“An Alliance that has kept us safe and secure for almost seven decades. And has helped to provide the foundation of our growth and our prosperity. Our bond is strong. But today, some are doubting the strength of that bond. And yet we see differences between the United States and other Allies. Over issues such as trade, climate and the Iran nuclear deal. And there are disagreements within Europe too. Over the future direction of the European Union. Over values and populism. These disagreements are real. It is not written in stone that the transatlantic bond will survive forever. But I believe we will preserve it”.
NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, London, 21 June 2018
The Transatlantic Bond
Berlin, Germany. 22 June 2018. The transatlantic bond: choices, promises and trust. As Secretary-General Stoltenberg was making his speech in London I was here in Berlin at a meeting of the excellent Munich Security Conference-George C. Marshall Center organised Loisach Group. As the meeting progressed President Trump announced plans to meet President Putin in Europe either before or after the Brussels NATO Summit and Prime Minister May announced plans to hike funding in the National Health Service at the expense of Britain’s ‘Tier One’ military status. So, where does all of that leave the Alliance?
As I leave Berlin I am re-confirmed in my belief that the twenty-first century transatlantic relationship will be very different to its twentieth century forebear. It will also be very much more conditional. At the meeting, German colleagues danced on the head of a Defence Investment Pledge pin. Back in 2014, Germany had signed up to 2% GDP on defence by 2024, of which 20% per annum would be spent on new equipment. Yes, the specific language of the NATO Wales Summit Declaration states members would only “aim at” 2% by 2024. Political semantics to spare German and other Allied blushes. The simple but hard strategic reality is that if a state like modern Germany, a model democracy, and a very rich one at that cannot devote a historically low 2% GDP to defence then NATO is in real trouble and so is Stoltenberg’s transatlantic bond. Berlin’s argument is that German domestic public opinion would not accept an investment that would take Berlin’s defence budget above some $70 bn. It would not worry me. In any case, we all have domesticated publics. Sadly, like all ‘imperial’ powers German domestic opinion does matter more than that of other allies, precisely because Germany has the power to impose it on others…for a bit and to an extent.
Secretary-General Stoltenberg suggests that differences between the United States and other Allies are real. They are. One German colleague suggested that President Trump and the United States is now a threat to the rules-based order that the Americans (not Germans) guarantee. One can understand the angst. President Trump certainly gives the impression at times of being (perhaps) the first-ever illiberal leader of a real and very powerful liberal democracy. He also seems far more comfortable in the company of President Putin and President Xi with a world-view that seems to divide the world into power-predators and power-prey with his European allies now the latter.
Still, the logic of the German critique of Trump would also suggest that Berlin believes Washington can no longer be trusted with the defence of Europe and that Europeans should do far more and spend far more. And yet, Berlin rarely moves beyond the blah, blah rhetorical, and the EU rhetorical at that – PESCO, European Security and Defence Union. Germans are seemingly happy to claim the right to criticise America to the point of giving offence even while it still expects the American taxpayer to defend them. The able British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson hinted at the same in an excellent piece in The Times this morning.
Stoltenberg also said there were disagreements in Europe over Europe. There are. The self-satisfied and frankly conceited German view of Britain and Brexit can be thus described: “Those poor, dumb Brits. They have brought on their own calamity by voting legitimately to leave the fantastic European Union, that by the way, we lead, and we are going to give them one hell of a kicking for it. And, we also expect Britain and its citizens to spend more on the defence of Germany and the rest of Europe than we do”. Frankly, it is becoming ever harder by the day for me to defend my position as a Big Picture, geopolitical Remainer. Germany and the Commission are systematically seeking to damage my country for Brexit and force Britain into a corner seemingly in the hope London will capitulate and Brexit will be reversed on German terms. Britain’s incompetent elite might be happy with that, but it is hard for me to believe the majority of the British people will put up with it. The implications for NATO? They were apparent this week. May’s questioning of Britain’s status as a Tier One power is code for a Britain that is already retreating behind its nuclear shield. Just look at how tiny the British Army has become. As for the European Union, I thought it was a free association of free peoples for which leaving would incur a cost but not some form of cold war. Silly me.
Europe is in a dangerous place that is getting more dangerous by the day. Threats to Europeans now range from fake news and war at the seams of our societies to possible invasion of countries at the margins of our Alliance and the Union. Disinformation, disruption, destabilisation and destruction are merging to such an extent that credible defence and deterrence will demand entirely new thinking. First, far better collective understanding of the nature and scope of the threats Europeans face and who is behind them. Second, acceptance that if Americans are to maintain the credible defence of Europe, Europeans with Germans to the fore are going to have to break their addiction to free-riding. Third, Germans need to treat Americans with far more respect than they do at present if, as one German participant at the Loisach Group meeting suggested, the credible defence of Europe is to continue to rely primarily on the willingness of Americans to die for it.
The reason I bother to invest time and energy in the Loisach Group is because it is important and because its members are good people willing to face hard realities. We ALL need that right now. For all that there is still a big power picture that Germany as Europe’s big power simply refuses to think big about which limits the ambition of the US-German strategic partnership. Indeed, if I was to paraphrase the American view of the Loisach Group it is as a mechanism to get the Germans to think big about big threats so that whilst they might not agree with Americans about every danger to be faced Berlin and Washington can at least think big about the partnership and their disagreements. What I see is an over-stretched global America locked in a debate with a parochial, very European Germany which at times sounds to me – a now irrelevant Brit – as two countries separated by two completely different ‘strategic’ languages.
Promises, Trust and Choices
If Stoltenberg’s NATO is to do its job as defined by Secretary-General Stoltenberg it will not be achieved by command structure reform or new cyber operations centres et al important though these ‘adaptations’ are to the working effectiveness and efficiency of the contemporary Alliance. No, trust in each other is the essential strategic ingredient in alliance. And, if trust is to be re-discovered, for it is a rare commodity these days in this Alliance, it will first and foremost be achieved by the re-building of strategic partnerships founded on and in political and strategic realism. Without that realism, Trump’s America with its new penchant for conditions will drift away from Europe, and a Britain that Stoltenberg seems to suggest still matters to the defence of Europe will withdraw into itself. This is in spite of what the strategically incapable Prime Minister May says, as she moves to further deplete the fast emptying toolbox that still affords both Britain influence and Europe defence.
The Loisach Group is an important initiative that considers the vital US-German essential relationship. If Secretary-General Stoltenberg’s faith in the enduring nature of the transatlantic bond is to be realised it is the US-German relationship that will be the core of Alliance strategic credibility. This is particularly so as Britain’s elite establishment condemns Britain and its people to an exaggerated and accelerated decline. Lions led by donkeys? Therefore, I will continue to offer my blunt Yorkshire analysis and advice if Germans and Americans want me to. Why? Call me old-fashioned but I actually believe in the United States and in modern Germany, and I still believe there is a place for Britain in a reformed EU built on the Gaullist principle of a Europe of nations. As for NATO it is the most important defence alliance then, now and in the future. And, strange though some Germans seem to find it, I actually believe in my country and will defend it when attacked, even if those charged with leading Britain clearly neither believe in it nor are they willing to defend it or its interests.
It will take years for the relationships damaged by transatlantic tensions and Brexit to recover. However, if the defence that NATO affords its members is to be credible those same relationships must form the hard core of political solidarity that is the true foundation of deterrence. THAT is why the transatlantic bond matters.