NATO ‘Brain Dead’? There’s Life in the Old Dog Yet

Europe must be able to defend itself. But after decades of depending on the U.S., it is not prepared to do so – especially not Germany.

In a guest commentary, Green Party member and former German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer explains why Europe has to secure power beyond trade and competition.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is remarkably resilient, and has already been declared dead multiple times. At the moment, it’s like a fox has entered the chicken coop. The typical, powerful European response to danger is frenzied clucking and a torrent of flying feathers. The fox’s name appears to be Emmanuel Macron, but that is the first mistake. One may or may not agree with his choice of words about NATO being “brain dead” or share his new passion for dialogue with Vladimir Putin’s Russia (the author does not), but the French president is not wrong. He is pointing out to Europeans that, as far as their collective defense is concerned, they must draw practical conclusions from the change of strategy in Donald Trump’s America.

NATO already seemed to be clinically dead after the foreseeable end of its mission in Afghanistan. That is, until Putin came along with his occupation of Crimea and his war in eastern Ukraine. He brought the western military alliance back to life.

And then Trump came along. With his historic change of strategy, the U.S. president essentially pulled the rug out from under Europe’s feet by ending the role of the U.S. as a global superpower within a multilateral, rule-based international system, and reorienting it through his nationalist shift in foreign policy. And by the way, he declared NATO “irrelevant.”

For the first time since the end of World War II, Europe is on its own, without its big brother, unaccustomed to geopolitical reality. After decades of being a client of the U.S., Europe, and above all Germany, are not prepared for such a harsh reality. Not materially, and certainly not mentally.

Radical Turning Point

Will NATO still be around in 20 years? The chances of that are slimmer today than they have been throughout the alliance’s history. This was hardly imaginable after 1989, but today it is more real than ever. And not because of Paris, but because of Washington. If the possibility of NATO’s dissolution can no longer be discounted, then Europe will have to take action now, not 20 years from now.

Compelled by Trump’s nationalist shift, the rise of China, and the digital revolution, Europe must become a global power. No more, but no less. And that’s where Macron hits the nail on the head.

Make no mistake: Such a step would be a radical turning point for the EU, because so far, the European Union has not perceived itself as a global power beyond trade and competition, nor has it projected any military power.

Practical Passiveness

Sure, American troops are still stationed on this side of the Atlantic, and NATO still exists. However, all of the traditional institutions and commitments in the trans-Atlantic relationship are fraught with questions, and the biggest and most threatening question of all is: How much longer? When will we see the deciding tweet that marks the end of it all? Europe would be downright foolish to do nothing in the meantime and wait for this tweet with bated breath. This is exactly the point that Paris was making, and Berlin insists on its usual, practical passiveness, reverting to rhetorical commitments like it always does.

Europe must be able to defend itself, and achieving this goal will be difficult enough. In order to achieve this as a sovereign entity, however, Europe needs to be in a position to compete technologically, develop the necessary skills and be united and determined enough to do so.

A Radical Break

The imminent break in European defense after a U.S. withdrawal will be much more radical than we think. It will not be an insignificant, gradual transition, but a real break. If Europe wants to delay such a break, or even prevent it altogether, then it will have to invest heavily in its military and in its own skills as if such a break were happening anyway. Closing our eyes and covering our ears to the reality that Trump has created will not help.

For much of its history, Europe has had to deal with two challenges: its turbulent German core, and its physically and geopolitically open eastern flank with respect to Russia and Eurasia. Since its creation, NATO has offered protection from both of these challenges.

Existential Fears

The further east one goes in NATO and the EU, the more existential the security fears become among the new Eastern European member states. This is undoubtedly due to the geographical proximity to, and their experience with, Russia as an expansive, imperial power that has been considered a military threat, and not just because of its annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine. For these member states, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, U.S. involvement in NATO’s common defense is paramount, given the current military balance of power. In their view, it is even a matter of existential importance. NATO is the necessary assurance against geopolitical threats on the eastern flank of Europe and, together with increased European security efforts, it also serves to unify the EU.

With his “America First!” policy and the nationalistic shift he has caused in U.S. politics, Trump is forcing Europeans to seriously consider their 21st century sovereignty practically overnight, something they probably would not have done on their own for a long time. He is forcing them to reinvent themselves.

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