Down with NATO

In his latest speech, President Jean-Claude Juncker talked up the necessity of the EU creating its own military headquarters and work towards a common military force. Juncker claimed this new force would be complementary to NATO. He clearly wanted to reassure the Americans that the EU does not wish to usurp them. Yet its hard not to see the potential for a realignment here.

Theoretically, a common European army could make NATO redundant. Such a force could provide security for EU member states and avoid the baggage of NATO interventions. It would be possible for Germany and France to resolve tensions with Russia. Simultaneously, it could be a way for the EU to pursue greater integration. Eastern European member states would be open to an EU army, which may give EU leaders an extra bargaining chip on the migrant question.

Many Eastern European countries want to secure a place in the European Union to get away from Russia. For understandable historical reasons, American hegemony has been seen as a lesser evil to Russian domination. It’s also been seen, foolishly, as a key to stability and prosperity. If this were the case, Ukrainian aspirations to enter the West would not have required the Maidan uprising. This surely proves the east-west oscillation is a threat to stability, not its guarantor.

Although the Russian government can live with EU expansion eastward, the same cannot be said for NATO expansion. After all, NATO was founded to guard against the Soviet Union and contain its satellite states. In Russian minds, the Soviet Union was often seen as a uniquely Russian project and the Eastern bloc was its security barrier. So even after the death of the Soviet system, NATO remains and its exact purpose is mysterious in a world without Communism.

Crisis of legitimacy

NATO has only ever been deployed after the Cold War ended. The wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya, were not struggles against Communism, yet NATO has participated in all of these conflicts. In the case of Yugoslavia, the US took the side of Bosnian and Kosovar nationalism over Milosevic’s plans for a Greater Serbia. Likewise, NATO played a key role in regime change in Afghanistan and Libya.

Today, NATO is little more than an American intervention force. This is a little different to its role in the 20th Century. As Winston Churchill’s advisor Lord Ismay once put it: “NATO was designed to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” Now the priorities may have shifted slightly, as NATO is deployed against Afghan goat-herders and Serbian TV stations. Yet it has not proven successful in most of its engagements.

After 15 years of occupation, Afghanistan remains ungovernable, corrupt and underdeveloped. Far from a thing of the past, the Taliban still has strong branches in the country and neighbouring Pakistan. The US should walk away, but it finds itself unable to admit defeat. And if we take Libya, we find NATO bombing hardly left behind a set of stable institutions capable of reconstructing the country.

Facing the refugee crisis, France and Italy hope to shape the outcome of the Libyan civil war and, once again, close down the North African route to Europe. In this sense, European leaders may see the refugee crisis as a result of the NATO intervention (conveniently avoiding their own role in the mess). The German government has been trying to manage the refugee flow within the framework of the EU. But this requires more mechanisms than the current system offers.

So the appeal of greater integration is clear. Losing the UK makes the EU much weaker on the military front. France will be left as the leading EU mercenary state. Britain may have separated itself off from the European project, and this could open the space for France to take on the central role in military terms. Certainly, the French ruling-class wants to believe it can lead Europe, and the German elites are willing to indulge this fantasy – as long as they hold real power.

Of course, militarism is a dirty word in German politics for good reason. In one sense, Germany might not step up to the plate, given its constitutional concerns about militarisation and where it has led historically. On the other hand, it is precisely because Germany cannot directly remilitarise that it needs an international framework (like NATO, or an alternative) to provide security. An EU army, backed by France, would be a logical option.

This is where it gets interesting. France has long seen itself as a distinct power to the US-UK ‘special relationship’. The Chirac government opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, alongside Shroeder in Germany and Putin in Russia. That moment showed there is the potential for an independent European foreign policy. But this moment was also brief. Chirac was succeeded by Sarkozy, and France rejoined NATO.

Divides, great and small

A lot depends on two key factors: 1) whether or not Brexit actually happens, and on what basis; but also, 2) the outcome of the next French presidential election. The Socialist government is facing the real possibility of getting a drubbing for its failings. As a result, the return of Sarkozy, the Gaullists, or even the rise of Marine Le Pen, are all plausible scenarios. What happens will, no doubt, affect the Brexit negotiations (which have yet to officially get going).

At the same time, we ought not get carried away because NATO is no dodo. As the recent war games prove, the US is not willing to give up on its project and Eastern European states like Poland are more than comfortable to partake. The prospect of US missile bases sitting on Russia’s doorstep raises old fears. It is hard to see how the EU would diverge from the US in its approach to Russia. A rapprochement may not be on the cards for some time.

A less fortunate possibility would be the EU army playing a complementary role to NATO. This could lead to greater tensions, as Russia would not be able to live with EU expansion. The new armed forces could just become an extra layer on NATO. Certainly, the French military establishment shares common goals with the US in Syria, where we also find Russia engages in wanton aggression.

Despite all the talk to the contrary, American decline is real, but shouldn’t be overstated. By comparison, Europe has already experienced its own decline, though it wouldn’t mind revivifying itself. The EU is a big part of that idea. It is possible the EU army could be a way for France and Germany to overcome the immediate problems facing the system. But it may not mean a rupture with the American empire. Or, at least not yet.

Photograph courtesy of Rock Cohen. Published under a Creative Commons license.