Opinion: Peace in Europe and the importance of NATO

Map: Growth of NATO through the years
NATO has continued to expand, even when its role appeared to fade, but European members still depend on the U.S. for their defense (source: macpixxel for GIS)

The world is becoming increasingly bellicose, and tectonic shifts of power are under way. China and Russia are striving to take positions as leading global powers. Europe plays a dual geopolitical role: first as part of the strategic North Atlantic alliance with the United States and second as a crucial portion of the Eurasian-African landmass. To maintain its security, Europe must understand this position and address the challenges it entails.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, was created in 1949 when several Western European countries, the U.S. and Canada signed the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, D.C. The member states wanted to counter threats from an assertive Soviet Union, which controlled Central, Eastern and large parts of Southeastern Europe.

The Soviet Union was armed with nuclear weapons and was engaged in various forms of subversion, promoting the global communist revolution. The U.S. wanted to contain communism in Europe, Asia and Africa, and was terrified that Soviet forces could one day be perched on the eastern shore of the Atlantic.

With the implosion of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, NATO’s role appeared to fade. Nevertheless, Central and Eastern European countries joined between 1999 and 2004. Most of them were former members of the Moscow-dominated Warsaw Pact alliance, and the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) were even former members of the Soviet Union.

It took President Trump’s blunt rhetoric for Europe to realize its dependency on the U.S. in matters of defense

The situation changed when Europe was confronted with a more assertive Russia, the Ukraine crisis, civil and proxy wars in the Middle East, migration from Africa and grave issues of cybersecurity and propaganda. It took U.S. President Donald Trump’s blunt rhetoric for Europe to realize its dependency on the U.S. in matters of defense and thus understand NATO’s role.

Western orientation

To assess the current situation, we need to analyze Europe’s geographic, economic and historical position. Geographically, the world is made up of two main continental blocks: the huge Eurasian-African landmass and the Americas. (Australia, though large in geographic size, plays a smaller geopolitical role.) Europe is a peninsula at the northwestern end of Eurasia, bordering the North Atlantic in the west and an interior sea, the Mediterranean, in the south.

European colonization started in the 16th century with the exploration of the Americas, creating a continent strongly influenced by European systems and traditions. It began with immigration from the countries bordering the Atlantic, but in the 19th century, huge numbers of Central and Southern Europeans emigrated. With the emergence of the U.S. as major economic and political player, the North Atlantic became the global economic center of gravity. By the 18th century, Europe controlled most of the world.

Member states’ flags are raised at NATO headquarters in Brussels
Member states’ flags are raised at NATO headquarters in Brussels. For nearly 70 years European countries have enjoyed U.S. protection through the North Atlantic alliance (source: dpa)

By the mid-19th century, Europe was mostly oriented toward the west. This was not only the result of cultural and ethnic similarities between Europe and North America. It was also much easier to navigate the North Atlantic than to cross the vast steppes, forests, swamps and deserts which lay between Europe and Asia’s main economic and political centers.

Eastern resurgence

Europe’s situation is different now. Russia has returned as a major power. Countries in Asia have become leading economic and political players. New technologies in communication and transportation have brought East and Southeast Asia much closer to Europe. To maintain its self-determination, security and economic prosperity, Europe must now deal with the fact that it is situated on the Eurasian-African landmass and understand why that makes its role in the North Atlantic community so important.

These changes offer huge opportunities for business and trade with booming Asia, but they also mean big challenges for Europe’s security. The countries to Europe’s east have become expansionary again, as they once were long ago. Their factories need markets and their politicians will attempt to ensure access to those markets, through economic incentives, political pressure and, if necessary, military intervention. China has the heft to do this already, and Russia may not be far behind.

To maintain peace, it is now in Europe’s vital interest to have a strong defense and security policy. Russia must not be seen as an enemy, but Europe must not nourish Moscow’s temptations with weakness. Europe is responsible for its own defense, but also part of the North Atlantic alliance. This is a win-win situation, as it guarantees American support for Europe but also strengthens the U.S. doctrine of preventing any potentially unfriendly major power from appearing on the opposite shore of the North Atlantic.

Credible deterrence

Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”): the Romans recognized that only a credible deterrent – a strong defense – can secure peace. Armies are present in every region of the globe – if not these regions’ own armies, then foreign ones.

A Europe insufficiently defended risks making its territory a battlefield where the U.S. might try to halt aggression from eastern powers

For the past 70 years, Europe has enjoyed the luxury of mainly being defended by the U.S. military. Europe has contributed within the NATO framework, but the U.S. rightfully claims that European countries should essentially be responsible for their own defense, with their allies from across the North Atlantic playing a supporting role.

A Europe insufficiently defended risks making its territory a battlefield where the U.S. might try to halt aggression from eastern powers. Europe must therefore have a strong enough defense to stop any hostility coming from its eastern and southern borders. The objective should be a robust deterrence and the ability to retaliate. It is crucial that Europe be strong enough to deter on its own, giving it the ability to shape policies in its interest. Now, it is wholly dependent on the U.S.

Three key factors

When it comes to defense and deterrence, there are three equally important factors to consider:

1. NATO’s main role is military. Its forces will need armament and training, especially in the larger member states. Europe will mainly have to provide its own ground forces, whereas the U.S. will play a big role with air power and logistics support.

2. The West is already engaged in a hybrid war with Russia. Hybrid warfare includes espionage, propaganda, political interference and inciting unrest, but especially economic sanctions and cyberattacks. Such tactics are being used on both sides. In Europe, the main responsibility for addressing these issues lies with the individual countries, as well as with the European Union. NATO can play a role in shoring up cybersecurity. It can also carry out cyberattacks and counterattacks.

Supplies of food, medicine and electricity for the civilian population must be assured

3. Civil defense remains neglected. Supplies of food, medicine and electricity for the civilian population must be assured. This will be crucial in the case of cyberattacks against logistics, transportation or energy infrastructure. Civil defense also requires preparations for a conventional war, such as plans for evacuation and providing shelter, as well as informing and training the public on how to behave in emergencies. Community and household reserves in essential goods, such as food and water, are necessary. This is mainly the various countries’ responsibility, but especially also that of local and municipal administrations. This is all outside of NATO’s direct competence.

Without addressing these three issues, Europe will be prone to threats and blackmail.

Potential battlefield

If Europe is unable to clearly demonstrate its ability to deter enemies, it will become the battlefield in a war with Russia. This could happen in the event of a U.S.-China conflict: Russia could get involved, helping Beijing to consolidate its Eurasian position from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

This would be an apocalyptic scenario, with Russian troops heading toward the Atlantic. The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on European soil by both the Russians and Americans could then not be excluded.

Joint deterrence from the U.S. and Europe is needed and in the interest of both partners to assure Europe’s security. The framework is NATO.

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