The seminar was organised in the framework of the research programme Security and Defence in Northern Europe (SNE) and brought together participants from the research community, government and the armed forces. The discussion took a special look at how countries in the region react to current developments in Euro-Atlantic security relations, with a special focus on three topics: Expectations for the new German government, the future of defence cooperation in Europe and the upcoming NATO summit. The broader context for all three topics was the current rifts in the transatlantic relationship, the unpredictability of the security environment, and the uncertain impact of the on-going Brexit negotiations on defence.
The new German government – great expectations?
The so-called "Munich consensus" of 2014 – the German government's commitment to a more active foreign and security policy – is still in place. However, four months after the current coalition government took office it remains an open question how much money and political capital the three partners, CDU, CSU and SPD, are willing to invest in security and defence.
The main point of contention is the defence budget. Most recently, the Chancellor and the defence minister signalled that Germany would aim at spending 1.5 % of its GDP by 2025. Although this would be a massive increase compared to the current level, there is a considerable gap between the estimated budget development and the demand of the German armed forces. Reluctance to increase the budget, coming mainly from the SPD, is unfortunate as it diverts from the broadly shared view that the Bundeswehr needs to be properly equipped to live up to its multiple commitments. A politicized debate on this issue might have a negative impact on Germany's reputation as a reliable ally, e.g. if major capability projects, such as the agreement on naval defence materiel with Norway, has to be cancelled due to insufficient funding.
Another issue is the way Germany responds to proposals from partners. The UK does not really have Germany on the radar as a defence partner, but France wants Berlin to engage more in stabilising Europe's southern neighbourhood. Germany's answer remains cautious. Plans like the European Intervention Initiative (EII) are met with a traditional reluctance towards robust military operations. The White Paper on defence of 2016 confirmed the willingness to take a more active role also militarily, and contributions to the anti-IS coalition and NATO's defence and deterrence posture were steps in this direction. However, the Munich consensus failed to clarify the role of the German Armed forces as an instrument of foreign and security policy.
To smaller allies like Norway, Germany is a reliable partner, both bilaterally and in NATO. Securing German understanding and support is crucial for these allies when they want an initiative to succeed. Germany's leadership role in the VJTF/NRF, the enhanced forward presence, and most recently through the announcement to host the alliance's new logistics command (Joint Support and Enabling Command, JSEC) are appreciated. As a result of the bilateral naval agreement concluded in 2017, Norway and Germany have identified each other as strategic partners. Sending 8000 soldiers to the Trident Juncture NATO-exercise in Norway, is a signal that Germany prioritises collective defence. Still, Norway would like to see even more German involvement in training and exercises in the North. Decision makers in Oslo would like to draw German attention to the North Atlantic where an ever more assertive Russia is testing NATO's presence and they hope for an active German involvement in regional formats such as the Northern Group.
To inform the decision-making process between government, parliament and political parties, Germany needs a strategic debate on security and defence. This is largely a domestic challenge, and pressure of the kind Trump is applying is contra-productive. However, allies should remind Germany of its commitments and encourage decision-makers and parliamentarians to put their weight behind the idea of stronger European defence.
Defence cooperation in Europe – quo vadis?
NATO and EU remain the main overall frameworks, but allies and partners increasingly rely on bilateral relations and cooperation in smaller groupings to supplement these. This may be due to lack of trust in the functionality of existing structures, and it is seen as a way to balance out or gap-fill capabilities, or to share costs. Different threat perceptions also motivate European countries to align with likeminded partners in smaller groups. Furthermore, variations in terms of strategic culture, transatlantic ties, as well as their desired outcome of cooperating in smaller formats, explains why so many different initiatives have been launched, and why countries have engaged in some but not others. Ideally, these different formats should mutually reinforce each other. However, cooperation through smaller structures also risks weakening EU and NATO.
There are two fundamental issues in this regard:
- First of all, the connection between new and more established cooperative constellations, how can smaller, cooperative structures be linked to EU and NATO? Is there benefit in more flexibility or should cohesion be the main driver? Should Macron's European Intervention Initiative, for example, emerge outside EU structures or should it be linked to the recently revived PESCO projects and kept under the EU umbrella? Should the CSDP become a more integrated part of the EU, e.g. with a more prominent role for the Commission? What would all this mean for the inclusion of the UK and other non-members?
- Secondly, the concept of "strategic autonomy"; is closer defence cooperation about achieving more independence from the United States or is the goal to strengthen the European pillar of the transatlantic alliance? A more thorough debate is needed on whether strategic autonomy it desirable and achievable. This debate has to take into account that seen from the outside, the concept of strategic autonomy is regarded with suspicion. In many ways, it represents the worst in European defence, namely big words without substance, and the possibility of discriminating non-members. Yet, it also reflects a genuine need for European allies/partners to do more on their own, and thus be less dependent on the US.
The next NATO summit – beyond burden sharing?
NATO summits are usually well prepared and normally end with a joint declaration that declares success. This time, however, all eyes will be on Donald Trump and what he will say and tweet. Will he link disputes over trade to collective defence? Will
he further weaken alliance cohesion by leaving the summit early? What can the other allies do to avoid a bigger rift without abandoning their principles?
One thing seems certain: while the summit should be about implementation and about preparing for the future, it will be dominated by burden sharing, more specifically the 2 % goal.
Another prominent topic will probably be the fight against terrorism. Other allies are reluctant to follow the US president who wants NATO to do more in this field. Still, the alliance might have to agree to extend its role in the anti-IS coalition and to transform its limited training mission into a military operation.
The majority of initiatives waiting for implementation are related to NATO´s deterrence and defence posture. Allies have come a long way in improving NATO's readiness since 2014 and the modernisation of the command structure is under way. The flagship of EU-NATO cooperation – military mobility – is an essential piece of NATO's defence and deterrence posture and should – under normal circumstances – become one of the main deliverables for the summit.
A range of other issues that many see as crucial to prepare the alliance for the future may also be discussed at the summit, namely technological development, missile defence, and the issue of nuclear sharing. Russia, however, will probably not be a prominent issue at the summit, as the US cannot really decide what its Russia policy is, and there are differing views within the Alliance in this regard. Still, NATO needs to work out how to bring Russia back to the table.
Another important issue unlikely to gain much attention at the summit is the question of a new strategic concept for the Alliance. There is broad agreement that the 2010 concept is out-dated, and should thus be renewed. The Alliance's basic structure is still in place, in terms of key tasks, the three pillars of NATO etc., but the security environment has changed radically with Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea. The question is whether NATO dares to engage in a fundamental discussion about its principles and priorities at a time of so much transatlantic disagreement. At the same time, not doing anything is equally risky, and thus not really a solution. The process of debating NATO's values and priorities with the aim of writing a new concept might in itself help to revive the dialogue among allies and, ideally, engage the public. As for the content, the new strategic concept should go beyond the three core tasks and be more prescriptive, with e.g. interoperability commitments. Everything that needs to be in such a concept is already on the table through summit declarations. Could this produce a new strategic concept for NATO's 70th anniversary next year?
How can allies overcome their disagreements and turn the summit into a truly successful next step towards a new defence and deterrence posture? Two strategies were pointed out that could help to avoid a potentially divisive debate on burden sharing: one would be to compartmentalise, take one issue at the time, making them technical and thus manageable. Another strategy would be to focus on themes that tie different deliverables together. Enhancing military mobility, for example, involves concrete steps on which EU and NATO can cooperate and where several member states can "shine" through bigger or minor investments, from logistic headquarters and transport planes to railroads and bridges. Whether the Trump administration will accept such investments as defence spending is another matter.
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Partners in the SNE program, the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) regularly arrange conferences and workshops on European and transatlantic defence and security cooperation. For more information see our website or contact program coordinator Ingeborg Bjur.