Thursday, 3 November 2016

As America votes, Europe holds its breath

Once again, Europeans wait while 300 million people on another continent determine their future. Why do they accept this state of affairs?

If you think things are tense in the United States right now, you should try it here in Central and Eastern Europe. 

People are incredibly anxious about what might happen on 8 November. There are the obvious concerns - a volatile and unpredictable man being given access to America's nuclear arsenal after a victory sending global markets into freefall. In an age when America is still the bedrock of the global military and economic order, such an earthquake would send shockwaves throughout the world.

These are the worries of the whole globe right now. But in Europe, they have additional reason to fear. No area of the world is more dependent on the United States for its peace and prosperity than Europe. And it is this dependence that makes the media's coverage of US presidential elections here so breathless. In many ways, Europeans devote more attention to the American election than they do their own.

They're not irrational to do so. What happens in America has a huge impact on Europe, both militarily and economically. When America sneezes, Europe catches a cold. When Lehman Brothers collapses in 2008, it didn't take long for the effects to cross the Atlantic and ultimately trigger the European debt crisis starting 2009.

The economic effects of a Trump presidency on Europe could be painful. But the military effects might be more immediate. And that is what is keeping people in Central and Eastern Europe awake at night right now.

Putin's pal in the White House

In the past months, Estonia, Latvia and Poland have begun drafting paramilitaries preparing for an attack from the East. A sense of panic has been sparked by two simultaneous developments: Russian military preparation at its Eastern borders, and the rise of isolationism in the United States, embodied by Donald Trump - a noted admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In July, during the Republican National Convention, Trump said that he would not automatically defend the Baltic states if they were attacked by Russia. It was an unprecedented statement by any US politician, Democrat or Republican, given that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since 2004.

Under the terms of the alliance, formed after World War II to counter Russia (and its NATO equivalent, the Warsaw Pact), all 28 members are obliged to come to the defence of any country that is attacked. But Trump said he would not defend countries that have not contributed an amount to NATO that he deems adequate. 

The US isn't just any NATO member, it is the NATO member. It accounts for 75% of NATO spending. In the future, there is little doubt that historians will refer to NATO as an American military protectorate over Europe.

And so, Trump's comments effectively amount to the end of NATO if he were to become president. That is, if he were to carry out his threat.

Of course, in many ways the Europeans have brought this on themselves. Most European countries, notably Germany, spend an obscenely small amount on their militaries - because they believe the United States will always be there to defend them when the time comes. Today, there are still more US soldiers stationed in Germany than German ones. The US still operates 23 military bases in the UK - sovereign territory. 

Trump has also said he wants to pull US forces out of Germany, Japan and South Korea. He is reflecting an isolationist impulse within his own party, and among the American public at large. The Iraq War has made people wary of foreign military adventures, and resentful of America's role as the "world's policeman".

Trump's promise to leave Europe on its own in the event of a conflict is welcomed by many Americans. Since he made his comments in January, most in the American media have forgotten about them. In this list of the outrageous things he has said, his NATO coments are deemed to be near the bottom.

Europe's military impotence

But here, they haven't forgotten. There is a real fear that Putin would act quickly after a Trump victory, testing the resolve of Washington as it is consumed by the chaos following a Trump win. The first move would likely be an annexation of Eastern Ukraine. The next, some fear, could be former Soviet Republics in the Baltics.

It is for this reason that Russian operatives are likely hacking into Democratic servers to release damaging information. A Trump presidency is unlikely to oppose Russian military adventures in the coming years.

Just how far Putin wants to go is anyone's guess. It seems clear that if he wants to annex Eastern Ukraine he can go for it, nobody is going to stop him probably not even a President Clinton. But how much further does he want to push his finger into the West to determine the true extent of its weakness? The spot to test this weakness is in the Baltics - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, home to sizable Russian populations just like in Crimea (30% in Latvia, 25% in Estonia).

An uncontested invasion would not only spell the end of NATO, it would also spell the end of the European Union.

These three countries are, also since 2004, EU member states. If the Trump administration decided it was not in their interest to defend them, it would fall to France and the UK to do so. 

Neither country is a military lightweight - they are the only significant military powers in the EU. But the problem is they do not coordinate. The EU as yet has no military capacity, and so the only coordination between these national forces takes place within the context of NATO. Most of that coordination flows up to US level rather than bilaterally between European states themselves. So without US participation, a French/British defence of the Baltics could be very haphazard.

That is, if these two countries were willing to defend their EU neighbors at all. To put it mildly, the result of June's Brexit referendum does not seem to reflect a mood of European solidarity amongst the British public. Would they be willing to defend their Baltic cousins, just because they are members of a union the UK is planning to leave anyway?

The appetite of the French public to defend Eastern Europe from attack is also in question, given the rise of isolationist nationalism there. By next year the country could have a President Le Pen, who almost certainly would not lead her troops into a robust defence of Eastern Europe.

An EU army

This is why Europeans are watching the American election with such interest, and such dread. The election of Donald Trump could conceivably spark off a series of events that could see the collapse of the Western order within months - an attack by Russia that results, through Western inaction, in the collapse of both NATO and the European Union.

Europeans are watching all this with a sense of powerlessness. There is nothing they can do to influence this election.

Were it not so. Were Europeans capable of organising their own self-defence, the decisions made by 300 million Americans (most of whom couldn't locate their countries on a map) would not be so impactful. 

Some European leaders are trying to rectify this situation quickly. At an EU summit in Bratislava in September, (from which the UK was excluded) France and Germany presented the first iteration of a proposal on common EU military defence.

This is not a proposal for an "EU army", as the British tabloids have been claiming this week. But it could be the first step toward pooled military capability separate from the American NATO military protectorate. 

The Franco-German plan would establish an EU defence headquarters, a common satellite surveillance system and the sharing of logistics and military medical resources. It would strengthen the already-existing Eurocorps, an intergovernmental military body that coordinates 'rapid-reaction' battle groups (which have never been used).

Why is this proposal coming now? Well the Bratislava summit was intended as an opportunity for 27 EU heads of government to meet without the UK, and plot a course for the future of the EU after the (theoretical) British departure. 

The UK has always been the roadblock to EU military cooperation. With the UK gone, Europe may finally be able to develop the capacity to defend itself. 

Incredibly, the UK government has vowed to block any moves for enhanced EU military capability while it is still an EU member over the next two years. The remaining 27 leaders are still trying to find ways to force the UK out of the room while these important decisions are taken.

Time to grow up, Europe

There seems to be a real disconnect here in the way Europeans see their future. The idea of an EU army, long championed by various French and German governments, has never been popular with the public. Each time further military cooperation is proposed, no matter how minor, the proposer is always at pains to stress that this is not an EU army.

But Europeans can't have it both ways. If they are frightened of the prospect of a President Trump, and alarmed by the waning US interest in European defence, why just sit on the sidelines and whine about it impotently?

For all the moaning about Trump I hear from Europeans, it is never followed with ideas for how to make a Trump presidency less impactful here. Perhaps, rather than turning their stomachs into knots worrying about an election they have no vote in, they should think of ways to make the outcome of those elections less important.

If the EU had the capability for self-defence, Trump's threats to dismantle NATO wouldn't matter. If the European economy were more self-sufficient and less reliant on the American bedrock, it would be more shielded from the effects of a Trump economy. If Europeans were capable of managing geopolitical crises in their neighborhood without US assistance, a Trump foreign policy would be less alarming. So, why not work to make all this happen?

I'm not naive. I've lived on this continent long enough to know that such proactivity is not in the European character. But the Trump fiasco should show Europeans that there may not be any other choice. It should pour cold water on European delusions that continued servility is a safe option. 

For things to stay the same, everything has to change. If Europeans want to continue living a peaceful, productive life, they need to start developing self-reliant institutions and ween themselves off their dependence on America. Independent EU military capability is a huge part of that. 

Europeans may have an instinctual distrust of the idea of an EU army. But if it would mean they don't have to stay up at night worrying about a President Trump, perhaps its not such a bad thing.

1 comment:

Eldridge said...

Great article and I completely agree. Time to stop being so dependent on the US for our safety and security.