When asked about President Donald Trump’s July 2018 visit to Europe, Henry Kissinger presciently noted, “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses.” In other words, for all the uproar surrounding the president’s personality, something bigger is going on, and Trump has come to personify it. Perhaps the biggest challenge is, therefore, to put words to this shifting ground and imagine its potential consequences.
In this short essay, I argue that NATO is actually witnessing a return of European geopolitics that runs in parallel to the questioning of geopolitical priorities occurring in the United States. European allies clearly prefer continuity when it comes to NATO, but are also coming to realize that as power shifts, so too must institutions. If the big shift comes and the United States leaves NATO, Western Europe may scrape by, but Eastern Europe will pay the price with the loss of sovereignty. Averting this major shift requires a stronger Europe within NATO, not only in terms of budgets but also political influence. Yet it is not clear that the Atlantic allies are ready to recast their bargain and stick to it.
The German Question
Geopolitical malaise accompanied Trump at every stage of his European visit. His disdain for NATO allies was remarkable — at the NATO summit, he threatened that the United States might “go it alone” and later questioned whether he would come to the defense of Montenegro, a NATO ally — as was his disregard for British Prime Minister Theresa May’s need for a functioning special relationship with the United States, and his camaraderie with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Geopolitically speaking, it is appropriate that Trump should give much attention, first to Germany, and then two of its neighboring powers, Britain and Russia, but Trump’s German policy (and policy might be too strong a word) is both contradictory and incomplete.
The contradiction relates to the interpretation of whether or not Germany is masterfully in control of events. On the one hand, Trump indicates it is when he portrays Germany as a savvy mercantilist nation that out-trades its partners to run up outsized trade surpluses. This is not “fair and reciprocal,” he argues, but rather a critical national security threat to industries in the United States. This explains why the president can designate the European Union a “foe” of the United States ahead of traditional geopolitical rivals such as China and Russia. On the other hand, Trump argues that Germany has essentially lost its geopolitical free will and has become hostage to Russia on account of energy imports: “Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” is how he framed it at an opening event of the NATO summit in July.
Ruthless mastermind or Russian subject? These contradictory narratives about Germany may simply be tools of convenience for a president determined to disrupt relations and gain bargaining advantages, but they also reveal an incomplete understanding of Germany’s role in European and transatlantic geopolitics. Germany is the quintessential power in the middle that either gets to define the geopolitical order by East-West “flank” diplomacy, or which is brought into a wider order by one of its flanks — East or West. NATO is the face of a western order that, as Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first secretary-general, famously put it, serves to keep the United States in, Germany down, and Russia out.
By questioning the U.S. security guarantee in NATO, and by disrupting the Atlantic horizon that has defined the focal point for German foreign policy since the founding of the Federal Republic (post-1945), Trump is effectively inviting the return of European flank diplomacy. He has never addressed this issue and shows no sign of understanding its implications, and therefore there is no way of knowing how he feels about it. European diplomats clearly understand the drift, and abhor the prospect. To the extent that they will be successful in containing the scope of change, they must grapple with the intricacies of enlarging the European footprint inside NATO — Europeanizing the alliance — while simultaneously satisfying both American and European interests. If they cannot do this, they face the prospect of Atlantic disconnect and a fuller return to European geopolitics that might allow for continued collective defense in Western Europe but, tragically, a type of appeasement policy for Eastern Europe.
The Strategy of Choice
The strategy of choice of European leaders is to contain the possibility of full-scale Europeanization of security and defense issues. It implies NATO continuity, meaning a continued U.S. commitment to temper the geopolitical impulses of the European continent. To achieve this, allies are willing to let Trump claim (exaggerated) credit for raising allied defense budgets: According to my sources, on day two of the NATO summit when Trump, quite unprecedentedly, derailed a partnership meeting with renewed criticism of allied defense spending, allied heads of state urged him to claim credit for budgetary increases they knew full well had been set in motion before the Trump presidency. More than this, they have invested in the range of policy issues that align with mainstream U.S. security interests — force readiness and conventional deterrence, counter-terrorism, cyber defense, enhanced support for Afghan security force training and North Korean diplomacy, and addressing Iran’s military capabilities — all of which featured in the NATO summit declaration. It is effectively a message that European allies continue to support the infrastructure — NATO — that not only stabilizes Europe but also offers the United States both a staging ground for Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African engagements and early warning systems for the defense, not of allies, but of the continental United States.
The strategy of choice is, thus, to push for a greater European footprint inside NATO, where European allies invest in shared, but also, notably, U.S. security priorities in return for NATO’s continued containment of flank diplomacy in Europe. It is not a strategy that resonates with Trump, but it does resonate with the U.S. defense establishment led by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, as well as the vast majority of the U.S. Congress. Thus, to align with the latter and steer clear of presidential tantrums, some allied and NATO officials have toyed with the idea of changing the format of NATO summitry to privilege defense business over political grandstanding — a possible change of pace for the alliance’s 70th anniversary summit in 2019.
Even if this attempt at containing both Trump and full Atlantic disconnect is successful, the allies will still face the challenge of change — of shifting more of the burden to Europe and creating a more equal partnership. How Europe (and Canada) can gain a voice in an alliance traditionally shaped around U.S. leadership is a key question. The United States has historically opposed a European caucus inside NATO, and Europeans are not going to settle for a division of labor whereby they do light development work and leave serious defense business to U.S.-led coalitions. At a minimum, therefore, in this new era exposed by Trump’s presidency, the allies must take on the challenging task of shifting burdens to Europe but also offering Europe greater influence in alliance affairs — something that conflicts with Trump’s preference for bilateral negotiations.
How a more European but still Atlantic NATO could work out is really anybody’s guess. NATO has a treaty provision, Article 4, guaranteeing “consultations” on issues of major importance to allied nations, but the format for such consultations has historically been contested and varied. For as long as the U.S. commitment to NATO seemed rock solid, the European allies were generally content to shape U.S. policy by various, indirect formats of European cooperation — sometimes in improvised format (such as European Political Cooperation), sometimes via low-level initiatives in NATO (such as the Eurogroup), sometimes by reviving dormant frameworks of consultations (such as the Western European Union), and sometimes by exploiting the security dimension of the European Union. Now, in this new era, as Kissinger labels it, the challenge is one of moving Europeanization to the highest political level inside the alliance itself to satisfy desires in the United States for burden-sharing and in Europe for influence in a continued alliance.
Western Europe Versus Eastern Europe
There are many obvious risks involved in the current strategy of choice, and Trump’s inclinations and behavior are not the only ones. American impatience with allied efforts could become systemic in the U.S. body politic and inside the defense establishment, or Europeans could come to demand too many diplomatic concessions of the United States. If either comes to pass, the dreaded prospect of full Europeanization presents itself. It will not be without costs for the United States, which would lose its staging area along with a significant number of operational and political partners, and would have to engage an emboldened Russia. Still, it is a prospect that cannot be written off.
The challenge for Europeans is then to contain flank diplomacy within a European framework of institutionalized cooperation, which is going to be difficult under the best of circumstances. It will involve France and Britain cooperating with Germany to maintain the collective institutions that are the precondition of Germany’s current restrained foreign policy. France will be the partner of choice in the European Union, while Britain will have a lead role to play in a fully Europeanized NATO — in effect taking over the offshore role from the United States. But neither institution will have much muscle power on the eastern flank.
Getting such a Western European construct to function would not be impossible, although it would be difficult. Britain seems particularly unprepared for the task as it has exited the European Union and become engulfed in a crisis of national identity. The political forces behind Brexit offer various dubious visions of global or transatlantic engagement that consistently depict Europe as being in contradiction to the interests and ideas of a mythic Anglosphere. For the foreseeable future, Britain will be preoccupied with its divorce settlement with the European Union. After that, it will have to start afresh in articulating its long-term interest in engaging a German and French-led European Union, on the one hand, and Russia on the other. Britain’s troubled relationship with Russia might seem to presage a leadership role in a Europeanized NATO, but the political strength of such a recast NATO presupposes Britain’s reconciliation with France and Germany.
France, meanwhile, seems as unprepared as Germany and other E.U. partners to contemplate the idea of extending French nuclear deterrence as a bulwark of continued E.U. integration, particularly in the domain of defense and hard security where the European Union hitherto has thrived in the shadow of a transatlantic NATO. Should the strategy of choice — Europeanization within NATO — fail, France and Germany will have to tackle this delicate topic. It will likely take the shape of a grand bargain involving financial integration (in addition to monetary integration) and security and defense policy integration. It is unthinkable that France will engage this in a European Union of 28 or more members. Remaining in line with both its historical and current policy, it will demand the “deepening” of institutions along with the “widening” of common competences, with deepening being a code word for a multi-tiered E.U. structure built around a core of Franco-German cooperation. The European Union would thus undergo a transformation, gaining political depth by returning to its point of origins — the geopolitics of Rhineland cooperation — and once again questioning the place and role of Eastern Europe in the European security order.
Eastern Europe is, then, where one most vividly encounters flank diplomacy. Most of Eastern Europe has made it into the two big western institutions — NATO and the European Union — but as the West diminishes, the Eastern European question reappears. The central issue is whether Western Europe can reorganize itself and extend security eastwards. In terms of collective defense guarantees capable of effectively deterring Russia, it seems implausible.
European diplomats will be aware of the history of the 1925 Locarno Pact through which the western powers and Germany, by settling the western flank, de facto exposed the eastern flank to the expansionary policy of Germany. By 1939, Eastern European questions led the world into renewed world war. At Locarno, the issue was one of defense credibility: Western powers could offer credible assurances in regards to their own western borders but not those in Eastern Europe. Thus, Locarno became a de facto invitation for the revisionist power, Germany, to orient its appetite for aggrandizement eastwards. In the post-Cold War world, transatlantic NATO has prevented such sacrificing of Eastern Europe. However, if the United States leaves NATO, the question is how a revisionist Russia will be inhibited from acting similarly. Russia is not Germany in the 1930s, for sure, but Putin’s repeatedly expressed regret over the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, stoking of eastern Ukrainian “insurrections,” and engagement in hybrid war more generally signal a return to this type of geopolitical question.
Russia’s fortune is that the coordination of U.S. and Western European détente policies is likely to remain difficult for the foreseeable future. The United States, if it leaves NATO to the Europeans, could be expected to focus its Russia dialogue on China and the wider Middle East: This is already the subtext read into Trump’s personal diplomacy with Putin by some observers (in effect, a reverse Nixon, opening Russia to contain China). Meanwhile, Western Europe would primarily seek a settlement — an accord — for the continent. They might bring in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to provide cover, but this really would be a de facto movement of the East-West frontier westwards, opening a wider space for dual or mixed influence. Naturally, Eastern European countries would not silently submit to this process, but they would have few options with U.S. priorities moving from NATO to containing China, and Western Europe struggling to cohere, and thus contain western flank diplomacy.
Geopolitically speaking, in such a new European order, countries in proximity to Germany, notably Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and perhaps Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia would have a fair chance of resisting Russian influence by adhering to the core E.U. powers — if that is their desire. However, political currents in both Poland and Hungary indicate it may not be. The litmus test would be the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania: Would Russia respect their sovereignty, or would its appetite for influence grow as NATO’s role diminishes? Perhaps Western Europe and the United States could manage to coordinate their détente policies toward Russia to the point where Russia would become convinced of making gains elsewhere (e.g., central Asia and the Middle East), if it were to go easy on Eastern Europe. It is an uncomfortable hope for Eastern European nations, however, and the prospect for such hopeful thinking would, again, be easiest to detect in the Baltics. The underlying fact remains that, if the United States were to leave NATO, the power underpinning NATO enlargement would be gone and geopolitical adjustments in Eastern Europe would be necessary.
NATO is unraveling and world crisis is upon us, writes Robert Kagan in response to the 2018 NATO summit. Kagan thus starkly depicts the worst-case scenario outlined in this essay. If Trump embodies a fatigue in the U.S. political system with enduring alliances, and if Russia becomes a U.S. partner of choice in tipping the scales of Eurasian land power against China, then NATO as a transatlantic alliance would indeed unravel, and Europe’s peace would be in question.
Still, even in this bleak scenario, it is unlikely that NATO would go away. Rather, Britain is likely to step in as continental Europe’s offshore power, though, of course, with diminished capabilities compared to those of the United States. A Europeanized NATO would tie Britain to the continent and perhaps become part of the answer to the troubled British-E.U. relationship. The European Union would not be able to stand still in the face of such a security transformation. France and Germany would likely seek to rescue their institutional project by accelerating the construction of a core that would allow France to extend security guarantees to Germany in return for French access to German financial governance, and which would create an E.U. periphery, notably in Eastern Europe, alongside countries such as Ukraine and Belarus. It is probable that Western Europe could rescue its commitment to collective institutions, including collective defense, but it is unlikely that it could extend security guarantees far eastwards, as NATO today is able to. A revised bargain with Russia will then become necessary, one in which the sovereignty of Eastern European countries will be questioned.
Naturally, this is not the current strategy of choice. Rather, NATO diplomats are hoping to wait out Trump while simultaneously acting to secure Europe’s greater input into, and say within, NATO. The hope is that, by Europeanizing NATO sufficiently, the allies can continue the transatlantic bargain that contains the geopolitical impulses of the European continent — keeping Russia at bay and keeping Germany embedded within a solid collective institution. However, even if Trump were to go, such a renewed bargain raises difficult questions of how Europe can take on more burdens and gain a greater voice in an alliance to which the United States remains committed. In this regard, Trump has done the allies the service of exposing the scope of NATO’s geopolitical challenge. Perhaps enhanced political awareness thereof will make the strategy of choice — of continued transatlantic cooperation — more likely to endure, but there is no going back to “your daddy’s NATO,” to paraphrase former NATO secretary-general Lord George Robertson. Geopolitical adjustment will take place. The question is whether western leaders will remain in control.
About the Author
Sten Rynning is a professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Southern Denmark, where he also heads the Center for War Studies. He researches NATO and modern war.
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