Germany’s former foreign minister on life after NATO

German politician Joschka Fischer has had a remarkable career.  From street violence and helping to set up the Green party, he matured into the foreign minister and vice-chancellor of a united Germany, serving until 2005.  His understanding of power politics led him to support the use of force in the former Yugoslavia, though he drew the line at getting rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Now, with NATO leaders dispersing after their meeting outside London, he has turned his attention to the future of the alliance (read here).

His thesis is impeccably logical.  Europe faces threats; Trump’s behaviour demonstrates that the alliance cannot be relied on; so Europe must “make substantial investments in its military and expand its own capabilities on a massive scale” to be able to defend itself.

Fischer explains:

“To be sure, NATO still exists, and there are still US troops deployed in Europe. But the operative word is “still.” Now that traditional institutions and transatlantic security commitments have been cast into doubt, the alliance’s unraveling has become less a matter of “if” than “when.” When will Trump finally decide that it’s time to call the whole thing off? For Europeans, it would be the height of folly to sit back and wait for the fateful tweet to arrive.”

Practitioners of European power politics in the mould of Metternich and Talleyrand would surely give serious attention to his conclusion that Europe must act as if the break has already happened”.

Members of any alliance should always have a plan for the unwelcome circumstance when they must act alone.  Doing so probably helps them to work better together. You might even think that Trump is prodding Europe into performing a long-neglected chore.

In truth, neither Fischer’s words, Trump’s actions nor NATO communiques do much to alter the basis of NATO – the common interests of its membership.  The alliance’s differences come from disagreement on the extent of the (changing) threats to common interests posed by, say, Russia or China; where to draw the line; and who should draw it.

The irony then is that both Fischer’s and Trump’s analysis lead to the same conclusion: that Europe should do more for and spend more on its own defence.  

For Fischer, it is a case of Europe forced to confront the question of its own sovereignty, which means becoming an independent technological power with the ability to act decisively”.

The conflation of traditional national interest with European interest sidesteps the inconvenient question of whether the largest, richest and most central country in Europe (Germany, that is) also needs to think about becoming an ‘independent power’ with the ‘ability to act decisively’.  And to be fair, that approach is popular not just with Germans but also Germany’s neighbours.

It’s an interesting point in history.

A former leader of the pacifist Greens sees the urgent need for a more powerful and assertive Germany (albeit one which promotes and is safely embedded in a federalising European political entity).  Which leaves other Europeans pondering where their national interests lie, and how they should strike a balance between merging their interests under Franco-German leadership in order to act collectively and decisively – or relying on the common interests that underpin a NATO under US leadership.

The problems of diplomacy change but less than we might think.


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