Looking Beyond NATO Europe Must Plan to Defend Itself

Europe has long relied on America for its defense. But that era is rapidly coming to an end. It is time for a stronger European defense alliance that is less dependent on the U.S. and more capable of asserting its own interests with Russia and Turkey.

A NATO exercise in Poland

A NATO exercise in Poland

A DER SPIEGEL Editorial by

It is, perhaps, the least expected opening to a German editorial at the moment: Donald Trump is right. But it's true. At the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, Germany announced that it would soon dramatically increase its defense spending. When Trump and his Defense Secretary James Mattis now admonish Germany to fulfill its pledge, they are right on two counts. First, on principle: Promises should be kept. Second, on merit: There is no reason that, more than 70 years after World War II, the United States should continue carrying the main burden for ensuring European security.

Unfortunately, this isn't just a question of money. America's justified demand comes right in the middle of an internal crisis in the West so deep that nobody knows how much of the West will be left in the end. NATO always aspired to be something more than a defense alliance. It viewed itself as the protective power of liberal democracy, the West and Western principles. It was a moral framework, the foundations for their existence. But are we certain that the West is still a community of shared values? If it's not, then what is NATO defending? Countries like Hungary and Poland, where right-wing populists are eroding the separation of powers, minority protections and freedom of the press? A Turkey that President Erdogan is currently in the process of transforming into a dictatorship? And are we really ready to stand at America's side if Trump goes to war against Iran, North Korea or some other country?

Defense spending among NATO members

Defense spending among NATO members

NATO is not obsolete, but it's importance is dwindling. It has become hollow. One could view that as a delayed symptom of its own success. It helped bring democracy to Europe, it contained and integrated Germany and it drove the Soviet Union to collapse. Ultimately, it was inevitable it would eventually fall into crisis. A defense alliance whose opponents disappear will face an existential crisis sooner or later.

The alliance followed up its greatest success with a profound failure. NATO was unsuccessful in turning Russia into a partner. The fears harbored by the Baltic and Central European states are thus understandable. As are Russian suspicions of the alliance. Either way, an alliance whose sole justification is its opposition to Russia is out of date. America has long since viewed its most vital security interests to be in the Pacific region and the Middle East. And for Europe, North Africa and the Middle East are at least as important as Russia.

Europe Needs Stronger Defense

The era in European history when the Continent could delegate its security to a partner across the Atlantic has passed, irrevocably. That will remain true even after Trump is no longer in the White House. Trump, after all, is a symptom of the crisis in the West, not its cause. America remains a possible partner for Europe, but it is no longer a reliable one. Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference, rightly warned Europeans not to write America off as a partner. That would be premature. But it would also be reckless and naïve if Europe were not to prepare for the fact that it can no longer unconditionally rely on the United States.

In the medium-term, Europe must be capable of sufficiently defending itself and providing for its own security. What is most needed in order to make that happen is unity. If Germany and other Europeans now spend more on defense, they will also have to increase their military cooperation as well as massively expand the EU's Common Security and Defense Policy. Europe's alliance should not replace NATO, but it must enable Europeans to stand by each other if the Americans will no longer do it.

America's withdrawal actually represents an opportunity for Europe. The idea of Europe being a junior partner could finally be consigned to the dustbin of history and lead Europe to begin defining its own interests. That includes a reasonable relationship with Russia that isn't based exclusively on deterrence. That also includes making clear to Turkey that there are limits to solidarity if Ankara plays with fire in Syria or if the conflict with the Kurds further escalates. That could also include making some trade-policy concessions during the Brexit negotiations in exchange for British participation in a joint European defense partnership. Ultimately, a Europe that is serious about its own security will also have to consider nuclear deterrence. This doesn't mean that Germany needs to build a bomb, as some have pondered. But it would require a level of trust in the nuclear power of France that Germany has so far only reserved for the United States.

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annoyedx10 02/24/2017
1. Not about Trump; well a little...
Let's begin by declaring it's not about Trump; well a little. How did we get here and where trending paths might lead.? More precisely, what were the tipping points, and viewing those through the prism of history what are the likely outcomes. History has patterns that weave it-self—eventually—into an identifiable tapestry. While no single thread hints at what's to come, you can examine the different colored strands as they make their way through the warp and woof of current events and which will suggest its final motif and function. America's current and ugly polyester rug is no exception. We're repeating the worse parts of our collective histories and in places that should know bet-ter--I'm looking at you Europe! The Union's failure to act quickly and decisively during the 90's Balkan crisis exposed deep structural fissures. A bloody crisis was deposited on your threshold then, today's crisis spreads throughout the continent as fleeing masses seek shelter, unwelcomed by many of Europe's fearful people. The Balkans was an all too familiar and historically rele-vant circumstance, which should have served as a clang-like alarm to address the continent's joint national security issues--it did not. A union based only on economics cannot forestall threats from beyond its borders. Europe has no arrow in its quiver, no sharp point of the spear to defend itself from outside de-stabilizing events. Rational people realize all problems cannot, nor should be solved by military means but neither can they be solved by economic strategies alone. Europe's shying from its military, and often-bloody history, has not ensured an end to internal discord or a peaceful fu-ture. The Union's collective dithering has produced two observable results: A large part of its fearful citizenry uniting under demagogues incoherently suggesting solutions to problems that don't exist and wrong-headed finger pointing at others too weak to defend themselves. Does any of this seem familiar to you? By the way--and not for nothing--we here in the US are tired of pulling Europe's asses out of repeated fires of their own doing. Despite the image that we're all warmongers and eager to mess about in any conflict anywhere, we're not. Given that reputa-tion, many of the continent's elite often accuse us of being a naïve young nation, perhaps they're right. However, it's not clear to me where a 1,000 plus years of collected wisdom is doing you any better. Will Europe finally end its internecine angst and strongly unite—doubtful. Parts of Spain and Belgium cannot figure out the power of one, and Britain can't figure out the power of all. And why is the Netherlands flirting with the same type of fascists that occupied them during WW II? I am a liberal progressive of European descent but that doesn't blind me to the large gap in Eu-ro thinking. Please fix this….
st435 03/01/2017
Does anyone else think that Germany is dangerously rearming again? When will they learn? Oh and by the way, Germany, when you "assert own interests" with Russia, remember to take some warm clothes as it gets very cold in the winter in Russia. You don't want the wehrmacht starving to death do you.
Monty Morthole 03/02/2017
"Europe" (IOW Germany) can do as it pleases as long as Britain is not involved.
Monty Morthole 03/04/2017
You mean "Germany" can "assert" its interests, and it can do so (or not) without calling itself "Europe". I am an European, a real one, and I don't recall electing Frau Merkel or any other German politician.
afrikaneer 03/05/2017
5. Nato Weakness Is Only A Sale Pitch
The economic ties between China and the US are so intertwined that it is also a deterrent to wage war between two large economies; there is nothing wrong with the EU copying this symbiosis. If the EU gives in to pressure, they will be asked to buy more weapons year after year. Europe has another choice, and it is further expanding its economic horizons. It has done well with the current model, and it will continue to do so. Very soon, 500 million consumers will turn out in 600 hundred and so forth; there is political and economic power in these numbers. Contrary to the rhetoric of pundits and hawk politicians, I believe the EU and the US may take different paths to security issues. And yet, they will remain link by blood, religion, political values, friendship, and common adversaries. After all, it is economic sanctions ( not the threat of war) that brought Iran to the negotiating table. The EU should wait for later the decision to buy more weapons. A dependable NATO and an expanding economy will allow the EU to have its voice on world and defense matters. The new world order demands counterbalance rather than followers. Before Crimea Putin had his eyes in the EU footprint and economic model to diversify and expand prosperity in Russia. Putin someday may come to the negotiating table as Iran did. The sanctions are hurting Russia more than Putin is willing to admit. If NATO is weak as this article claims, why is Putin so hysteric having NATO soldiers in his backyard?
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