_ Alan W. Cafruny, Professor of International Affairs on the faculty of Government, Hamilton College. 11 April 2019. Published for debate.
There is growing interest in a comprehensive NATO response to China, first proposed by Stoltenberg at the Munich Security Conference in January, and reaffirmed in Washington by US and German officials. Such a response would correspond to the nascent trend towards bifurcation resulting from the US containment strategy. The United States and the EU have cooperated in the WTO against China and they continue to uphold their arms embargo. However, German business maintains a massive, if tenuous, presence in China. Europe is far more vulnerable to a trade war with China than the United States.
Last week 29 European foreign ministers (soon to be 30) traveled to Washington for the 70th anniversary of the Washington Treaty, which established NATO on April 4, 1949. Although the ceremonies were carefully choreographed to minimize signs of discord, the European ministers were in no mood for celebration. They would soon return across the Atlantic to a continent in crisis: the Brexit trauma with its incalculable economic damage to the entire region; the ominous slowdown of the European economy, led by the steep contraction of German auto sales and exacerbated by Donald Trump’s threat to impose 25% tariffs on EU auto exports; and the EU’s 21st annual summit with China, which has now been reclassified by the Commission not only as a “cooperation partner” but also as “an economic competitor” and “systemic rival.”
European leaders have become increasingly alarmed. Seeking to counteract Europe’s external weakness and internal disarray Emmanuel Macron has called for “strategic autonomy” in the form of a “true European army” “to protect us against Russia, China, and even the USA.” Responding to US extraterritorial sanctions designed to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal—Europe’s signature diplomatic initiative–Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has vowed to establish the euro as an international reserve currency. Angela Merkel has called on Europe to “fight for multilateralism.”
Notwithstanding these grandiose and unrealistic objectives, not even the rhetoric of European autonomy was on display in Washington. Indeed, what was said—and left unsaid— reflects that fact that Europe’s global power has descended to its lowest point since the Suez Crisis of 1956. Caught in the crossfire of Sino-American rivalry and trapped in a German-led austerity union, European nation-states are likely to fall further.
Fearing Trump’s wrath, NATO officials decided not to invite heads of state and government to Washington, planning instead another commemoration in London at the end of 2019. Nevertheless, for the most part, the Americans—and even Trump– were conciliatory. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirmed the United States’ enduring commitment to NATO. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was granted an invitation to the White House to pay homage to Trump. Expressing satisfaction that the European allies were increasing their military spending, the president declared that “Tremendous progress has been made.”
Stoltenberg was received rapturously and with a standing ovation before a joint session of Congress, where he appealed for further NATO enlargements and military preparations to counter what he called Russia’s “massive military build-up from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and from the Black Sea to the Baltic.” The strong bipartisan support for NATO derives not only from its strategic significance but also the alliance’s quasi-juridical pretensions, reinforcing the myth of exceptionalism. The vast American military industrial complex, which lobbies ceaselessly for enlargement and “out of area” activities, enjoys a dominant position in the transatlantic (and global) armaments market. Reverence for the alliance has deepened as a result of the growth of Russophobia. When Rand Paul objected to the inclusion of Montenegro in NATO, John McCain stated on the floor of the Senate that “The Senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”
Three weeks before the Washington ceremony NATO marked a second birthday. On March 12, 1999 the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined the alliance, just in time to participate in NATO’s 78-day (illegal) bombing campaign against Serbia, followed by further eastern enlargements to the Russian border. In 1998 George Kennan, the architect of the post-World War II containment strategy, presciently called the impending enlargement “a tragic mistake” and “the beginning of a new cold war,” predicting that “the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies.”
Notwithstanding Trump’s initial anti-NATO rhetoric, during his administration the alliance has continuously expanded its operations and global footprint. NATO member states recently reaffirmed unequivocally the 2008 Bucharest Summit decision that Ukraine and Georgia will eventually join the alliance, and before traveling to Washington Stoltenberg attended 12-day NATO-exercises in Georgia. NATO has deployed combat-ready battalions in the Baltics and Poland, where more than 4000 US troops are stationed and discussions are taking place on a permanent US base. It has stepped up naval activity in the Black Sea and provided lethal weapons to Ukraine. In important respects, moreover, NATO has been transformed into a global alliance, enabling the United States to carry out military operations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East through a network of bases and “lilipads” in 41 “partner” states. Following President Jair Bolsonaro’s visit to the White House in March Trump declared that Brazil should be considered for NATO membership.
The foreign ministers could not ignore two serious conflicts within the alliance. Vice President Pence reaffirmed US opposition to the NordStream 2 pipeline, proclaiming that it “could turn Germany’s economy into literally a captive of Russia.” Germany has already made significant concessions by constructing two terminals to import LNG and conceding that gas will continue to transit from Russia across Ukraine. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that NordStream 2 remains a “red line” for the German state and also for German industry, whose competitiveness would be diminished if compelled to import more expensive LNG from the United States. This was confirmed by Berlin’s decisive response to Macron’s unprecedented threat to bring the project under the Commission’s control unless France obtained an increased Eurozone budget, one more sign of the demise of the Franco-German partnership.
Turkey’s refusal to abandon its commitment to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia threatens its membership of NATO and the viability of Incirlik Air base with its stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons. In Washington, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted that the “S-400 deal is a done deal.” However, the United States has threatened to cancel Turkey’s participation in the F-35 jet fighter program, an important industrial project, and is almost certain to enact draconian sanctions against Turkey’s already fragile financial sector if it proceeds with the purchase. Washington is unlikely to acquiesce in Turkey’s decision, but it will be difficult to find a compromise as Turkey moves towards broader cooperation with Russia.
Haunting the European ministers in Washington was the specter of China. Even as the EU Commission was formulating a more hawkish line on trade with China—prompting Macron to declare a “European Awakening”—Italy became the first G-7 member state to sign up to the Belt and Road Project. Following the EU-China Summit on April 9 the EU claimed that agreements over curbing subsidies, forced technology transfers, and market access in the final communique represented significant Chinese concessions. However, following the EU summit China now holds a second summit in Croatia with the 16+1 grouping, 11 of which are EU member states, highlighting European division.
There is growing interest in a comprehensive NATO response to China, first proposed by Stoltenberg at the Munich Security Conference in January, and reaffirmed in Washington by US and German officials. Such a response would correspond to the nascent trend towards bifurcation resulting from the US containment strategy. The United States and the EU have cooperated in the WTO against China and they continue to uphold their arms embargo. However, German business maintains a massive, if tenuous, presence in China. Europe is far more vulnerable to a trade war with China than the United States, and therefore less willing to challenge Beijing, as, for example, with respect to US pressure to exclude the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from 5G networks. At the same time, transatlantic cooperation continues to be overshadowed by trade conflicts and Trump’s intransigence. Even as NATO considers a China policy, at the present time a declining Europe remains caught between the two economic superpowers, unable to act strategically but ultimately subordinated to the United States.