Does Europe Treasure NATO Again?

It is a bit rich to hear Europeans insist that any Trump Administration doubts about NATO’s usefulness is heresy—given their occasional popular indifference to and ambiguity about the alliance.

In current journalistic groupthink, Donald Trump has endangered NATO by suggesting a) it does not have a clearly defined role and needs to find one for the 21st century; and b) the vast majority of European members have welched on their defense spending commitments, on the expectation that the U.S. defense budget would always take up the slack, protect Europe, and thus indirectly subsidize the European social welfare project.

No one really disputes the logic of Trump’s criticisms, only his supposed recklessness in daring to be so rude as to voice them.

But we forget that by the mid-2000s, especially after the invasion of Iraq, there was growing European unease with the trajectory of NATO. A different narrative was then in currency of a regrettable omnipresence of the United States (the “hyperpuissance”) within NATO. Hundreds of thousands of soft-power Europeans hit the streets to protest the Iraq War and hard-power American imperialism, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld earned furious pushback for characterizing Western NATO allies as “Old Europe.”

A European solution at a time of a strengthening euro and widespread loathing of George W. Bush was greater autonomy. The long overdue reification of an all-European Union defense agreement (“Common Security and Defence Policy”), would work side-by-side with NATO, but in truth draw indirectly European resources from it and eventually supersede the transatlantic alliance. We are still waiting to see the fruition of a European External Action Service; so far there are lots of impressive acronyms for various forces and programs, but no brigades in action.

What explains the rapid European about-face on NATO by 2017? A number of things:

1) Over a decade ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to many Europeans as growing into a likely benign figure (a “flawless democrat” in the words of then socialist German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder), much less worthy of criticism than was George W. Bush. Schröder himself, just weeks after he left the chancellorship, went to work for Nord Stream, the Russian Gazprom pipeline project. Now Putin, who formerly was supposed to be reasonable, has transmogrified into a land-grabbing existential threat. A U.S.-backed NATO is suddenly seen as a more viable deterrent than the once hyped European defense force; and the Cold War American-led relic is now seen as a vital Hot War American-led deterrent.

2) A decade ago the United States was a thirsty oil-importer dependent on Middle East energy, while Europe was next-door to an oil-rich Russia, which increasingly was seen as an asset in a way the energy-short U.S. was not. Now America is the largest energy producer in the world, soon to be a natural gas and coal exporter, and is immune from Middle East oil chaos in a way a petrol-short Europe is not, especially given the worrisome implosion of the Middle East between 2011 and 2016 and the rise of a hostile and unreliable oil-exporting Russia.

3) The shaky European Union of today is not the confident EU paradigm of a decade ago, which, in Robert Kagan’s formulation, played more a fun-loving Venus to our arms-obsessed Mars. The euro has been weakening, not strengthening. The north-south financial crisis has been papered over, but not resolved. Global sympathies have shifted somewhat, from a “they got what they deserved” feeling about the often deceptive and undisciplined southern Mediterranean debtor nations to a more nuanced view that the lender Germany has gamed the EU for its own trade advantages, monopolizing through its exports a highly regulated European market and relying on weaker EU states to keep the value of the euro lower than a free-floating Deutsche Mark would have been.

The immigration disaster, advanced by the naiveté of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has fueled populist pushbacks against German immigration policy throughout the EU. Currently, the European economy is anemic and ossified. Turkey is no longer seen as a future EU member and protector of NATO’s southern flank, but rather a neo-Ottoman belligerent that considers fellow European NATO allies all but enemies. Given all that, the idea of NATO is now once again seen by European elites as essential in a way it was growing optional a decade ago, when European media caricatured the organization as moral cover for U.S. adventurism and imperialism. Brexit, and the United Kingdom’s reinvestment in its navy, are hints that bilateral relations could extend to two-party defense pacts.

4) Past European ankle-biting about NATO was part and parcel of an asymmetrical transatlantic relationship, sharpened during the Reagan years, in which Europe characteristically distanced itself from the United States, on the assumption that U.S. bipartisan postwar “wise men” would merely grimace a bit and press on with ensuring the costly military subsidies of Europe.

Indeed, Europe, militarily dependent on America during the Cold War, had rhetorically reinvented the dependency as one that served more selfish U.S. Cold War strategic interests to the point that U.S. bases on European soil were supposedly neocolonial outposts. (During the 1973 Yom Kippur War some European NATO members denied the U.S. the use of airspace to resupply an endangered democratic Israel, while letting Soviet transports to Egypt and Syria fly over some NATO nations; when I lived in Greece, weekend demonstrations started off with the obligatory chant Ekso Nato!). During the 1983 Pershing Missile crisis, the Reagan administration was sometimes seen by European leftists as more the aggressor against than the protector of Europe.

But now? The outsider Trump is no globalist Bill Clinton or internationalist George W. Bush. Instead, he’s seen as wildly unpredictable. Trump appears to the Europeans as the first U.S. president who might well react to European mantras about outsized American influence in European affairs, with an almost happy, “So long, it’s been good to know you” attitude. Past U.S. presidents, even after the Cold War, accepted that a U.S.-led NATO (“America in”) was critical to confining an always powerful Russia to its own territory (“Russia out”), while dealing with the age-old “German problem” (“Germany down”) of continental aggression that had led to three European wars.

Yet Lord Hasting Ismay’s original tripartite Russia-America-Germany formulation for NATO by the 21st century was looked upon as outdated and simplistic jargon.

Not anymore. Ismay seems prescient again. Fears of an imperious and domineering Germany have returned, along with worries about Russian unpredictability, both of which require America to be engaged as never before—and all of which has stopped dead European parlor talk of U.S. hegemony over NATO and replaced it with “don’t even dare think we don’t need you” desperation.

The existential threats to NATO are not Donald Trump’s, but rather the continuing European lack of confidence that it can create a peaceful, democratic, and secure continent that does not once again devour itself, along with its own chronic reneging on promised military contributions.

Ironically, Trump’s herky-jerky warnings about redefining strategic missions and meeting required contributions may jolt the alliance into reform—in a way that past American presidents’ mellifluous but empty rhetoric about the fissures within and the contradictions of NATO seem to have only made things worse.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Hanson is also a farmer (growing raisin grapes on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won (Basic Books).

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38 responses to “Does Europe Treasure NATO Again?

  • Trump is literally acting like a Boss. He writes the checks, he sets the policy – and the European Union is going to have to either conform to the President’s common sense or chart a new course for itself without American aid. Knowing the European mindset, they will (and already are) raising their military spending.

    The next step for Europe is to stop paying welfare to islamic radicals who want to kill Europeans and stop treating terrorist cells in Europe as if they were religious organizations covered by legal protections for freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

    Europeans will get there – they have always been a bit behind the American curve!

    • The next step is for them to have their OWN military that can defend their own borders. Why should we defend theirs?

      • What borders? The concept of borders is so 1990’s in Europe.

      • You can be sure the concept of borders will return in Western Europe when the Islamic caliphate takes over England and France and reinstates them to the detriment of Europeans.

      • I am the one who was against stationing more US troops in Eastern Europe and has been working against that and for scaling back – but the problem is the “conservative” establishment in the GOP who are more than happy to answer your question with a million and one silly reasons which justify NATO expansion.

        Why is Montenegro being added to the Alliance?

    • Bismark’s failure to support Russia in 1854 was one of his three great mistakes. The other two being his annexation of Alsace-Lorraine and his animosity towards Friedrich III when he was Crown Prince Frederich Wilhelm.

  • Screw Europe. Let them take care of themselves. They did it long before the USA was born and can continue to do so without us.

  • We saved Europe’s bacon three times in the last 100 years. What do we have to show for it? The Ruling Elites are falling over themselves to take the Veil. Europe is not worth the bones of one American Ranger.

    • Totally agree. We should take our toys out of Europe and go home.

      I’ve lived in Europe and have traveled there often. The vile anti-Americanism of the French and Germans is too much to take.

      EU has a greater population than US and double that of Russia and is far richer.

      Let them confront Islam and Russia on their own.

      They think they can insult us over and over. No more.

      Trump should announce plans to quit NATO in five years and see what happens.

      I think Euro voters will applaud this, much as it shocks their leaders.

      • That’s an interesting take. I haven’t been to Europe since the early 1990’s, so I wondered if the anti-Americanism is still as rampant today as it was back when I was there. The problem is that the Europeans have shown that they can’t get along on their own without the presence of the Americans to make sure people play nice. If we were to pack up and leave there would be another major war within a generation. Once a war begins, we’d invariably get involved and the result would be much more costly in lives and $$ than if we had merely maintained our presence there. Pax Americana is the best course for everyone, including America because the cost of war is just too steep.

      • You say European countries can’t get along. Well after 70 years of protecting them and keeping them from fighting, it’s time to tell them to grow up and deal with the Russians. We need to spend the money here at home.

      • Why do they need to “Deal with the Russians” militarily as you suggest? What is so bad about Russians? How is Russia threatening Europe? This is the same BS crazy thinking that started WWII. You trade with them, you get them to sell stuff and buy stuff. What the hell is all this Anti-Russia crap, anyway? People are acting like this is 1955 all over again. It is NOT! But, this nutty thinking does come from Big Business types who make big bucks cashing in on war materials and soldiers spending money in their bars and brothels.

      • “Once a war begins, we’d invariably get involved…”

        I’m having a difficult time validating that “invariably” term against the documented times the US did enter European wars vs the number of wars therein. I guess you could call the battles on the shores of Montezuma a war, but that’s a stretch. Europeans have been offing themselves for thousands of years without any help from us. One doesn’t have to go back very far in time to see how the borders and country names have changed just in the last century. And I don’t hear any voices talking about arming up and going over there to kick some moslim ass either. We’re sick of war.

      • In the last 105 years, Yea. The Us has this knee jerk habit of allowing the Europeans to pull us into their calamities. Why is it we have US bases all over Europe, but they have NO bases here? That kind of proves the point. After all, we are geographically much closer to Russia than the western Europeans.

      • Europeans today talk about keeping outsiders out, not about taking possession of their neighbors and driving them away (or murdering them).

        I just don’t see any scenario under which Europe engages in another pan-Europen bloodbath. They just don’t have it in them any more.

        The potential exists for land grabs by Russia in Ukraine and the Baltics. If Europe wants peace, it must prepare for this potential threat.

      • And I noted that Russia presents a threat to some of its neighbors.

        However, few Europeans would agree that Russia is part of “Europe” culturally, politically, or economically.

      • The cost of war is only steep if you try to stop it. As far as Europe goes, I think we should SELL weapons and ammo to BOTH sides. A pox on the whole continent.

  • Ober Gruppen Fuehrer Trump says no. and we will be withdrawing from the role of world’s policeman for the foreseeable future ( see book-Absent Superpower).

  • Let’s be honest though– this is all posturing. If somebody (the Russians or the Chinese or the Iranian or whoever) attacked Italy or France or Germany or Portugal, the US would intervene. If Russian tanks were rolling through Poland into Germany, does anyone really think Trump would say, “Sorry, you didn’t spend 2% on defense, we can’t help you.” I love that Trump is finally pointing out the free ride Europe has been getting all these years, but I seriously doubt that he’d turn his back on them. It is disgusting that a rich country like Germany is spending a paltry 1.19% of GDP on military expenditures. They are clearly taking full advantage of the U.S. protective umbrella. Trump is right to point out that they owe billions for the sense of ongoing security over the year made possible by the deterring presence of the U.S.

    • I’m less sure of your assumption – the US will always intervene if the EU is attacked – every day.

      Really, the US and EU are obviously diverging and the older a treaty is, the more likely it is that it will not be honored.

      The EU has about the same size economy and a much larger population than either the US or Russia. I simply cannot make a good argument for subsidizing the EU’s defense or for baling them out should their policies and practices precipitate an attack that is not also directly aimed at the US.

    • In fact, I would indeed leave them to their fate. They have broken their commitments for decades. The contract has long since been abrogated – by Europe. Screw em.

  • Hey, Olaf, quit Bogarting the joint, man. Not cool, man. Pass it over to Omar before he self detonates.

  • You dont appreciate anything unless you have to pay for it, maybe this is why Europe is starting to appreciate it as they may have to start paying for it…

    • The problem with the younger generation in Europe is that they have come to maturity in a world where NATO was seen as optional, and perhaps not even the best option available. Now they are seeing the world as a dangerous place, and they once again want to shelter under the wing of American protection.
      It is probably in our own best interests to allow it, but they should have to do some of the heavy lifting. No reason why we should pay the whole cost of protecting them from the world’s bad guys, and we should at least have the right to question their current suicidal immigration policies. Why continue to protect them if they are going to import radical Islamists into their country to blow it up?

      • No reason we ought to pay ANY of the cost of protecting them from the world’s bad guys. If they aren’t willing to do their part – and they are not – then the heII with them.

  • Of course they do, as any good socialist when confronted with the possible end of the gravy train. They only thing they really fear is running out of someone else’s money!

  • Would someone tell my why the US tax payer should continue paying for most NATO’s expenses to defend a group of countries whose GDP equals ours while those countries refuse to pay for their own defense? Furthermore, we’re borrowing 20% of what we spend from the Chinese.

    NATO was formed to protect Europe from the Soviet Union, allow European countries to form functioning democracies and vibrant economies. All three objectives have been met. We’ve been footing most of the bill for 70 years. Enough is Enough.

  • I’m confused. The establishment reveres Frau Merkel–even though she opened the floodgates of Europe to millions of unvetted Muslims, including Islamists, and is freeloading on US taxpayers’ defense spending. The establishment was in awe of Obama (at least a genius if not a demi-God), the Nobel prize winner whose legacy is death and heightening threats the world over. And the establishment tells us that Trump, who wants to secure America’s borders and make Euros pay for their own defense, is an ignoramus and a threat to (you name it). Can Trump be right if the establishment says he’s wrong? Godspeed President Trump.

  • Neo-Liberalism (not the classic variety) is a parasitic organism. It requires a host from which it can draw its sustenance even while it reviles the very source of its affluence.

    The U.S., through its support of NATO, plays the host to the parasitic European welfare state. For decades, Europe has grown fat, smug and contemptuous of its benefactor. It is merely a recognition of human nature to acknowledge that resentment, rather than gratitude, is usually the reward for playing the host.

  • The EU (including the UK) has 3X the population of Russia and 6X the GDP of Russia. Europe has advanced electromechanical and aerospace technology required for modern warfare. Europe is capable of defending its territory without US help. It has the population. It has the economic power. It lacks the will.

    The US has largely withdrawn fighting forces from Europe where up to 500,000 had been stationed until the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. The US has drawn these forces back to the US and/or dismantled them….mostly the latter.

    Europe is not capable of projecting power outside its land mass (possible exception: UK) and is totally dependent on US airlift and sea power, communications, intelligence gathering, targeting technology, etc. The EU could not on its own bomb Libya, a few hundred miles from French and Italian air bases.

    • Something along these lines which irks me is how many of the Eurotrash nations have legal and structural speedbumps to prevent their armed forces from being useful. Here are some examples:

      1. German law requires legislative approval to deploy the Bundeswehr outside of Germany.

      2. The Danish Army is segmented and segregated such that it would take at least a year to cobble together a sizeable unit ready to do something on its own.

      3. The Spanish Army needs a legislative act to get access to a huge chunk of their nation’s MP and intel assets as they’re squirreled away in the non-deploying police force.

      4. Much of the French Army couldn’t fight outside of France as they don’t have the necessary support structures.

      5. The Dutch Army is unionized and acts like the US Postal Service or a General Motors plant.

      And these are just some examples and they tend to overlap (ie, the German Army is structured like that of France).

      BTW, you’re right as to the UK, but their power projection abilities are limited. And it gets worse every year as Parliament makes MOD inactivate units to free up funds for social welfare programs.

  • I am 71 years old. World War II ended a few weeks before I was born. I will be dead in a few years after living a lifetime. Unless something dramatically changes, there will STILL be American troops in Europe when I am dead even though President Franklin Roosevelt promised that all troops would be home three years after the war ended. NATO is a relic of the Cold War. It should have been disbanded in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The United States should not be defending Europe. Let Europeans defend themselves. This country has sent trillions of dollars to European coiffeurs and thousands of young Americans have served in Europe in my life time. I not server there – I served in the Far East – but was involved in European operations on a temporary duty basis and flying transport missions from the United States. In fact, I was on one of the first C-5s into Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport in the operation Dr. Hanson mentioned. Why are Americans still defending people who have the resources to defend themselves?

  • would you rather fight russia on german soil or in the atlantic off the coast of New Jersey

    that’s the best reason for nato
    and you can’t refute it

  • The only continental Western European country with any degree of determination, social energy, economic strength, and national unity is Germany. Since the First World War none of the rest have ever been of any particular value – except as minor trading partners -and their value even as a collective within the EU is diminishing. That is why, aside from the Insular UK that’s leaving the EU, Germany dominates the continent in trade, economics and political power including by overwhelmingly controlling the EU and its policies. I personally believe that Merkel’s Germany discounts Russia as a threat and prefers more trade than confrontation, and I also believe that Germany cares little about Russian hegemony over the former Soviet states from the Baltics south through Poland on to Hungary. Peace in Europe, if that’s defined by hard-lining againt Russia, can only be an outcome of a resurgent, more militarized Germany. Are we ready for that? And is it needed? And would that lead us all back to Cold War mentality? As to Russia, how many more years do we have listen to analysts’ presumed economic weaknesses? A 80 million ethnic Russians dedicated to Russia, and even to Putin, and with the strongest military after the USA, are capable of much more. Russia is to be reckoned with as a strong force on the European stage, and more and more so internationally. How to reckon is the issue.

  • European countries like America when American bodies are shedding blood on European soil. Other than that, “they don’t need us”. Trump is correct in asking them to pay more and commit to really supporting NATO. Liberals in the U.S. are talking up the “Russia threat”. But you don’t see any NY Times columnists bragging about having a child enlisted in the U.S. military. That is for the little people in “flyover country”.

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