Europe faces many new threats to its security which NATO is ill-designed to manage. The opposite coast of the Mediterranean – Europe’s “soft underbelly” to paraphrase Winston Churchill – is undergoing destabilization. Libya is again on the verge of civil war, Tunisia’s nascent democracy looks to implode, Algeria and Morocco are at sword’s point, and dictatorship has put paid to Egypt’s experiment in democracy. Israel’s government collapsed again, and it is about to hold its fifth elections in three years. Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar Assad, after being saved by Russia and Iran, looks set to complete the reconquest of his shattered country. This instability has launched millions of refugees towards Europe’s shores, endangering EU unity. The situation also threatens Europe’s plans to diversify away from Russian energy imports. Europe needs oil and gas imports from Algeria and Libya, as well as gas supplies from new fields in Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt to replace Russia’s.
Turkey, a NATO member, has leveraged that membership to pursue national objectives that damage NATO’s interests. Ankara has blocked Sweden and Finland’s membership applications, ostensibly to force those countries to turn over Kurdish refugees who fled genocide in Turkey. It also holds their NATO membership hostage to an ill-concealed demand that the United States restore Turkey to the F-35 stealth jet program from which the United States booted it after Turkey bought advanced Russian missile systems. Ankara refuses to apply U.S. and European sanctions against Russia. Turkey threatens war against Greece, another NATO member, in pursuit of irredentist claims to territories it ceded over a hundred years ago. Lacking a formal mechanism to deal with such threats, ΝΑΤΟ prefers to act as if they are of no concern to the Alliance.
NATO’s original structure, designed to confront the USSR in the Cold War, allows it to deal with Russia attacking Ukraine. However, that response was orchestrated by the United States, which effectively decides all things in NATO. Had Biden not acted as he did, Europe would likely have wrung its collective hands and issued ineffective declarations while Putin overran Ukraine.
Biden’s actions have undone much of the damage Trump inflicted on the Alliance. However, American constancy is not guaranteed. Biden’s predecessor befriended the dictators ruling Russia and Turkey and questioned America’s commitments to NATO. America’s dramatic polarization, led by a political movement that is trying to change the United States into a one-party theocracy, something like a cross between Iran and China, adds to the uncertainty. That movement opposes defending Ukraine. Moreover, and isolationism seems trendy once again across the political spectrum. To illustrate, the Koch Brothers and the George Soros Open Society, sitting at the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, both fund the left-leaning avowedly isolationist Quincy Institute.
European leaders need to think ahead. Some talk about restructuring NATO to deal with European issues. The United States will not go along. For example, America will not allow European interests to influence American policy in the Middle East. Europe supports restoring the Iran nuclear agreement that Trump undid; the United States prefers to keep Saudi Arabia and Israel – who oppose the deal – happy. The United States torpedoed a French submarine deal with Australia in a high-handed sandbagging that would have made Machiavelli blush. The United States has often played European NATO members off against each other. Remember Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and his denigration of “old Europe” vis-a-vis “new Europe” in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq? “Freedom fries” anyone? Even the most dedicated American Atlanticists prefer NATO the way it is, dependent on American leadership at all levels. U.S. politicians publicly demand Europe spend more on defense, but mostly to make domestic political points. If the Europeans ever agreed to a vigorous European defense posture, European leaders would demand a greater say in NATO decision-making and European defense industries would have the market size to better compete with American companies.
We always complain about France, the country that conceived European unity. France’s Charles de Gaulle once argued for a strong European defense independent of the Anglo-Saxons. The current French leader, Emmanuel Macron, argues for something much more compatible with U.S. interests: a European ‘strategic autonomy’ within NATO but with the will and capacity to deal with those crises outside NATO’s remit. Macron as a Europeanist wishes to defend the borders of Europe and to have Europe throw its weight around in the rest of the world. This supplements the United States; it does not replace it.
According to a recent meeting with French foreign affairs experts, Macron designed the first intra-European defense agreement, a 2020 treaty of alliance with Greece aimed specifically at countering the Turkish threat as a first step in building a European security structure through distinct agreements between EU states. The next candidate appears to be Italy, already deeply involved in joint weapons programs with France and suffering directly from instability across the Mediterranean. Cyprus, with Turkish troops occupying 37% of its territory and Spain trying to cope with problems in Morocco and Algeria would appear to be good future candidates as well.
Germany and other northern Europeans oppose the idea, preferring to prosper on the cheap under an American umbrella. The United States would prefer Macron’s ideas go to the same graveyard as did De Gaulle’s. This is a mistake. We need to concentrate on the Pacific and China. Macron believes Europe has the size, wealth, and potential strength to handle almost any threat in the region but needs the strategic autonomy to be able to do so on its own terms. It also has the diplomatic and economic tools that the United States lacks in Europe’s neighborhood. We deride Macron’s insistence that we need a long term policy to deal with Russia after Ukraine but forget Europe has to live with the aftermath. We should support Macron. We need him to succeed.