Stephen Booth: The Ukraine war has revived American leadership and dashed dreams of European autonomy

7 Apr

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

In the 1990s, Mark Eyskens, then Belgium’s foreign minister, described the EU as an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm. This depiction has since been invoked in dozens of articles and speeches about EU foreign and security policy.

The unprecedented speed and scale of the EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine therefore displayed a surprising degree of unity and capacity to act, from what was admittedly a rather low base. The EU agreed to provide Ukraine with €450 million worth of weapons, and joined the US and the UK in imposing significant economic sanctions on the Russian financial system. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, described it as the EU’s “geopolitical awakening”.

Maintaining a unified EU response will be increasingly difficult as the crisis goes on and tougher decisions are called for. For example, this week, the EU agreed sanctions on Russian coal and shipping but was unable to extend this to oil, amid resistance from large energy importers such as Germany.

And while some in Brussels might hail the response as giving fresh impetus to the concepts of “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy”, in many ways the crisis has only underlined and intensified the EU’s reliance on the US and NATO.

The first references to the concept of EU “strategic autonomy” date back nearly a decadem but Emmanuel Macron has sought to put the idea at the heart of French and European foreign policy since assuming office. He first drew on this theme early in his presidency in a 2017 speech at the Sorbonne as a response to what he described as “gradual and inevitable disengagement by the United States”.

While pitched as a “complement” to NATO and the transatlantic alliance, Macron was clear that the concept meant equipping the EU with the tools to take decisions and action independently based on its own interests, from foreign and security policy to energy and technology. In 2019, Macron described the “brain death” of NATO.

The EU institutions in Brussels were keen to run with the theme. In 2019, the incoming Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, promised a “geopolitical Commission”. This promise was made in response to the decline in multilateralism and growing great power rivalry between the US and China. Brexit, and the loss of one of the EU’s two major foreign policy and security players, no doubt also acted as a catalyst for the renewed emphasis on developing the EU’s geopolitical role.

However, the EU has struggled to define what strategic autonomy means in practice. Economically, the French desire to create European champions clashes with the instincts of more liberal member states. Clément Beaune, France’s EU minister, said last month that the war should push the EU “to reduce our interdependence with the outside world, to create not an autocracy but a form of European independence.” Mark Rutte, Holland’s Prime Minister, has stressed the need for “open strategic autonomy”.

On security, there has been a renewed focus on increasing investment in defence capabilities, which has been accelerated by the Ukraine crisis, particularly dramatically in Germany. However, there had remained an unresolved tension between those states for whom strategic autonomy is a means of regaining political independence from Washington, and others for whom it should be avoided precisely for fear of accelerating US disengagement. The Ukraine crisis has strengthened the hand of those in the latter camp, including the Eastern and Nordic states.

Observers have noted that, on assuming the EU’s rotating presidency at the start of this year, Macron dropped the term “strategic autonomy” in favour of “European sovereignty”, precisely because the term autonomy risked becoming divisive.

The EU recently published its Strategic Compass for Security and Defence, which was supposed to be the centrepiece of the French EU presidency and a landmark signpost towards a more geopolitical EU. Based on the “first-ever comprehensive EU threat analysis”, conducted in 2020, it has been rather overtaken by events.

The Compass has been hastily updated to reflect the Ukraine war, but the major threat analysis was conducted before the Russian invasion changed the geopolitical landscape, and that threat analysis also did not anticipate the risk of Russian military action. Notably, US and UK intelligence warnings of an imminent Russian attack proved to be correct, whereas French and German agencies appeared unconvinced, leading to the departure of the head of French military intelligence.

One of the key proposals of the Strategic Compass is the development of an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity of up to 5,000 troops for different types of crises. However, the Ukraine crisis has only underlined that, for hard power, NATO is the only game in town. In the words of NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “so all these efforts – as long as they complement NATO – we welcome them, but the EU cannot defend Europe.”

The crisis has amplified the voices of the more Atlanticist member states, particularly in Eastern Europe. Estonia has called for a larger permanent presence of NATO forces on the eastern flank to act as a stronger deterrent. Romania has also called for more troops and has pledged to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, Poland has quietly lowered the temperature in its legal disputes with Brussels, giving it the opportunity to rekindle ties with the Biden Administration and urge the EU to do more on sanctions and support for Ukraine.

The US is also poised to play a significant role in the EU’s transition away from dependence on Russian energy. The US and the EU recently reached a deal to secure greater shipments of US liquified natural gas up to 2030 to help reduce energy dependence on Russian gas in the coming years. Von der Leyen noted that the target to import 50 billion cubic metres per year “is replacing one-third already of the Russian gas going to Europe today.”

If the horrors of the crisis in Ukraine have finally revealed the dangers and consequences of strategic ambiguity towards Putin’s Russia, European policies (in the EU and in the UK) towards China are also likely to come under increased scrutiny. During the recent EU-China summit, Xi Jinping reportedly called on the EU “to pursue an independent policy towards China,” in a thinly veiled warning to Brussels not to coordinate too closely with the US. But if China continues to support Russia, currently Europe’s gravest security threat, then greater proximity to Washington is the only likely answer.

This crisis has demonstrated the enduring power of the US. If this gives fresh momentum to Atlanticism within the EU and a greater focus on improving capabilities rather than stressing autonomy, this would be good for the West. It would also provide a more productive atmosphere for UK-EU cooperation on shared threats and challenges.

Neil Shastri-Hurst: Turkey and Hungary cannot be allowed to continue to contravene the principles of NATO

26 Jun

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer, surgeon, barrister, and senior member of the Voluntary Conservative Party in the West Midlands.

Determined, bold, and ambitious. All adjectives that could be used to describe the vision NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, put forward in a speech at the beginning of June. And yet, barely a mention in the newspapers. But whilst Covid-19 continues to dominate the news agenda, Stoltenberg’s speech should not be dismissed. It has the potential to significantly alter the position from which NATO seeks to operate.

NATO has been a powerful military alliance since its inception. National and international threats have not diminished over the last 70 years or so; rather they have grown. The current pandemic should not lure us into a false sense of security. The importance of a strong and effective military alliance, through the auspices of NATO, is fundamental to upholding the democratic principles we hold so dear.

However, in setting out a roadmap for the organisation for the decade ahead, its Secretary General has fixed his sights beyond that. He aspires to something much more ambitious. A shift to focus upon diplomatic and economic levers. A shift to operating more globally; beyond its current North Atlantic milieu. In essence, a shift to operating more politically.

Stoltenberg’s words will have been warmly heard in Washington. It was precisely this type of refocusing that the United States’ administration was pressing for when the alliance leaders met for the 70th anniversary summit on the 4th December 2019. It clearly acknowledges the growing threat that China plays in the wider global security challenges. That said, achieving this ambition will prove much harder than articulating it.

Whilst the focus of the Secretary General’s speech concentrated on the construct of a more political NATO – a NATO “using a broader range of tools”; both military and non-military – this ambitious vision can only be looked at in conjunction with the broader challenges facing the Alliance. Such a paradigm shift would necessitate a change in mindset from its member states.

NATO’s burgeoning inbox is frequently inundated with concerns posed by Vladimir Putin and Russian adventurism. This threat has not retreated. Putin’s posturing and strongman rhetoric continues to present a substantial risk to the Alliance. However, in recent years, there has been the development of a fresh danger. A danger posed by member states themselves. From Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, there has been the emergence of a cohort of leaders who style themselves in the Putin mould.

The bedrock of NATO has always been its shared values. The alliance has been bound through a pledge of collective defence: each member state, a democracy that upholds the virtues of individual human rights. For the majority of the 29, this remains the case. However, a small, but vocal, minority within the alliance has strayed from this path. The principle of collective defence has diminished in importance for these nations.

The schism created by Erdoğan and his ever closer relationship with Russia are well documented. But Erdoğan is not the only leader who has chosen to pursue a more nationalistic political path. Casting one’s gaze to Hungary, we see a country that was once an exemplar of post-Cold War success; a former Communist regime that had succeeded in achieving a strong democracy.

But times have changed. Orbán has adopted an increasingly authoritarian domestic policy platform. However, from NATO’s perspective, it is Orbán’s adoption of a fragrantly pro-Russian foreign policy agenda that is even more worrying: one only has to consider Hungary’s attempts to progressively block and disrupt the cooperation between NATO and Ukraine in order to illustrate this. Whereas the sage heads sitting at the NATO top table recognise the malign influence of a Putin led Russia, Orbán and Erdoğan are amongst a powerful subset that willingly fail to do so.

It would be misleading to suggest that NATO, and its members, have always upheld its founding principles to the letter. Historically, member states have not always been governed under truly democratic principles. That said, the internal menace posed by the pro-Russian, authoritarian rule of some of its own members arguably presents the greatest threat to NATO’s integrity that it has suffered to date.

The importance of NATO cannot be underestimated. As recently as 2016, the Alliance set out its central mission: “to ensure that the Alliance remains an unparalleled community of freedom, peace, security, and shared values, including individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and rule of law”. However, such a shared set of values operates on trust.

This brings me back to Stoltenberg’s vision for NATO 2030. An ambitious vision must be coupled with a compelling argument that member states’ defence and procurement strategies must be centred upon NATO’s intended direction. In a post-pandemic world, with the global economy having taken a battering, putting forward a persuasive case may be all the harder. Maintaining the two per cent minimum of GDP contribution has historically been challenging for many members. The reality is that, with competing demands upon treasury departments, a not insignificant contingent will formally rescind upon their commitment.

But that may be the least of NATO’s problems. The majority need to stand up to the minority and challenge its offending behaviour. Nation states such as Turkey and Hungary cannot be allowed to continue to operate in contravention of the principles of the Alliance. The Washington Treaty contains no provision to suspend members who do not act within the democratic ideals of NATO. However, that should not deter action against those states that fail to adhere to these; political and economic sanctions, for example, may well have the desired effect in the long-term, if not short-term.

And so, I end where I started. This is a determined, bold, and ambitious vision of NATO in 2030. It will however require an even more determined, a bolder, a more ambitious argument to be put forward in order for it to succeed. To have any chance of success, NATO itself will need to reform. It will need to assure member states that the collective Alliance remains true to its founding principles. It must convince its members to stand up against those who show a disregard for human rights or seek to pursue a pro-Russian agenda.

There is a Russian bear sitting behind the desk of the Kremlin; for the survival of NATO we must not let its cubs play in our midst.