The 2019 NATO Summit kicks off in London on 3 December, 2019. The alliance has a host of important discussion topics to choose from. Turkey’s pending veto of NATO defense plans for Poland and the Baltic States is likely the most urgent topic at the moment. The existing fears of US detachment from NATO through the remainder of the Trump presidency is another. It is only fair to point out, however, that those fears have thus far been unfounded. The United States has remained firmly committed to the alliance and engaged in it since 20 January, 2017.
Unfortunately, despite the position of the United States, the future of NATO is somewhat uncertain at the moment thanks in large part to its European members. Inside of NATO there is much debate about what direction the alliance needs to go in. The world in 2019 is markedly different from what it was in 1949 when NATO was founded. It was conceived as a defense against a threatening Soviet military force. The USSR is gone now, but the Russian Federation is now struggling to fill its predecessor’s shoes and challenge NATO militarily and politically. The Russian threat, which appeared so dangerous in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea has failed to materialize and it might never.
NATO has been seeking a mission beyond the boundaries of Europe for some time now, meeting limited success in Afghanistan, and even Syria. 21st Century missions outside of Europe have tested NATO unity and created bitter infighting among members though. With China’s rise, the Western Pacific could be ready for a NATO mission, but the same potential problems would arise.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing NATO’s future at the moment is the European Union. Once heralded as the logical successor to NATO, the EU has endured a rocky last ten years or so. The unity once championed by its supporters no longer exists. Britain is leaving the EU, and there are firm indications the populations of other European nations want to follow suit. The supra-national body is rudderless right now, suffering from a lack of effective leadership at the top. In the eyes of some European politicians the question is no longer: will the EU implode? The question now is: when?
More importantly, what will be the role for NATO if the EU breaks up? Will it acrimoniously dissolve as its members choose sides, or step in to fill the void?
This week in London, NATO’s leaders need to seriously consider what the future of Europe, and the world will be like in the next decade, and then determine what the alliance’s place in that world will be.
Sunday’s regional election results in the eastern German states of Brandenburg and Saxony might not spell the end of Angela Merkel’s fragile coalition government, but it is cause for concern. Alternative for Germany (AfD) had its strongest election results since 2013, finishing second in both elections. The incumbent parties did manage to hold onto first place in both states, however, it is apparent their influence in the east is waning. The Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU) suffered significant losses, and AfD’s surge demonstrates the difficulties that establishment parties have had in challenging the rise of populism in Germany.
The election results are will not bring about the collapse of Germany’s governing coalition. Unfortunately, it does not provide any concrete answers about its future. With a strong showing in May’s European Union Parliament elections, and yesterday’s showing, AfD is on the verge of obtaining a sizeable chunk of political power. All of the parties currently seated in Germany’s federal parliament have refused to govern together with AfD. But with the far-right party continuing to post impressive electoral results, that pledge could be obsolete very soon.
Now that we are coming off the holiday weekend, it will be possible to take a closer look at Germany’s fractured political landscape. The decline of the establishment parties, and the rise of AfD does not necessarily mean there will be a return to authoritarianism in the future. But Germany’s political system is becoming less unified, and more unpredictable. In this manner German politics is starting to appear more like politics in the rest of Europe. Yet for Germany, where the phrase ‘in ordnung’ is more of a way of life then a phrase, political chaos is not the norm.
France- The results of last weekend’s EU Parliamentary elections revealed France’s political divisions. Voter turnout in France was the highest for an EU election in nearly a quarter-century. European political analysts point to this fact as proof that citizens are beginning to truly grasp the importance of the EU Parliament in their daily lives. This theory is nonsensical though, given the shifting political landscape in France. The motivation had to do more with many French citizens being determined to lash out at their government and project their disaffection with the present French government, the EU, and centrist political parties in general.
The Take Power party, a nationalist political party aligned closely with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) came out on top with 23.3% of the vote. The mainstream political parties in France, as in much of Europe, did not fare well. The feeling across France is that the mainstream left and right parties are not representing the average citizen very well. The average citizens in France came together and rejected the policies, and politics of not only the EU, but those of their president as well.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance party gained 22.4% of the vote, however. The narrow margin limits the damage to Macron, at least in the short run.
Germany- The EU election results in Germany are placing added pressure on Angela Merkel’s grand coalition. The nation’s two major parties suffered substantial losses last weekend, weakening a coalition that’s already fragile enough, and also bringing the possibility of Merkel not finishing her term as chancellor one step closer to becoming a reality. The center-left Social Democrats (SPD) are not at all pleased with the weekend’s results, and where it leaves them. Sunday marked the continuation of a trend of steady decline, internal unrest, and worsening election results. The party took only 15.6% of the vote, down 11 points from 2014, and placing it in third place. Merkel’s own Christian Democrats (CDU) and its Bavarian Christian Social Union allies garnered a total of 28.7% of the vote. Yet this was a drop of 7% from 2014 for them.
The internal unrest in SPD has ignited a power struggle. If the left wing of the party comes out on top, SPD could leave the coalition, bringing about new elections and all but serving as the final nail in Angela Merkel’s political coffin. Politicians in Berlin have been downplaying talk of the coalition possibly crumbling, however, the possibility will need to be addressed, and planned for if SPD does walk out.
The combat readiness of Germany’s armed forces has deteriorated significantly in recent years, and it is safe to say the German military is on the edge of a major crisis. Berlin’s efforts to remedy the situation appear to have only worsened it in some instances. Unfortunately for Germany, the problem is no longer simply only a national one. It has become a NATO matter as the consequences of a severely weakened German military will be felt most by the alliance’s three most vulnerable members to the east. The state of Germany’s armed forces is raising doubts about NATO’s ability to defend Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania against Russian aggression.
Germany’s military readiness has become so bad that its latest annual readiness report was classified for ‘security reasons.’ This has never happened before and is leading some German politicians to conclude that the true condition of the Bundeswehr is worse than believed. Another theory put forward is that the report was classified for political reasons. Specifically, to allow Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to survive. She has been under constant fire from critics for her inability to solve the readiness issues. Keeping the German public in the dark about these matters would give von der Leyen some breathing space.
On Monday Germany’s proposed 2020 budget was made public. Military spending will increase, yet still remain below NATO’s 2% of GDP commitment for each member-state to spend on its armed forces. The Trump administration is not happy with this development, and rightfully so. Germany has been dragging its heels on reaching the 2% mark and rectifying its readiness shortfalls for quite some time now. In fact, instead of aiming for 2%, Angela Merkel’s government is just hoping to be able to reach 1.5% within three years.
Germany’s failure to live up to its NATO spending commitments, as well as its weakened military state contradict its emphatic support of the international order. Multilateralism is the cornerstone of German foreign policy, yet Berlin appears entirely comfortable not living up to the commitments it made to the NATO alliance, a multilateral institution. While this is a clear cut geopolitical example of the pot calling the kettle back, Angela Merkel likely views it as a case of realpolitik where common sense and practicalities prevail.
Germany is beginning 2019 with two high-profile roles in the realms of defense, and diplomacy. As of 1 January, a German brigade will form the core of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) at the same time that the nation is beginning a two-year stint as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council. Berlin has pledged to assume a larger role in global affairs. These two endeavors will certainly give it the opportunity to do just that in the coming year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her domestic political clout deteriorate over the last year, and is now turning her attention to the international front in the hopes of securing a more prominent position for Germany on the world stage.
With its seat on the UN Security Council, Germany will look to extend and strengthen multilateralism and the strength of the UN. Climate control, peacekeeping, crisis management, and conflict resolution are other subjects that the Germans appear poised to address during their time on the security council. Germany will also use its position to push back against the United States and President Trump’s “America First” policies which are in direct opposition to the multilateralism so coveted by Berlin.
Germany is taking on a vital role as it assumes the lead in NATO’s VJTF. The 9th Panzerlehr Brigade will act as the main component for the task force in 2019, with supporting attachments coming from the Netherlands and Norway. France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania will also be providing forces as well. The VJTF is a brigade-sized formation of 8,000 NATO troops and serves as a rapid reaction force. Its creation came about following the 2014 Wales Summit where NATO leaders agreed the establishment of such a force was necessary given events taking place in Ukraine at the time. Although the VJTF can be deployed to any region of Europe its primarily focused on potential deployment and operations in the Baltic states during a crisis.
With these new positions of international responsibility, and leadership also comes added scrutiny for Angela Merkel. Her coalition government is a fragile entity at the moment and any misstep abroad could collapse the entire structure.