German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who’s not known as a bomb-thrower, at least chucked a pretty good sized grenade into newly volatile relations between the United States and the European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Merkel told a crowd at a political rally today that “The times when we could fully rely on others have passed us by a little bit, that’s what I’ve experienced in recent days.” She clearly was referring to her experience with President Trump, a longtime skeptic of the Atlantic alliance, at NATO’s summit last week. And Merkel continued, “For that reason,” Merkel continued, “I can only say: We Europeans really have to take our fates in our own hands.”
These remarks don’t count as full-fledged bombs for several big reasons. First, as I noted in a recent post, the Trump refusal to endorse explicitly NATO’s Article Five pledge to aid militarily any member under armed attack might have the transatlantic foreign policy crowd in a state of hysteria, but the clause is ambiguous and German and other European leaders have always known – and fretted – about this.
Moreover, U.S. allies repeatedly have discussed creating a meaningful defense capacity of their own with varying degrees of independence from the United States. So far, they’ve never followed through – mainly because American leaders typically responded with renewed pledges of undying loyalty. So the allies understandably felt perfectly free to continue free-riding.
But let’s say that This Time It’s Different (and sometimes it is, otherwise, we’d have no history). What’s interesting to say the least is that Merkel is going to face some major obstacles with her own people and many others in Europe. How do we know this? Let’s simply look at that Pew Research Center NATO poll I posted on yesterday.
Now some sharp RealityChek readers may be wondering why I’m using this Pew data, since yesterday’s post demonstrated many fatal flaws. Here’s the answer: My criticism of Pew focused on its failure to inform American respondents that the nation’s NATO commitments created any risks. That’s important given how ignorant so many Americans remain about even major foreign policy realities, because they’re so physically isolated and insulated from the rest of he world.
But European publics – which were also surveyed by Pew, and whose views I’ll discuss below, are substantially different. After all, they live much closer to Russia, NATO’s main concern. So even if they’re by no means foreign policy experts, the continent’s war-torn past is something much more apparent to them, and especially to their parents and grandparents. Just as important, they’re the ones who will have to live with the worst consequences of poor governmental national security decisions. And if the views they expressed to the Pew researchers are representative, Merkel could well find it almost impossible to help create an independent European defense effort worthy of the name.
Interestingly, Merkel herself implicitly acknowledged that not all the forces jeopardizing European unity are coming from Washington. As she observed, the United Kingdom just voted to withdraw from the European Union last year. And of course she knows how strong anti-EU sentiments remain throughout Europe, and how many stem from resentments over the outsized role Germany has played in dealing with (and allegedly contributing to) recent economic crises like the one that’s engulfed Greece.
Yet what Merkel may not yet know about her compatriots and other Europeans should trouble her even more. For example, according to Pew, German support for NATO is strong (67 percent view the alliance favorably). But only 40 percent of Germans agree that their country should use military force to defend a fellow NATO ally under attack. Fully 53 percent would want Germany to sit out the conflict.
Merkel might draw some comfort from seeing that Germany’s commitment to NATO’s core mission is the weakest among the countries surveyed. But it’s not whoppingly lower than the support for going to war registered in the two other major European military powers, the United Kingdom (45 percent) and France (53 percent). Further, the Pew results show that a distinct minority of those surveyed in NATO’s European members view Russia as a “major threat to their nation.”
Merkel, however, isn’t the only national leader who should be paying close attention to these Pew findings. If they’re accurate, President Trump and the rest of Washington need to ask themselves whether America can count on any prompt, significant assistance from NATO Europe if push comes to shove.