“From "Obsolete" to "Brain Dead": Crises in the Transatlantic Alliance and the Future of European Defence”

| Feb. 12, 2020

The Andrew Carnegie Lecture – University of Aberdeen

12 February 2020, 18:30 - 19:30, Aberdeen, Scotland

Principal, Professor Boyne

Professor Weber

Faculty colleagues & friends

I am honoured to be here with you at for the Andrew Carnegie Lecture.  And to speak with you about “Crises in the Transatlantic Alliance and the Future of European Defence.” 

NATO in Crisis - Again?

Many of you are aware that French President Emmanuel Macron recently referred to the “brain death” of the transatlantic alliance.

Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the days when Europeans could rely on others – i.e. the United States – for security are “over.”

Shortly after his successful election, another president repeated statements made on the campaign trail that NATO – the transatlantic Alliance defending Europe and North America for decades – was “obsolete.” 

In a remarkable historical echo, this last statement is true of both Charles De Gaulle in 1966 and Donald J. Trump in 2016. 

NATO is frequently said to be in “crisis.”  Yet the Alliance has outlasted countless predictions of its demise, enduring now for more than 70 years.  What explains this apparent contradiction? 

The NATO literature is littered with claims that NATO lost its raison d’etre after some previous crisis or historical turning point.  But NATO’s history is one of change – indeed extraordinary adaptation and resilience. 

To be sure, NATO’s founding Washington Treaty opens with an articulation of durable goals: peace and security, and prosperity under free democratic institutions. 

But as the threats to these goals changed over the years, NATO adapted its roles, organization, and strategy to address them.  This pattern has persisted for seven decades.

Assessing the current sense of crisis in NATO ought to draw on our knowledge of this history.  The nature of the Alliance and its big tensions endure, but its character and institutional forms change.  Therefore, I would like to address three questions with you :

  1. How does the Alliance change? In other words, is there a pattern for NATO adaptation; if so, what is it?  This is a question about process. 
  2. Furthermore, what kinds of Alliance arrangements suit both European and American member-states?  This is a question about outcome or product. 
  3. Finally, what do these historical observations mean for today; where is the transatlantic Alliance going, and where should it go? 

1. How does the Alliance change?

The pattern of how NATO adapts has been remarkably consistent across the decades.  I have found the concept of “critical junctures” useful for describing this pattern.[1]  [From the academic literature on historical institutionalism,] a critical juncture is a period of when the normal constraints on action are loosened for a relatively brief time, freeing powerful actors to pursue new courses, and therefore increasing the likelihood of change as well as the possible momentousness of such changes.[2] 

In NATO, such critical junctures unfold in a fairly consistent way:

First, an external stress or “crisis” occurs.  The stress may have built over a period of years but is then touched off by some shock(s) that exposes the institution’s inadequacy. 

The second phase of the critical juncture process is one of contingency and a search for solutions.  The crisis disrupts the status quo, jolts some out of complacency, and removes barriers from others to explore new ideas. 

At this point, politics rules.  Power, agency, structure, and chance all play a role in shaping the kinds of alternative arrangements to address the new security concerns that are seriously attempted or implemented. 

2. What history teaches about the kinds of alliance deals that work? 

The history of critical junctures in NATO reveals not only the consistency of the adaptive process described above but also some recurring themes about products or outcomes. 

The first of these is that the period of contingency is real.  The critical juncture involves genuine creativity, but also uncertainty.  For example, the declining credibility of America’s extended nuclear deterrence in the 1950s and 60s led not only to the reassertion of national independence exemplified by De Gaulle’s actions in 1966 and the British and French nuclear weapons programs, but also other proposals such as an abortive nuclear sharing program known as the Multi-Lateral Force (MLF) and creative efforts to reduce Cold War tensions altogether through détente – pursued nationally such as in the Ostpolitik of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, as well as in NATO through reforms in the Harmel Report.

Another common feature of alternatives for addressing the new security challenges is that some are exclusively European (as opposed to transatlantic) in their character.  The European Defense Community proposal in the 1950s, post-Cold War efforts to create a European Security and Defense Identity in NATO, and the recent European Union Common Security and Defense Policy initiatives all reflect this trend. 

Yet these exclusively European alternatives often do not come to fruition or fulfill their ambition.  The European Defense Community was never implemented.  “The hour of Europe,” an initial expression of resolve to tackle post-Cold War Balkan civil wars became a humiliating illustration of European powerlessness.  More recently, the commander of an impressive-sounding European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) had to admit in a public relations event that in fact his armada had no ships at sea.[3] 

This is not to say that European initiative has made no difference.  But some of the more notable instances of European countries implementing their own security and defense agenda have occurred through national or bilateral action, a framework nation such as France in Mali, or through NATO as in French and British calls for NATO intervention in Libya in 2012.

NATO itself shows a remarkable degree of adaptability, not least with respect to its ability to co-opt or accommodate other alternative institutional arrangements.  The European Defense Community, had it been created, was to be integrated within NATO.  In response to post-Cold War outreach from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other institutions, NATO created its own Partnership for Peace and consultative mechanisms such as the NATO-Russia Council. 

Change does not always occur quickly or smoothly in NATO, but it has happened consistently throughout its history, conforming to a certain pattern of critical junctures, with substantively significant changes often evident.  The biggest ‘crises’ in NATO often produce the most long-lasting change.  This record is cause for confidence in NATO’s adaptability and resilience.

But this record ought not encourage recklessness or complacency about the Alliance.  NATO includes some enduring tension points that are frequently at the root of its many crises and require vigilance and hard work to overcome. 

  • One such tension is in burden sharing, which has bedeviled the Alliance since its earliest efforts to establish conventional force goals at its Lisbon summit in 1952.  These efforts failed and the military capability and institutional dominance of the United States within NATO has persisted and frustrated all sides, for different reasons, ever since. 
  • Another such tension is a lack of consensus on threats or priorities at the political level.  NATO’s first Secretary General is said to have quipped that the Alliance had not one founding purpose but three: to keep the Russians out of Europe, the Americans in, and the Germans down.  Today, allies agree to disagree on the “360 degree approach,” a slogan that thinly masks discord about whether the most important threats are to the east, south, or some other direction. 

A final challenge is the sheer encumbrances of getting anything done in an Alliance of nearly thirty countries that takes all decisions by consensus.  Progress, where it occurs, is painstaking and slow. 

  1. 3. What does this mean for today? Where is the alliance going, and where should it go?

Transatlantic relations and European security face challenges today that few foresaw five years ago.  On the eve of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the United States was still pursuing a rebalance of its military presence away from Europe and NATO had successively slashed its military structure.  The mission in Afghanistan was supposed to wind down, perceived risks to European security remained low, and the EU remained principally concerned with economic matters in the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis. 

But Russia followed its seizure of Crimea with further aggression in Ukraine, flouting of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and increasing confrontation of many kinds with Western countries.  The migration crisis, rise of Islamic State, and a wave of terrorist attacks rocked Europe.  An attempted coup occurred in Turkey.  And – dare I say the word – Brexit.  This reversal in European stability and security also attended discontinuities in American foreign policy under the presidency of Donald Trump. 

Just as in previous critical junctures in the history of the transatlantic alliance, the current challenges have given rise to a creative and contingent period of search for ways to address them. 

The EU is pursuing significant new initiatives in defense policy and capability development.  Its key overarching idea is development of “[a]n appropriate level of… strategic autonomy”.  The meaning of this oft-cited phrase is contentious, not least among Europeans (as discussed below).  Yet the EU has initiated several specific and practical efforts to bolster European defense capability and investment, the most significant of which are:

  • Permanent Structured Cooperation on defense (PESCO), a treaty-based framework for cooperation on defense capability development or operational projects;
  • the European Defense Fund (EDF), a novel approach that for the first time aims to make EU institutions a co-financer of defense investments; and

NATO, for its part, has embarked on a voluminous adaptation agenda, the unifying theme of which is the return to its traditional roles of defense an deterrence.  Initiatives include:

  • deployment of multinational battlegroups to Poland and the three Baltic states,
  • creation of a very high readiness “spearhead” quick reaction force,
  • the largest exercises since the Cold War,
  • adaptation and growth of the NATO military command structure in Europe and North America,
  • a “functional review” of NATO’s political bodies,
  • recognition of conflict in the cyber domain,
  • enhanced intelligence collaboration,
  • and the once consensus but now contentious Wales pledge on defense investment at 2% of GDP for each country.

NATO Back to the Future, Again?

What do we make of our answers to the three questions we’ve discussed so far?

A potentially astonishing conclusion is that there is more continuity than change in many of the key issues,

  • including EU efforts at defense integration,
  • NATO burden sharing,
  • American attitudes and leadership,
  • the role of values in the Alliance,
  • and political cohesion among allies. 

In other words, like many previous “crises”, today’s view of the Alliance’s future looks a great deal like those of the past. 

Recent EU defense initiatives strongly resemble previous efforts and accordingly unlikely to achieve greater success.  European states do not share a consensus view on “autonomy” as a political goal.  Likewise, no consensus exists regarding the level of ambition for European operational capabilities or equipment, despite the attention focused in these areas. 

Either way, with very few PESCO projects on high-end capabilities and the initial tranche of EDF funding at just a fraction of what European countries are already spending, actual EU initiatives do not propose the transformational. 

Altogether, political disunity on the purpose of EU defense and resistance from transatlantic forces favoring NATO and the United States all add up to an echo of the EU’s efforts at defense integration two decades ago.  Results are likely to be similar.

In the NATO alliance also, and specifically the contentious issue of burden sharing, historical continuities are striking.  One might argue that the United States’ position on European defense spending is substantively unmoved since the Dwight Eisenhower administration.  If anything, Ike’s intention throughout the 1950s both as NATO Supreme Allied Commander and later President of the United States to seek withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Europe sounds extreme and provocatively anti-NATO by today’s standards – and that coming from one of NATO’s most important founding figures.[4]  Compared with other 21st century U.S. administrations, the Trump-era position is substantively consistent with those of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense to both previous presidents, famously explained this position, along with a warning that Americans would eventually lose patience with the status quo, in his valedictory speech.[5] 

But European action on the burden sharing debate is also historically consistent. 

European countries have responded both to external threats and internal alliance politics.  The sums involved – on the order of an additional $100 billion since 2014 – are significant but also nowhere close to shifting the balance between the United States and Europe more than incrementally.  In fact, no such shift is seriously sought on either side of the Atlantic: the goal of spending 2% of GDP on defense, constructively agreed by all NATO heads of state and government in 2014 (and shorthand for the acrimony of the burden sharing issue more recently), has been an internal allied benchmark for defense spending for years.  Meanwhile, many European countries have remained involved in the NATO missions in Afghanistan since 2003, collectively enduring more than a thousand combat deaths there, even while admitting that Afghanistan is less important to their countries than the alliance itself.  Europeans and Americans thus both feel they’ve shouldered heavy burdens, resent claims otherwise, and seek relief wherever possible.  Thus was it ever.

American attitudes about and contributions to the alliance are also remarkably dedicated by historical standards.  President Trump may have alternately criticized and hectored some allies while praising others. 

But the substance of his administration’s policy toward the Alliance and European defense includes some of the largest increases in American military power in Europe since the end of the Cold War: billions of dollars of increased defense investment through its European Deterrence Initiative, American-led rotational battlegroups in NATO’s forward presence in northeastern Europe, high-profile consideration of new U.S. bases in Poland, Romania, and even Greece are just a few examples. 

Both chambers of the U.S. Congress overwhelming support NATO, which is striking not only because of the rarity of bipartisan consensus on any issue but also because Congress has not always favored NATO so.  No leader of any international organization has ever addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg did in 2019.  The American people also support NATO by unprecedentedly wide margins, with one annual poll showing the highest favorability ratings for the Alliance ever recorded.[6]  The breadth and depth of support for the alliance across the government, foreign policy establishment, and citizenry at large, together with real increased U.S. presence and defense investment in Europe, all speak to a steady continuing commitment.

There is also more continuity than change regarding the role of values in the alliance.  Some have argued that the risks to NATO (and the EU) of domestic political trends in the United States and European countries are not about material indicators or participation in alliance institutions, but rather about commitment to the liberal democratic values they represent.  Although the preamble to the Washington Treaty does commit to such values, NATO has tolerated undemocratic regimes among its members in the past.  To those who view these values as central to NATO’s tasks if not fundamental purpose, the Alliance’s historically patient approach succeeded in the past and enjoys near-consensus support among allied officials in the present.[7]  For those who think the values issue is either sovereign national business or secondary to NATO’s core purpose of security and defense – a contentious view, to be sure, but a common one even if limited or dark – this entire point is moot and poses little difficulty for the Alliance. 

Cohesion is key to a successful alliance.  Here, once again, the character of inter-allied political tension today is not fundamentally different from or worse than previous crises.  Transatlantic relations have certainly been better than they are today, especially among the heads of state and governments in the alliance.  Trump employs a rhetoric and style of engagement with allies that defies easy comparison.  But there have been much deeper substantive crises in transatlantic relations before. 

  • Consider, for example, the Suez crisis of 1956, at the height of the Cold War, when the United States sided with the Soviet Union, opposed France and Britain while each had military forces in harm’s way, and even waged economic warfare on the UK to compel the capitulation of its NATO allies.  (And while this was happening, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary.) 
  • As a rebuke of NATO institutions, France’s 1966 expulsion and partial withdrawal has no historical parallel. 
  • Style-wise, recall transatlantic trauma over the 2003 Iraq war that the contemporaneous U.S. ambassador to NATO described as a “near death experience” for the alliance, with diplomats shouting coarse language in formal proceedings, a spectacularly petty and juvenile expression of contempt in the U.S. Congress renaming of French fries as “freedom fries”, and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin hurling abuse with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in dueling televised remarks that today might occur on Twitter. 

None of these are proud moments for the alliance; but their recollection ought to provide some reassurance of its resilience.

One area that may show signs of something genuinely different is in the institutional relations between NATO and the EU, which have recently begun to show historically unusual levels of cooperation.  NATO and the EU have had formal links since the early 2000s, notably including the so-called “Berlin Plus” arrangements for NATO to support EU-led operations.  But a significant increase in collaboration has occurred following a joint declaration by the two institutions in Warsaw in 2016.  In fewer than two years following that declaration, EU and NATO leaders agreed to more than 70 specific collaborations on matters including hybrid threats, cyber defense, defense planning, capability development, and operational coordination, among others.  NATO-EU cooperation on military mobility is a signature issue.  Beyond this list of deliverables is a qualitative sense that genuine cooperation and progress is not only possible but increasingly normal and good.  Sustained organizational leadership at NATO and the EU, demonstrated results, and the eventual normalizing of more constructive ties all seem possible in a way few would have predicted just a few years ago.

Not a Crisis: A Critical Juncture, and an Opportunity

Overall, the most likely way ahead is a muddling through current challenge: NATO will likely adapt in incremental, functional ways that are pragmatic, sensible, painstaking, and take longer than many would hope but merit the consensus they earn.  The current sense of  “crisis” will take its place in history.  Stand-alone EU efforts will probably come up short.

However unlikely, bold change remains possible.  And the current environment, including and especially because of its great challenges, might really warrant some bold action.  Some challenges are familiar, such as Russia, terrorism, regional instability.  Others are newer, such as cyber and other shifts in technology that will transform the character of warfare, global changes in balance of power like the rise of China that call both for new thinking but also might usefully draw on NATO’s record of success.  The December 2019 NATO summit meeting in London shows that the alliance is waking up to these challenges and opportunities.[8]

A new transatlantic bargain would need to start with some adjustments on both sides of the Atlantic.  In the United States, this begins with a “back to basics” accounting of Europe’s potential.  The European Union and the United States remain the world’s two largest economies and each other’s most integrated trade and economic partners.  Europe, through NATO, is the location of most American treaty allies.  And, particularly in contrast to the World Wars of the last century, the legacy of transatlantic partnership during the last seventy years has been one of the greatest historical triumphs of peace and prosperity ever—hugely beneficial on both sides.

Such facts underline the common interests in security and prosperity that are the basis of the transatlantic alliance, whatever its institutional forms.  But a U.S. view of Europe as important should also encourage and accommodate one of greater strength and maturity as a security actor.  European non-dependence on the United States could free both Europe and America to share defense burdens more satisfactorily, a shared goal of both European and American leaders – including and perhaps especially President Trump.  A stronger Europe less dependent on the United States for security frees the United States to allocate its resources elsewhere.  A stronger, less dependent Europe also gives the United States greater incentives to value and seek partnership with European to tackle shared regional and global challenges.

Europe, for its part, would be well served to abandon quixotic and duplicative institutional initiatives that end up undermined from within by Atlanticist forces in Europe that want to keep the United States “in” Europe (as Lord Ismay would say).  Instead, Europe could pursue greater leadership within NATO.  A foundation for success already exists, building on the legacy of seventy years of adaptation of NATO institutions, appreciating the historical lessons of how NATO adapts and what kinds of adaptations tend to work best, and seizing the potential momentousness of this critical juncture’s threats as well as opportunities from the momentum of closer NATO-EU institutional collaboration and shared transatlantic interest in a stronger European defense.  Such a more European-run NATO was the original vision of NATO’s founding figures.  So back to the future.

[1] Seth A. Johnston, How NATO Adapts: Strategy and Organization in the Atlantic Alliance since 1950 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Jean-Yves Haine, “Lectures: Seth Johnston, How NATO Adapts,” Politique Étrangère 3:2017, pp. 186-187.

[2] Giovanni Capoccia and R. Daniel Kelemen, “The Study of Critical Junctures: Theory, Narrative, and Counterfactuals in Historical Institutionalism” World Politics59, no. 3 (April 2007).

[3] Remarks at the EU – Foreign Policy Defense Forum, Washington, D.C., 6 June 2019.

[4] For Eisenhower’s view, see Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace:The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 148.

[5] Remarks by Secretary Gates at the Security and Defense Agenda, Brussels, Belgium, 10 June 2011, https://archive.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=4839

[6] Dina Smeltz, et. al., America Engaged: American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2018, https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/report_ccs18_america-engaged_181002.pdf.

[8] Although personal tensions among heads of state grabbed many headlines, allies agreed to several noteworthy developments: recognizing outer space as an “operational domain” and acknowledging China’s growing influence for the first time, and an awkwardly named “forward-looking reflection process” that may lead to a review of NATO overarching strategic concept.  London Declaration, Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in London, 3-4 December 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_171584.htm?selectedLocale=en

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