, one of the strongest military powers in Europe, is preparing to leave the EU. Other EU countries, like Sweden, make significant contributions to European security without being NATO members.

Given these complexities, an informal political approach is the only viable way forward. A caucus could be organized – including, but not limited to, the six founding members of the EU – to agree on two basic principles: a) the emergence of a European pillar is necessitated by the altered strategic landscape; b) a key goal of the European pillar is to pursue ways to strengthen NATO. The core group should be open to other members of the EU while establishing close consultation mechanisms with EU non-NATO members as well as with NATO non-EU members. The United Kingdom would ideally find that its strategic interests are well served by its involvement in the core group.

The Europeans should also mount a major diplomatic initiative with Russia on arms control, even if an overarching agreement with Putin on security arrangements may currently be out of reach. Three complementary tracks should be pursued, each involving the Europeans in different ways:

  1. An arms control track for conventional weapons under the aegis of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The goal would be a reversal to the gradual demise of the treaties and agreements signed after the end of the Cold War. They had been implemented to radically downsize armed forces in Europe and create transparency and predictability in military deployments. They succeeded at the first task but are now failing at the second. Intimidation, ambiguity and surprise are becoming the norm, such that protracted conflicts could easily escalate.
     
  2. An arms control track for nuclear weapons between the US and Russia; Europeans would be involved through NATO. The goal would be to prevent the likely collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1987. The Euromissile Crisis of the 1980s was one of the most divisive crises for NATO. A replay of the dispute under present conditions could destroy the alliance.
     
  3. A cyber defense track, managed in a new ad hoc framework involving the EU and NATO. It should explore ways to introduce cyber arms control and confidence-building measures in cyberspace. As a first step, parties should agree on what constitutes an act of war in this new battlefield.

Revamping the European security agenda may sound too ambitious in the current political context, but it is urgently needed to counterbalance the forces threatening to divide the continent. Opinion polls show that Europeans, while critical of many aspects of the EU, see defense as an area that warrants more rather than less cooperation. Today’s Europe is confronted by extraordinary challenges demanding an extraordinary response. Germany and France, whose military capacities should become increasingly compatible and complementary, could take the lead after elections in the two countries have taken place. Now is the time to launch a public debate on this bold move.

In fundamental terms, “my country first” is a reductive and destructive principle. It ignores the fact that solutions to many of the world’s biggest challenges require cooperative management – whether on security issues, climate change, migration flows or the global economy. Coercion has its limitations, and hard power can only go so far when not accompanied by the soft power that makes it acceptable. The temptation for the most powerful nation on earth to use force unilaterally may be great, but the US should resist it.

In both words and actions, Europe has the opportunity to make a positive case that another course is possible.

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Why NATO Needs A European Pillar

Originally published in Politico Europe

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.