PREMIUM TAG BLOG: (Some Worrying) Future Transatlantic Security Options*

The current collision between history and disruptive forces of change poses a huge challenge to the United States, Canada and the European democracies. Those of us who believe in liberal democracy and the transatlantic alliance must take the steps necessary to ensure their future.

By Stanley R. Sloan

As 2020 hits the ground with many bangs, those of us working on transatlantic relations face questions about near-term US-European security futures.

There is little mystery about the threats and challenges facing NATO and EU members. They include Russian intrusions, radical Islamist terrorism, and creeping Chinese intervention, adding to the internal challengeof illiberal politics undermining liberal democracy. So against this backdrop, let’s consider first some future scenarios.

I suggest three broad possibilities for the future of the transatlantic alliance: substantial continuity, radical positive change and radical negative change

First, substantial continuity. In this potential future, very little changes the trend lines that have been laid down by history.  

The United States remains committed to participate in the defense of Europe, to deploy substantial numbers of troops in Europe, and to retain military leadership of NATO with a senior American general serving as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander.  

Also in this scenario, a post-Trump administration triesto repair damage done to US leadership of the alliance, without abandoning US burdensharing concerns.  

All current allies remain in the alliance, despite some wavering (Turkey) and others experimenting with forms of democracy that do not conform to liberal democratic values.

With the United Kingdom having abandoned EU membership, the EU continues, with some modest successes, its attempts to give the Union a more substantial integrated military capacity.  

The UK makes cooperative military arrangements with former EU partners while seeking a continued “special relationship,” including intelligence sharing, with the United States.  

In this potential future, several allies spend around 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024 as agreed at the 2014 Wales summit, while others fall short.  

Second: radical positive change.

In this future, the goal of a more balanced transatlantic relationship comes more clearly into view.  The United States remains committed to the alliance while supporting European efforts to take on more burdens and responsibilities in the alliance.  

The members of the EU make substantial advances in coordinating and even selectively integrating their defense establishments.  

A true European army controlled by a politically united Europe remains out of reach. But all EU members increasingly sacrifice bits of their national control in a variety of pragmatic cooperative arrangements.  

The UK, despite its departure from the EU, commits to thorough defense cooperation with EU members, while remaining fully committed to NATO.  

Increased European defense spending is accompanied by the revitalization of the European defense industry, with multinational firms and co-production arrangements setting up a healthy competition across the Atlantic. At the same time, the US-European competition for sales is moderated by better transatlantic defense industrial cooperation.  

The stronger European contribution to defense is acknowledged with alternating European and American Supreme Allied Commanders of NATO as a transition to a possible future in which Europeans routinely hold this post.  

The role of Secretary General also alternates between prominent European and North American political leaders.

Third: radical negative change

This scenario presents a much darker future.  

The United States essentially abandons its transatlantic commitments and leadership roles.  The European allies fall into disputes about how to maintain their security and provide new leadership.  

Such a scenario could begin with the reelection of Donald Trump.  

In this hypothetical scenario, the United Statescontinues the process of abandoning its international leadership and decides to remove all US forces from Europe. Trump tweets that he and Vladimir Putin have agreed that such a move would promote peace and security in Europe.  

In response, European allies discuss creating strong, integrated European defense structures to replace the transatlantic NATO one.  But they find it too challenging politically and financially.  

Even the overwhelming cost estimate projected in 2019 by the IISS for the EU members to create a defense system as capable as that of NATO turns out to be overly optimistic.  

Several member countries suggest that the EU should follow the US lead and sign a peaceful relations/nonaggression accord with Russia.

While some commentators immediately label this “the 21st century Munich,” most European governments decide they have little choice.  

In addition, this accommodation with Russia strengthens illiberal pro-Moscow parties throughout Europe.  That leads to the election of several national administrations that lean toward fascist forms of governance and away from liberal democracy.  Adieu NATO. Adieu the West as we know it. Russia will have achieved its long-term goal of destroying the transatlantic alliance, with connivance and weakness by European governments.

The future

With all its imperfections, the current transatlantic security system, with its twin institutional pillars of NATO and the EU, makes a strong case for preservation, even if it requires reform.  

Those who argue for abandoning this arrangement bear the burden of proving that they have a better idea.

The current collision between history and disruptive forces of change poses a huge challenge to the United States, Canada and the European democracies. Those of us who believe in liberal democracy and the transatlantic alliance must take the steps necessary to ensure their future. Choices at transatlantic ballot boxes will influence which future we choose.  They had better be informed choices…

*This brief is based on the draft text the author prepared for a presentation in Copenhagen in December 2019 whose presentation was vetoed by the US Embassy, which was a cosponsor of the conference.