Rasmussen – Europe needs its allies in NATO

This op ed appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung on the 11th July. To read the article click here. Recent sparring across the Transatlantic has many Europeans asking whether the security alliance that won the Cold War- and kept the peace for 70 years – is fading. At the upcoming NATO summit, all eyes will be on President […]

This op ed appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung on the 11th July. To read the article click here.

Recent sparring across the Transatlantic has many Europeans asking whether the security alliance that won the Cold War- and kept the peace for 70 years – is fading.

At the upcoming NATO summit, all eyes will be on President Trump to see whether he repeats his recent G7 performance and casts aside long-term American strategic thinking for a transactional ‘America First’ attitude. I sincerely hope that he does not. The EU and NATO are not taking America for a ride; they are the institutions that have prevented American teenagers from dying on the battlefields of Europe, when our conflicts spill over across the Atlantic.

However, President Trump will raise once more the issue of ‘burden sharing’, and Europe’s defence spending shortfall. But let’s not get distracted by his unique style, but remember that President Obama made the very same call during his eight years in office. Increasing defence spending is not a preamble to military conflict; quite the opposite. ‘Peace through strength’ was a strategy adopted by Ronald Reagan, and in Europe we saw the positive effects that it helped to bring about in the late 1980s.

Many European allies are now moving in the right direction; from just three allies in 2014, eight are now set to spend 2% of GDP on defence this year. Seven more are on a path towards boosting defence budgets, and Germany counts among them. President Trump did not invent the 2% benchmark. All allies including the German government committed themselves to meet this obligation by the year 2024 at my last NATO summit as Secretary General in Wales. Just as many Germans are understandably concerned about having to pay for the liabilities of the Eurozone’s southern states, equally they should understand why Americans and others are reluctant to pay for Germany’s defence.

Shouldering our fair share of the burden when it comes to defence spending ensures America is more likely to stay engaged rather than looking inward. And in the process, we would be making sure we can address conflicts before they ignite while preventing authoritarian leaders from filling in the vacuum.

Likewise, bolstering defence spending may counterintuitively also help us improve our relations with Russia. After many years of dealing with President Putin, I can assure that he only respects strength. Berlin is not alone in seeking better relations with Russia. We all seek to return to our pre-2014 relationship and work together on common challenge, but this can only be possible when Moscow changes its aggressive behaviour, including in Ukraine.

However, fairer burden sharing now risks tipping over into an entirely different concept promoted by the post-Atlanticists, especially in Germany: ‘Strategic Autonomy’. The notion that Europe should have the capability to act independently of the U.S. in a wide range of security issues is not new, but recent events have driven the notion to the fore that Europe must learn to take care of itself. I believe that we need to be cautious about what we seek to achieve here. Europe needs better defensive capabilities, no doubt; we lack heavy lift equipment and our internal borders slow down troop movements across the continent. Addressing these shortfalls is essential, but we should avoid falling into an ideological trap where stronger European capabilities become antagonistic against the transatlantic bond. This is not a zero-sum game.

We should ask one important question: is strategic autonomy enough given the arc of instability on Europe’s borders, and the many fires burning around the globe? I believe not.

Whether dealing with a resurgent Russia, the powder keg Middle East, China’s rise, or the challenge of terrorism, Europe cannot go it alone. We face our own internal divisions from Brexit to the rise of populism and anti-liberal forces – all of which Russia is skillfully manipulating through its disinformation and election interference. Europe must look both at the bigger political picture and realise that our long-term strategic interests still lie in a strong transatlantic partnership.

The policy disagreements with President Trump cannot be brushed aside, especially the USA’s self-defeating and divisive trade tariffs. Countries that should be working together to forge the global trading rule-book have been forced into a trade spat that enables China to rewrite the rules. But in the trade debacle, we should take a lesson: Europe is a major power, but when it comes to dealing with big strategic challenges to global trade, EU power alone is not enough. We should take a step back and apply the same logic to strategic autonomy in defence matters. The narrative of the transatlantic alliance based on common values is not a frivolous fairy tale: it is the life insurance policy of our liberal democracies as we know them.

At the forthcoming Brussels summit, there are no high expectations. President Trump is unlikely to take a strategic outlook in how he sees his European allies. Instead of seeing the EU and NATO as building blocks of stability that have allowed America to grow into a superpower, he sees states that have taken America for a ride. However, President Trump also told the Economic Forum in Davos that ‘America First does not mean America Alone’. He is – like a good businessman – seeking to haggle a better deal out of Europe, and I do not believe he will walk away. His Congress will not allow him to.

Yet, in simply living up to our very own commitments from the NATO summit in Wales – greater defence spending – we can achieve a win-win situation: keeping the Transatlantic security alliance together, and strengthening Europe’s pillar within it. President Trump may not be thinking strategically here, which is why Europe must.

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