In speech to the annual Munich Security Conference, President Biden emphasized that the United States had returned to its customary role as leader of NATO after four years of Trumpus interruptus. His stance is based on the assumption that the Western alliance was in fine shape before Donald Trump became president and adopted the abrasive “America First” policy that alienated the European allies.
Biden’s approach misses two key underlying problems. First, NATO was showing serious signs of strain years before Trump set foot in the Oval Office. Second, despite the prevailing assumption of the foreign policy establishment on this side of the Atlantic, the Europeans are not salivating to follow Washington wherever U.S. leaders might wish to go. Despite ardent professions of transatlantic solidarity by its advocates, NATO is a zombie alliance with an unclear purpose and a steadily decreasing degree of unity.
Intra-NATO tensions were worsening for nearly two decades before Trump took office. The financial burden-sharing issue was an especially prominent sore point with U.S. leaders who were weary of how the alliance’s European members continued to free-ride on America’s security efforts. Washington’s frustration grew in the years after the September 11 terrorist attacks. U.S. military spending nearly doubled during the following decade, whereas the already modest outlays of NATO’s European members continued the downward trajectory that began with the end of the Cold War.
In June 2011, departing Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates issued a candid admonition to the alliance partners.
“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources... to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,” he said in an address to a think tank in Brussels.
At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in February 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned his European counterparts that they must step up their commitment to the alliance or watch it become irrelevant. Declining European defense budgets, he emphasized, are “not sustainable. Our alliance can endure only as long as we are willing to fight for it and invest in it.” Rebalancing NATO’s “burden-sharing and capabilities,” Hagel stressed, “is mandatory — not elective.” His tone was firm: “America’s contributions in NATO remain starkly disproportionate, so adjustments in the U.S. defense budget cannot become an excuse for further cuts in European defense spending.”
Trump’s burden-sharing demands were more insistent and less diplomatic, but the basic message was similar. Equally significant, the European response to U.S. hectoring has been desultory, at best. Despite the official commitment that alliance members would spend a minimum of two percent of annual GDP on defense, only ten of NATO’s 30 countries have reached that level. Worse, several of NATO’s most important members, including Germany, Italy, and Spain have noticeably failed to do so. Indeed, Germany keeps postponing its fulfillment date — which now is set for 2031, a laughably distant point.
But NATO’s problems go well beyond the issue of burden-sharing, and once again, troubles were evident before Trump. Several members were already showing unmistakable signs of drifting toward domestic authoritarianism. The trend was most pronounced in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey, and matters have become worse in all three countries.
After Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s systematic crackdown following the July 2016 coup attempt, Turkey’s governance more closely resembles the political environment in Putin’s Russia than it does the Western democratic norm. The slide toward authoritarian rule shows no sign of reversal, however much Biden may intend to lecture the offending leaders about the need to abide by democratic values. Intra-alliance tensions on that issue are likely to grow worse, not better.
There are other strains, and they were on display in Munich.
“I listened to President Biden” and appreciated the list of “common challenges,” French President Emmanuel Macron responded in French on Friday. “But we have an agenda that is unique,” and won’t always require U.S. participation or leadership.
“We need more of Europe to deal with our neighborhood,” Macron said who talked about "strategic autonomy" in his own speech. “I think it is time for us to take much more of the burden for our own protection.”
The most serious problem is that the United States and its European partners no longer seem to be on the same page with respect to some important international issues. That fissure has become apparent regarding policy toward the People’s Republic of China.
Washington sought to gain approval for a collective statement of condemnation when Beijing imposed a national security law that greatly imperiled Hong Kong’s political autonomy. The lack of support from European capitals was striking. Only Britain (Hong Kong’s former colonial ruler) joined the United States in embracing a firm approach. Anxious not to become entangled in America’s escalating rivalry with China, European Union foreign ministers merely called for dialogue about Hong Kong.
Lest anyone assume that the lack of European cooperation was the result of hostility toward the Trump administration, Joe Biden received a rude awakening even before he entered the White House. In a speech on December 28, the president-elect tried to enlist the European allies in a common front to deal with China on a range of issues.
“As we compete with China and hold China’s government accountable for its abuses on trade, technology, human rights and other fronts, our position will be much stronger when we build coalitions of like-minded partners and allies,” he emphasized.
Just two days after the president-elect’s comments, the European Union signed a major investment deal with Beijing. RealityChek blogger Alan Tonelson contended that the EU’s action constituted a “punch in the mouth.” Indeed, negotiations had been going on for seven years, and there was no reason why EU leaders could not have held off and consulted with the Biden administration after it took office before taking final action. Their failure to do so indicated that the EU intends to chart its own course regarding economic relations with China based on an assessment of European interests, not U.S. policy preferences.
Biden does have a few European advocates for transatlantic unity in managing relations with Beijing. At the Munich conference, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called for Europe, Canada and the United States to uphold the “international rules-based order,” which he contended that both Russia and China were challenging. He then described Beijing's rising power as a defining issue for the alliance.
But most Europeans have little enthusiasm for joining the United States in confronting China. The risks associated with waging even a diplomatic feud with the PRC — to say nothing of a trade war or a military confrontation — would appear to most Europeans to outweigh any conceivable benefits. From the standpoint of European interests, discreet neutrality regarding relations between the United States and China is the prudent course.
That position accurately reflects European public opinion. Most Europeans want no part of a possible confrontation with China. When a September 2019 survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations asked, “Whose side should your country take in a conflict between the United States and China?” the results were emphatic against backing America. Overwhelming majorities in all countries surveyed favored neutrality — in most places, more than 70 percent.
Support for pursuing a confrontational policy toward Russia was only a little higher — even though mutual U.S.-European security interests should be far stronger in that case. When asked which side their country should support in a conflict between the United States and Russia, the majority of respondents in all 14 European Union countries surveyed said “neither.”
European governments have thus far been more responsive than their publics to Washington’s calls for an uncompromising policy toward Moscow. Both the European Union and the United States have just imposed new sanctions in response to the Putin government’s mistreatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and evidence of Russian cyber-hacking abuses. NATO also continues a steady buildup of military forces on Russia’s western border.
But one wonders how long the political elites in NATO’s European members can continue to pursue policies that lack strong public backing. There is even a serious question about how committed European populations are to the concept of collective defense. A 2015 Pew Research survey found that outright majorities in France, Italy, and Germany were opposed to fulfilling their country’s obligation to fulfill the Article 5 treaty pledge to consider an attack on any NATO member as an attack on all.
Two points are significant about that result. First, that obligation is the core of NATO’s purpose, so lack of public support in those key countries is especially damning. Second, the survey was conducted before Donald Trump even declared his candidacy for president, confirming that sagging European public support for NATO was already well underway.
It is highly improbable that Biden will be able to reverse the rot within NATO. Pretentious alliance summits will assuredly continue for years to come as though nothing is wrong, and the statements of transatlantic solidarity may become even more insistent and effusive than before. But such superficial measures will not inject life into an association that now has deep — and deepening — divisions on an array of crucial matters.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international issues. His books include The Captive Press: Foreign Policy Crises and the First Amendment, The Korean Conundrum: America's Troubled Relations with North and South Korea, and Gullible Superpower: U.S. Support for Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements. He received his Ph.D. in U.S. diplomatic history from the University of Texas in 1980. Dr. Carpenter, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the American Conservative. He also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Strategic Studies. Dr. Carpenter's work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and many other publications. He is a frequent guest on radio and television programs in the United States and throughout the world.
Official Opening Ceremony for NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Summit 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. (Shutterstock/ Gints Ivuskans)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?