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.