Can Europe come to NATO’s defence?

  • Themes: Geopolitics

Despite the Russian threat, few European states are committed to their own defence. NATO solidarity is transatlantic only – if it exists at all

Secretary of Defense attends the NATO Defense Ministerial at Brussels.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III attends the NATO Defense Ministerial at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 15, 2023. Credit: Operation 2023 / Alamy Stock Photo

When Western states use military force, they often do so without a clear strategy. Emile Simpson wrote a book that reflects on this, aptly named War from the Ground Up: Twenty-first Century Combat as Politics (2018). His military experience was mainly from the International Security Assistance Force operation in Afghanistan, but he also analyses the European use of force in more general terms. He argues that ‘the tail wags the dog’ – tactical military moves on the ground direct politics, not vice versa. This he calls ‘armed politics’, with the political implications of whatever is done at the operational level and below amounting to ‘strategy’, in induction-like fashion. This is the very opposite of strategy guiding the use of force in order to realise desired political effects.

There is no initial strategy for the use of force that guides it, Simpson argues. An operation happens because there is too much violence or trouble somewhere, and something has to be done about it. One throws in some military force in order to stabilise the situation, like a fire brigade that is sent to quell a fire. But once quelled, what then? Is the use of force in NATO states in Europe – all liberal democracies – characterised by a lack of strategy? Does NATO do realpolitik, with a strategy to guide it in its major moves, such as enlargement? Or is NATO simply an international organisation like many others, with an openness to new members, as it declares that it is?

Is NATO based on values, not on strategic interests?

The preamble to the Washington treaty of April 4, 1949, reads that the member states are ‘determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law’. This underlines the special character of NATO: it is indeed founded on these values, and obliged to uphold them. In the short (and eminently readable) treaty, we also find that NATO is obliged to support the UN Pact, albeit not being a UN-associated organisation. Yet the jus ad bellum and jus in bello rules of international law are to be promoted and followed, and NATO will also seek the peaceful resolution of conflict. It is expressly a defensive alliance and has an ‘open door’ policy (paragraph 10), and demands that members are able to defend themselves as a first policy (article 3) before they seek help from others – the article 5 solidarity clause, the most famous paragraph in any international treaty.

Thus, NATO members are obliged to have a defence ability of their own as well as being democratic states. Both these criteria for membership are not entirely strict, as it were – there is no exclusion clause and Turkey today is far from a liberal democracy. Also, many members have relatively weak defence forces; the ‘free rider’ problem in NATO is infamous. Most members do not reach the agreed 2% of GDP spending on defence criterion, and the US carries a disproportionate burden and has always done so.

The question that is asked in this essay is whether NATO pursues a strategy of realpolitik in its moves, especially in terms of enlargement, or whether the values detailed above determine which states can become a member. In other words, is NATO a smart alliance that expands when its main adversary, Russia, is weak, or is NATO un-strategic as a whole?

The latter question is very important today as NATO faces Russia in the most serious confrontation since the Cold War. NATO’s role is the good cop versus the bad cop played by the Ukraine Contact Group, some 50 states led by the US in close collaboration with the UK in Europe. The Contact Group delivers weapons to Ukraine and NATO intensifies deterrence at the border in Eastern Europe. NATO’s recent summit agreed to much more deterrence capability in these members states, but not to any active role as such in weapon supply to Ukraine. Its military role vis-à-vis Ukraine, its partner state, is subdued and steers away from lethal aid. Yet NATO criticises Russia heavily with regard to values – the ad bellum rule in the UN Pact (para 2,3 and 2,4) is violated by this war of aggression, a very serious issue; and even more critical is the violation of humanitarian international law (the in bello rules of Geneva Conventions) in terms of war crimes of the worst kind.

NATO has been very vocal in accusing and condemning Russia on these themes, but has clearly acted as a defensive alliance with no military role in Ukraine. This would seem to indicate that NATO promotes values as an equally important part of its mandate as military defence. Yet this may not mean that NATO is un-strategic, only that it stays true to its defensive character. For it could have aided Ukraine with both weapons and soldiers had it so wished, in full compliance with international law; the UN Pact’s para 51 allows any state that is unlawfully attacked to receive military assistance from other states. It is indeed this paragraph that is the basis for the weaponry aid from the Ukraine Contact Group.

Enlargement of NATO: values a necessary but not sufficient condition

Two theses about the role of principles versus realpolitik come to mind. One, democracies join but there is no strategy from NATO’s side. Turkey joined early, in 1952, when it was a promising Muslim democracy, but it has experienced several military coups and was arguably well governed during this time. Yet Turkey’s geopolitical position explains why it is a member, at the insistence of the US. Eastern Europe joined once it was democratic; Spain only after Franco’s death; and the offers to Ukraine and Georgia were made with no calculations of any Russian reaction – what we can call the ‘cheque that bounced’ problem. The administration of George W Bush made this offer in 2008, against the warnings of European states. Once Russia reacted militarily in Georgia in August that year, the US retreated hastily, leaving the EU to negotiate something or other in Georgia, as Ron Asmus’s excellent account in A Little War that Shook the World (2010) brings out. Thus, we see evidence of value-based enlargement efforts here.

Second, one can argue that realpolitik decides. Turkey joined because it was geopolitically important; Eastern Europe when it became possible (Russia was weak); the offers made to Georgia and Ukraine are evidence of strategic naivety, as events bore out. Neither Georgia nor Ukraine was ready for membership when the offer  was made. There is no evidence of a NATO strategy of enlargement, as I found in my book NATO: the Power of Partnerships, (with M Petersson, Macmillan, UK, 2011). Yet the lack of a clear policy or strategy on enlargement may also be strategic as it leaves room for ambiguity. NATO has no obligation towards Ukraine beyond low-level non-lethal aid, but it could choose the same role (and risk) that the Ukraine Contact Group has chosen.

Furthermore, NATO’s lack of spelt-out strategy leaves room for treating each candidate state differently, depending on the risk situation.

If a Russian reaction is likely, why expand? Yet if one expands and nothing happens, NATO territory is larger, but that may not be advantageous as there is more to defend and more risk of having to defend it. There is little evidence of this kind of strategic deliberation in NATO circles but, as stated, this ambiguity over NATO’s enlargement policy can be strategically wise. Paradoxically, NATO does not seem to have a strategic design for its policy, yet may, for this very reason, enjoy a strategic advantage. To expand to a state that will need article 5 defence from NATO is hardly enhancing NATO security, whereas expanding democracy in states where no such Russian reaction occurs represents a security advantage for NATO.

After 2008, NATO put Georgian and Ukrainian membership on the back burner. This underlines the point that there was a lack of strategy behind the offer to expand. Moreover, the enlargement extended to Eastern Europe in the late 1990s and 2000s was largely risk-free, and the question of strategy did not present itself. During the 1990-2010 period in Europe, the lack of strategy was perhaps understandable, as interventions into wars were ‘optional’. But in the present situation of great power rivalry and state-to-state confrontation, strategy is again a must, as described in Military Strategy in the 21st Century: the Challenge for NATO (with Robert Johnson, 2020).

As a point of departure, let’s assume that the use of force in Europe is like Simpson’s ‘fire brigade’. This may be so because few European states have a strategic/military culture with the ability to make decisions that are strategically relevant. Also, post-modern politics and the long, deep peace in the 1990-2010 period in Europe have meant that individual states’ security interests have been thought of as a bygone concern, and domestic politics have replaced strategy as liberal democracies are prone to pay attention to public opinion, hence a tendency to risk-aversion in using force. Finally, the present political class has only known peaceful international politics in their own part of the world and is mostly unfamiliar with the use of military force, as Christopher Coker pointed out in his 2013 book Warrior Geeks.

Strategic deficit? The Europeans in NATO

Is there a military strategy in Europe? Some 23 authors try to answer this question in Military Strategy in the 21st Century: the Challenge for NATO, and they find that there is little systematic strategic thinking in the political class – with some exceptions, such as France. But they argue that there is a clear need for nuclear strategy and for conventional and hybrid strategy. However, NATO adopted a military strategy in 2018, classified it, but adapted it to state-to-state competition.

The authors agree that there is little serious strategy making in Europe today, despite the surge in threats and risks. Perhaps this is because the long period of deep peace did not demand strategy. Now, however, the need is very obvious indeed. China and Russia stress the importance of military power in foreign and security policy, and terrorism and other non-state violence is rampant in Europe. In addition, there are cyber attacks across a range of targets.

What are the strategic needs for the various types of threat and risk? The war historian Robert Johnson presents a useful matrix of types of use of force: in competition, military base structures matter, trade ‘wars’ take place, cyber attacks, intelligence gathering. This is all familiar in Western states as well as in authoritarian states, and strategic planning certainly goes into it. Confrontation is marked by more risk taking, and can take the form of deployments, active measures, hacking, legal pressure, military signalling, false flag operations, threats and signalling. Here, military force matters more than before. If we move to coercion, sabotage, psychological warfare, blockade, covert operations, occupation of islands, political interference and manipulation, and so on, become the order of the day. And finally, in armed conflict, we see traditional uses of force in war fighting.

The point here is that the use of force is not only confined to clear war fighting modes or to humanitarian and stabilisation operations. On the contrary, there is a spectrum of possible uses of force, some clearly military; others where military force is used along with other tools. All this makes the use of force today more political, in the sense that the use of force must be closely calibrated to political intentions and its use must be flexible, prone to change. If the political goal is to secure the freedom of navigation, an armed escort to a supertanker may accomplish the goal, but should the situation escalate so that the escort is not sufficient, frigates may have to be deployed quickly – and perhaps frigates are able to deter escalation in the first place. If so, they should be deployed early.

Likewise, deterrence in general is back and needs risk willingness but also careful consideration of the danger of escalation. This requires political strategic ability of the first order, combined with a keen understanding of the military tool – and how it achieves goals.

Coercion and deterrence are the two main military strategies. Deterrence is more passive but rests on the political credibility of taking risk. If the adversary does not think that one will fight, one will not be able to deter. Coercion is riskier, being a specific action to put pressure on someone or some state, often in the form of an ultimatum. Coercion often fails when European states are behind it, as Rob de Wijk argues in The Art of Military Coercion, simply because the threat is not credible. Milosevic was threatened over Kosovo but did not believe in the threat until it was too late. Peter Viggo Jakobsen, professor at the Royal Danish Defence College and Center for War Studies, has studied the minimum requirements for successful coercion and finds that the massive threat of military attack is the key one, and one that Europe is not wont to make credibly.

In sum, the risk and threat that Europe faces requires a political strategy that is fine-tuned, risk-willing, and versatile, in the sense that situations change quickly. There is little indication that the Europeans are engaged to this end and that they will succeed, with the exception of states such as Britain and France.

Strategic culture: militarily able and risk-willing

Strategic culture is fairly well studied in the literature on defence and security policy, and has been a central variable in the scholarship since Glenn Snyder wrote his study about Soviet strategic culture in 1977. In their 2005 book, Rethinking the Nature of War, Isabelle Duyvesteyn and Jan Angstrom called for strategic thinking in Europe, arguing that it has been largely lost after the Cold War, and Sir Hew Strachan entitled his book on strategy The Direction of War (2013), in the tradition of Clausewitz, thus underlining that strategy’s original purpose is exactly that – guiding the use of force, proving the rationale for using force – or not. Also, he laments the lack of strategic guidance for Europe’s use of force.

Risk-taking is logically implicit in strategy because it involves hostile actors, in war, enemies. Strategy is therefore much more difficult than linear thinking and it requires unity of action and the ability to make decisions quickly, depending on the adversary’s moves. Importantly, it involves risk to oneself, perhaps to one’s life. It follows from this that strategy is a serious business, much more so than normal policy making.

France has perhaps the strongest strategic culture in Europe, followed by Britain. Germany is at the other end of the spectrum, with its clear choice of not wanting to lead militarily. In sum, there are major differences between states that are proud of their military and of its work, and states like Germany, where civilian terms replace military culture as a rule.

But how important is strategic culture for strategy itself? I have suggested that the former is a necessary but not sufficient variable for strategic use of force. By that, I mean that states without a strategic culture will not be engaged in deterrence, coercion, and operations in any risky and leading position. Their public opinion will have a much greater say in the use of force than any strategic elite around the executive. Such public opinion may call for the use of force in a humanitarian crisis – as happened with Germany in Kosovo in 1999 – but public opinion will not direct strategic action. Only states with a strategic culture for the use of force, including the professional military risk inherent in it, are able to take the risk of deterring, coercing, and fighting war on the ground. The risk is not only tactical, but also strategic: the adversary may attack your state; coercion may require brinkmanship, especially if nuclear weapons are involved. The strategic use of military force presumes a strategic culture which includes risk-willingness.

Indicators of strategy

Empirical indicators of a strategic mindset would include European interest in nuclear deterrence now that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty has been declared null and void. Intermediate-range missiles affect Europe, not the US, yet where is the alarm over this in Europe? The French urge the Germans to take an interest and perhaps promote a common European nuclear deterrent based on French and British missiles – something that is stonewalled in Germany. One does not want to discuss the need for nuclear deterrence, not discuss a European role in acquiring it, and not discuss how Russia can be deterred. It is as if the task of nuclear deterrence is America’s, even when we speak about intermediate-range missiles and not strategic ones.

The lack of European interest in Europe’s own deterrence is striking, and a clear indicator of a near total lack of strategic sense. Here, the UK and France are the exceptions.

Another indicator of a lack of strategy is the underfunding of defence, even if the 2% of GDP goal is self-imposed. Again, it is the Americans that demand more spending in Europe and Europe that refuses. Germany even broke ranks and proposed 1.5% GDP spending for itself, the richest country in Europe. The many quarrels between the Americans and the Europeans over this issue are another clear indicator of a lack of strategic sense in Europe. Given the US’s high spending on defence, how relatively ‘cheap’ is the 2% to keep the Americans satisfied?

A third indicator is the paradoxical results of opinion polls that ask about article 5 in NATO – whether there is a willingness to defend allies that may be attacked. A Pew Research Center poll found that many more respondents said no to their own country’s contributions than said yes to American assistance to themselves and others. They did not feel obliged by article 5, but were certain that the Americans would be. This was clear in the cases of Italy, Greece, Germany and others. This suggests that NATO solidarity is transatlantic only – if it exists at all.

This is also a clear indicator that many Europeans do not take defence very seriously and still think that the US will remain the one taking risks and fighting for them. Britain and France are the exceptions to this general European picture, both being nuclear deterrent states, spending 2.2% of GDP on defence, and leading military operations around the globe. France has also taken a lead in developing strategic thinking in Europe under President Macron.

It is clear that few states in Europe are willing and able with regard to military strategy and strategy in general, and this has grave implications for what NATO, and its 30 members, can accomplish. This has been the case for a long time, but this situation is critical today, with the Ukraine war and the concomitant Russian willingness to risk an invasion of a major state in the middle of Europe. Yet as we have seen in this conflict, it is not NATO that is the primary actor to support Ukraine, it is a coalition of the willing and able, led by the US. NATO has a secondary role.


Janne Haaland Matláry