“Nato continues to be the lynchpin, the cornerstone of our collective defence and US security policy,” Barack Obama said in April 2016, while still US president.
[timgcaqp=Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO.]NATOSecretaryGeneralJensStoltenberg14April2018_large.jpg[/timgcap]
The anniversary of the breaching of the Berlin Wall, and the consequent collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet empire, is one that without doubt warrants celebration three decades on. The populist — that word need not always be used with a hand over our noses — insurrection against Moscow and its stooges across Eastern Europe is known to the Germans as Die Wende, ‘the turning point’.
It would not have been possible without the manifest resolve of the Nato alliance to stand firm, at a colossal financial cost, against the Soviet threat. The question for Nato presidents and prime ministers as they prepare to meet in London next month is more than a little existential: Is it now another Die Wende moment for the partnership that has kept most of Europe safe and free?
Mr Trump has said he thinks the alliance is “obsolete”, but that is not really what he means. He is not the only US politician — Republican or Democrat — who quite reasonably cannot understand why their taxpayers should continue paying for almost 70% of Nato’s spending, while only six European members (Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Britain) stump up their fair share based on what their economies can afford.
It’s worth noting here that Greek defence spending owes more to its historic fear of Turkey — also a Nato member — than its concern for the rest of Europe. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo sets out the problem rationally:
“If nations believe they can get the security benefit without providing Nato with the resources it needs, if they don’t live up to their commitments, there is a risk that Nato could become ineffective or obsolete.”
European thinking on the matter has ranged from the incoherent to the delusional. French president Emmanuel Macron previously called Nato “braindead”, a condition which, as far as we know, is irremediable.
But Mr Macron has of late been opening his mouth before thinking about what comes out of it. He has complained about immigration from Bulgaria, seemingly forgetting that it’s an EU country whose people have the right to work in France. In the EU, it’s called free movement.
Earlier this year, he lectured Germany on the shortcomings of its economic growth model, which he said had “perhaps run its course”, seemingly unaware of his failure to tackle France’s endemic economic problems: High unemployment and uninspiring productivity.
What Mr Macron wants is, in the Brussels jargon, “European strategic autonomy” or, in the language of the street, an integrated European army and — why not? — navy and air force. If he gets what he wants, this could be a problem for neutral Ireland, since all EU members would be expected to shoulder their share of the cost.
Meanwhile, since Mr Macron’s vision is not one in which Britain — in or out of the EU — will have the slightest interest, there are no prizes for naming the only other country capable of joining France in paying for such a venture, and paying considerably more than it has been willing so far to contribute to Nato’s bills.
But when push comes to American shoves, Germany’s Angela Merkel — hanging on to power in a tottering centrist coalition and facing the growing popularity of far-right nationalists in the country’s eastern regions — distances herself from Mr Macron’s fantasy. Nato, she says, is the “cornerstone of security for Germany”; his “drastic” view of the alliance is not hers.
Of course, this is the chancellor under whose leadership Germany’s kit-starved military — with assault rifles useless in temperatures that are too high, tanks that don’t work, ships that can’t sail and fighter jets that can’t be flown — would be hard-pressed to defend a beer hall.
Direct responsibility for this mess lies largely with Ursula von der Leyen who was, until her appointment as the next European Commission president, Germany’s defence minister.
The country’s military chiefs were not unhappy to see the end of her six years at the ministry, where her successor has had bad news for them. Germany will not be able to meet Nato’s 2% of GDP spending target until 2031.
Ms von der Leyen’s contribution to the debate on Nato’s future has changed with the seasons. “Europe needs”, she wrote in January, “to improve its ability to act on behalf of its own security… Europe’s army is already taking shape. Europe remains a unique creation, uniting half a billion citizens in the name of freedom and prosperity. This Europe must be able to defend itself.”
Calling for a defence union, in an observation that very possibly lost much in translation, she said: “Europe must be able to act independently precisely in the areas where Europe must act independently.”
By October, she was extolling Nato as the world’s “most powerful defence alliance”, but within weeks was changing her tune:
“The EU needs to take a more active role in global politics if it wants to protect its interests… This means building our own muscles in areas where we’ve long been relying on others, for example in security policies.” Putting aside the blather, let’s put the incoming Commission president down as a Don’t Know when it comes to Nato’s future.
Nothing of the slightest value will be achieved at next month’s Nato summit if leaders on this side of the ocean are unable to sign up to a consensus that, firstly, puts a stop to reckless anti-American talk of a European army and, secondly, accepts the need for all its members to pay their fair share for a trans-Atlantic alliance that has served our continent well since its foundation in 1949.