Is NATO being taken seriously in Europe?

By Marie-Theres Beumler

Is NATO being taken seriously in Europe? This is certainly a relevant question; but the analysis of European perceptions of NATO must go much deeper. Essentially, the question is not about whether NATO is being taken seriously, but whether it is being accepted. Indeed, many European allies find themselves in a situation where military and defense efforts of any sort receive very low acceptance among the population. The mindset of considerable segments of society in these countries is pacifist — and the causes thereof are manifold and require the analysis of history and society. Therefore, before debating Europeans’ perspective on NATO, it is necessary to take a look at what causes this perspective.

This year marks an important milestone for the US, as it will have been 200 years since the last major war with a foreign power on US territory started in 1812. Except for the tragic events in Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the US has not experienced major hostilities on its soil since its Civil War, let alone from an external actor. This is one of the main differences between the Americans and the Europeans. The latter remember very well the consequences of invasion, war, and dictatorship on their continent, their countries and their own homes and families. These experiences certainly help to explain the pacifist spirit we are now witnessing in large parts of Europe, and they do represent a challenge to NATO and European military engagement. While the generations who witnessed the Cold War in the main still see NATO as a defender of democracy and freedom, younger generations miss this historic link. Hence, large segments of European youth oppose military efforts of all natures, and this reflects upon NATO.

The attitude and perception of young Europeans towards NATO is one of the most important determinants of NATO’s future. In Germany, maybe the most important example, military-related efforts gain very low acceptance and virtually no approval among broad segments of society[1], maybe most notably among youth. The German contribution to the ISAF-mission in Afghanistan is as unpopular as was last year’s Operation Unified Protector in Libya[2]. Nor is this a recent development. Moreover, Germans do not only oppose deployment itself or military action in the name of NATO. Considerable segments of the German populace simply do not see much need for defense or even a military. This is due to numerous factors, all of which need to be addressed if change is desired.

For over almost seventy years now, Germany has prospered in stability, an exceptionally peaceful and comfortable period. Younger generations did not experience the Cold War, much less World War II, and the only threat they might be able to identify is a vague notion of “global terror.” This attitude goes hand-in-hand with a lack of information and engagement. In contrast to the Cold War period, security studies are today practically non-existent in Germany, and debates about matters of international security concentrate on topics outside the EU, such as the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, or on issues not immediately related to military engagement, such as cyber security.

At the same time, the very notion of “terrorism” bears a different connotation for most Europeans than it does in America, one that is closer to separatist movements of political struggles. It is hard to find a newspaper doing the simple math of when Iranian missiles might in the future be able to reach Munich or Rome, following a time when they could reach Tel-Aviv. With this being a striking scenario, the so-called “Arab Spring” and particularly the consequent questioning of seemingly settled notions of “stability” should have rung some bells. As Europe is ill- prepared to deal with the penetration of its borders, there is no telling how the member states might react to more serious threats to security if the occasion arises, perhaps of a nature not currently envisioned. Individual member states might have to step up their defense efforts in the long run, and this will only be possible if the mindset of the population supports this.

In the mind of Germans, asymmetric warfare is a theoretical concept that most people, even in the media and academia, rarely seem to bother investigating. Equally, when proposals are made for a unified European Defense Force, reactions vary between disbelief and lack of interest. The notion that “democracy is being defended at the Hindu Kush” is immensely unpopular; and media coverage which focuses on occasional failures of individual NATO soldiers in Afghanistan instead of on the slow but constant progress there adds to this phenomenon.

As public opinion often boils down to political opportunism, the population’s perception and understanding of the military and defense influences the defense policies of many European countries. As mentioned before, historical awareness goes deep and adds to the lack of military commitment. While NATO is subject neither to widespread public discussion nor widespread interest, German concerns go deeper. A wish for security and protection certainly exists. But there is little awareness of potential externally based threats and certainly no willingness to compromise on democratic ideals in return for unspecified security guarantees. And unwillingness to compromise democratic values is, that needs to be said, a good thing.

If NATO wants to win over the people’s “hearts and minds” in Germany and in Europe more generally, it needs to reform its structure and goals to bring them more into accord with today’s security environment. Awareness and outreach are an essential part of this effort, but they are not enough. The European people require well-argued and plausible answers before supporting military efforts. It is NATO’s task to deliver on the latter, and this requires building all members’ awareness of the evolving strategic environment as well as of the alliance’s future perspectives. And while security challenges are constantly evolving and changing, NATO should consider greater adaptation to these developments.

With its new Strategic Concept, NATO has already accelerated a “functional” evolution that is moving the Alliance from focusing on traditional and military-centric threats to addressing emerging and asymmetrical challenges. Geographically, as Operation Unified Protector has shown, the time has come for NATO to pay greater attention to the Middle East and North Africa, in an attempt to monitor and assist political developments there and to monitor possible sources of instability in the future. Further, deeper cooperation with Russia based on mutual understanding would certainly be a valuable goal for NATO, especially with regards to European energy security.

NATO has certainly proved to be of immense value in the past, and it can continue to do so in the future. The question now is whether NATO will be ready to deal with future threats and whether it will, together with the leaders of the member states, act to build the populace’s support that will be critical when the time comes.

Marie-Theres Beumler  is a research intern at the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies (CTSS). 


[1] www. Faz. de, Allensbach-Umfrage, 26.05.2010

[2] www.abendzeitung-muenchen.de, 5.10.2011; 26.05.2010

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Filed under Featured News, National Security Reform, NATO, Regional Studies, Strategic Studies

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