The West’s inglorious exit from Afghanistan has sparked a long-awaited reckoning for NATO and has fueled major questions about the role the alliance is capable of playing in the 21st century — and to what degree it can rely so heavily on U.S. leadership and U.S. military assets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visiting Washington this week, allies watchers are noticing a deep sense dread in Europe. In a matter of months, high-stakes issues exploded to the surface and threatened some of NATO ‘s core principles and cohesiveness.
The decision by President Biden to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan instantly prompted other NATO countries to follow suit. This confirmed that the alliance can’t conduct major military or intelligence missions without Washington. Europe lost faith in America’s stability and reliability after the chaotic and deadly withdrawal. This could have a significant impact on the transatlantic partnership that has been established since the beginning of the Cold War.
On the heels of the withdrawal, Australia’s decision to cancel a major submarine contract with France and forge a security partnership with the U.S. and Britain underscored a global shift in security priorities toward the Pacific and China. Unanswered is the question of how a defense pact that includes “North Atlantic” in it’s name fits into Asia’s power puzzle.
Mr. Stoltenberg (a Norwegian secretary-general whose term ends in September 2022,), met Monday with Mr. Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. They also discussed the future of the alliance. They also discussed the future direction of the alliance and China’s role in it. French officials will be meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken Tuesday to try and mend fences following the cancellation of the submarine contract.
Experts say that the series of meetings Monday-Tuesday may not be enough for Americans to see that their relationship with NATO has changed rapidly. They also believe that Mr. Stoltenberg, and other leaders in the alliance, have not yet figured out how to adapt. Mr. Biden, Europeans say, says the right things, but the first 10 months of his administration have been unexpectedly rocky for trans-Atlantic ties.
” There’s a feeling of unease in Brussels, and in NATO cities that the U.S. can be unpredictable,” stated Jim Townsend who was deputy assistant secretary for defense for European and NATO policies during the Obama administration. “We’ve been through four years of Trump [former President Donald], which was a rollercoaster. Biden stated, “We’re back.” But there have been some unusual events that have questioned the theory. Are the U.S. in an arc that isn’t so interested Europe? They don’t know where America stands on the historical arc.
” You say “America is back”, but it doesn’t feel like that,” he said.
Mr. Townsend stated that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was an eye-opener to NATO countries.
” They couldn’t keep there on their feet, and in some capitals that bothered them,” he stated.
U.S. leaders stated that they expected NATO overhaul its approach. The White House and State Department highlighted the importance of the alliance’s Strategic Concept in conversations with Mr. Stoltenberg. This landmark document is expected to be published next year.
“President Biden reiterated his strong support for NATO , and the importance of strengthening deterrence against strategic competitors and other transnational threats.” The White House stated. “President Biden also conveyed our full support for the NATO agenda agreed by leaders in June, including ensuring the alliance is fully equipped and resourced to address the modern threat environment and developing a new Strategic Concept.”
Questions across Europe
But the failure in Afghanistan and the U.S.-U.K.-Australian defense pact have some in Europe, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, dusting off plans for a European Union fighting force that would not need American support or approval to take on missions relating to European security.
Some officials in London have made it clear that they believe Britain and other European countries should bolster their national security capabilities to avoid situations where U.S. decisions will dictate NATO actions.
Paris leaders are trying to assess the impact of the lost submarine agreement, which has sparked a diplomatic standoff that Mr. Blinken intends to end this week. French leaders believe that the situation should be a wake up call. A top adviser to Mr. Macron told Reuters that Mr. Macron will use a speech Tuesday to push the message that Europe can and must play a vital role on its own in confronting China.
” We could pretend that nothing has happened and turn a blindeye. The Macron advisor stated that this would be a mistake for all Europeans. There is a real opportunity here. … We don’t want to force Europeans into a binary choice between partnership with America or Europe turning inward
Perhaps nowhere are these questions more urgent than in Germany. The uncertain outcome of Germany’s recent parliamentary elections will surely have an impact on the direction of NATO as well as overall European defense spending.
The coalition of German parties which will eventually take control of the Bundestag has been negotiated. However, no one disputes the fact that the long-standing reign of centre-right Chancellor Angela Merkel (a proponent NATO ) and of a strong role for Germany within the alliance has ended in Berlin.
Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, (CDU), came in second place in the Sept. 26 elections. Germany’s Social Democratic Party took the largest share of Bund seats and is now trying to form a coalition with the Green Party or the probusiness Free Democratic Party.
This is important, analysts claim, as neither the Greens nor Free Democrats want to support a stronger NATO commanded by the United States.
” A CDU-led government would have largely ensured the continuation of the U.S.-European old-style relationship, which is centered around NATO , and relying on German participation to collective defense and other arrangements,” stated Ulrike Franke. She is a senior policy fellow at The European Council on Foreign Relations where she focuses on German defense.
Ms. Franke did, however, assert that the coalition in Germany could end up as “good news” for a new trans-Atlantic alliance focused on the U.S. and Europe “countering China together.”
Ms. Merkel was skeptical of the U.S./Chinese rivalry’s confrontational drift, especially considering the importance of China for German exporters. Last year, an EU-Chinese investment agreement was reached between Germany and China. This was despite clear opposition from the Biden administration.
Berlin could change significantly if Germans form an alliance without Ms. Merkel, Ms. Franke stated.
“The two smaller parties that will make or break any German coalition — the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) — are inclined toward a stronger stance against China,” she wrote.