I will be leaving shortly for a week in Europe, visiting Slovakia, Romania, and the Czech Republic. After 1989, these former Soviet satellites sought integration with Europe—and, in a sense, salvation—by becoming members of the two major transnational organizations: the European Union and NATO. The former was strictly European, while the latter bound Europe and the United States together.
Recent chaos in the EU and the return of Russian assertiveness has placed these three countries in difficult positions. The Czech Republic is deeply bound economically with Germany. Prague is comfortable with that relationship and shares Berlin’s fate in many ways. When I visit the Czech Republic, I am going to be talking about what I see as Germany’s weakness.
Romania has opted to draw closer to the United States. It’s a difficult relationship, but even under communism, the Romanians distrusted the Russians. I have long argued that a close collaboration with the United States is essential to Romania. I will get a chance to hear from Romanians about the progress of our collaboration. The next critical step in the relationship is arranging significant investment from the United States for much-needed development of the Romanian energy sector—in spite of the fact that investing in energy right now is a tough proposition.
My first visit will be to Slovakia, a country that has struggled to keep its relations with Russia intact. Each year there is a conference in Bratislava called Globsec, where people who are focused on Central Europe and Russia gather. National leaders frequently speak, but they rarely say anything new, since they can’t. It is the people a tier or two down, some of whom I’ve known for years, who reveal the most by what they say or don’t say about what really makes them angry or worried. These people are the ones who give you get a sense of what is coming— or at least what they think is coming.
This year, a major topic at Globsec will be NATO. The choice of topic has to do partly with Donald Trump’s statements that Europe isn’t paying its “fair share” and, further, that it would be fine if NATO broke up. Such remarks by US presidential candidates are regarded with great care and concern in Eastern Europe. On a broader scale, Russia and the Middle East both present national security issues for all of Europe. Europe has no integrated military capability except for NATO, and NATO is now, to my mind, a shambles. It is a military alliance, but Europe has allowed its military capability, limited to begin with in the wake of WWII, to weaken dramatically.
As Europeans come to realize that Russia has not gone away and the United States has not actually overreacted to Islamist terrorism, Trump’s words on NATO are raising alarm. The Europeans worry that the US has lost confidence in NATO. I will be speaking on this subject, and what I have to say will not be reassuring. Many Europeans see NATO as the guarantor of their national security. In other words, they depend on the United States… the only NATO member with a global military capability.
From the start, the Europeans wanted NATO to serve as the mechanism for approving and overseeing military operations. They wanted a decisive voice in how NATO members, including the United States, applied their military power. However, their forces were so small that in most cases their participation was little more than symbolic. NATO became less and less a factor in US decision-making, and the Europeans compensated by congratulating themselves for their sophistication compared to the American “cowboys.”
The Europeans celebrated a concept called soft power, which involves the use of sanctions, the mobilization of public opinion, and other strategies that avoid military action. They wanted an option that cost less than becoming a global power costs. Frankly, from my point of view, their embracing soft power was simply a way to evade reality. As the Russians loomed larger and the Middle East spilled over into Europe, the Europeans discovered that soft power was… soft. And that they needed hard power, which the United States had (and to a far lesser extent Britain and France), but no one else did. Suddenly the world seemed out of control to the Europeans, since they lacked the hard power to shape events.
In terms of soft power, NATO began to take on a function it was never designed for. As communism fell, post-communist European states sought membership in NATO, not so much to be defended but to become integrated and Europeanized. Membership in the EU and NATO, it was believed, would turn these former Soviet satellites into Western countries. But NATO is a military alliance. It’s about tanks and planes and war plans. To become a mechanism for socializing new countries into Western Europe was not its purpose. Defending these countries and the rest of Europe was NATO’s function, but that function atrophied as war seemed increasingly irrelevant.
Since the US is a member, the Europeans felt that the United States’ power should be available to them through NATO. From Trump (and from far lesser figures like me), they are now hearing the message that the United States is not prepared to spend a vast amount of money on its military and then allow the Europeans a voice in its use. This is not a new reality, but it is one about which the United States is becoming much less apologetic.
The issue is not NATO itself but the defense relationship between Europe and the United States. NATO is simply the old framework for that relationship, which was established after World War II. At the time, the United States towered over Europe economically and militarily. Europe had little that it could contribute to defense, while the United States had an overriding interest in preventing the Soviets from seizing Western Europe. The US, comfortable with the asymmetrical arrangement, contributed the bulk of the military power to potentially fight a war on European territory, while Europe took the primary risk. That was the foundation of NATO.