Bringing Europe's Leaders Together

At 75, NATO must have its own Zeitenwende

To keep the Americans on board the Europeanisation of NATO is imperative, writes Margarita Mathiopoulos.

Lord Ismay famous said that the raison d’être of the North Atlantic Alliance was “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. As the Alliance celebrates its 75th anniversary today, this statement remains valid except what we now expect of Germany.

Today we also do not expect any considerable NATO contributions from the Americans unless the Europeans are prepared to bear at least 60% of the burden of the Alliance.

This means that Germany, as the biggest and financially strongest NATO country apart from the USA, will have to stomach the main burden in order to keep the Alliance together. This, no doubt, all NATO partners are expecting from the Germans behind closed doors. Especially because Berlin “outsourced” its security to all the other NATO countries over the last 25 years, saving billions of euros in the process.

The new incoming NATO Secretary General might therefore update Lord Ismay’s portrait of NATO with the following formulation: to keep the Americans in, not let Russia tear the Alliance apart, and give the Germans a leading role in defence.

Europe is currently confronted with the most serious situation it has faced over the past 75 years. The neo-imperial and revanchist posture of the Russian President, peppered again and again with nuclear threats, makes it clear that he is not just aiming to conquering Ukrainian territory.

That is just the beginning. Putin is waging a vendetta against the West. His narrative that the West has humiliated Russia repeatedly over the last 30 years is well known. What is new is that Putin now considers himself militarily strong enough to break the security bond between the Europeans and Americans. He wants to know whether Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the military promise to stand up for each other collectively if a country is attacked, still applies. His next victim could be another non-NATO country: Moldova. The Kremlin-initiated calls for help from the Russian separatists in breakaway Transnistria serve this purpose. Odessa, which enables the entry to Moldova from land is therefore now in high danger. Putin assumes that the West will not intervene there either as it has already reached its limits with aid for Ukraine.

What will then happen if Trump becomes US President again? And what if Moscow expands its aggression beyond Ukraine and attacks a Baltic state to test Art. 5? Will an elected President Trump stand by the Baltics? This could be the moment of truth for the Alliance.

Faced with such a moment, Europe must decide whether it is able and willing to stop Putin’s vendetta on its own. As Washington’s military involvement – no matter who is in power in the White House – will be increasing in Asia and decrease in Europe, what can be done?

First, the Zeitenwende should apply not only to Germany, but also to the whole of Europe and Atlantic Alliance. On its 75th anniversary, we should remind ourselves that without NATO, we (Western) Europeans would not have been able to live in peace and freedom for the last seven decades. And therefore our most important goal must remain to achieve our military security can only be ensured through NATO. We have no other security guarantee.

However, due to the increasing American military focus on the Indo-Pacific region, a Europeanisation of NATO becomes imperative. This means that all 32 member states must ensure that a conventional upgrade of NATO forces on land, in the air and at sea is undertaken with appropriate capabilities to credibly deter a potential aggressor. For the foreseeable future, the main threat will remain Vladimir Putin.

There should be no country restrictions for the procurement of required capabilities, as time is pressing. The big players in NATO will have to shoulder more of the burden than the smaller countries. The future of the Alliance will decisively depend on the military role that Germany is prepared to undertake and its willingness to take responsibility for a significant increase of its military capabilities within NATO. This is possible: Germany spent up to around 4% of its GDP on defence during the Cold War.

It should also be clear that, in addition to conventional deterrence, we will need tactical nuclear weapons on NATO territory in the future to prevent limited Russian tactical nuclear operations. The Russians have some 2,600 tactical nuclear weapons in stock and, as the Financial Times recently revealed, the use of such weapons under the Russian nuclear doctrine is subject to a frighteningly low threshold.

As the French and British only own strategic nuclear weapons, and the Americans withdrew their Pershing and Cruise Missiles from Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the new threat situation would make Poland and Romania particularly suitable locations for deploying American tactical nuclear weapons. Only if the Europeans are prepared to bear the main conventional burden within NATO we will be able to convince the Americans to continue to protect Europe with their nuclear umbrella and to expand it and add the needed tactical weapons, short and medium range missiles, to deter the Russian nuclear threat.

Second, the Europeanisation of NATO means that it is imperative to strengthen the competitiveness and innovativeness of Europe’s military technological and industrial complex and harmonise its procurement base in a way that the required capabilities will be available in a worst-case scenario.

NATO’s Europeanisation does not mean “buy only European”. Off the shelf US equipment will also be needed and not only must NATO forces be interoperable – allowing them to use each other’s platforms seamlessly while fighting alongside each other – but this should also extend to potential future NATO members like Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia.

Third: Emmanuel Macron is right when he says that “the defeat of Russia is essential”. The goal must be that Vladimir Putin will ultimately be the one to seek negotiations. And here Europe must play a significant role as it is its own territory that is in danger. The moderator of such negotiations should be a European, an experienced, respected personality who will be heard in Washington D.C as well as in Moscow, even if she/he speaks hard truths. Politicians like Gro Harlem Brundtland, Tony Blair, Jean-Claude Juncker or Mario Draghi could be such individuals and demonstrate what Juncker once called Europäische Weltpolitikfähigkeit: Europe’s capacity to play a role in shaping global affairs.

It is Europe’s – and especially Berlin’s moment – to grow up militarily and to be ready in the worst case to defend itself without the Americans. But if we are not willing to make the necessary expenditures and commitments for our common security in Europe, we run the risk that one day sooner rather than later we will wake up at war with Russia, with everyone fighting for themselves and no one for the others. That would be the end of NATO and Putin would have achieved his goal. It is unlikely that our democracies will survive such a scenario. Those who do not want peace in unfreedom must act today.

Margarita Mathiopoulos is CEO of the London-based security and energy group ASPIDE Technology UK Ltd and Professor em. of US Foreign Policy and International Security at Potsdam University. She is author of seven books on these topics.