After years of ‘America First’, it appears that ‘America is back’. This is good news for the defence of Europe, which must continue to rely on the Nato security guarantee, and which will involve a growing role for European defence forces.
In his first conversation with Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, President Biden repeatedly reaffirmed America’s commitment to the “sacred” transatlantic alliance. Noting the strains placed on US-European relations over the past four-years, Biden emphasised his administration’s determination “to reengage with Europe” and to earn back America’s “position of trusted leadership”. This process will be “complicated”, as German Chancellor Merkel remarked; especially as both the EU and individual European states have been reinvigorated to pursue an increased role in European defence. Yet, at the end of the day, Europe must safeguard Nato and craft an enhanced role for itself within the transatlantic framework.
During the tenure of President Trump, Nato was derided as “obsolete” and its members told that American military protection was negotiable. These worries loomed large in the minds of European leaders and in response ideas about a so-called ‘European army’ emerged as a possible solution to any void left by the US. Such ideas are, however, far from novel and have, in the past, fallen short of their intended aims. Most recently, calls came from French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel as they pushed for agreement on a ‘new’ “European army” initiative. Needless to say, as with each previous iteration of the idea, such an army is unrealisable. Europe does not have the requisite political unity and popular allegiance to a European political authority. Europe is bound to be pluralist, even if better coordinated and more able.
At an overarching level, Nato’s core mission remains one of deterring Great Power aggression through the build-up of viable coercive military power. In an era of Russian territorial revisionism, it is a difficult task. From its 2014 Wales summit to its 2016 Warsaw summit, Nato nonetheless took it on. Nato decided against moving its permanent military infrastructure eastwards, a principle agreed with Russia in the 1990s, and instead opted for beefing up its power to project forces from west to east. Nato’s initial tepid reforms of reaction forces was only a beginning, though. Russia’s formidable military power and geographical and political advantage (interior lines of communication and ability to choose time and location of crises) meant that after an initial wave of adaptation, Nato was confronted with the need to get serious and look beyond “reassurance” to “deterrence”.
Regrettably, at this point Nato’s political agility and ability dramatically eroded on account of the politics of the Trump presidency. Certainly, Nato has a defence foundation capable of moving forward even if political relations fray. Thus, Nato’s defence side produced a number of agreements to enhance Nato’s in-depth defence muscle as a means to effectively deter Russia. Remarkably, there was no wavering on Nato Capability Targets (typically, there are always shortfalls), and the big European allies — Britain, France, and Germany — agreed to offer no less than seven fully manned and equipped land divisions (two for Britain and France, respectively, and three for Germany). The other allies likewise committed to furnishing ready-to-go combat brigades, fighter wings, and maritime task groups.
Defence investments at this scale demand the political agility that Nato lacked, however. There is all kind of friction that can cause decision-makers to hesitate, and Russia does its best to sow disagreement and doubts inside Nato. In this respect, President Trump did Nato a disservice: his lukewarm commitment to collective defence, along with his decision in mid-2020 to withdraw US forces from Europe, left gaps in Nato’s armour and encouraged political wavering on the part of European allies. President Biden has since halted these force withdrawals and has done his best to reassure allies that past commitments are for real.
What is now needed is a European defence effort that can safeguard this commitment to collective defence and enhance Europe’s contribution. Nato’s ability to defend Europe is not a given, and much work remains to be done. Europe can contribute in four distinct ways.
Military mobility infrastructure is an often-overlooked area that the EU could reinforce. Projects like the 870 km ‘Rail Baltica’ “from Tallinn via the Baltic states to Poland” would connect with rail networks in western Europe and allow for military mobility through “the rapid transfer of troops and material to the Russian border in case of crisis”. In fact, the latest Connecting Europe Facility approved by the EU commission included €1.5 billion for military mobility, with a prioritised focus on “cross border connections”.
Secondly, on Europe’s southern flank, out towards the Sahel, Nato struggles to find a role, while the EU has found its niche by conducting what political scientist Adrian Hyde-Price calls “small-scale humanitarian, training, and rule-of-law operations” that “fit with its sensibilities” and are viable in terms of capacity. Sharp-end missions will continue to be run by lead nations — principally France and the United States — but Europe could do more to upgrade its collective leadership and contribution in this area of stabilisation. The EU’s crisis management policy and peace facility offer a platform, and to reinforce it, Nato should consider handing strategic command for the southern flank to a European commander.
Thirdly, Europe can contribute by working with the United States on the wider security challenge posed by China. China is a full spectrum actor, and the EU’s role in screening investments, protecting infrastructure, including cyber, and seeking a political dialogue on the parameters of trade is both obvious and of concern to the wider transatlantic relationship. Inevitably, Europeans cannot simultaneously ignore this need for transatlantic cooperation and hope for US defence investments and security guarantees.
Finally, and quite obviously, Europeans need to deliver on the conventional force targets they have agreed to in Nato. These forces are able to defend Europe and deter Russia only if they come into being.