Transatlantic Disunion: How Strained EU-US Relations Can Help NATO Boost European Defense
While discontent over the current state of NATO is growing on both sides of the Atlantic – with the US losing patience with European "free riding", and Europe weary of US dominance – NATO members strain to demonstrate unity at one summit after another. Instead, NATO should openly address internal fault lines and use them to motivate a stronger role for non-US member states. In particular European NATO member states need to step up to ensure its own defense, and reduce its dependency on the US.
Ever since its inception NATO has been dominated by the United States: it contributes the majority of NATO's military capabilities, while the comparably small and militarily-weak European members lean on NATO and the US for their defense.
Sharply declining European military budgets and capabilities have further cemented this division of labor and power after the end of the cold war. Today, as US priorities are shifting away from Europe and its immediate neighborhood towards the Asia-Pacific region, the United States has grown increasingly impatient with what they perceive as European "free riding" on US defense, while European members have grown ever more skeptical of NATO – which they believe is serving narrow US national interests.
NATO appears incapable of reversing the decline in European defense capabilities as past promises of increased spending and cooperation have repeatedly been broken. Nevertheless, member states will attempt to demonstrate unity at the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw, even though their disagreements will be all too apparent.
Instead, NATO should resist the temptation to downplay internal fault lines and openly address grievances on both sides of the Atlantic. It should then use these divergent interests to motivate an EU-led and controlled European defense that will result in a more even distribution of burdens and power within NATO – between the US and the EU as two equal pillars.
Estimates of current defense spending of NATO members put the number of states which spend the targeted 2% of GDP on defense in 2015 somewhere between 5 and 7 of its 28 member states (according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute respectively). In order to achieve NATO's capability goals European nations in particular would have to increase their defense spending significantly.
The US has consistently pushed for such an increase in European defense spending under the umbrella of NATO, to bolster European defense and share burdens more evenly within the Alliance. Their demands, however, are unlikely to be well received by a European public, increasingly skeptical of the United States global role and its influence on NATO.
Many Europeans are disenchanted with US leadership after the Iraq war, the Snowden revelations and most recently growing discontent over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), all of which seemed to illustrate European subservience to an egotistical US ally. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 30% of Germans and 38% of French have an unfavorable view of NATO, and 25% and 28% of Germans and French respectively consider US influence as a threat to their country.
While the EU is also fighting populism and EU skepticism, the imminent exit of the United Kingdom makes a joint EU defense even more important. Britain's exit from the EU will make them less likely to contribute their considerable military strength to conflicts affecting mainland Europe. At the same time, it means that one of the main detractors of tighter European integration will no longer influence decisions on EU defense projects.
Meanwhile, the EU is about to adopt a new "Global Strategy", outlining threats along both its eastern and southern borders. The management of these and deterrence of future threats will require military capabilities that the EU does not currently have. The EU should thus push its member states to increase their individual military capabilities and invest in joint EU programs to acquire more advanced and expensive capabilities – such as air and sealift, as well as command and control, capabilities – which are too expensive for any single European nation to acquire. The very capabilities the EU would need to acquire to become self-reliant also cover a large part of NATO's development goals. A stronger European Union could thus contribute its new military capabilities to NATO through existing programs, and help NATO reach its goals.
EU governments and institutions should then use their increased military clout to express their priorities more forcefully within NATO and on the international stage. They should make clear that a European Union largely independent of US defense can more clearly pursue its own goals and strategies, where those differ from US foreign policy. In part, this will entail more contentious debates with the US on issues such as where and how NATO should engage militarily or the global role of US intelligence gathering.
The US will have to accept the EU's more confident global posture as a better alternative to continuing US responsibility for European defense. A self-reliant EU will allow the US to shrink its military footprint in both Europe and the Middle East, and enable it to focus on the Asia-Pacific region and other areas more relevant to US national interests.
By shifting the focus of European defense from NATO to the EU, European nations can more easily generate public support for new defense projects. The European Union, although not traditionally a military actor, invokes less mistrust among European populations, precisely because it has no history of overbearing military interventionism. At the same time, the EU's military capabilities could easily integrate into NATO's forces and thus boost the alliances capabilities.
Both Europeans and the US should thus see their divergent interests as a tool to boost public support for the necessary investments in European defense, rather than an internal weakness of NATO that needs to be glossed over. By acknowledging their divergent interests NATO member states can powerfully motivate the need for resurgent European defense capabilities, and by organizing these capabilities outside of NATO – through the EU – they can create an Alliance of more equal partners, where the US will no longer need to worry about sufficient burden sharing, while the EU will no longer feel pressured into action based on US national interest.
Ultimately, a more honest assessment of transatlantic relations will put an end to the decline in European defense capabilities, while improving burden sharing and reducing power imbalances within NATO.
Fabian Stemmer studied computer science at RWTH Aachen University. Now he works as a researcher in the area of machine learning at a private company. He is a member of the German social democrats and is particularly interested in international politics.
This article has been submitted for category C "Getting Defense Planning on Track" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video for category D.
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