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Four Crises Have US-Europe Security at a Turning Point

Four Crises Have US-Europe Security at a Turning Point

Saturday, 2 October, 2021 - 05:15

The forces driving European defense are in flux, with four key variables affecting the way the continent’s leading nations engage not only their own security, but the entire world’s. Taken together, this is the most significant set of issues the transatlantic security alliance has seen since the early 1990s.

The first is the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Second, there is this week’s German election, and the political alignments of the various potential governing coalitions. Additionally, France is angry following Australia’s decision to cancel a major diesel submarine purchase in favor of a US-UK coalition to provide nuclear boats. Finally, the US collapse in Afghanistan has shaken confidence in the value of America’s commitments.

Any one of these developments would have a direct effect on Europe’s defense priorities. Taken together, they signal a moment of hard reflection and potential action for the Europeans, especially as Britain consolidates its departure from the European Union.

How does Washington maintain the strength of the transatlantic bridge, particularly as it tries to rally global support in its rivalry with China?

Nord Stream 2 has been a decade in the making, and is now ready for business; Germany has four months to certify operations. It will essentially allow the Europeans to bypass Ukraine and access Russian natural gas directly through the Baltic Sea.

Long opposed by the US, which had hoped to develop natural gas markets in Europe using tankers, Nord Stream 2 will increase Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence on the continent, which is why I opposed it in its earliest stages, during my time as supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Joe Biden administration’s decision to capitulate on the project was a grudging admission that the Europeans were clearly taking their own path on energy, no matter the US position. Score one for European security independence.

The dust-up over Australia’s shift from a French-provided submarine contract worth tens of billions of dollars will exacerbate tensions with Europe’s leading military power. President Emmanuel Macron (temporarily) withdrew his nation’s ambassador to Washington. Historically, the French have been chary of US “dominance” in NATO — ­­­­President Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of its integrated military in 1966 — and tried to encourage European structures as alternatives.

In Germany, the strong showing of the center-left Social Democratic Party — which has long been less than enthusiastic about NATO — will also put significant stress on the transatlantic relationship. If the Social Democrats form a left-wing coalition government, excluding outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the appetite to operate closely with the US on matters of both European and global security will take another hit.

Finally, the collapse of the Afghanistan mission and the lack of serious coordination with allies in the chaotic endgame will haunt efforts to keep the US and Europe aligned elsewhere. European nations had significant forces in Afghanistan — of the final 10,000 troops in country, only 2,500 were Americans — and had shown willingness to keep them there.

So how will all of this manifest in terms of European attitudes toward defense cooperation with the US? Certainly it will infuse energy into the idea of a more muscular and independent military capability, with Macron’s “European army” concept again gaining traction. Expect France and Germany to become less willing to move in lockstep with US policy related to China, on everything from cooperation on freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea to using 5G networks built by Chinese firms.

It’s true that the US has wanted NATO nations to take more responsibility for their own security, primarily by spending 2% of GDP on defense. These recent events may have the effect of increasing European outlays, yet they will likely not be focused on NATO operations, but on their own battle groups. While this may be helpful in deterring Russia, it will not aid in the key strategic challenge facing the US and its allies: China.

What can Washington do to shore up relations? First, re-emphasize US support for NATO as the central pillar of European security, including the rapid confirmation of an ambassador to the alliance (the administration’s nominee is a well-regarded professional, Julianne Smith). Secretary of State Antony Blinken, fluent in French, should make European damage control his diplomatic job one.

America’s senior military leaders need to connect in person with their European counterparts. General Tod Wolters, the NATO supreme allied commander, does a great job, but can’t be the sole liaison. The US can also look for zones of cooperation, from Ukraine to Iran to cybersecurity to intelligence-sharing, where American expertise is attractive to the Europeans.

Americans will never have a deeper pool of partners who share our values so deeply, have fought and died alongside us in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and are more intertwined with us economically, than the Europeans. But the transatlantic bridge needs shoring up— it is perhaps the most critical piece of the global security infrastructure.


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