It’s nearly a quarter-century since the end of the cold war, Europe is once again becoming the world’s most important political arena. Iran, Syria, or China may dominate the headlines, but Europe is in the middle of its own 21st-century version of the “Great Game”. The two pillars of its post-1945 order, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation have quietly slipped into crisis. While the EU’s crisis is on front pages everywhere – albeit with far too little analysis of what’s really wrong with the integration project – the crisis befalling NATO is being witnessed by only a handful of transatlantic specialists.
NATO is in crisis because the European security market now runs a very real risk of losing its most important purveyor of military power: the United States. Americans have decided for financial and geopolitical reasons, and also out of ignorance, that their strategic interests in Europe are now secondary to those in Asia. As a result, America is to reduce its military footprint in Europe, even though it’s the footprint that anchored global affairs in security and stability for the past six decades; no other region of the world is as wealthy, free, democratic, innovative and responsible as the North Atlantic.
Worse, America is losing its sense of responsibility for Europe, despite its crucial importance to its own security and economic well-being. And Europeans, out of weakness and a complete misreading of geopolitical realities together with sheer laziness, seem to be letting this happen as if it were just another minor inconvenience. Instead of investing in the alliance to ensure it remains of interest to its key member, they consistently cut their defence budgets. Both American and European leaders thus seem to have forgotten the basic geopolitical lessons that their forebears learned the hard way.
This bout of collective amnesia comes at a very bad time. Today’s threats cannot be resolved by individual nations. They are also threats that are less predictable, more complicated and more expensive to counter. The biggest threat to security and stability in Europe, however, is the inability of European nations to recognise that their sovereignty can only be retained if they are willing to share it. Alliances are therefore needed more than ever – but in ways that are fundamentally different.
Karl-Heinz Kamp is right that in Chicago NATO members will be talking about “smart defence”, a new take on the age-old idea of pooling and sharing military assets. This may sound boring, but in reality it’s dynamite. Smart defence touches upon all the most crucial issues, from diverging ambitions, to lack of money, obsessions about sovereignty and a widespread lack of trust. If ever it were to be implemented, everything we think we know about NATO would change: budgets, defence planning, training, force generation, operations, internal decision-making and the organisational set-up. Transnational military assets would require transnational planning, budgeting and command procedures. New ways to establish parliamentary legitimacy and political oversight would have to be found. So military pooling and sharing would lead to political pooling and sharing; no wonder defence ministries are at best lukewarm about smart defence. They either don’t understand its scope, or if they do they see it as a threat. Progress in Chicago on smart defence will therefore be small, with few tangible results to come out of the summit. Transatlantic drift will continue, but at least the remedy is known. It may seem like science fiction, but it is NATO’s last hope.
Jan Techau is the Director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels - email@example.com.