When it comes to the security of democratic nations in Europe, there may soon be a viable alternative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In his compelling 2012 book Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, delivers frank Realpolitik analysis of the world in the 21st century. And he pulls no punches, describing the European Union (EU) as “a junior geopolitical partner to the United States in the semi-unified West.”
Although he asserts that “the EU could have combined global power with global systemic relevance,” Brzezinski concludes that “since the final collapse of their empires, the European powers chose to leave the more costly task of maintaining global security to America in order to use their resources to create a life-style of socially assured security—from the cradle throughout early retirement—funded by escalating public debts unrelated to economic growth.”
As for Moscow, Brzezinski declares that “without nuclear weapons or the dependence of some European states on Russian oil and gas, Russia would otherwise not rank very high on the pyramid of global geopolitical power.”
Even though the EU is not “a major independent power on the global scene,” Brzezinski allows that “Great Britain, France, and Germany enjoy a residual status.” For example, both Britain and France are veto wielding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
In addition, both countries are nuclear weapons states. However, he concludes that “these European states can only truly exercise global influence as part of the larger Union, despite all of the EU’s current collective weaknesses.”
Since the publication of Brzezinski’s treatise, the dynamics within the Western alliance have changed significantly. The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016 ushered in an era of increased competition and acrimony between the United States and its traditional European allies.
In addition to Trump’s nationalistic ‘America First’ foreign policy that combines threats of tariffs and the withdrawal of American military protection, the American President has alienated allies by publicly calling into question America’s commitment to NATO, which was established in 1949.
After attending ceremonies to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, U.S. President Donald Trump responded angrily to French President Emmanuel Macron's veiled criticism of the American leader's nationalistic policies. Trump lashed out at the French leader on Twitter.
America’s weakening commitment to the Western alliance is giving rise to new developments in the sphere of European defence. Indeed, by occasionally questioning the value of NATO and constantly haranguing the Europeans for not shouldering their fair share of the costs associated with providing a credible collective defence, Trump seems to be unintentionally spurring the Europeans to take steps to establish a collective defence arrangement independent of the United States.
It was the vastly superior military power of the Soviet Union combined with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's aggression that "brought NATO into being," former British Prime Minister Anthony writes in Volume 1 of his memoirs.
In Full Circle, the first volume of Sir Anthony Eden’s memoirs covering his national and international experiences between 1951 and 1957, the former British foreign secretary under Prime Minister Winston Churchill makes it perfectly clear that NATO was a defensive alliance from the very beginning.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the rise of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union forced Western Europe to come together in order to establish a collective defence force to defend freedom. “Western solidarity had been created by Stalin’s policies,” Eden writes of the Soviet leader’s aggressive foreign policy that aimed to spread Communism by force of arms, invasion, and annexation. “It was the military threat to the West, expressed in immensely superior Soviet military power and in the attempt to blockade Berlin, which brought NATO into being, the future British prime minister states in his 1960 book.
It took time for the Western alliance to become a strong deterrent to Soviet aggression in Western Europe. “NATO was built and strengthened by stages, which, however slow, solidified Western defence,” Eden writes.
Sir Anthony Eden (right) with Lt. Col. Gwynne Johnston, Honorary Commander of the Brockville Rifles (centre), and an Anglican priest (left) depart a service at St. Peter's Church in Brockville, Ontario, Canada in 1967. (Photo Credit: courtesy of the Johnston family). Note: Author Geoffrey P. Johnston is the grandson of Lt. Col. Gwynne Johnston.
However, he warned that “as the menace of war receded,” Western cohesion or solidarity “against Soviet encroachment might be weakened.” And he went on to say that it would become necessary to adjust foreign policy in order “to maintain the solidarity of the free world to meet the new challenge from the Soviet Union.”
For example, “in foreign policy it looked as though we should lay more emphasis in future on economic propaganda weapons and less on military strength,” Eden writes.
As Sir Anthony predicted, the cohesion of the Western alliance has weakened over time. In the post-Cold War era, the demise of the Soviet Union and the rollback of Communism around the globe left NATO searching for relevance in a time of globalization, trans-national terrorism, and an American president who has little use for NATO.
The day before he arrived in Paris for ceremonies to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War on Nov. 11, 1918, Trump reacted angrily to President Macron’s promotion of a European alternative to NATO. “President Macron of France has just suggested that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the U.S., China and Russia,” Trump stated in a huffy Nov. 9th post on Twitter. “Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidizes greatly.”
“Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO,” U.S. President Donald Trump said of French President Emmanuel Macron's plan to establish a European Army.
Donald Trump is not the only American president or world leader to express dissatisfaction with insufficient defence spending among NATO members. Indeed, Canada’s Western allies have, at times, expressed frustration with Ottawa.
In the 1982 edition of his insightful book on Canadian-American relations entitled Life with Uncle, John Holmes states that the Reagan administration and Canada’s other NATO allies expected Ottawa to follow Washington’s lead and increase defence spending to help counter the Soviet threat. “If we resist,” wrote Holmes during an increasingly tense phase of the Cold War, “we shall not get much support from our other NATO allies, most of whom also think we are dragging our feet.”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in 1949 to protect Western Europe from Soviet aggression.
Holmes, who served for many years at the Department of External Affairs, warned that if Ottawa did not spend more on defence, Canada’s voice in NATO councils could “inevitably be diminished at a time when those bodies become of greater importance to us as the most likely means of control over United States strategic policy and of differing with them, if need be, in company.”
EU global strategy
In June of 2016, the European Union published a comprehensive foreign and security policies paper, outlining the European community’s strategic plan for global governance issues, responses to conflicts and crises, and related issues.
“The EU Global Strategy starts at home,’ states the policy document, which is entitled Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe (A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy). “We will therefore enhance our efforts on defence, cyber, counter-terrorism, energy and strategic communications.”
In addition, the strategic document states that “the EU will step up its contribution to Europe’s collective security, working closely with its partners, beginning with NATO.” It is important to note that the language used in the document; the EU is not openly abandoning the Western alliance. But the EU is also prepared to go beyond NATO when it comes to the defence of the continent.
The policy document commits the European Union to promoting peace and guaranteeing “the security of its citizens and territory.” Therefore, the EU pledges to work with partners and develop “the necessary capabilities to defend themselves and live up to their commitments to mutual assistance and solidarity.”
The European Union has already begun to implement its strategic global policy. In Nov. 2017, “the EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) started a process of closer cooperation in security and defence,” states the website of the European Union External Action Service. And the EU member states have agreed to increase investment in defence and boost “cooperation in development of defence capabilities,” the website states.
Under the Permanent Structured Cooperation on Defence (PESCO), 25 member states have joined forces under the European Union’s treaty-based framework “to jointly develop defence capabilities and make them available for EU military operations, notes the EU External Action Service. In Dec. 2017, the Council of the European Union formally moved to establish PESCO.
PESCO participants include: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden.
French leadership ambitions
France has always aspired to a leadership role in modern global affairs. But the capabilities of the once mighty colonial power do not match its ambitions in the 21st century. But that has not stopped the French from going their own way, sometimes making them an unpredictable friend and ally.
“The French as always pursued their own interests, sometimes joined with their allies, and sometimes not,” historian and foreign affairs expert Robert Bothwell writes of French diplomacy during the 1960s. “Their record of keeping NATO commitments—always second to whatever interest the French had elsewhere—was not promising,” Bothwell states in The Bill Chill: Canada and the Cold War.
Bothwell points out that in 1966, “France’s president Charles de Gaulle expelled American and Canadian troops from their NATO bases in France and pulled his country out of NATO’s military arm—while staying in on the political side.”
Similarly, Arthur Andrew, who, over the decades, served as Canadian ambassador to Israel, Sweden, and Greece, and High Commissioner to Cyprus, notes that “the ability of French diplomats to get the best of all worlds is legendary.” In his 1993 book, The Rise and Fall of a Middle Power: Canadian Diplomacy from King to Mulroney, Andrew states that French diplomats “can argue persuasively why France, sometimes alone, cannot support a position taken by its friends and allies.” Like Bothwell, Andrew points out that “under General de Gaulle, French diplomacy was able to take France out of joint military planning in NATO without jeopardizing the protection the alliance gave the country.”
Andrew states that “geography has made France indispensable both to the defence of Western Europe and in the building of the European Community,” which was the forerunner of the current European Union. And he adds that negotiations within Europe, as well as within NATO, “are replete with instances of French obduracy, unshakeable in its confidence of France’s indispensability.”
In Sept. 2017, French President Emmanual Macron delivered a speech at Sorbonne University in Paris, outlining his grand strategy to reform the European Union, including the establishment of a European army which would operate independently of NATO. In a nutshell, Macron envisions a European defence force that would assume the responsibility for defending the continent as American influence and commitment wanes. “Only Europe can give us some capacity for action in today’s world,” Macron told his Paris audience.
“We need a Europe which defends itself better alone, without just depending on the United States, in a more sovereign manner,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a recent interview with French media.
In June of 2018, Macron’s vision for a European fighting force began to materialize. Nine European states signed on to the European Intervention Initiative, which will supposedly pull together a rapid deployment force to respond to crises on the continent.
The initiative stands apart from both PESCO and the governing structures of the European Union, which means that Great Britain and its powerful military can take part. (Britain has voted to leave the EU and is currently negotiating its exit.) Although a traditionally staunch supporter of NATO, Britain has signalled its willingness to join the new European force, which would respond to catastrophes, crises, and provide protection for citizens of member states in conflict zones.
Thus far, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Estonia, Portugal, and Spain have signed a letter of intent declaring support for and willingness to participate in the European defence initiative.
Macron upsets Trump
In the lead up to the ceremonies in France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War, Macron stated in a radio interview that Europe needed “a true European army” so that Europeans would not have to depend on the United States to defend them.
According to a news report from Agence France-Presse, President Macron stated in the interview: “When I see President Trump announcing that he’s quitting a major disarmament treaty which was formed after the 1980s euro-missile crisis that hit Europe, who is the main victim? Europe and its security.”
In addition, Macron said that Europeans “have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America.”
“We need a Europe which defends itself better alone, without just depending on the United States, in a more sovereign manner,” he said, adding that Europe must also live up to its NATO defence spending commitments.
During one of the armistice weekend commemorations, Macron delivered a speech on the dangers of nationalism, which was interpreted by many observers as a veiled rebuke of President Trump’s nationalistic America First policies.
Stung by Macron’s remarks, Trump fired an undiplomatic Twitter salvo at the French leader. “Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia,” Trump posted early on the morning of Nov. 13th. Although Twitter is not the traditional medium for frank exchanges between world leaders, that did not stop the American president from lambasting his French counterpart.
What Trump said next was, at best, undiplomatic, and, at worst, a nasty insult that could wreck the already tense Franco-American alliance. “But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two—How did that work out for France?” Trump snarled, taunting France, a country that suffered greatly in both world wars.
For good measure, Trump concluded the tweet by demanding: “Pay for NATO or not!”
An hour later, Trump was needling the French again on Twitter. This time he turned to trade issues. “France makes excellent wine, but so does the U.S.,” he declared.
Trump then accused France of practicing trade protectionism, making it “very hard for the U.S. to sell its wines into France.” And he also said that France applies “big Tariffs.” Meanwhile, continued Trump, “the U.S. makes it easy for French wines, and charges very small Tariffs.” The American president summed up his trade grievances with France: “Not fair, must change!”
But President Trump wasn’t quite finished with President Macron. “The problem is that Emmanuel suffers from a very low Approval Rating in France, 26 %, and an unemployment rate of almost 10%,” Trump said on Twitter, in full campaign mode as if he were a French politician seeking to unseat the French leader.
According to a French public opinion poll conducted by Kantar Public and published on Oct. 31, 2018, Macron’s approval rating among French voters was just 26%, down 4% from the previous month. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), France, a country of 64.1 million people, had an unemployment rate of 9.4% in Oct.
Trump concluded his Twitter barrage with this final salvo: “By the way, there is no country more Nationalist than France, very proud people—and rightfully so?......”
The angry American then offered an afterthought: “……MAKE FRANCE GREAT AGAIN!”
Macron keeps his cool
In a Nov. 14th interview with French media, Macron indirectly responded to Trump’s Twitter attacks and reaffirmed France’s commitment to an independent European army.
“At every moment of our history, we were allies,” the French leader said, in an interview with French television channel TF1, of the Franco-American alliance . “So between allies, respect is due. I don't think the French expect me to respond to tweets but to continue this important history."
As for the issue of an independent fighting force, Macron reaffirmed France’s commitment to its alliance with the United States. “It's the ally with which we take all the risks, with which we carry out the most complicated operations,” he stated. “But being an ally doesn't mean being a vassal state.”
Not a pipe dream
The establishment of an independent European fighting force is not a French pipe dream. In fact, the European Union, which often exercises a coordinated foreign policy on such issues as conflict in the Middle East, set the stage for a coordinated European defence policy over a decade ago. The EU set up four European battle groups in 2007. However, the multinational European force has never been deployed.
If President Macron actually realizes his vision of establishing a European army with significant military capabilities and the capacity to project power across Europe and beyond, it is hard to see how NATO would be able to survive as a viable alliance. If the Europeans boost defence spending and build a real army, they would almost certainly be very reluctant to be led by an American leader who despises them.
A European super-state that speaks with one voice on major foreign policy issues and possessed one of the largest conventional military armies in the world backed up by the nuclear arsenals of France and Great Britain would be a major international player. Indeed, such a super-state would be a new kind of superpower.
The demise of NATO would mean the loss of an important multilateral counterweight to the traditional Canadian-U.S. alliance.
The demise of NATO would be very bad news for Canada. As one of the charter members of NATO, Canada has tended to use the Western alliance as a counterweight to its bilateral alliance with the United States. In NATO councils, Canada can work with other like-minded nations to influence U.S. policy and to protect its own strategic interests.
Without NATO, Canada would be trapped in a bilateral defence alliance in which Canada will always be the junior partner. And in the era of Donald Trump, who has demonstrated time and again that he is a bully, Canada needs allies and the security of the Western alliance.
If NATO does crumble, Canada would have no choice but to continue to work with the United States through NORAD and other bi-national defence arrangements to defend North America. However, Canada should also seriously consider approaching France and Great Britain about possible Canadian membership in the new European army. After all, Canada has been committed to multilateral collective defence and the stability of Europe since NATO’s creation.
In the final analysis, the international system is changing and Donald Trump’s strident ‘America First’ policies seem to accelerating the process, thereby ensuring the demise of the United States as the leader of the Western world.
Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian journalist specializing in foreign affairs, international religious freedom, human rights, and Canadian foreign policy. Follow Geoffrey on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston