Germany and others are doubtful about NATO


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Tom Sauer
Tom Sauer

Vice-Chairman of the Department of Politics, University of Antwerp

When opening this year’s Munich security conference, Germany’s President Joachim Gauck called for his countrymen to take more responsibility for international security and participate more fully in military operations when these are called for. He also pleaded for greater European defence integration, making reference to NATO and the alliance’s uncertain future.

The U.S. pivot to Asia certainly features in all this, and it’s also clear that the NSA scandal has still not been digested in Berlin. President Obama’s conciliatory words have to date failed to convince senior German politicians like Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s former defence minister who moved recently to the interior ministry.

Something in the longstanding German-American relationship seems to be broken. NATO’s future is clearly uncertain for three reasons. First of all, NATO has never fully recovered from ‘winning’ the Cold War. The Western alliance has been artificially kept alive since the collapse of the USSR and the implosion of the Warsaw Pact. The Atlantic alliance’s threat vacuum has never truly been filled. Nor can the switch from collective defence to out-of-area military interventions be considered a success. Neither Afghanistan nor Libya have been stabilised.

Second, the U.S., as NATO’s leading nation, is weakened and war-weary. Washington’s appeals for others to spend more on defence is a non-starter in Europe, where the financial crisis persists. Third, tough as the economic crisis has been for the EU, it has driven progress on European integration and defence co-operation. Both are being taken more seriously in Brussels than before, with a growing number of EU member states now calculating that it is more logical to organise defence chiefly on a European scale, and with the U.S. only in a second instance. The fact that Germany, too, is pushing this position seems highly significant.

NATO is looking increasingly like an organisation of the past. It still clings to weapons systems of a bygone period, and its indignation about the relatively small-scale use by the Syrian government of chemical weapons, while at the same time retaining the threat of nuclear weapons, lacks credibility. The use of nukes would be contrary to the same international humanitarian law that forbids even the existence – let alone the use – of chemical and biological weapons, landmines and cluster bombs. By the same token, preventing Iran from developing a nuclear programme that might one day mean a weapons capability while itself having thousands of ready-to-launch nuclear warheads inevitably invites criticism. It is even possible for NATO’s critics to make the case that its nuclear policies stimulate the spread of nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the German government’s demand, supported by its parliament and by public opinion, for the withdrawal of the remaining American nuclear weapons on its territory has remained blocked by NATO since 2009. It’s not surprising, therefore, that NATO’s legitimacy is being challenged in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, to name but a few. Because of bureaucratic inertia, it is even possible that these weapons will be modernised at a price of $10bn to make them more accurate and usable.

NATO’s past argument was that missile defence will replace nuclear bombs, but this promise hasn’t been kept. Nowadays, NATO possesses two handicapped instruments: anti-missile systems that do not work technologically, and nuclear bombs that are too destructive ever to be used. So it’s time to raise the fundamental question of whether NATO membership still makes sense. Some of these questions would admittedly also be raised with regard to a European army, but at least the past doesn’t haunt the EU as it does NATO.

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