External Action

Four legs good, two legs bad: NATO and CSDP

Nick Watts / Nov 2015

The EU foreign policy and security chief, Federica Mogherini, and Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general. Photo: European Union

Those familiar with George Orwell’s Animal farm will recognise the slogan. The idea that the animals (four legs) were good and all humans (two legs) were bad. In the political world many commentators think that NATO is good and that the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) is bad. The truth, of course, is more nuanced than this.

Recent events in Ukraine and the Baltic gives added relevance to NATO, which has been the bulwark of western defence since 1949. After the end of the Cold war countries in Eastern Europe rushed to join NATO. They also sought membership of the EU. As a Polish diplomat put it to me at the time: “joining NATO is like a love affair, EU membership is like a marriage of convenience!”

The Cold-War transatlantic tussle about burden-sharing became a sharp disagreement at the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003. The perception of Europe as a passenger in NATO, whilst the US provided the nuclear umbrella got worse. The Europeans viewed US policy as ‘shoot first ask questions later’. Britain was caught in the middle of this, trying to reconcile both sides, but was viewed as being too pro-American. So in the minds of some politicians in Britain, NATO is good and CSDP is bad.

This problem has not gone away. US secretaries of defence warn repeatedly about the growing impatience of US taxpayers who are subsidising European security. This is heard in Europe by a political class who have seen that the US’s militaristic adventures have only made matters worse in the Middle East. Better they feel to keep away from such things. War weariness in Britain led to parliament voting against air strikes against Syria in 2013, despite the use of chemical weapons. The Libyan intervention in 2011 was not a great success, however urgent the humanitarian need. Levels of defence expenditure in Europe continue to decline whilst it is increasing in other areas of the world.

There is no simple answer to these disparate trends. Paradoxically this is where NATO and Europe can bring something to the table. Ian Bremmer president of the Eurasia Group has recently posited a theory of ‘G- Zero’; that no one grouping of nations is sufficient to solve the geopolitical problems of the 21st century. But there will have to be an appetite to find a way through the current maze of seemingly inter-linked problems. The Russia / Ukraine question also infects the Syria / Iraq / ISIL problem. The situation in Syria and Libya generates the refugee crisis in Europe. Putin hopes that EU and US sanctions will be lifted in return for co-operation in solving the Syrian problem. The US suspects that the EU wants to lift sanctions against Russia, because of its reliance on Russian gas.

The combination that won the Cold War might solve the riddle posed by current crises. NATO kept the peace during the Cold War, while Western Europe increasingly prospered as the European Community evolved. As Vaclav Havel put it in 1989, “Communism didn’t fail because it was socialist; it failed because it was evil.” It was peace and prosperity that won the Cold War. So it could be with the current situation. Western values of tolerance and openness ought to trump despotism and theocracy. But this will need some help.

In July 2015 a survey conducted by the London based PR agency Portland, in association with ComRes and Facebook placed Britain at the top of the global league of soft power – the ability to coax and persuade. But soft power alone is not sufficient to deal with the current crises faced by the West. Britain and other European states face a considerable threat from home grown ‘self-starter’ jihadism. Security services have to co-operate and politicians have to make the case for openness and tolerance. Europe is having to re-learn what values it is defending.

So the committee work, the Security Strategies and the Joint Rapid Reaction Forces are all part of the same effort, to keep citizens safe and to enable commerce to flourish. Bad habits of the past need to be ditched. Calls for a ‘European’ operational HQ are a diversion from what ought to be the main effort of policy makers; ensuring that every pound and euro spent on defence delivers capability. NATO can undertake the hard edged deterrent role of keeping Europe’s borders and airspace safe. European stabilisation and anti-piracy operations can ensure that fragile areas are less dangerous.

Closing down people trafficking routes, standing up to land grabbing autocrats and genocidal despots is what Europe’s citizens expect of their defence forces and security agencies. Security and prosperity go hand in hand. Britain is fortunate enough be respected in NATO and pace some sections of the British media – in the EU. David Cameron might yet succeed where Tony Blair failed; to make Britain a respected partner for both the US and its European partners.




Nick Watts

Nick Watts

November 2015

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