Europe, Russia And Collective Defense (29 Jan 2009)

Is Europe missing a great opportunity to position itself, finally, on the world’s stage? Is its euphoria brought about by Obama’s outstretched hand over the Atlantic so overwhelming that it smothers, once again, any critical thought? If so, this means that the bad spirits of the just departed George W. Bush regime continue to linger and continue to encumber Europe-United States relations. It means that yet another opportunity to overcome European infantilism will be allowed to pass by. “Without America nothing works” is the inherited slogan that reveals the often panicky separation anxiety among European politicians and pundits. This anxiety has for decades made them blind and deaf for new chances, for a needed fundamental change that puts in the shade what the new American president appears to have in mind.
Where Obama offers deliberation and consultation the Europeans ought to develop their own contribution, their own conceptions, their own strategy. The era of a Europe being told what to do by Washington should come to a close. That post-World-War-II era, in which some European countries would shove the burdens of American demands onto the shoulders of other European countries or, conversely, would march ahead of the music so as to gain American favor, has been politically unproductive, to say the least. At the moment we can see textbook examples of both tendencies in Afghanistan: The Netherlands as the faithful vassal contrasting with standoffish reluctant Germany.
What should the European contribution look like? It should, to begin with, be concerned with things closer to home, and not serve American daydreams with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan. It goes without saying that developments in the Near and Middle East are matters of vital importance for Europe.
But as long as the relationship with Russia remains poisoned by old prejudice Europe cannot achieve adulthood and independence. The recent conflict about natural gas between Moscow and Kiev illustrated this. It took much needed attention away from Israel’s disproportionate violence in Gaza. A difference of opinion between neighboring countries was explained, in ways reminiscent of the Cold War, as an attempt to intimidate millions. You see, so the cynics would have it, Ivan has not changed!
Something comparable took place at the time of the war in Georgia last August. Imagine the situation if that country had been a member of NATO. In such a case, and if the alliance had invoked article 5 of its treaty, the treaty organization would directly have become involved in a military conflict with Russia, something that had never happened throughout the Cold War, notwithstanding periods of high tension. The Georgia regime appeared perfectly willing to place Atlantic and European relations in the balance for small political gain. But for many, looking at the world through the inevitable American journalistic filter, Russia was initially seen as the great culprit.
Considerations such as these prompted Karel van Wolferen and myself to co-author an op-ed article for the Rotterdam-based NRC Handelsblad, the newspaper that used to employ both of us. Our plea was to do away with NATO as a welcome and overdue sign of political courage, peacefulness, and strategic good sense. We made the point that the alternative of drawing Russia more closely into a continuation of the alliance had so far failed, but that a new initiative could become a step in the direction of new style Euro-Asian security arrangements. Such a recommendation was nothing spectacular in itself, but a reason to bring this up here are the rather spectacular reactions it stirred up.
The responses revealed a shocking ignorance among the reading public, including some relatively venerable and influential voices in The Netherlands. The essence of what we were saying was simply not understood, apparently because references containing the term “security” conjure up an imagery filled with bombs, tanks, rockets, and fighterplanes. Respondents were obviously oblivious to the notion of collective security. We were reproached for wanting a new defensive alliance, but one with Russia and China, or of wanting an alliance against the United States.
This while Europe has known a non-military security organization from as far back as the 70’s, when we were still half-way in the Cold War. It is known as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), of which the Soviet-Union was a co-founder.
Collective security – security as a laudable shared aim for states and not directed against other states – appears to have disappeared as an immediately understood political concept. Much to the detriment of Europe’s (and everyone else’s) fortunes. With that concept gone from general discourse about international relations and defense there is even less standing in the way of the fearmongering that sometimes appears to drive the powers behind what used to be the transatlantic alliance in the direction of a new Cold War. The NATO, which now combines its lack of a fundamental purpose with a newly acquired urge for expansion, could well become a long-term danger to Europe. What has become crystal clear since the removal of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union is that the survival of an expansionary NATO within the historical Russian sphere of influence will render collective security unachievable for Europe.
Am I referring here to nothing more than the brainstorms of a couple of journalists accused of utopian other-wordliness?
Perseverence is required as was the maxim, sometimes proven right, in the famous American goldrush. Can we find some hopeful phrases like gold nuggets in the streaming water of recent political texts? Perhaps in the open letter that Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has addressed to Obama.
Steinmeier writes “We will continue to need NATO in the future.” But he continues: “But too often we have postponed an honest debate about tasks by concentrating on enlargement and related issues. Today we need a new fundamental understanding on where the Alliance is headed – something like a new Harmel Report, with which NATO, 40 years ago, reoriented itself during a critical phase in its history.” This Harmelrapport, named after the then Belgian foreign minister, with its double assignment – aimed at defense as well as détente – opened the way to the abovementioned OSCE.
Steinmeier, who will be candidate for the German chancellorship in elections later this year, appears unhappy with how things have so far gone in the post-Cold-War period. To quote him some more: “The end of the Cold War, 20 years ago, was followed by major plans – for a pan-European peace order, a zone of shared security stretching across the whole northern hemisphere, from Vancouver to Vladivostok. We are unfortunately still a long way from achieving these aims. Cold War thinking not only still hangs over us like shadows of the past. That thinking still seems to control some people’s minds. Mistrust reigns instead of confidence and joint action for the future.”
Steinmeier reaches out to the outreached hand of Obama. But he does more. He names conditions for cooperation – starting from the premise, to be sure, that these correspond more or less with what the American president has in mind: “Dear Barack Obama, you are part of a new generation. In 1989, when the Wall fell, you were 28 years old, and are thus less influenced by the categories of the Cold War than any of your predecessors. On the contrary, in your Berlin speech you called for an end to the Cold War mindsets and for all of us to strive for a partnership encompassing the entire continent, including Russia. Let us take Russia´s President Medvedev at his word. He too comes from a new generation, being four years your junior. He too has put forward proposals. Let us talk confidently about how a new security architecture might look.”
The questions I asked in the first lines of this piece cannot yet be answered with a “no”. If we keep reminding Steinmeier of his words, and help keep him standing on his toes, the deadlock that is left from the hopeful expectations of twenty years ago can conceivably be broken. But shadows of the past and Cold War mindsets still haunt us, despite the well spoken words of the Obama’s and Steinmeiers.