When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld divided Europe into “old” and “new” back in 2003, Europe’s enraged reaction indicated that he had touched a nerve. He was right. With the possible exception of Hungary, Eastern Europeans seem generally to value liberty and freedom more than their peers in Western Europe. Eastern Europeans are only a generation removed from Soviet domination, whereas many in France, the former West Germany, and the United Kingdom have grown complacent.
Hence, it should not surprise that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier criticized NATO exercises in Eastern Europe as irresponsible saber-rattling, a comment quickly picked up by RT, the Kremlin’s chief propaganda outlet.
Steinmeier’s policy pronouncements have consistently emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin by convincing him that European leaders are feckless, weak, and willing to subvert security for commerce. Had NATO responded to the Russian invasion of Georgia by bolstering non-NATO member Ukraine or investing more in the security of Eastern Europe, Putin may have been less likely to believe Russian troops could invade neighbors without consequence.
Steinmeier’s comments are a stab at the heart of NATO’s collective defense. He seems to imply that there should be a tiered NATO in which eastern European members are not entitled to equality with Western members and are not necessarily entitled to the same level of defense.
Steinmeier may think his comments make him sound like a high-minded and a man of peace. The reality, however, is that public statements such as Steinmeier’s make conflict more likely. The simple fact is that if Russia attacked a NATO country—perhaps using the playbook it demonstrated in the Crimea in order to have plausible deniability in initial hours or days—it is likely that many Western European countries would respond by not responding. Too many diplomats would, like Steinmeier, call for dialogue to provide public relations cover for doing nothing.
Between Turkey’s growing authoritarianism and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s public statements questioning whether the United States should maintain the same level of financial commitment to NATO as it has in decades past, NATO is facing a challenge greater than any since French President Charles de Gaulle withdrew from NATO’s military command a half-century ago. If NATO has, in effect, become an empty shell, it will not be able to keep up the pretense of solidarity and power for long.