The Ocean is Wide.
Does it make sense to keep the transatlantic link?
I’ve already written several times about the likely medium and longer term consequences of the war in Ukraine. This time, I want to focus, rather speculatively, on the consequences of the likely outcomes for relations between Europe and the US, and within Europe itself.
I argued some time ago that the failure of NATO to mount a military response to a situation of the type that it had been specifically created to deal with was extremely significant. It was not a question of will, but of capability. Western military advisers realised that their own forces were too weak, and too far away, to play any kind of significant role, and would come off worse in any fighting. As a result, they were reduced to a programme of sanctions, and subsequently of arms deliveries, although the former have had little success, and the latter have now begun to dry up.
The recent incorporation of four Ukrainian districts into the Russian Federation should have been a key event for the West and NATO, comparable in significance to the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe in the late 1940s that sparked the creation of NATO in the first place. Yet what is striking is the relative mildness of the western reaction, itself a recognition that there is a new status quo, and no going back. Moreover, as I have pointed out, the idea of rebuilding a western military capability in Europe to provide a political counterweight to Russian forces is not feasible given current industrial and political realities.
But there are other dimensions that need to be looked at. How, in particular, will this affect the internal politics of the collective western world? Here, it is important to understand what these politics currently are, and how they arose in the first place, so let’s go back a hundred years or so, to a time when the world was very different.
The United States only became an actor in Europe as a result of the success of Allied attempts to get Washington involved World War 1. Although the actual US role in the War was modest and brief, its effectively limitless potential supply of manpower was one of the political factors that brought the war to an end. In turn, this provided the US with a seat at the Versailles negotiations, and, because of the economic weakness of Britain and France, a dominant voice. President Wilson, poorly advised, managed to be both firm and inept at the same time. There followed the refusal of the US Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty, including provisions for creating the League of Nations, and accusations that Wilson had never expected the Treaty to be ratified, but had used it as a lever to extract concessions from European states. That last is improbably machiavellian, but it represented, nonetheless, the first time that Europe had encountered the basic problem in negotiating with the United States: that no document signed by them can ever be regarded as binding.
The United States was not totally disengaged from Europe after Versailles— there was a lot of activity on reparations, for example—but relations were not especially good with most European countries, and not very substantial anyway: the British Embassy there was one of the smaller ones among posts in major countries. It was only with the arrival of massive numbers of US troops from 1942, first in Britain and then in Europe, that this began to change. And with the conclusion of World War 2, the United States began to intervene in European affairs with the same mixture of aggressiveness and ineptitude that it had displayed a generation before.
Yet it’s quite wrong to see the post-war relationship as all about the US pushing to control Europe, and establish an “Empire,” in that tiresome phrase. The key to understanding what happened is the state of Europe in 1945. Much of the continent resembled a bomb-site. Entire cities had been levelled. Much of the population was hungry, many were starving. Political systems and political parties were in a state of chaos. The violence did not stop in May 1945 either: scores were being settled and nasty little mini-wars and ethnic cleansing continued for some time yet. There was an actual civil war in Greece.
Above all, the security situation was frightening and dangerous. The Brussels Treaty of 1948, and the Organisation it spawned, were a desperate attempt by the UK, France and the Benelux states to create a security alliance against what was seen as a probably revanchist Germany in the future. Populations and political elites alike, traumatised by the recent War, and desperate to avoid another one, clung to the hope that somehow what were viewed as the mistakes of the 1930s could be avoided this time.
But there was a new problem which had not existed in the 1930s: the Soviet Union now had millions of troops in European countries, including a substantial number in Germany. These troops were not seen as a military threat: the Soviet Union was even more exhausted than the West, and in no condition to start another war. But they were seen as a potential tool of political blackmail and coercion. This was, indeed, what happened in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, and it was natural to fear that the effect could be repeated further West. It was a fact that the Communist parties in Italy and France, in particular, benefiting from the enormous prestige of their role in the Resistance, were very powerful, and entirely under the orders of Moscow. Western statesmen were kept awake at nights by fear of political pressure from that quarter, backed by threats of military intimidation. Whatever the legitimate security concerns of the Soviet Union were, it was feared that they would come at the expense of western states.
These fears were exaggerated but not entirely stupid: even during the War, factions within the large Communist component of the French Resistance were openly arguing for a coup d’état after the German withdrawal, to establish a “Peoples’ Republic.” But in the atmosphere of total nervous collapse (hard to even imagine today) and given also the almost neurotic fear of another war, what followed next was understandable.
European leaders began to cast around for solutions. It was recalled that Stalin could be cautious and that, confronted with clear western opposition in Greece and Austria, the Russians did not push too hard. Perhaps, if the United States could be induced to make some gesture of solidarity with Europe, there would be a similar deterrent effect. The result was a January 1948 letter by Ernest Bevin, foreign Secretary in the Labour Government, in which he called for measures to “create confidence and energy on one side and inspire respect and caution on the other.” In this way, it was argued, western populations could be strengthened against intimidation which might put Communist governments in power. Like a fair number of European politicians of the day, Bevin was of the Left, but also strongly anti-Communist, having seen what Communist regimes had done to non-Marxist socialists ever since Spain.
The result was the Washington Treaty, which essentially established the rules for the Cold War as a whole. The Europeans had made use of the United States less as a military power (as indicated, no military threat was foreseen) but as a political counterweight to the Soviet Union. This relationship meant ceding a degree of sovereignty to the US, but the price was judged reasonable, given the other advantages. In particular, there was the often-misnamed “security guarantee.” This was the famous Article V of the Treaty which indicated that an attack on one party in Europe would be regarded as an attack on all. But many in Washington were unhappy about what seemed like a new military commitment, and so, to the famous first sentence of Art V, with its joint security provision, was added a rider, rarely quoted, which effectively invalidated it. It reads as follows:
“… if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
So there was no legal obligation on any of the parties to respond to an attack militarily. This was the most that could be squeezed out of the Washington at the time but, with memories of Versailles still fresh, many wondered whether the United States could actually be trusted.
The situation worsened with the Korean War, almost-neurotic fears of a subsequent war in Europe, and the rapid militarisation of NATO that followed. As the only country with serious military forces on the Continent, the United States took overall command. But if that was so, how could Europeans ensure that US forces would actually be engaged if war broke out? How was it possible to avoid a situation where a US General simply ordered all other national forces to surrender, while Washington and Moscow reached a bilateral agreement? These fears were never entirely overcome (they lay, for example, behind the stationing of Cruise Missiles in Europe in the 1980s). Only the French took these concerns to their rational conclusion, in developing a purely national command system, able to revert to a national territorial defence if the US decided not to play. It was also the original motivation for French nuclear weapons. The British pursued at first sight the opposite policy—deep integration with the US—but they were also careful to invest in a nuclear system that could be used independently if necessary.
No other nation was as prepared to be as brutally honest as France, but the question of how to ensure that the US actually fulfilled its commitments was one that troubled every European NATO government throughout the Cold War. The solution, inasmuch as there was one, was to ensure that US forces were deployed sufficiently far forward that they would inevitably be involved in the initial fighting. “Make sure the first dead NATO soldier is an American” was the rule of thumb, whispered but never openly stated throughout the Cold War. The issue was not the US “defending Europe,” although some Americans seem to have thought that: the vast majority of land forces, and the majority of air forces, would have been European, even assuming the US provided the forces it had promised. Rather, the idea was to up the stakes in any confrontation with the Soviet Union by enmeshing the United States in the crisis from the beginning, and hoping that that would persuade the Soviets away from any aggressive action.
The utility of the American presence was not limited to that, however. It provided, at least temporarily, an answer to what to do about Germany. Other nations were comforted by the thought that the Germans were completely subordinate to an international command structure led by the Americans. For the Germans themselves, NATO was one of the paths (with the European Community) back to international acceptability. For the French, and to a lesser extent the British, NATO was a partial guarantee against being left isolated as they had been in 1940. For the British, it was a way of having much greater indirect influence on European security issues than would have otherwise been the case. For smaller European nations, the US presence was a useful counterweight to what would otherwise have been undue Franco-German domination of the Continent. And so on. Signing the odd communiqué you might have reservations about was a small price to pay for these advantages.
It’s also important to stress that there were essentially similar views on most security-related issues among the political classes in Europe and the US. This was not because of some cartoon-like US dominance, but rather because there were large areas of convergence of interest and ideology. In many cases, it was the Europeans who led, not the US. There were also areas of divergence: over colonies, for example, where the US, no doubt for historical reasons, refused to support many European policies. Thus, in the 1950s, the US refused to accept that NATO should provide help to the French in Algeria, for all that Paris argued that a Communist government in Algiers would threaten Europe as a whole. Even today, Americans of all political persuasions display a puzzlingly atavistic attitude to the old European (especially British) Empires.
Inevitably, all this had to be rethought at the end of the Cold War, as the underlying political geography changed. Yet what is surprising is the degree of continuity after 1989. Now to some degree, this is understandable, since in a world that was changing with bewildering speed, it simply was not realistic to attempt to rebuild European security from the ground up. Had there been an obvious alternative that commanded a lot of support, things might have been different, but there was none, and any attempt to find one would take, at least, years, and consume phenomenal amounts of effort, with no guarantee of success. In any event, a continuation of NATO suited many different and overlapping interests. A purely European defence structure would be dominated by France and Germany, and would be obsessed with the problems of Central Europe. For small nations, and nations on the fringes, this was not acceptable. It was not obvious, for a while at least, that Europe was in fact going to be stable, and that the Cold War would gently decline. As one French official said to me at the time about NATO: “if anything bad happens, why get French boys killed when we can get Americans killed instead?” The British saw the continuation of NATO as an important way of retaining leverage over the US, and an important voice in Europe security questions.
Even had there been an obvious alternative, there were practical reasons for NATO to continue. The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty of 1990, which gave the Cold War a decent burial, was a bloc-to-bloc treaty between NATO and the then Warsaw Pact, and required internal coordination in Brussels. The newly independent former Warsaw Pact states also looked for technical advice and assistance from NATO even if, in the early years, the question of membership was not raised. Things drifted on: some former WP states decided after all that they wanted to join, the lack of any other military structure led to NATO being used to command the multinational force in Bosnia after 1995, and the bombing of Serbia and subsequent entry of military forces into Kosovo in 1999. By then, NATO was busier than ever, even if it was not always clear quite what it was accomplishing. (Entering the building about twenty years ago I recall seeing a meeting scheduled on “NATO and the Problems of Modern Society.”) After the election of Bush the younger in 2000, there were fears in Europe that the US might lose interest, but in the end life continued much as before. The international deployment to Afghanistan was, once more, under NATO Command, because there was literally no alternative: the British had tried successfully for many years to block the creation of an independent European military HQ.
Thirty years passed, and the structures of western defence looked remarkably similar, even if the NATO Council Chamber was a bit more crowded than it had been. But very little of this was deliberately planned or chosen. Contrary to what’s sometimes suggested, for example, there was no master-plan to expand NATO. In the early years, the expansion itself was a stabilising factor in Europe, because it provided a structure into which the new states could fit and a form of oversight of their complex relations with each other. After that, the process acquired a momentum of its own, as much to give NATO something to do as for any other reason. There were those of us who pointed out, thirty years ago, that a bit of long-term thinking here wouldn’t do any harm. After all, as a colleague in the Foreign Office put it at the time: either we include Russia, in which case NATO will have a border with China, or we don’t, in which case we will have a border with Russia. Do we really want either? Alas, the reply from our superiors at the time was, we’ll worry about that when it happens. The rest, is the biggest failure of security policy thinking and practice since 1945. At least.
Which leaves us where we are now, and it’s instructive to look at the where of where we are in terms of the objectives going back to 1948. At that point, western Europeans feared an extension of Soviet influence in their direction, from a Russia that was militarily powerful, even if not in a condition to launch an attack. Europe was essentially disarmed and economically weak, whereas the US was economically relatively strong and still had substantial armed forces. The United States was seen as a stabilising factor in that equation. Today, Europeans fear an extension of Russian influence in Europe, not in the form of any deliberate attack, but rather as the local military superpower, whose relations with Europe after the Ukraine episode is concluded are bound to be execrable. Europe was already partially disarmed, having run its armed forces down to practically nothing, and has further disarmed itself by sending much of its existing arsenal to be destroyed in Ukraine. As I have pointed out, such a situation is effectively impossible to reverse. The crisis in Ukraine is, pretty much, the kind of scenario that NATO was created to deal with, and where US support was expected to be vital. What was not anticipated was that the US would play a major role in the creation of a crisis itself.
So the question evidently arises: are the interests of Europe and the interests of the US still sufficiently compatible to make it worth retaining the transatlantic link? Now inevitably such a question presupposes two things. One is that the interests of European leaders are a reasonable surrogate for the national interests of the populations. This is an old debate for which there is no satisfactory conclusion, and is best left to one side. The other is the question of whether there is, in fact, a single European strategic interest, and that, we will come to in a moment.
Now the question is not whether individual links between European countries and the US are worth preserving, since it’s the nature of politics that these links will always continue. But the question is rather whether institutional links of the current type are worth preserving, at least at their current level of organisation. There are three potential reasons for doing this.
One is the prospect of American military help in a crisis. As I’ve suggested, this is no longer the argument it once was. Whilst America was never “the cavalry” swooping in to defend Europe, its ground forces, and even more air forces, were quite an important part of NATO’s military capability. No longer. There are no US forces really configured for the kind of operations that are taking place in Ukraine, and it would take years to regenerate such capabilities. Carrier Battle Groups and strategic nuclear weapons are of no utility in such situations. US air power looks as though it has run into a wall, as have traditional concepts of the use of air power generally. The range and precision of modern anti-aircraft missiles is such that traditional methods of obtaining air superiority over the battlefield, by manned aircraft, are not longer possible. Indeed, the manned aircraft may be at the end of its run: the future may well belong predominantly to drones and missiles. Taken together, these developments mean that the US is no longer a serious military player in Europe, although the political consequences of this situation have yet to be felt. So in a real crisis, the Europeans would be unwise to rely on large-scale military aid from the US.
Which brings us to the second point. The Europeans have long wanted to use the US as a political and military reserve in a crisis, to affect first Soviet and then Russian behaviour. But it is doubtful whether this makes sense any more. In the case of Ukraine, the Russians had clearly discounted the US reaction in advance, so its involvement did not help to stabilise the situation. And throughout the Cold War, Europeans worried about whether the US itself might not be a destabilising factor. They still do.
Finally, there are certain capabilities , in the intelligence and nuclear area, for example, which the US shares with European countries. But this is seldom if ever done on a collective basis, and you don’t need NATO to do it. Much such cooperation is bilateral, and would continue even if that alliance were to go away.
The fundamental question is whether the interests of ruling elites in Europe and the US continue to be broadly convergent. It’s not clear that they are. Now at first sight, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the degree of fury and the lust for destruction between European and US elites, in the case of Russia. But in fact, this is a coincidence rather than anything else. Whilst it would take a separate essay to set out the differences in detail, let’s just say that for the US, there’s a lot of superpower rivalry, a lot of residual Cold War aggression trying to get out, a lot of political ego, and a lot of anti-Russian feeling from certain political dynasties, among other things. Not much of that is true in Europe, where Russia is, in effect, the great counter-example to Europe’s official post-modernist, post-national, post-cultural, post-identity ideology. Russia is the inconveniently large country that still makes virtues of patriotism, history, culture, language and religion. The war is thus an existential struggle for the soul of Europe, and the opponent must be utterly brought down.
The problem is that European populations by and large don’t share this sense of existential struggle. In certain parts of the continent, residual anti-Slav and anti-Russian racialism is fuelling public support for the war, but this does not mean that people will happily freeze to death in the belief that this will bring subhumans in Russia to their knees. Not all European states have this historical legacy (Portugal? Greece?), and large parts of the electorate in many European countries don’t even share the ideology of the Brussels elites anyway. So it is questionable how long this ferocious anti-Russian feeling will last, and what will happen when it fades away.
This means that European solidarity is likely to be one of the first casualties of Ukraine, as elites in some countries find it prohibitively difficult to continue to mobilise their populations against Russia. Because many of the differences between member states themselves have to do with economics, there’s an obvious risk that fundamental differences over, say, energy, will arise. It’s not clear whether the EU can withstand a situation where there is an overall energy shortage, and member states are competing against each other for supplies. NATO, on the other hand, is likely to begin a process of slow decline, since international organisations rarely finish with a bang.
Europe faces many security challenges. Some of these are external (such as immigration and the effect of climate change), and it is unfortunate that relations with Russia have been gratuitously added to this list, since a relationship of peaceful cooperation was quite possible. As it is, dealing with an angry and hostile Russia is likely to be the dominant foreign policy issue for the EU for the foreseeable future, and it’s not obvious either that all European nations will see this problem in the same way, or that all will see it as a more important question than say, immigration. But that’s only half the story, because internal strains in Europe are now coming to the fore again. One of the useful by-products of the existence NATO was to freeze historical differences among its European members, even if they were never really resolved. But one of the many, many negative effects of the Ukrainian crisis will be to awaken demons that many people, especially in Brussels, had forgotten even existed.