NATO has always been seen as something of a two edged sword by many European federalists. First, they recognize, that as NATO’s first ever Secretary General, General (Ret’d) Hasting “Pug” Ismay, is reputed to have said, “The role of NATO is to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, the French up and the Germans down,” although I have heard less polite versions, in NATO circles, where Commies, Yanks, Frogs and Huns are used, but, generally, Pug Ismay’s quip accurately described NATO for almost 50 years. But, simultaneously, many Euro-federalists felt and still feel that they are under a yoke of American dominance.
NATO never sat too well with many French intellectuals and with those, like Charles de Gaulle, who hankered after a return of “la gloire,” described as “a national glory that was all in the past, or perhaps only in his mind.” But it wasn’t just “le grand Charles,” many modern European leaders also chafe under what they have seen, since about 1990, as American dominance that is no longer justified by America’s strategic reach or its grasp. De Gaulle, famously, removed French armed forces from NATO’s military command structure and both he and several of his successors have proposed, and, now and again have found some support for, a European Defence “community” aligned, somehow, with the EU.
Now the idea has surfaced again and two articles in the Financial Times highlight the divisions that have opened between America and Europe:
The first article says that “The US is concerned that EU plans for closer defence ties between the bloc’s members risk undermining Nato as the alliance confronts a resurgent Russia;” and
The second reports that “For years, the US has been complaining that EU countries do not spend enough on their own military capabilities …[but] … “Now we’re trying to do that, and it’s not right either,” Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, told delegates at the Munich Security Conference this weekend … [because] … A high-level annual meeting of US and European politicians, generals and defence experts, the conference was this year dominated by calls from Germany and France for Europe to stand on its own two feet — and US qualms about what that might mean for the transatlantic alliance. Indeed US misgivings about attempts to forge closer defence ties within the EU could become a significant irritant in relations with the US.“
The second article goes on to say that “Washington’s attention is focused on permanent structured co-operation, or Pesco, which is shaping up to be the EU’s most serious attempt yet at forging closer defence ties. Of its 28 member states, 25 have signed up to the scheme that involves 17 projects ranging from improving military mobility to developing a new infantry fighting vehicle … [and] … EU officials claim this is simply a response to longstanding calls by Washington for Europe to contribute more to Nato, which have only grown louder since Donald Trump became president. Mr Trump spooked the US’s European allies with his “America First” rhetoric, his description of Nato as “obsolete” and his failure last May to reiterate American support for the alliance’s Article 5 provision, under which members commit to each others’ mutual defence.“
The first article says that US Defence Secretary James Mattis “put down an important marker: there was, he said, a clear understanding that common defence is a Nato mission that belongs to Nato “alone”.” But Sigmar Gabriel, the acting German foreign minister, responded by saying that “the US should not stand in Europe’s way. “No one should try to divide the EU — not Russia, not China, but also not the US,” he told the conference.” Reinhard Bütikofer, a Green member of the European Parliament, said “the Europeans should avoid saying they were seeking “strategic autonomy”, an expression used by Florence Parly, the French defence minister, on Friday. “Strategic autonomy must mean the ability to wage war independently,” he said. “That’s neither realistic, nor should Europe even be aspiring to that … [but] … Some Europeans suspect that US reservations are focused less on concerns about Nato than on fears for the US defence industry. “If the EU develops its own fighter aircraft, it won’t need any more Lockheed Martin F-35s,” said one senior MP from Germany’s governing CDU party. “If we really consolidate the European arms industry then it’s that industry that will get the contracts from the EU and that means more competition for US arms exporters.”“
“Tomas Valasek, director of Carnegie Europe and a former Slovak ambassador to Nato, said that any US effort to push back against an EU common defence and security policy would be a “waste of time and energy” … [because] … “This ship has sailed,” he said. “The first George W Bush administration spent four years trying to block EU defence policy before concluding, rightly, that it’s better to channel the initiative than to stop it.”“
All this took place at the Munich Security Conference which took place this past week-end, 16 to 18 February; the Canadian delegation appears to have been headed by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland; Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan attended but did not have a speaking role. None of the “top level” of the DND bureaucracy, Jody Mitchell, the Deputy Minister, Bill Mathews the Senior Associate Deputy Minister nor General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff appear on the list of participants. Minister Freeland was, however, in full Canadian virtue signalling mode going on about “progressive values” while James Mattis and the Europeans argued about the impact of PESCO and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu and sundry Middle Eastern princes, potentates and dictators sparred, verbally, about the status of hostilities in, arguably, the world’s most dangerous region, and while Theresa May offered but Europe seemed not to keen to address the UK’s role in European security after the Brexit.
(I’m not sure how long Minister Sajjan stayed in Munich since he seemed to pop up, Sunday, in New Delhi for Prime Minister Trudeau’s
vacation visit in India. Edited to add: But it appears that unlike the prime minister, who is on vacation on the taxpayers’ dime, Minister Sajjan is having several potentially useful meetings in India. Good for him … at least someone in the Trudeau regime is earning their pay.)
The question of European Security is serious; serious enough as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, that “Canadian troops have also returned to Europe for the first time in a generation, leading a multinational battlegroup in Latvia.” Russia, as I have pointed out several times, remains real, baleful, unpredictable threat to the peace in Europe. The volatile Middle East, where nuclear armed Israel faces threats of annihilation is on NATO’s South Eastern flank. Africa is in turmoil and the Congo threatens to boil over again. The United Nations remains institutionally unable to plan, manage and conduct robust combat operations … if Africa needs to be rescued it may have to be NATO, again, as it was in the Balkans and Afghanistan. And, of course, North Korea wants a nuclear tipped missile that can reach North America ~ Canada’s part of that continent ~ and North America is part of NATO.
NATO has evolved into more than just an agency to “keep the Reds out, the Yanks in and Germans down,” it is now a global military force that may be dragged into or pushed into or stumble into conflicts anywhere. I, personally, think NATO is badly designed, poorly led and mismanaged, but it is all there is, right now. The dispute over burden sharing is not new … the Europeans (less the Brits and Danes) and Canada have shirked their duties to the alliance (and to their own peoples) for years, even generations (since 1969 in Canada’s case) and now they might be proposing to do better; I think the US’ main concern is that if Europe ever does get its military-industrial act together it could challenge the US’ commercial dominance of defence industries.
But, in the end, this years Munich Security Conference was, The Economist says all talk (analysis) and no concrete steps forward: “Nothing illustrates that gap between rhetoric and action as well as Germany itself. The representatives of Europe’s largest economy made all the right noises in Munich. In a grand speech roaming from America and Ukraine to Syria and North Korea, Sigmar Gabriel, the foreign minister, warned that Europe needed to do more for its own security: “it’s going to be damned hard for us as the only vegetarians in a world of carnivores”. Ursula von der Leyen, the German defence minister tipped to be the next head of NATO, issued a similar overture: “Europe must now begin to finally build up momentum… We will increase the Bundeswehr’s personnel strength. We will continue to invest and modernise.”“
But what about the “concrete steps” for which Conference coordinators hoped? Well, German Foreign Minister Gabriel, The Economist says, “concretely—skipped a meeting of the so-called Normandy group on Ukraine (France, Germany, Ukraine, Russia) so he could return to Berlin and share the credit for the release in Turkey of the imprisoned German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel. To be sure, this was a happy moment, but one requiring his presence decidedly less than the rare chance to address the ongoing bloodshed in eastern Ukraine that he canned to be there. The foreign minister’s rhetoric at the MSC also contrasted starkly with his proudly “vegetarian” message to German voters during the election campaign last year, when he toured the country portraying Angela Merkel as a poodle of Donald Trump for backing NATO’s target for defence spending of 2% of GDP, which he declared tantamount to an “arms race” … [and it’s] … Not that Germany is in much danger of hitting the target. Under the freshly negotiated coalition deal between Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Mr Gabriel’s Social Democrats (SPD) the percentage will not exceed 1.5%. The document’s language on defence is intensely vague. And four years into Mrs von der Leyen’s modernisation programme, Germany’s armed forces remain in a pitiful state, depleted after decades of post-Cold War neglect. The country is struggling to marshal enough working Leopard tanks for its modest—albeit welcome and historically unprecedented—NATO deployment in Lithuania. Its entire submarine fleet is out of service. The Luftwaffe’s planes and helicopters are available, on average, for around four months of the year. Earlier last week André Wüstner, the chairman of the German Bundeswehr Association, said the country might as well dissolve its armed forces if it was not prepared to make them deployable … [then] … Mrs von der Leyen also talked about aid spending, where Germans are more comfortable. She asked: what is the point of liberating a citizen of Mosel only for them to die of starvation later? A reasonable point, but one which came across as special pleading for Germany’s distaste for hard military intervention, particularly when contrasted with speeches by France’s prime minister and defence minister. The former diplomatically declined to comment on Germany’s coalition deal, but both pointed to significant increases in the French defence budget and, as Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe notes, emphasised action where Germany’s defence minister preferred to talk about institutions. Given such differences in philosophy, she advises those waiting for a more strategic Europe: “don’t hold your breath”.” I’m sure Minister Freeland left the meeting satisfied that Canada could do nothing at all and still be in fine shape … exactly what I suspect Prime Minister Trudeau wants.
It is most likely, in my guesstimation, that the burden sharing issue will continue to aggravate EU-US and Canada-US relations so long as we have governments like Ms Merkel’s and Prime Minister Trudeau’s that do what their electorates want and starve their militaries, depending upon Uncle Sam to carry the load and foot the bill. It’s unfair. The United States does have a huge military but it is neither an efficient nor and effective one ~ just a huge one with a bloated budget and less than sterling quality controls.
Perhaps it is time for Canadians who really care about their country and its place in the world to start considering advocating for closer, stronger, strategic ties with Australia, India, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom … something of a CANZUK++ for military cooperation and coordination, but not a formal alliance. The threats we face are global, our friends and military partners should be global too.