US President Joe Biden’s downgrading of NATO’s strategic importance, as shown by his casual diplomatic disregard of Europe in making foreign policy decisions related to it, has left some in the alliance to think of going it alone.
The problem is there is no easy decoupling from US domination of NATO nor even a smaller parallel alternative to the current structure. A total break up is out of the question, especially as Russian military interventions along NATO borders revived the original purpose of the alliance: to confront Moscow.
Moreover, Eastern European countries trust the US more than either presumed NATO powerhouses France or Germany to come to their aid in case of any Russian incursion.
Still, in the wake of the Afghan fiasco and with the evident US desire to focus on confrontation with China, a search for alternatives to reliance on Washington is in the air.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Defense said that Afghanistan had shown “in a striking way that deficiencies in EU capacity to act autonomously comes with a price.”
He proposed the need for a continental “initial entry force” of five thousand soldiers in case of military emergencies, say, to handle a sudden surge of migrants from Asia and Africa, or for peacekeeping. “We need to be able to act quickly,” he said.
His idea would mean creation of a European Union rapid-reaction force, whose assets would be shared with NATO. Traditionally, both the US and United Kingdom have opposed dilution of NATO unity.
Borrell’s proposal reflects a sharp lowering of ambition from an idea broached in 1998 by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chiraq. They suggested creation of a pan-European force of 60,000 troops. The idea went nowhere. A year later, NATO began a rapid expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries and ex-Soviet Republics.
Current NATO allies especially were stung by Biden’s rejection of extra time to evacuate foreigners and Afghan civilian allies. They felt he made the decision out of a stubborn resolve to get out of Afghanistan by a set date, no matter what the conditions on the ground.
Moreover, Biden’s disdain for allied consultation continued after the withdrawal debacle. Unexpectedly, treating even America’s oldest allies badly has become a trademark of his eight-month old administration.
After the Afghan pullout, Biden went on to enrage France, NATO’s second-best militarily equipped member, by secretly arranging a new security alliance with Australia and the UK. The pact cost France a multi-billion-dollar diesel submarine sale to Canberra, already signed, because suddenly Australia preferred nuclear-powered sub technology from the US.
In effect, by keeping French President Emmanuel Macron in the dark, Biden brusquely demoted France from the global power hierarchy. In response, Macron briefly withdrew France’s ambassador from Washington. Macron sent him back after Biden agreed to a face-to-face meeting in October.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson might have thought Britain, by being part of the US and Australia pact, had rejuvenated its fading “special relationship” with Washington. But Biden quickly took pains to remind him that while military help from the UK might be useful, other British concerns that might affect his closest ally are not much on his mind.
First, he took the side of the European Union in its negotiations with London over sticky Northern Ireland trade arrangements. Then, he dashed Johnson’s hopes of working out a new free trade deal with the United States soon, saying it was not a priority.
Finally, the Biden administration added insult to injury to NATO as a whole. His spokesperson, Jen Psaki, suggested that militarily, the alliance was just not that important. When she listed points meant to show NATO’s value in resolving the “biggest challenges we’re facing in the world,” she left out the common defense role while mentioning climate issues and leveling the global economic playing field.
If there’s any possibility Europeans will respond concretely to the US snubs, the first opportunity will probably come next year, when Emmanuel Macron will convene the “summit on European defense.” France will hold the EU presidency for six months, which allows him to promote an agenda, however fleeting, for the continent.
He will be up against a lot of continental inertia. Europe has gotten accustomed to US dominance, gigantic resources and available firepower.
Germany, the original beneficiary of NATO defense, exemplifies the continent’s deficiencies. In Afghanistan, German troops had to use civilian helicopters to move around and had to borrow body armor from allied units, according to a 2019 parliamentary report. Because of chronic unavailability of spare parts, less than half of the German army tanks, planes or ships are operational at any one time
Most NATO countries don’t want to spend much more on defense than they already do. In 2014, each NATO member had promised to up its military spending to two percent of GDP, but so far, out of 27 members, only ten have reached that level. France and the UK have, but not Germany and Italy. These are respectively, Europe’s first and fourth largest economies.
And Europe as a whole has reacted coolly to the US focus on confrontation with China. The lure of business is too strong, the distance from European shores too far and, perhaps, the risks too great. Biden likes to make decisions on his own, maybe let him handle this one without Europeans?