By George Friedman
American officials have begun expressing concerns about the state of the European Union. In particular, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Feb. 12 that America has a “very strong” interest in the United Kingdom staying in the EU. Until now, the United States has seen the European Union’s problems as something for the Europeans to settle among themselves. The U.S. did not see Europe’s problems as directly affecting U.S. interests, nor did it see itself as capable of influencing EU policy. It was too monumental to influence.
The extent of EU fragmentation has changed this calculation for the United States. The deep fissures within the European Union will be reflected in NATO. U.S. policy in Europe is focused on security, while European powers are shaping their relationships on the Continent largely based on other factors. For example, German concerns regarding the new Polish government and the Hungarian Fidesz government are guiding Berlin’s relationships in Central and Eastern Europe. This approach differs from the commitment the U.S. is making to the defense of Eastern Europe from the Baltic countries down to Romania, as part of its strategy to contain Russia. Some Europeans are in favor of the U.S. approach, some may actually send forces and some want nothing to do with it. But their decisions will be more complex and not as focused on the threat itself.
Also important to the U.S., the flow of refugees from Syria has potential implications not only for Europe, but for terrorist capabilities elsewhere. The inability of the European Union to develop a coherent refugee program exacerbates its inability to deploy the forces needed to patrol the Mediterranean. After months, it is still unclear when the Europeans will deploy a sufficiently effective force. They want that force to come from NATO, which means that the U.S. will participate. On Feb. 11, NATO announced the deployment of ships in the Aegean Sea, following a request from Germany, Turkey and Greece to help reduce human trafficking in the area. The Americans are concerned, however, about deploying a force in such a chaotic political environment.
During the Cold War the mission was simple, there was political consensus and plans were made. There was friction of course, particularly because the French still wanted to be seen as a great power, but it was within bounds. For a while after the fall of the Soviet Union, there were few missions involving NATO. With the re-emergence of Russian power and the complexities of refugee policies that involve everything from fighting the Islamic State to rules for maritime interdiction of refugees, U.S.-European coordination becomes important again. The U.S. is discovering that the EU’s fragmentation and odd decision-making process is affecting NATO. The military confrontation between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member, must by definition be a matter of interest for NATO. That in turn intersects the refugee question, which intersects the issue of Schengen zone, the European free movement area. Purely NATO issues, purely EU issues and hybrid issues litter the landscape. It boggles the European mind. The American mind is paralyzed.
For all its unilateral actions, the notion of a trans-Atlantic alliance remains a conceptual foundation of U.S. defense policy. It is assumed, not necessarily with reason, that in extreme circumstances all of NATO will act together. American war-fighting is built on the principle of coalition war-fighting. The United States engages its military in the Eastern Hemisphere. Its forces are larger than European forces, but much of that force is devoted to the logistics of power projection. The fighting force the U.S. can deploy in the Eastern Hemisphere is a fraction of the force it needs to get them there and feed them.
The United States relied on a coalition of the willing in Iraq. NATO was not there. The British were. Britain was the only European country that both participated in the coalition of the willing and sent substantial forces. The U.S.-British bilateral relationship is a foundation of U.S. policy. It is also a force within NATO that tries to align the members. The American fear is that while it values the U.S.-British relationship, Britain’s exit from the EU would poison British-EU relations and would create an even more difficult situation in NATO.
It is forgotten that the U.S. was the first major advocate of European integration. The idea of European economic integration was part of the Marshall Plan. It was the Europeans who resisted the concept at first, while the U.S. saw this integration as both strengthening Europe’s shattered economies and undergirding a common defense against the Soviets. The United States sees no downside in EU unity, because it believes this unity will strengthen NATO. This may be a dream, but it is the dream of the Atlanticists. Thus, the United States is frustrated because it is unable to do anything about Europe’s economic problems, but it does want to limit the damage. And therefore, it does not want Britain to leave the EU.
But the EU’s divisions are real. For example, the national interests of Germany and Italy diverge on banking regulations and the future of the banking union. Their disagreements will spread to other areas and will therefore affect NATO. In my view, NATO is a military alliance, and a military alliance must have a military. Many European countries do not have significant militaries. They simply have military gestures. Second, military alliances require a mission. There was a clear one in the Cold War. But there are many potential missions now, and each can be approached in many different ways. This cannot be the basis of a military alliance, as each action must be placed in the hands of the political committee and there can be no prediction on what they will do. The complexity of missions and the divisions in the alliance preclude decision-making.
The U.S. has taken for granted that the trans-Atlantic alliance can survive these problems. It is now facing the fact that no agreements on any mission can be easily achieved. In focusing on keeping the British in the EU, the U.S. is currying favor with the union’s most intense supporters. It is an interesting strategy. Don’t recruit the closest ally, but countries that regard the United States with views ranging from indifference to disdain. I doubt it will work. I also doubt that a possible British exit will spell the decline of NATO. I believe that decline is already past the point of no return. But the United States is not without resources, and Washington has decided that protecting NATO is worth a shot. There are allies on both sides of the Atlantic, but they are not all EU members. The coalition shifts with every issue. This is not unmanageable, unless it is inserting deep divisions into the NATO structure.
The American fear is that the trans-Atlantic relations that define American strategy will collapse under European pressure. The allies’ interests remain the same and therefore the relationship stays intact. It simply has to have a more dynamic structure that can effectively cope with European divergences.