Robert Harneis -TDO- (FRANCE) In another sign that European defense is a live issue post Trump, Fernando Alonso, head of the military branch of Airbus has announced that the company is contemplating the manufacture of a new fighter aircraft. He is hoping France will join Germany and Spain in the project. It is no coincidence that the EU has just launched its new defense integration project. French and German defense ministers have had regular meetings to coordinate their efforts.
The news came as America’s European allies readjust to the twin shocks of the departure of Britain from the EU and the election of Donald Trump. Britain is the most effective military force in the EU with France. Trump has said that ‘NATO is obsolete’ and that America’s allies must pay their share notably the 2% of GDP on military expenditure that every NATO country is committed to and most do not actually make.
Trump’s visit to inaugurate the new NATO headquarters in May only partly reversed his earlier dooms day utterances. The mercurial president then conceded that NATO was relevant but refused to confirm America’s commitment to article 5 the clause in the NATO treaty that commits all members of the alliance to come to the aid of any member that is attacked. Since returning to Washington he has reaffirmed that the United States is committed to article 5. The hesitation has worried his European allies.
They are well aware that Trump’s apparently mindless behavior actually reflects a debate going on in Washington. The US contributes 72% of NATO’s costs. Is it worth it? Should the US be paying to defend, for example, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuanian from a Russia that in all probability has no reason to attack them? Should not the rich European’s pay for their own defense? Why anyway would Russia population 150 million attack the EU population 500 million? On the other hand, article 5 is a temptation to smaller nations to deliberately provoke Russia and then when there is a reaction to shriek for support. The tail wags the dog.
The counter arguments in favor of US commitment to NATO are more down to earth and hence less heard, namely that being a member of NATO commits a country to spending a lot of money with US defense firms. Use of US equipment and norms means US control. In addition, if the US foots most of the bills then it gets to decide NATO military policy. The US can hide behind the actions of what are in effect its military satellites as it did with the unleashing of the attack on Libya lead supposedly by France. Without NATO as cover US military ‘interventions’ look a lot less respectable and more like naked military aggression. There is a sort of half accepted assumption that if it is NATO doing something it is almost as good as the United Nations.
From the European perspective, the general feeling amongst governments has been to let the US pay the bills for NATO and dictate policy. The obvious advantage is a security guarantee that counter balances Russian military superiority in Europe. But it also gives Europeans access to the US military and logistical infrastructure that it lacks. But the Americans require in exchange European involvement in their military adventures. That is a price worth paying if US policy is well conceived, consistent and not too obviously against the interests of the European nations. As Jan Odessa put it in ‘Une nouvelle Europe’, ‘We must give a little if we want to get a little’.
The reality for Europeans has been rather to get a little at great cost. However much the former Soviet occupied countries Poland and the Baltics would have us believe it, there is no substance to the Russian threat… unless provoked. The intervention in Libya has been a disaster for that country with serious blow back for Europe in the form of a wave of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. Things are no better in Syria. Blowback has also taken the form of repeated terrorist attacks. The Trump effect has been to crystalize growing doubts about the wisdom of being tied to US coat tails.
In addition, the demand for greater financial contributions has triggered the thought that if Europe must spend money on defense then it had better be the defense of Europe and European interests and not America’s. At the same time, the departure of Britain from Europe whilst it weakens the EU militarily removes a restraining pro US hand in the debate on European defense. Thus, Trump seems to have succeeded where the great General de Gaulle failed. Europe is at last taking its own defenses seriously.
It is not surprising then that Airbus has chosen this moment to launch its bid for support from the major EU countries that can ill afford individually to build their own fifth generation fighter. An alternative is to buy the hugely expensive and technically criticized American F35 but that means continuing to dance to the erratic tunes of Donald Trump and the US military industrial complex.