hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

NATO: What Would Europeans Fight For?


Alphen, Netherlands. 6 May.  What would Europeans fight for?  It is a fair question given the Russian-inspired conflict in Ukraine and growing Moscow pressure on EU and NATO allies in the Baltic States.  It is an even fairer question given the provocative piece The Economist ran this week entitled “What would America fight for?”  This followed a tetchy 28 April remark by President Obama when he wondered out loud “why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force”.  The essence of the piece was that Asian and defence under-spending European allies are worried that the US taxpayer will not defend them any more.  It is the wrong question. The real question is this; would Europeans actually go to war to defend Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all three NATO allies and EU member-states?  I would like to say yes, but I am not at all sure any more.h the Obama administration and its views about the utility of force.  

There is undoubtedly a problem with the current Administration's concept of strategy.  Indeed, the current love-in between the Administration and the EU reflects a dangerous alignment of views between some of those around the President and the EU’s High Priests of Soft Power.  The latter believe that soft power is an end in and of itself and that there exists no place for force in geopolitics beyond a kind of armed Red Cross.  An America like the EU does not bear thinking about. 

It is equally true that after a bruising decade in Afghanistan and Iraq (and elsewhere) Americans are less inclined to involve their hard-pressed military in foreign adventures in faraway countries about which they know little.  A recent Pew survey found that 52% of Americans want the United States to become more not less isolationist.

However, the United States remains the world’s cornerstone power and without it the world is more not less likely to see a major war break out.  The problem is that the cornerstone is cracking. Even though the United State remains the world’s biggest defence spender by a factor of two it is no longer strong enough to be strong everywhere all of the time. 

The latest Defence IQ data has the US spending $640bn on defence in 2014, the Chinese second with $188bn and the Russians third on $87.8bn.  Given the Obama Administration wants to reduce US defence expenditure to $450bn by 2020 these figures actually reflect relative decline that will continue.

That is where NATO comes in.  The only true way to deter such regimes is to demonstrate to them both the INTENT and the CAPABILITY to defend Alliance territory by all possible means if needs be.  For such a deterrent to be credible Europeans have to honour the essential and yet implicit contract at the heart of the Alliance.  Small and weak allies benefit from the security of the strong and powerful in return for the equitable sharing of Alliance responsibilities.  It is a contract that has been weakened to the point of failure in recent years.

Russia’s actions against Ukraine have revealed the complete lack of political and strategic will in Europe to stand up to aggression.  It is not that they lack the means.  Britain, France, Germany and Italy all figure in the top eleven of defence spenders world-wide.  Collectively Europeans spend some $220bn per annum on defence, even though Britain, France and Germany account for over 60% of that figure.

The real problem is intent.  That does not mean war over Ukraine.  Indeed, even though Russia has run a tank right over the 1994 Budapest Convention guaranteeing Ukraine’s borders the US and its European allies are right not to seek war with Russia.  Equally, NATO is only credible if it is underpinned by the collective strategic will and military means of its members – all of its members.  To that end forget all the soft and not-so-soft power supporting campaigns and operations of the past decade.  NATO’s real purpose is to fight and win wars that threaten the freedom and independence of its members.

Russia has calculated that almost all Europeans have lost the will to fight.  This is not simply a reflection of the reliance of much of Europe on Russian energy. It is also a reflection of a Europe that has been lulled into a false sense of security by politicians who have misled the people about the nature of geopolitics. Because of that Europeans have collectively retreated from the overt political will upon which effective deterrence of aggression is established and in so doing they have collectively and critically undermined NATO.

Moreover, American and European leaders singularly fail to understand the price Russia is willing to pay to secure what Moscow sees as its long-term strategic and historical interests.  No level of sanctions will deter them or force a change of behaviour if President Putin can be seen to achieve ‘patriotic’ goals at a ‘relatively’ low cost in Russian (not Western) terms.

Therefore, to paraphrase another US president John F. Kennedy; ask not what America can do for you but what you Europeans are willing to do for yourselves and indeed for NATO.

So, would I go to war to defend Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania?  Yes and without question.

Julian Lindley-French

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