Darkening of the Strategic Skies
Josef Joffe speaks to Iulia-Sabina Joja and Gary J. Schmitt about a wobbly alliance and Chinese, Russian, and Iranian ambitions.
Originally published April 23, 2021
Gary J. Schmitt: The headline stories dealing with Europe are about a resurgence of coronavirus cases. Can you talk a bit about what you think is happening, why, and what impact it might have on future European integration?
Josef Joffe: Let me start with a picture of incompetence that Europe as such and its key players have shown in the last fifteen months. Last summer traditional nation-states like Britain, Israel, and the United States were not doing well, whereas Germany—a federation like the United States, but without a strong executive—was basking in its proverbial efficiency. Less than nine months later, it looks like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel have done a lot better, above all in procuring and distributing vaccines for millions of people, which Europe has not been able to do.
You could attribute that to the fact that Europe, a grouping of twenty-seven, was trying to manage the game and direct the play, and is not a centralized nation-state. As a result, Europe was very slow; and European leaders haggled for months with suppliers in order to drive down the price. Meanwhile, the rest of the world—the United States and others—were buying the vaccines whatever the cost. So, Europe has ended up with a dire undersupply of anti-covid drugs.
Compare this to the United States, where the President could fall back on war-power legislation and order big pharma to build facilities, sweetening the pot with $12 billion in federal investments.
The reason is structural: twenty-seven do not a one make. The slowest members determine the speed of the entire train. So, Europe has displayed more incompetence than unity. There was also pro-European virtue in play. “No vaccine nationalism” and “solidarity über alles,” ran the mantras.
Will this push the twenty-seven toward the United States of Europe, or the other way around? I fear that this calamity suggests an advantage for the nation-states and the weakness of this hybrid called “EU.” And that has forced individual states to look for supplies outside the EU framework. What’s missing is Hamilton’s “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch,” which he invoked to argue for a strong executive in The Federalist (No. 70).
Iulia-Sabina Joja: Where does that leave Europe in the transatlantic context? Broadly, there seem to be two Europes when it comes to the United States. One part is happy to see the Biden team wanting to rebuild transatlantic ties for strategic stability, and the other is hesitant to return to a system in which the United States is the leading, dominant voice. Is this an accurate description of current transatlantic ties that the Biden Administration wants to rebuild?
JJ: The good part first: Biden is indeed trying to rebuild transatlantic relations after four years of Donald Trump. We had to hear that NATO was “obsolete.” Now Biden is halting Trump’s withdrawal of ten thousand troops from Europe. He has actually dispatched another five hundred.
But the debate over ties is different from the past. Back then, Gaullists and Atlanticists were vying for dominance in the Sixties and Seventies. Two camps.
But today, there are several Europes. There are, for instance, the Poles, who are 100 percent transatlanticist because they are geographically closest to Russian power. Then there’s France playing the old game of trying to unify Europe under French leadership. And then there are the other large countries in between—Spain, Germany, Italy—that we can’t quite place in either camp. This trio obviously wants to improve relations with the United States, but it is less eager to invest in a resurgent NATO.
So, the Europeans are testing the waters because they don’t yet know what Biden wants. Evidently, he would want greater support in America’s rivalry with China, and he may be in for a disappointment. I don’t believe that the Europeans—whether the pro-American Poles, or the ornery French, or the large group in between—will step up as strategic allies of the United States with regard to Beijing. First, they don’t have the hardware, such as blue-water navies, let alone the capacity to project military force to the Asia-Pacific region. Second, I don’t think the Europeans are interested in being recruited by the United States in the Western Pacific, ten thousand miles away from home. China is not a direct threat to the Europeans as it is to the United States and its East Asian allies.
Finally, the Chinese are very good customers of European exports. The EU’s exports to China amount to $200 billion, while those to the United States are only about $100 billion. Thirty to forty percent of German cars go to China. So, Europe wants to restore transatlantic friendship, but the affection will pale if Biden asks for a strong strategic commitment in the Far East.
Nonetheless, something has changed. Europeans today are a lot more worried about Chinese economic power than they were a couple of years ago. They worry about China’s sub-strategic penetration into the European economy. A nice example is Huawei’s 5G technology, on which Europe is split. Britain said no to Huawei, Germany tries to make both China and America happy by precluding security-sensitive equipment, but not rejecting the whole lot. The poorer a country, the more it will listen to the siren songs of Chinese investments and loans. China is also pushing its pawns westward into the European economy along the new Silk Road. So, while Europe will not be the strategic partner of the United States against China, it will be cooperative where it comes to theft of intellectual property and trade issues.
GS: Speaking of which, right before the Biden Administration came into office, the EU signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, something pushed heavily by Chancellor Merkel. Where does this place the United States when it comes to broader efforts to better manage trade with China by friends and allies?
JJ: I’m not sure whether such institutions, which exclude the United States, are real or symbolic. But the symbolic costs for the United States are evident: Its worst rival and its old friends have gotten together and sidelined Uncle Sam.
I doubt whether such arrangements will realign trade and investment flows. These relationships follow economic interests that have been in place for a long time. But to repeat, symbolically, the exclusion of the United States is serious. It doesn’t look so good for the United States as the world’s economic Number 1 who is also supposed to guarantee the security of its European and East Asian allies.
IJ: Another important issue is human rights. We’ve recently witnessed a transatlantic alignment on sanctions against China around human rights. The suppression of Hong Kong democracy has galvanized European resentment. Sweden, for instance, has adopted the strongest anti-Huawei policy, and the rationale is human rights. Do we have a division in Europe between countries like Germany, with heavy economic interests and a more transactional policy on China, and countries like Sweden, which prioritize human rights when it comes to China? How do you see these tensions developing within the transatlantic conversation on China?
JJ: If you want to put the question in crude terms, what’s more important—money or morality? As far as states are concerned, money talks.
Nonetheless, in democratic polities, a single traumatic shock can turn the tide. In the case of Russia, it was the attempted killing of Navalny that turned so many Europeans against Russia practically overnight. Or Hong Kong, which is now a province of the Chinese empire. Such dramatic instances often transform public opinion.
But will the Europeans risk their exports to China? Realistically, I think not—not when Europeans have hundreds of thousands of jobs tied to trade with China. China also holds $1.1 trillion in U.S. debt.
GS: It’s clear that the Biden Administration, like Obama’s and Trump’s, is going to give China more attention on the hard security front. It’s also the case that under the Biden Administration the defense budget won’t be growing; it could even slightly decline. The United States will be moving most of its attention to Asia and will probably be doing less for European security. Will the European powers, France and Germany in particular, be willing to fill that gap to deter Russian misbehavior?
JJ: First of all, it is the central task of any defense ministry always to clamor for more funds. It’s a familiar phenomenon.
But when it comes to Europe, Donald Trump had been haranguing his allies, threatening in so many words, “Pay up, or we pull out.” And he stood ready to withdraw ten thousand troops, a decision rescinded by the Biden Administration. How are the Europeans going to do more for defense? Some of them did move up to that great symbolic 2 percent of GDP for defense spending. Most of them have not. And now, with the pandemic, Europeans are spending trillions for domestic purposes. Hence, European defense spending will shrink—not in absolute terms, but as a fraction of GDP.
But I might be wrong. The Europeans—half a billion people including the United Kingdom and with the world’s second-largest economy—are feeling it in their bones that threats are up. And readiness still remains down. For instance, in World War II, Germany fielded 250 submarines. Last year, all of the country’s six U-boats were in the dock; tanks and planes spend more time in the repair shop than in exercises. So, the Europeans have realized at least abstractly that they must invest in readiness, training, hardware, and deployability.
But now, the war against covid is sucking up trillions. After the pandemic ends in Europe, we’ll need two or three years of reconstruction and cleanup. Thousands of businesses have failed and won’t come back. We’ll need until 2024 to overcome the covid tsunami; until then, no defense budgets will be raised. Let’s hope that, until then, Putin won’t make hay on Europe’s deficiencies.
IJ: We’ve seen in the United Kingdom a new integrated defense review recommending an increase in the defense budget, including new investments in the nuclear sphere and major financial commitments from the United Kingdom in R&D. Then, there was a potential response from France with a promise to invest heavily in military capabilities in the coming years. Even the Germans will have a defense budget increase this year. Will this last?
JJ: Good point. France and Britain are the good guys in the game: They went up to 2 percent of GDP before covid hit. Given that scourge, which won’t be over soon, I just hope that these announcements will actually be reflected in hard numbers. In the guns-versus-butter game, Europe and the United States are in the same boat, given post-covid reconstruction costs and trillions in income supports. So, will the French build a second aircraft carrier? Will the Germans increase their tank force from 350 to the 3500 they had in the Cold War? Isn’t defense spending taking a break for the time being?
I wish I were wrong, but I see the priority of domestic spending. By the way, in the United States, as Gary just said, the defense budget’s likely to shrink. But: If you spend over $700 billion, you can shave off $50 billion and the Pentagon will not commit collective suicide, because the United States still has its ducks in a row, from strategic weapons via carriers down to transport aircraft. So, it enjoys higher combat-readiness than the Europeans, and it has the wherewithal to project force.
GS: Stepping back, Chancellor Merkel will be leaving the political scene in the fall. Will German foreign and national security policy change after she’s gone?
JJ: Germany won’t end up with an Israeli situation, with four elections in two years and still no reliable coalition. But what is new, compared to fifty, sixty years ago, is the evolution from a three-party to a six-party system, which has expanded to the far-left and far-right. In a splintered system, coalitions become harder to assemble. I am betting on another government headed by Merkel’s Christian Democrats. But whatever alignment will follow her, it won’t be a gung-ho, pro-defense, pro-Atlantic, and anti-Russian coalition.
I doubt nations that have enjoyed Europe’s longest peace in millennia will now emphasize warfare over welfare, especially since pacificity has served them so well. Will Germany, Spain, or Italy reacquire a strategic outlook? Why strut if you can wield the weapons of peace: trade, diplomacy, institutionalism? For Germany, it is twice burned in World War I and now thrice shy. Why embroil yourself in the quarrels of the great powers, America, China, and Russia?
Yes, Germany is the EU’s largest and the world’s fourth-largest economy. It has done so well as a “power of peace,” to pick up on a well-used shibboleth. Looking around at how America, Britain, and France have squandered their blood and treasure in their post-1945 engagements, the Germans and the rest see a game that is all risk and no fun. It will be hard to change a seventy-year-old culture and suddenly think strategically. With remnants of a warrior culture, France and Britain are the exceptions.
So, whoever runs Germany next year, don’t expect any hard turns. Yet the strategic skies are darkening, given Chinese and Russian expansionism globally and Iranian ambitions in the Middle East, which is right next door.
IJ: Let’s pivot from defense into the other potential battlefields in transatlantic relations: whether and how much foreign policy should be guided by the distinction between authoritarian and democratic regimes?
Of course, the Biden Administration is planning a global Democracy Summit. However, there isn’t as yet a lot of clarity about who will be included. How should we think in terms of regimes and countries that may not fit neatly into either category?
JJ: The Democracy Summit or the democratic community is a fine and necessary idea, and it’s something to which the largest possible number of nations can subscribe, to all these great Western values at a time when the worst foes of the West are non-democratic—Russia, China, Iran.
Closer to home, the EU has a problem with Poland and Hungary. What can the EU do about them? What’s at stake is not democracy in faraway lands, but right at home. The EU can’t kick them out, and it will not march into Budapest to teach the Hungarians liberal democracy. Nor will the backsliders leave the EU and forgo billions in subsidies and a vast continental market. We can’t promote democracy by force, as George W. Bush tried in the Greater Middle East.
So, we sue them, we go before the European Court. Will it work? Yes, in the sense that we’ll get judgments in favor of liberal democracy. But how to enforce them? The most serious threat would be to cut them off from the benefits of membership. But that requires twenty-five acting in unison against the two sinners in Warsaw and Budapest. And Messrs. Orbán and Kaczynski know that such unity is elusive.
Globally though, what is happening in Hungary and Poland is mild compared to the ever more perfect authoritarianism of Messrs. Xi and Putin. We can’t even chastise Erdogan, who is the gatekeeper at the Syrian border, the main refugee conduit into Europe. All of them can forge despotism and power into weapons the East Europeans luckily don’t have. The classical tyrants are the far greater threat.
Nonetheless, having a Democratic Summit makes a forceful point about the liberal state, and getting the largest possible number to sign up would have a high symbolic value. And it might encourage the nations looking in from the outside that could invoke universal values enshrined by the summit. So, let’s go. Alas, we are not going to achieve regime change in the countries that matter most in terms of our security.
IJ: From a U.S. strategic perspective, there seems to be a line to be drawn between Poland and Hungary. Today, you cannot have an effective NATO without Poland, but you can have NATO without Hungary. With the Biden Administration’s new emphasis on prioritizing democracy, how should it address these distinctions?
JJ: There are two questions here. What should we do, and what can we do? The larger an authoritarian country is, the less we can do about it. The mid-level is formed by the countries you just named. The United States, thinking strategically, will not really want to alienate Poland. Poland is now the ramparts of the alliance facing east and spends a lot on its armed forces.
So, you have to distinguish between strategic and moral interests. Hungary is not critical to the survival of NATO, but Hungary is also the country that will sidle up to Russia if the United States pushes too hard. And Russia will be only too happy to break it out of the NATO wall. So, you’ve got to be careful here, and I don’t envy Western leaders.
The biggest problem is Turkey. With Erdogan’s Turkey, we never know whether it is with us or against us. Turkey has a stranglehold on Europe and especially on Germany, the favorite destination of refugees. To repeat, Turkey is the guardian at the Syrian border, where it can open the spigot whenever the EU wants to squeeze the new caliph. Turkey is Europe’s Mexican wall—and NATO’s valuable redoubt against Russia. Hence, we don’t have too many chances to chastise and reform Erdogan. His leverage is higher, unless he has to come begging to stave off the collapse of the Turkish economy.
GS: It isn’t unusual for a new U.S. administration to be tested by its competitors. We’re seeing that now with China vis-à-vis Taiwan and, in recent days, with Russia toward Ukraine. Seen from Europe, is the Ukrainian situation something that could lead to a stronger reaction from the capitals there?
JJ: What kind? Ukraine is a “frozen conflict” now being unfrozen by Putin who has massed eighty thousand highly mobile Russian soldiers on the border and can count on some thirty thousand pro-Russian fighters in the Donbas region. They are positioned to invade, but they don’t have to. Their rhetoric is that Kyiv must respect the federal structure of Ukraine. Translation: We want a weak state on our border we can dominate and isolate from the West. We can conquer without war.
Kudos to Vladimir, who, as everywhere, can haul in big fish without having to brave a storm. Wherever he has moved, like earlier on Georgia and Crimea, he had the advantage of “interior lines,” whereas the West, as usually riven by internal conflicts of interest, would have to act from far away. Cold-eyed strategy would position Western forces in Ukraine to deter Russian adventurism. But who would take that risk—or even send sophisticated self-defense equipment to Ukraine? Putin enjoys “counter-deterrence,” which favors the aggressor.
Back to your question. Yes, a new administration is always tested. Putin does it in Eastern Europe, and China in the Western Pacific, plus in the Middle East, where Beijing has just concluded a twenty-five-year investment agreement with Tehran. There goes the economic leverage Mr. Biden hoped to wield in favor of a new and improved nuclear deal. Iran will get billions from oil exports to China. So what sanctions, if Mr. Biden wants to uphold them?
And why would Iran now be more forthcoming in the talks? Instead of upbraiding Israel, Biden should savor that hidden asset, given that Israel’s secret warfare keeps Iran from weapons-grade uranium. Every good cop needs a bad cop who intimidates the suspect.
The Russians, meanwhile, are sidling up to the Saudis, which the West wants to punish over the Khashoggi murder and internal oppression. This is the eternal tragedy of statecraft: I want to be good, but then there are the bad guys who want to gain an advantage over me. In this case, if the United States abandons nasty people like MBS, the Russians will beckon. If the United States wants to constrict Iranian options, Beijing steps in. Goodness is a blunt weapon in the rivalries of great powers.
GS: Speaking of difficulties, the U.S. Congress is pushing to have the Biden Administration follow through on Nord Stream 2 sanctions. How will this play out?
JJ: I hope both Berlin and Washington will be creative. I don’t cherish that pipeline. It was an exclusionary deal on the part of Germany and Russia against Ukraine and Poland. To boot, the Germans don’t need it; the energy market is awash in oil and gas.
On the other hand, it’s very hard to stop something that needs only another hundred miles to go. Nord Stream 2’s cancellation would create enormous financial liabilities. There are some €10 billion in play, and the construction companies will sue for damage. It is beyond my imagination how you would bury the line in the Baltic Sea after so much was spent on it already.
To keep bad from worse, the United States and Germany might make a deal. Berlin promises to diversify its gas sources and to include the Poles and the Ukrainians in the European gas grid. Kyiv and Warsaw would no longer be vulnerable to Russian energy pressures. And if they did kick in, the European grid will come to the rescue. To sweeten the pot, the Germans would promise to buy liquified natural gas from the United States.
IJ: In the article you recently published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, you discussed the growing phenomenon of self-censorship in the United States and the fact that it might be making its way across the Atlantic. How will this change ties and, more broadly, liberalism itself?
JJ: It has already invaded European cultural and public institutions. Let me address the question indirectly. Everybody’s talking about the decline of the United States. In reality, its cultural influence is growing by leaps and bounds, and I don’t mean Netflix and McDonald’s. What we call wokeism now, and will call something else a few months from now, was invented in France, on the Left Bank of Paris forty, fifty years ago. Deconstructivism and post-structuralism might have died a peaceful death on the Seine, but then the movement traveled to U.S. humanities departments and came back to Europe with a vengeance. Now, that’s cultural clout.
Everything cooked up in America does travel to Europe, cooling off a bit during the Atlantic voyage. But broadly, there is real transatlantic unity and harmony among the elites or the intelligentsia. Both sides of the Atlantic think alike. They use the same terminology, they make the same claims, they impose the same kind of restraints on language and behavior. This is the ultimate irony: Ideologically, we are now really one Atlantic bloc.
What it will do to us, I don’t know. Some elements of wokeism are a threat to the liberal state—to due process, freedom of speech, sacred individual rights as enshrined in both the English and American Bill of Rights and now enshrined in every European constitution. It is a serious threat. And what an irony! It’s Made in the USA, the land of the brave and home of the free, and bought throughout Europe. For the first time in my life, we have established ideological unity among the educational elites on both sides of the Atlantic. This reflects America’s enormous cultural power.
An editorial board member of American Purpose, Josef Joffe serves on the editorial council of the German weekly Die Zeit. He teaches U.S. foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he is a senior fellow at the Kissinger Center. He is also a fellow of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Iulia-Sabina Joja is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and former adviser to the Romanian presidency.
Gary J. Schmitt, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a resident scholar in strategic studies and American institutions at the American Enterprise Institute.
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