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The divide – France, Germany, and political NATO

Europe’s unity is under threat, and if France and Germany cannot muster the will to rescue the European project of integration and cooperation, then all bets are really off. Those who imagine that the EU could falter to no great effect are being naïve. A failed EU would pull down NATO and other vestiges of Western unity, and we would be returning to a 19th century balance of power diplomacy. It is a prospect we should dread.

We should look to Berlin and Paris to inject a degree of sanity into Western diplomacy, but we should also be mindful of historical constraints on their security cooperation. As the NATO Harmel Doctrine illustrates, which turns 50 this year, France and Germany are divided on political vision. They thus fail to mobilize support for a European vision. In effect, NATO’s role, cemented by the Harmel Doctrine, has been to serve as the bedrock for European experiments. The question is whether France and Germany will work with and not in opposition to this condition.

The Harmel Doctrine was NATO’s answer to the challenge of providing for both military defence and political unity. NATO’s military defence role was easily understood from day one, in April 1949. However, Soviet overtures for détente in the 1960s threatened NATO’s political cohesion by invoking the prospect of German neutrality, an “alliance de revers” between France and the Soviet Union, and a Soviet-US marriage of convenience to the detriment of the allies.

The Harmel Doctrine was a hard-fought collective answer to this political challenge. Critically, it established NATO’s political primacy: important changes to Europe’s security architecture, the allies declared, cannot happen in opposition to NATO. Moreover, to maintain a vibrant alliance and avoid strategic surprises, such as the Suez debacle of 1956, the allies recommitted to coordinating key national security decisions inside NATO.

France was not happy with the Harmel Doctrine, having preferred a slimmed down NATO as a military baseline for a new and wider Europe of strong nation-states. France was alone, though, and its failure to mobilize support for its vision led it into the Harmel fold. West Germany was of two minds, favouring a degree of political integration in NATO but fearing a piecemeal approach to détente that might trade German sovereignty for stable East-West relations. West Germany was not alone but it was insecure, and it sought security in tying as many allies as possible to its vision of peace through strength.

These outlooks still linger today. France has warmed to NATO but its large ambitions concern the EU, even as the slow pace of EU integration is a source of French frustrations. Moreover, political candidates for the 2017 presidential elections are reviving their distinct versions of Franco-Russian cooperation—as a modernized policy of détente. Germany remains of two minds. This is not only a result of grand coalitions but of a strategic preference for peace through dual strength—in NATO as well as the EU.

Those who imagine that the EU could falter to no great effect are being naïve. A failed EU would pull down NATO and other vestiges of Western unity, and we would be returning to a 19th century balance of power diplomacy.

Harmel NATO outlived the Cold War and became a precondition for continental change in the 1990s and beyond, not least because the United States wanted it so. It led to NATO’s partnerships out East, its enlargement beginning in 1997-1999, its operational engagement in out-of-area operations, and eventually its continuation as the bedrock of 21st century European security. And this is the rub: “Harmel NATO” lives on, providing a red line for geopolitical initiatives that allies should cross only with the greatest of trepidation.

The irony is that the Trump administration appears ignorant of the red line—of Harmel NATO—or at least of its implications. If the Trump administration does not take NATO seriously and offers allies meaningful consultations that confirm NATO’s bedrock role in European security affairs, then Harmel NATO is finished. And this could happen simply by the ignorance of the Trump administration.

The extent to which this could free up France and Germany for joint European leadership is uncertain at best. France carries a legacy of low trust among Atlanticist Europeans. Moreover, going by the historical record, it is not clear that Germany will bow to French military leadership. It did bow to the United States but also had no choice; the history and correlation of forces inside Europe is different. Meanwhile, France seems far from ready to Europeanize its nuclear deterrent, which some argue is the precondition for a more autonomous Europe in the age of Trump. Nor is it easy to imagine French backing for a German nuclear deterrent. For as long as it is unclear whether the two big Europeans will follow one another, it will be difficult for them to ask other Europeans to follow them.

At such a moment of distress we might look to history for guidance. When it was fresh, Harmel NATO got ignored by the United States. This happened as President Nixon pursued great power policy—sidelining allies to appeal to rival powers while pushing them to spend more on defence. It was a moment of great allied distress, and the parallel to the Trump presidency is unmistakable.

The upside of this is that President Nixon did not last and had to resign. The downside is that he did have notable staying power and got re-elected. By implication, the best option for France, Germany, and other allies is to push for sustained and meaningful consultations inside Harmel NATO, effectively calling President Trump’s bluff. It may revive NATO and its support for the EU, and if does not, then a degree of European unity for new action will have been achieved.

Featured image credit: The flag of NATO by Sergeant Paul Shaw LBIPP (Army). OGL v 1 via Wikimedia Commons.

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