A couple of weeks ago, I went to Berlin for an event organized by Atlantik-Brücke and Atlantik-Brücke-Canada. These organizations aim at building transatlantic bridges with the latter reminding folks that there is more than one NATO country on this side of the pond. It is very much an effort to build ties between Canada and Germany. I was asked to write a paper on the future of NATO, which was to provide some fodder for discussion. It was a hard paper to write as I was to speak about the future from both Canadian and German perspectives. I basically punted on that second part, suggesting that since the Germans were confused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and how it upset the Ostpolitik 2.0 effort, this turning point they are calling Zeitenwende, there was no clear German perspective to provide on the various topics I addressed. Oh, and writing about THE Canadian perspective on the future of stuff was also really challenging since I have always written about the past and have limited my speculation about trends down the road. That was not part of my training at the Jedi temple.
Before I get into what others said at the conference, what did I write in the paper? First, I procrastinated, which was fortunate since I would have had to scrap anything I wrote before February 24th. Russia's invasion of NATO reminded us of what NATO can do quite well, what it can't do, and what it means. As I oriented the paper around several key questions to invite discussion, I did suggest that the usual NATO question--the existential question--was moot. Russia's aggression resolves, at least for the near to medium term, the question of whether NATO can or should continue to exist. In this crisis, NATO has played its traditional and strongest role--deterring aggression against its members.
I raised the question of how can NATO provide security and stability for non-members since NATO's day job is quite well handled. The paper then provides two answers to that: enlargement to some and training/arming to others. The Finland/Sweden membership train sped way past my paper, as I had to turn it in at the beginning of April. It is a done deal, with Turkish leveraging barely slowing down the process. The question is whether the Ukraine model can be applied to Moldova, Georgia, and others--can NATO either via multilateral or bilateral channels provide training and arms assistance to make these other neighbors less tasty and less digestible. I did point out that a key difference between Ukraine 2022 and Iraq 2014, both targets of much military training assistance, is that the former engaged in good civilian control of the military, promoting the most capable officers and not those who were the most handy for domestic political games.
Another theme in the paper was humility--that NATO and its members should not get too cocky. That NATO could not survive another Trump administration, that NATO is not really all that well suited to handle China or gray zone attacks, and that as an alliance of democracies, it's not in the best of shape (Hungary, Turkey, Poland, and, yes, the US).
The day had a number of panels, but, as a good narcissist, I focused on the one I was on, with the opening statement by Sigmar Gabriel, the former Vice Chanellor and Chair of Atlantik-Brücke; and then I spoke along with Jana Puglierin, who heads the European Council on Foreign Relations Berlin; Thomas Silberhorn, a Christian Democrat Bundestag member; and Vice-Admiral (ret) Ron Lloyd. Jana was quite clear that the actual policies produced by the Zeitenwende may be less than advertised--that the increases in German defense spending are limited, returning back to normal in five years as the government apparently does not want to constrain future governments (more below); that there are already cracks emerging in the consensus produced by Russia's aggression; that the new money will not really advance the German military that much but just catch it up some from the underspending that has caused a readiness crisis; and that Germany needs to re-think its opposition to linking economic and security issues. Silberhorn argued that the military strategy to non-members needs to be accompanied by an EU strategy, that we need more options fo rnon-members. He pointed out that this is not the cold war as we will be cooperating, coexisting, and conflicting with China simultaneously.
The give and take and Q&A were most interesting--lots of frustration with the current German government which set high expectations and seems to have been dashing them on a daily basis since then. Similarly, Canada created high expectations by talking about a big boost in defence spending which turned out to be $8b over five years and not in any specified way. So, much similarity between the two countries--promising big but not actually dramatically boosing defense spending. The big difference has been Canada's willingness to arm Ukraine, whereas German promises have not always met the realities. Both are hoping for some kind of normalcy soon, but the mood in the room was that the war was going to drag on and that normal is not going to be a thing anytime soon.
On the bright side, I think the AB-C mission of reinforcing the transatlantic link is in good shape--the relations between Canada and Germany are pretty good. I was surprised to learn that the EU had not ratified the CETA agreement, and Germany was one of the laggards on this. This crisis could provide some momentum on that, but it might also distract Euro folks away from Canada as well. But on most things, Canada and Germany are not too far apart, and Russia's aggression reminds us of what we have in common. The eastern front is now NATO's priority, so we will see less debate about whether other areas should get more NATO focus (the southern front of refugee prevention, for instance). I can't imagine the NATO Summit in a few weeks spending much time on anything besides Sweden/Finland membership and the confrontation with Russia.
Finally, for Canada, Europe remains the land of easy policy decisions. Tis in Asia, where the hard choices remain.