Military relations in the transatlantic alliance are humming. Yet an intangible but palpable crisis is shaking the foundations of NATO – and it has brought the organization to a moment of reckoning.
Tents, generators, and portable toilets had transformed an old police barracks on the outskirts of a Polish village. Inside the tents, men speaking different languages sat on folding chairs at long tables, typing on military-grade laptops. A map of Europe’s Baltic coast was projected onto a large screen above them.
For a few days, this miniature military camp housed the transatlantic alliance – not in theory, but in practice. This was the temporary headquarters of Trojan Footprint, the largest NATO Special Operations Forces training since the end of the Cold War. It was the summer of 2018, and the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group, based in Europe since the 1950s, was coordinating more than 2,000 conventional and unconventional troops from more than a dozen countries, including Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada, and even non-NATO-member Sweden. The exercise was confidential – I was asked not to name the nondescript village – but not secret. The commander of the operation told me he wanted Russia to know that Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, together with their NATO allies, were planning and practicing for all possible scenarios, up to and including their response to an invasion.
This was not, as Russian propaganda would have it, because they want a war. This is because they do not want a war. “Ultimately, it’s about deterrence,” the colonel told me. “We’re saying, ‘Here’s the price you would have to pay, this is the bitter pill you would have to swallow.’”
The operation was the largest, but it was only one of many. Between August and December 2018 alone – not an exceptional period – NATO will have conducted more than thirty European exercises, both large and small. They will have taken place all across the continent, from Poland and the Czech Republic to Norway, Britain, and the Balkans, with troops from across Europe practicing everything from electronic warfare to leadership training.
It’s about belief, trust, and confidence – all things that cannot be exercised or practiced.
After many years of troop reductions and troop withdrawal, the U.S. Army in Europe has now begun to reverse course. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in 2014, both American and European armies have started thinking differently about their strategy. In April 2018, U.S. tanks rolled along German roads for the first time in 15 years. American troops now regularly rotate through bases in Poland and the Baltic states. American, German, Dutch, British, French, and Polish officers meet often, plan frequently.
But here is the paradox: What bureaucrats call “mil-mil” relations in the transatlantic alliance are probably better now than they have been at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The men at the top of the military hierarchies of America and Europe have all worked with one another in the past, and when they meet now, the camaraderie is obvious. And yet, there is a black hole at the heart of NATO. It has nothing to with the military at all. It’s about belief, trust, and confidence – all things that cannot be exercised or practiced.
An Implicit Promise, Questioned
For six decades, the real power of NATO was not its tanks, planes, or even its nuclear weapons, but rather, the American government’s implicit promise to use them. Article 5 of the NATO Treaty implies that the U.S., with its overwhelmingly large army, would come to the aid of any member under attack. But let’s be honest: in 2018, nobody really knows if this would happen. Imagine a Russian hybrid invasion of the Baltic states, for example, or a Russian nuclear bombardment of Poland – both of which the Russian army has practiced in its own exercises. Would the United States respond with all of its strength? Would the American president respond to an attack on tiny Latvia and jeopardize the safety of American troops – even risk a nuclear war? American officers, when asked, say this is a political decision, not up to them. European leaders, especially from the eastern half of the continent, won’t discuss this on the record. But off the record, they all worry.
These questions do come about, in part, because of the views of the current president of the United States. Donald Trump represents a strand of American thinking – isolationism – which has not had a serious, mainstream advocate since the 1940s. Though a minority view, it has never gone away, and indeed, it has changed very little since it first emerged in the 1920s. Trump’s views do sound as if they come from the pre-war era, and they are deeply held. Dislike of American alliances is, in fact, one of the very few opinions that he has voiced consistently for years: “America has no vital interest” in Europe, he wrote in 2000. “Their conflicts are not worth American lives. Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually.” During his first NATO summit, he refused to reaffirm Article 5. During his second NATO summit, he deliberately picked an argument over European defense spending, and he has repeatedly gone out of his way to insult NATO allies, including the British prime minister and the German chancellor. Trump’s open dislike of Europe may not reflect the views of most Americans, but it did not prevent him from winning the presidency.
However, it is a mistake to imagine that this uncertainty is only connected to the character of Trump. If Barack Obama had been faced, in 2014, with a Russian invasion of Poland or Lithuania following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, would he have responded with the full force of America’s military and nuclear might? At least until that moment, neither Obama nor any of his foreign policy team had really taken this possibility seriously. If Trump’s views are pre-war, Obama’s were post-modern. For the first six years of his administration, his team considered Europe safe and dull, a place for photo opportunities rather than real debate. War and bloodshed had been abolished in Europe; NATO, which was even then in need of some updating, wasn’t interesting enough to reform.
Not that there is any equivalence between the two presidents: Obama, unlike Trump, believed that America’s alliances were intrinsically valuable. After the invasion of Ukraine, he made a special trip to Tallinn to reiterate America’s commitment to Article 5. “We will defend our NATO allies, and that means every ally. In this alliance, there are no old members or new members, no junior partners or senior partners – there are just allies, pure and simple,” he declared. It was on Obama’s watch that the alliance began, after a long hiatus, to conduct the exercises in Eastern Europe that continue today. Still, European defense was not the subject that initially engaged Obama, and it is not the subject that has engaged the Democratic Party’s foreign policy community over the past decade either. Nor, until 2014, did it engage many in the western half of the continent.
Ambivalent and Unprepared
The explanations aren’t hard to find. There is no mystery as to why the death of John McCain was mourned so deeply on both sides of the Atlantic: In neither house of Congress, at the moment, is there anyone with his stature who has devoted so much time and energy to the alliance. As time goes on, it will become very difficult to find anybody who has personal memories of the role that America played in Europe during the Cold War. Already, the Second World War is something that American politicians, like their European counterparts, know only from history books. Without the power of nostalgia, the memories will be hard to sustain.
Public ambivalence is part of the explanation too. In the U.S., very general questions about alliances still get positive responses: a recent poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that a decisive majority of more than 70% of Americans support NATO, and indeed, perhaps in reaction to Trump, 18% now say they want to strengthen it, a figure much higher than in the past. But the numbers drop when the questions become more specific: when asked about a Russian invasion of the Baltic states, for example, only 54% say the U.S. should offer military support. More than four in ten Americans, in other words – presumably including committed Republicans as well as Democrats – would oppose the enforcement of Article 5 in the clearest-cut case. It is unsurprising, then, that some U.S. politicians in both parties reflect this view.
In Europe, the pattern is similar. Across the continent, generic questions about NATO still get a positive response. But when they focus specifically on the use of military force, support drops in some countries. Only 40% of Germans and only 45% of the British say they would want their own armies to come to the aid of a NATO ally against a Russian attack. On both sides of the Atlantic, these numbers may well reflect a simple dislike of the very idea of military conflict. In the event of a real crisis, reactions may turn out to be completely different, but in the meantime, they cast a shadow on the transatlantic dialogue.
For Europe, the shifts in public opinion at home and in the U.S. come at an awkward moment. For many decades, the continent’s leaders have been convinced that Europe can remain an economic power without having to become a foreign policy or security power. Nominally, Europe has an External Action Service, a “foreign ministry” with diplomats and embassies. In practice, these institutions are hollow: none of the larger European countries take them seriously, and most of the smaller countries don’t care. More to the point, decades of debate about the creation of European defense structures within the European Union have still not produced anything solid or reassuring. Progress has been made on “Permanent Structured Cooperation” – known, inevitably, by an acronym, PESCO – which is positive. But this isn’t a European brigade, let alone a European army. It isn’t something that ordinary Europeans can point to and proudly say, “That’s the army that will defend us.” And it isn’t a thing that European prime ministers can direct into battle, in case of an emergency.
As Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Theresa May have each acknowledged in their own way – not to mention a whole series of leaders in Poland and the Baltic states – the security vacuum is no longer tenable, even for the western half of the continent. As the wars in Ukraine and Georgia have demonstrated, the use of military force in Europe is no longer unthinkable. The Russian government’s intervention in Syria is further evidence of its willingness to use force in order to exert influence even outside of Europe. For both Europe and North America, Russian and Chinese cyberattacks on infrastructure, government, and private companies are going to increase. Although terrorism remains the threat that most European citizens, like most Americans, fear first, Russian malign influence campaigns, targeted at increasing political division and sponsoring anti-European and anti-NATO parties and groups in Europe and North America, pose a much larger threat in the long term. Chinese and Iranian influence campaigns are not far behind them.
But if this is a moment of crisis, perhaps it’s a crisis that can be used. Perhaps this is a moment to build from the ground up, rather than from the top down. As I saw in the camp outside the Polish village, allied soldiers and officers are already beginning to think through some of these new circumstances, focusing on the role that disinformation could play in a future skirmish, for example. Others are thinking seriously about the consequences, for civilian morale, of a serious military engagement in an anti-military era. Still others are wrestling with cyberattacks: What is the correct response to them? A counter-strike? Deterrence? Perhaps we could use these discussions as a starting point for thinking about how NATO should be discussed and debated at more abstract, political levels as well.
Some of these activities are totally unlike anything NATO has ever done before. But that’s the point.
Maybe it’s time to reframe NATO, to think of the organization not just as a narrow military alliance built to fight enemies on the ground in Europe, but as the primary source of security for the West: cybersecurity, information security, border security. The existing organization could help implement some of the ideas that individual countries are using in the fight against the disinformation wave, for example. We live in an age of great anxiety, with technological change happening must faster than most people can absorb it. If Europeans and North Americans can together create institutions that help people feel safe, then they will inspire more trust and more support. It will be harder for leaders to ignore them – or, as Trump does, to disdain them – if they are seen to be doing something that matters to people.
And perhaps it’s also time for Europeans to find better ways of working together, either through the creation of a genuine European army or through a more functional, and more visible, European defense structure inside the European Union. A center to monitor changing Russian and Chinese narratives, to pay close attention to Russian and Chinese investments, and to keep track of Russian funding and support for European far-right political parties could be set up in Brussels too.
Some of these activities are totally unlike anything NATO has ever done before. But that’s the point. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” wrote a great European, the Italian novelist Giuseppe di Lampedusa. If the transatlantic security relationship is going to continue to exist, then perhaps it needs radical change too.
Anne Applebaum (@anneapplebaum) is a Washington Post columnist, historian of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and professor in practice at the London School of Economics. She is the author of several books, including Gulag: A History, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2004. Her latest book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, was published in 2017.
Cover photo: Soldiers participate in NATO's Trident Juncture 2018 exercise, November 2, 2018. (Courtesy of NATO/flickr)