Team Biden, Pay Attention to the European Dust-Up Over NATO


The debate over building a common European defense is an old chestnut amongst Euro-watchers. Typically, it amounts to sound and fury, signifying nothing in the way of real progress. But the latest round of this debate, pitting zealous French President Emmanuel Macron against “AKK,” the national security artist also known as German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is different. In its current manifestation, the debate has taken a predictable but unsettling turn, coming to focus on the reliability of U.S. foreign policy. While Kramp-Karrenbauer confesses that U.S. President Donald Trump has shaken her faith in the transatlantic alliance, she is calling on Europeans to reinvest heavily in it as both the best and the only viable path forward for European peace and security. Macron, clearly more troubled, points to an inevitable cleavage of interests, if not also of values, with the United States for which Europe should be prepared.

Team Biden would be wise to pay close attention. Left to continue on its current trajectory, this debate will erode European unity, transatlantic bonds, and the capacity of the United States and Europe to jointly defend the Western-led international order. The next administration can solve this problem only by rebuilding a reliable national security reputation for the United States. To begin with, this means committing sufficient and credible resources to European defense in coordination with allies; avoiding an overly hasty exit from Afghanistan; and presenting a united NATO front in renegotiating the New START Treaty. In the long run, it also means rebuilding domestic support for the transatlantic alliance at home.



U.S. Reliability in the Dock

Even before declaring that NATO suffers from “brain death,” Macron was already leading the charge for Europe to “take more responsibility for its defense and security.” Macron’s pan-European cri de coeur does not sound that different from Trump’s longstanding insistence that Europe is over-reliant on U.S. protection and should step up its defense spending. Kramp-Karrenbauer, for her part, totally agrees with Macron’s push for greater spending and self-reliance. Admonishing Europe to stop acting like a damsel in distress, she has said, “We Europeans will have to do ourselves much of what America has largely done for us so far, by diplomatic and by conventional military means.”

So it sounds like everyone should be able to get along, right? Au contraire. Macron and Kramp-Karrenbauer have been trading barbs for a year now with increasing sharpness. Take a closer look at the narrative of both sides and you will see they differ over the answer to a single fundamental question: Can Europe rely on the United States? While Kramp-Karrenbauer still hopes the United States will live up to its commitments, Macron is worried that Trump prefigures a more concerted U.S. effort to unwind its overseas commitments and shake off its global responsibilities.

Macron laments that the lack of an independent and powerful Europe has prevented the kind of strong institutionalized transatlantic cooperation that could have made the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Open Skies Treaty work, or resolved the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh in accordance with European security interests. Macron blames the United States as much as other disrupters in the world for the recent upheaval in the international system. And he regrets that, despite decades of European integration and common policy development, Europe remains at the kids’ table too often when dealing with the consequences. European “strategic autonomy” is Macron’s cure, based on what he considers uniquely European values.

Macron sees the writing on the wall and projects that the United States, whose values are “not quite the same” as European values, is becoming half of a “Chinese-American duopoly” that will shape the future economic and security landscapes, either through competition or through cooperation — perhaps both over time. In any case, Europe will be ignored if it does not develop a stronger common defense and maintain a healthy distance from the United States. Macron believes the United States “will only respect us as allies if we are earnest, and if we are sovereign with respect to our defense.” A Europe that holds the United States to account is the key to the future peace, but that is not possible should “our international policy… be dependent on it or be trailing behind it.”

While Macron clearly prefers partnership with the United States, he simply doubts America’s resolve to uphold European interests. He expects that Washington will increasingly turn its attention inward or toward Asia — a tension acknowledged in the opening page of the recent report from NATO’s Reflection Group. In order to avoid being left prone to future American vacillations, Europe requires the capabilities and defense architecture to pick and choose security and economic partners in accordance with its interests.

Kramp-Karrenbauer believes that Macron has undersold the historical legacy of the United States in Europe. “America,” she says, “is most of all synonymous with liberation and the Berlin Airlift, the Marshall Plan and the first man on the moon, with open spaces and individualism, innovation and economic power, and later with winning the Cold War.” America represents a greater purpose. Her generation has internalized the value of the U.S. commitment to German security and unity through its Cold War experiences. From that foundation she believes the transatlantic endeavor will continue to complement European interests. Kramp-Karrenbauer sees no desirable alternative and calls for Europe to bet heavily on the United States with increasing defense budgets and clear support for the U.S. nuclear umbrella. These steps will demonstrate to Washington that Europe is worthy of sustained investment for the new age of great power competition. “Only America and Europe together can keep the West strong, defending it against the unmistakable Russian thirst for power and Chinese ambitions for global supremacy,” Kramp-Karrenbauer has said.

But this is not blind faith, and Kramp-Karrenbauer has similar questions about the long-term viability of Europe’s reliance on the United States. She cautions that “the U.S.’s worth as a global power depends to a significant extent on whether its role as a protector of Europe remains credible.” There is no guarantee, and “Washington … must give us a sign that it considers the defense of our interests and values to be a joint project. We have come against walls in recent years which I hope will not shape the future of our relationship.” The punitive narrative that Trump used to justify his decision to reposition U.S. forces out of Germany was a particularly jarring moment for German observers.

Nonetheless, Kramp-Karrenbauer resists the allure of Macron’s gambit: “The idea of ​​European strategic autonomy goes too far if it nurtures the illusion that we can guarantee security, stability and prosperity in Europe without NATO and without the USA.” In other words, tightening the transatlantic relationship is the only sure way to strengthen Europe.

The rising vehemence of this debate, which a growing number of European leaders are now bringing their own twists to, should come as no surprise after a four-year love-hate relationship between Trump and the U.S. allies he took distinct pleasure in denigrating. As NATO summits approached, allies grew used to the president’s routine of tongue lashings before the gatherings, equivocations during, and credit-taking on the way home. If that were the end of it, allies could have held their noses for four years. But it was the string of half-hearted recommitments to the “mutual defense” clause in NATO’s sacred Article 5, questions surrounding whether “very aggressive” Montenegrins might draw NATO into unnecessary conflict, and claims that European allies owe protection money to the United States, that all culminated in the debate playing out today.

Europeans have learned many lessons from the Trump brand of alliance management, what one might describe as “multilateralism on our terms.” This heavily transactional approach, based primarily on a balance-of-payments perspective, notably avoids the trappings of higher ideals and collective vision. What binds allies in this approach is less about common interest and more about who picks up the check. In his pursuit of a ledger that better favors U.S. coffers, Trump has deliberately decreased confidence from the inside to set the terms for improved burden-sharing. Predictably, allies now question how an alliance based on green-eyeshade accounting can withstand the strategic dilemmas that Europe will face in the coming decades.

The shots to European confidence continue even in the waning days of the Trump administration. Despite the fact that allies invoked — for the only time — Article 5 in support of the United States following the 9/11 attacks, and despite the fact that NATO has led the international mission in Afghanistan since 2003, the Pentagon unilaterally announced a major drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in November. NATO allies, and the secretary-general himself, have bristled at Trump’s disregard for their opinions, particularly as NATO’s military mission will have to deal with the consequences of the withdrawal amidst ongoing violence. Not surprisingly, U.S. diplomats have received an ear full behind closed doors.

Biden’s First Order of Business: Rebuilding the U.S. Reputation

Europeans’ decisions about their defense and security will hinge on a number of factors as they work to agree on a common threat environment amidst shrinking budgets and intra-European challenges like Brexit and Turkish interventionism. However, one issue will stand out far above the rest — Can the United States be trusted, and trusted to take European security into account? Europeans are asking WWJD: What will Joe do?

President-elect Joe Biden has clearly signaled that he will move quickly to reassure allies. He has announced that “America is back,” and ready to lead the transatlantic democracies once again. But European allies will not simply take his word for it. If blind faith ever existed between Europeans and Americans, it certainly does not today.

In the first round of North Atlantic Council meetings after January 20, the Biden administration will start to lay the foundation of its European agenda and simultaneously begin to establish a new national security reputation for the United States. Allies will be paying very close attention in three key areas.

First, as president, Biden will be faced with the same resource dilemma that Trump had to manage. What will “America is back” mean down at the nickel-and-dime level of defense budgeting? COVID will place new strain on the U.S. defense budget, and Biden will likely have even tougher choices to make on the right distribution of forces between Europe and Asia. At the same time, China will continue to probe and challenge the political-military status quo in the Asia-Pacific, demanding more attention from the Pentagon. European allies have already accepted there will be a net drain on U.S. attention in their region, but they want these shifts to take place through meaningful consultations that preserve the essential American commitment to Europe. Biden should unequivocally underscore that European and American security interests are non-separable. A new U.S. National Defense Strategy and associated force posture should be plainly consistent with this maxim, even if the overall number of U.S. forces in Europe is reduced over time.

Second, all international forces are currently slated to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, the bulk of which belong to the NATO Resolute Support Mission. Allies are deeply skeptical that the conditions agreed to by U.S. and Taliban negotiators will be met by February to allow for an orderly withdrawal. Biden should demonstrate that he values the “in together, adjust together, out together” mantra of solidarity that allies have recited for years, particularly given the heavy reliance of NATO forces on U.S. logistical support. Should Biden, who was never a fan of maintaining a larger troop presence, look for an overly hasty exit, allies will be extremely reluctant to follow the United States into out-of-area battles in the future.

Third, the Biden team will need to reconsider and reevaluate the merits of treaties that Trump viewed as bad deals. While Biden will almost certainly rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, other treaties are not as cut and dry. Even rejoining the Iran nuclear deal will be thick with strategic complexity given the political window of opportunity could close quickly and the fact that Iran is now much closer to a breakout capability than it was in 2016. Most allies will expect a more pliable tone from Washington on whatever eventual deal might take shape, but turning the deal back on will not be automatic and will force the administration to balance national and collective interests.

Most urgent will be Biden’s approach to the New START treaty, which limits strategic nuclear weapons for both the United States and Russia. Most NATO allies support an extension of that treaty, but they also recognize its shortcomings and understand that an automatic extension favors Russia more than the United States. Biden has committed to “pursue an extension” of the treaty, but has not offered further specifics. With the treaty set to expire only 16 days after the presidential inauguration, Europeans will have an early indicator of how Biden will manage the European theater. Biden’s negotiators should accept that they need to represent both American and transatlantic interests as they move forward or risk degrading NATO’s united front on countering Russian aggression.

Finally, in the long term, the greater and certainly more difficult challenge for Team Biden will be to re-anchor transatlantic relations at home. A domestic consensus, perhaps most credibly demonstrated by concerted bipartisan congressional action and representation overseas, is necessary for these early decisions to have lasting positive impact.

Matching rhetoric with action in a way that acknowledges and responds to European security concerns in each of these areas not only buys Europeans back into a unified purpose, it signals to adversaries — who would benefit immensely from further fractures — that the transatlantic relationship is here to stay.

No Second Chance to Make a First Impression

No matter which side of the debate they might take, European leaders will work to strengthen their diplomatic hand. Whether that hand is firmly inside a transatlantic glove remains to be determined. The U.S. president should take clear action in his first year to demonstrate America’s full commitment to the transatlantic alliance. And of course he should expect nothing less from European allies.

Below the level of political bluster, U.S. diplomats and defense policy advisers have worked diligently over the past four years to preserve and even improve NATO unity. These efforts include the production and early implementation of a new NATO Military Strategy, the first of its kind in some fifty years. In fact, the Trump years represented a renaissance of strategic thinking within NATO. The alliance has increased the readiness of its forces, substantially upgraded its command structure, established new operational domains covering cyber and outer space, implemented new force employment and development concepts, and put China squarely on its agenda. In agreeing to these initiatives and deploying forces in support of them, Washington has demonstrated at a technical level that it is able to live up to its commitments. However, Trump has rattled European confidence as to whether there is the political will to keep those commitments on the rainiest of days.

I and so many other U.S. foreign and defense policy advisers like me will be ready and prepared to continue advancing this common work in the Biden administration, but it will be up to the president himself to re-establish the national security reputation of the United States over the next four years. America’s best chance of meeting its national security interests lies in its willingness to demonstrate that the United States is, above all else, reliable. If Biden allows this to be his starting point on January 20, he will strengthen the hand of those who want to reinvest in the transatlantic alliance, and the European debate will eventually subside. America’s reliability should never have been up for debate in the first place.



Jedidiah Royal is the director for Defense Policy and Planning at the United States Mission to NATO. He is a career member of the Senior Executive Service. The views here are his own and do not represent official positions or views of the U.S. Mission to NATO or the Department of Defense.

Image: French Ministry of Defense

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