As the US under its current president appears to be edging itself into a period of international isolation in respect of fighting in wars of other nations I had initially been surprised and disappointed to read on Friday that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg supported European Union plans to build a common defence policy. That he also quite rightly expressed concern of the risk of duplication of any proposed EU rapid reaction force – this commonly being described alternatively as a first entry force of 5,000 military personnel available to react and be deployed with immediate effect in conflicts beyond EU borders – eased my initial concerns but for all that, I do consider that response by NATO to any intended independent EU desire to have been weak.
Responding to misplaced and ill-timed EU messages, Mr. Stoltenberg said that “We welcome more EU efforts on defence, but that cannot replace NATO. It should not duplicate NATO, because we have one set of forces, we have scarce resources” adding “I mean you have to use them in the best possible way. The EU has had battlegroups for many years, they have not been deployed”. That of course is because members either take too long or fail to agree.
In the wake of US led pressure for NATO to get its act together following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, the Alliance created what is today known as a ‘Very High Readiness Joint Task Force’ (VJTF), one that the US as the leading financial contributor to NATO has contributed significant levels of military assets.
Most but not all EU member states are also members of NATO and while it is understandable that a small handful of larger EU members should express the desire that the EU should have the ability to act independently of its US and other allies and to play a larger role in the overall defence of Europe, now is not the time and neither is the notion affordable unless each and every EU member agrees and each is prepared to significantly increase spending on defence.
NATO acted on the later criticism levied at it by the Trump administration in 2016 and the Alliance rightly saw this as a wake-up reality call. And while more work remains to be done no one should be in any doubt that the alliance has subsequently not only been significantly strengthened and reinforced but is today to be once again seen as being fit for purpose.
Recognising the difficult path that NATO needs to tread politically in respect of creation of an EU wide defence force, Mr. Stoltenberg said in a separate interview to the Sunday Telegraph published at the weekend that he “welcomed the idea of greater European focus on defence capabilities but warned “against going down the path of setting up an EU force as he said it could damage links with the US.
But in what appeared on first reading to be a somewhat confused messaging, former Belgian Prime Minister and now MEP, Guy Verhofstadt, attacked NATO Secretary Generals view in a tweet saying “No, Mr. Stoltenberg, European Defence as the European pillar of NATO will strengthen the Alliance by putting an end to the numerous duplications and waste of money between the armies of EU member states” adding that while ‘specific proposals’ have not yet been shared with NATO, “any attempt to establish parallel structures, duplicate the command structure, that will weaken our joint capability to work together because with scarce resources we need to prevent duplication and overlapping efforts”.
Sadly, I am of the opinion that if the EU succeeds in its current mission of forming a common defence policy and ultimately, a rapid reaction force that is separate from EU command will be the thin end of the wedge for NATO. That is unlikely to happen because a still large group of EU member states consider this to be a waste of money and resources cannot be taken for granted and it may well be that just as members states were allowed to opt out of the single currency, ultimately France, Germany and the handful of others seeking to have independent control over EU wide defence will have their way.
It is all very well for Mr Stoltenberg to suggest that increased European efforts could ‘never replace Nato and that we need to make sure that Europe and North America band together’ – all of which I totally agree – but in a fast changing world and one in which the west appears to be losing its edge through poor leadership, I fear that NATO risks being damaged at every turn.
That in challenging NATO the Trump administration damaged it on one hand whilst strengthening it by waking it up to realities on the other has undoubtedly played into the hands of those in the EU that wish to have greater collective control over defence. That may or may not be what the former US president intended but his view that Europe must pay a larger amount of the cost of its defence was unarguable.
Unaffordable and inadvisable that current or hoped for EU strategy on future defence might be that does not mean it might not yet become reality. There are of course those who argue that the EU never agrees on anything and the hurdles to get such a strategy across are almost insurmountable. They claim that all this would do is create yet another layer of bureaucracy cost, buildings and political structure without adding any extra military resource and strength.
And how would they agree to involve themselves in the wars of other people such as Afghanistan, Iraq – would they perhaps still be arguing today perhaps over whether to liberate Kuwait? NATO has served us well and it has done so because it has been able to command universal respect of its members and has and continues to be seen with contempt by our would-be enemies.
The danger that any potential weakening of the bond that since April 1949 has played the most significant role in maintained peace and stability in Europe is one that I take very seriously. A strong NATO is a prize that western politicians must not allow to be damaged. The EU may dream of a time when it no longer needs the Alliance and no longer requires the involvement of the US which pays the larger part of the cost of NATO but those of sound mind and who look back on Europe’s relatively recent history will understand why the bond that we have established with the US is of such great importance. A weakened NATO will ultimately divide Europe and play into the hands of our enemies.
CHW (London – 6th June 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS