Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is the author of “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” The opinions in this article are those of the author.
It might at first look like a full-scale rebellion in Europe.
Recently, the leaders of both France and Germany announced their determination to become largely independent from the US on security matters and even to “counterbalance” the US in global geopolitics.
But upon closer inspection, much of Europe’s “new” direction – as vaguely defined as it currently is – sticks to Cold War-era certainties and even, in part, reflects aspects of US President Donald Trump’s worldview. A real rebellion would look quite different.
The Europeans’ grounds for dissatisfaction are completely legitimate: Trump has launched a trade war against the EU, thrown NATO’s security guarantees into doubt and scrapped international accords like the Paris climate treaty and the Iran nuclear arms control deal.
He obviously sets no store in multilateralism or diplomacy, which has underpinned the certainties of the Atlantic alliance of the postwar decades until today.
On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that Europe must stake out “strategic autonomy” on defense since the US has “turned its back” on its postwar partners.
He confidently claimed that the EU intended to become a geopolitical heavyweight, which would amount to a “rebalancing of the world order.”
Macron’s statements follow those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
Maas, in a widely read op-ed in a German daily, in essence said that the Trump administration had bossed and bullied Europe and that Germany and its EU peers had had enough of it.
He called for a European defense and security union that could guarantee Europe’s security and prosperity.
Yet, despite the bold-sounding words, the Europeans’ vision is ultimately quite thin, uninspired and not new at all. Of course, it’s encouraging in times of such instability that leaders emphasize the value of multilateralism, the rule of law and international cooperation.
But at a unique moment, when fresh approaches to geopolitics could be hammered out, they appear willing to accept much of the outdated security assumptions of the American postwar order.
“The Europeans aren’t deviating from traditional American foreign and security policies nearly as much as Trump is,” says Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a Swedish think tank.
“European leaders have long adopted America’s security thinking, which is based on power politics and hard security, with deterrence shaped by conventional and nuclear military strength,” says Smith.
To begin with, they obviously see no alternative to NATO, but rather want a capable, credible EU defense force to partner up with it.
The problem, though, is that NATO has become a fig leaf, a relic of the East-West conflict that ended over 25 years ago. A much bolder and more realistic vision would be to scrap it and create a new security architecture for the Atlantic’s continents.
Perhaps this will happen when the European security union comes to pass – but today there’s a misplaced loyalty to NATO that projects a false illusion of security.
“It’s unlikely that the Europeans are going to give up on NATO completely until they have something else in place,” says Smith.
In a familiar vein, the Europeans are stressing the imperative to raise their military expenditures, something that Trump, as well as many other US presidents, have called upon them to do.
Germany now also wants to reinstate military conscription and there are even voices advocating Germany’s nuclear armament.
The whole tenor harkens back to a Cold War thinking that sees military conflict in Europe as the continent’s greatest threat.
Of course, Russia’s 2014 annexing of Crimea in Ukraine sent a chill up European spines. But there is no evidence that Moscow wants to attack the EU, or even a theory of what it could accomplish for itself by doing so.
The EU countries already spend nearly three times as much on armaments ($170 billion excluding Britain) as Russia ($61 billion), but the expenditures are largely uncoordinated with one another, thus diluting potential impact. Tighter coordination – which is the point of the defense union – is the top priority, not more money for arms.
Europe has to sit down and fundamentally reappraise today’s security risks rather than accept those presented by the US. In contrast to the Cold War years, it’s not a clearly defined enemy state or bloc that poses the greatest threat, but rather the likes of climate change, resource shortages, global inequality and extremist ideologies.
“The climate wars,” as German sociologist Harald Welzer calls them, have already begun and will dominate our world in the years to come in the form of civil wars, ethnic cleansing and other forms of mass violence.
A strategy to counter and – where possible – preempt this has to be top of the Europeans’ list. Indeed, the billions that the Europeans want to spend on weapons systems could be much better spent or climate protection, climate adaption measures in the developing world and the worldwide expansion of renewable energy. This now belongs to security strategy too.
The Europeans should dig deeper in reformulating security. “A meaningful rethink would put the concept of cooperation rather than deterrence at the heart of Europe’s security planning,” says Smith.
Stability in the Middle East, for example, could be enhanced greatly by a regional security organization to which all the states in the Middle East and North Africa belong. Human Rights Watch urges a ban on all fully autonomous weapons, such as killer drones and unmanned vehicles. Ukraine could be fashioned as a bridge between Western and Eastern Europe rather than “belonging” to one camp or the other.
“Instead of narrowing our view across the Atlantic to the ever-changing whims of the American President,” Maas opined in his commentary, “we should adopt the idea that this could be the start of something new.”
Exactly. But this means thinking security afresh, out of the box. A new order can only come to life with substantively new ideas.