F rance and Germany are once more considering steps to invest the European Union with real military capabilities. Although similar ideas have often been advanced before, with decidedly modest results, the United Kingdom’s impending departure from the EU may portend something different.
Previously, Britain opposed meaningful EU capabilities distinct from member-state commitments to NATO, and London has pledged to veto any such projects while still in the EU. Many smaller EU governments fear that the Paris-Berlin plans, if realized, will distance Europe from America, thereby endangering their security. Increasing terrorist attacks and Europe's ongoing Middle Eastern immigration crisis are contributing to their anxiety.
In many respects, France and Germany are proving they do not understand the meaning of Brexit. They are reflexively, almost religiously, following exactly the path that has provoked the EU's current existential crisis: every failure of closer integration by the "European project" leads only to calls for more integration. Whether it is establishing a currency without a government; pledging military capabilities that collectively the EU never achieves; or pretending to an EU role in world affairs that no one outside of Brussels takes seriously, "more Europe" is always the answer.
This fantasy is a major obstacle to both better European economic performance and political stability, but it also has profound implications for the United States and the wider West, especially militarily. NATO has taken intense criticism this year from Donald Trump, evoking howls of outrage from foreign-policy establishment worthies. The worthies know, however, that Trump is simply using his bullhorn to say what they themselves say more quietly: NATO's decision-making is often sclerotic; its mission has not been adequately redefined after the Cold War; and too many members haven't carried their weight financially or militarily for long years.
Let's be honest about what NATO has always been: a trans-Atlantic, US-led alliance designed to ensure peace and security on the European continent. Lord Ismay, NATO's first secretary general, said NATO was to "keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down." And it worked.
If the EU, rather than its individual NATO member countries, really did develop a robust military capability, it would inevitably challenge the alliance's foundational concept. Simultaneously, Trump's criticisms undoubtedly struck a nerve in the United States. If the Europeans seriously moved toward a real capability of defending themselves, the inevitable, perhaps overwhelming, temptation for many Americans would be to say, "Fine, go ahead. And by the way, the next time you are threatened by militaristic, authoritarian regimes, do let us know how it turns out."
Moreover, Europe could end up with the worst of both worlds, given the EU's embarrassing record of defense accomplishments compared to its sweeping rhetoric. France, Germany, and their acolytes would announce grand plans militarily and then not fulfill them. The EU would have a Grand Duchy of Fenwick problem: great expectations and inadequate capabilities.
Some NATO states are clearly more endangered than others by an increasingly belligerent Moscow, the primary conventional military threat. Two non-NATO members, Georgia and Ukraine, have already seen their territorial integrity shattered by Russian military force, something the West swore in 1945 would never happen again. Others, especially the Baltic republics, worry they are next. One can readily understand why smaller NATO members are not thrilled at the prospect of again being left home alone with Germany and Russia, with no America onshore in Europe. By contrast, Western Europe is far more sanguine.
On the rising, continent-wide threat of radical Islamist terrorism, rhetoric is the predominant weapon of choice in both Berlin and Paris. Elsewhere in Europe, however, not unlike America, leaders see the need for concrete protection against the ongoing flood of Middle Eastern migrants.
Trump has emphasized that his complaints are intended to encourage debate about improving and strengthening NATO, not sundering it. The debate is well worth having. We can count on enthusiastic support from Britain and much of "new Europe" for reforming and strengthening the alliance. But when European governments place renewed emphasis on a purely European solution, we are seeing a dagger pointed at NATO's heart.
Quite apart from the dangers in Europe itself, the Paris-Berlin plan undercuts the West's security in the wider world. It should be a priority to explore former Spanish prime minister José-María Aznar's suggestion to make NATO a global alliance, bringing in the likes of Japan, Australia, and Israel. That idea will go nowhere if the EU flag is what they would face.
French-German pretentions spring not only from Britain's impending exit, but from Barack Obama's feckless record. It was, after all, Obama, even before Trump, who complained that too many US allies were "free riders." It doesn't take much imagination to believe that what he really meant was "free loaders," or that many Americans would agree more quickly with the latter characterization than the former.
In the next two presidential debates, let's have the conversation Trump provoked. After the election it may be too late.
John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the US ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006.