After seven decades, the trans-Atlantic alliance faces unprecedented challenges and a historic swing of opinion in Europe. Is NATO doomed to be discarded, made irrelevant or even replaced? Where will this lead?
“History should,” according to British historian Niall Ferguson, “discourage us from overestimating the stability of the European continent.”
For more than four centuries, between 1500 and 1945, rarely a year passed when the strongest powers in the world, the great powers of Europe, were not locked in battle. But for the last 70 years the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has stood resolutely as a keeper of peace on the continent.
According to influential historian Robert Kagan, author of The Jungle Grows Back, these last decades have been a “great historical aberration,” a brief respite from the war and tyranny that defined international relations for thousands of years (2018, p. 3).
Behind the celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary, the foundations of the alliance are crumbling.
A continent on the edge
In April 1949, in the aftermath of World War II, Western Europeans were terrified of the Soviet Union, which had just gobbled up all of Eastern Europe. Only through a massive airlift was West Berlin being kept alive, and many feared that the American army would soon go home, just as it had after World War I. The war-torn democracies were scared, not only that the Soviet Union would pick off the nations of Western Europe one by one, but also that Germany might quickly rebound to prompt yet another European war—the fourth in less than a century.
To the relief of an entire continent, the insightful American Secretary of State Dean Acheson helped midwife the birth of NATO. It consisted initially of just 12 members, comprising Western Europe, Canada and the United States. Mr. Acheson declared that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America would be considered an attack against them all.
At the treaty announcement, Mr. Acheson, a minister’s son, drew on the Bible for guidance to peacemakers and as a warning to potential aggressors. But the secretary of state also understood that the world was an international jungle with “no rules, no umpire, no prizes for good boys,” and deterrence relies on the perception of strength and solidarity.
He further warned that the “control of Europe by a single aggressive, unfriendly power would constitute an intolerable threat to the national security of the United States.”
A benign military colossus
Europeans didn’t fear the Americans, who were not seen as aggressors looking to exploit other nations as previous world powers had. As Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, observed, it was “the first time in history that a great power, instead of basing its policy on ruling by dividing, had consistently and resolutely backed the creation of a large Community uniting peoples previously apart” (The Jungle Grows Back, p. 55).
But as Europeans grew dependent on the American security umbrella over the past seven decades, they became reluctant to sacrifice some of the good life for their own defense. “Being rich and weak,” according to historian Victor Davis Hanson, “is a dangerous combination.”
“Worse,” adds Hanson, “the subsidy has created European feelings of resentment toward the more powerful American big brother” (“The End of NATO?” National Review, Aug. 7, 2014).
Old issues, new concerns
Spats over burden sharing, as well as a reemerging isolationist trend in the United States, are bringing things to a head. U.S. President Donald Trump has ripped off the thin veneer of niceties to raise questions both in the United States and in Europe: When is wealthy Europe going to address its own security, and is NATO even needed in the 21st century?
According to a Jan. 4, 2019, Wall Street Journal editorial, “A historic swing in Europe’s public opinion, particularly in Germany—the EU’s most powerful state and one where trans-Atlantic cooperation was the bedrock of the political consensus since the end of World War II—has fueled this change” (Yaroslav Trofimov, “Is Europe Ready to Defend Itself?”).
“The push for European autonomy in defense—and even for a common European Union Army—is gathering momentum again, in part because of doubts in many European capitals about President Donald Trump’s willingness to defend the continent against a renewed threat from Russia.”As a result, “the push for European autonomy in defense—and even for a common European Union Army—is gathering momentum again, in part because of doubts in many European capitals about President Donald Trump’s willingness to defend the continent against a renewed threat from Russia.”
The age-old “German question”
According to the alliance’s first secretary general, Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s unspoken doctrine was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
Secretary General Ismay, a key military adviser to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, possessed a remarkable understanding of how historical memory, geography, demographic realities and national character have always influenced European affairs. He understood that the age-old “German question”—how to deal with a Germany that is too rich, populous and powerful for the other European powers to balance or contain—was central to Europe’s future.
Recent years have seen Russian influence creep back in, while America increasingly seems inclined to exit the international stage. Meanwhile, Germany—which next year will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its reunification—has soared upwards. That observance will, as syndicated columnist George Will writes, be an occasion for the world to acknowledge that “today’s Germany is the best Germany the world has seen since it became Germany in 1871” (The Washington Post, Jan. 4, 2019).
Though many hardly envision this “best Germany” swerving off the pacifist and neutralist path, Berlin still earns suspicion in Europe today, now more due to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies and resentment of its economic domination of the continent.
Fear of Germany by its neighbors is not new. Even immediately following World War II, the new threat posed by the Soviet Union was not nearly as worrisome as the threat of a powerful, united, militaristic Germany. U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes said in 1946 that he believed a security arrangement was necessary to give the German people a “freedom from militarism” and the chance “to apply their great energies and abilities to the works of peace.”
Moreover, the post-war partition of Germany, between free capitalist West Germany and communist East Germany, brought a wink-and-nod acceptance that a divided Germany was a safe Germany. But the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 led to widespread apprehension as a united Germany emerged once again.
French President François Mitterrand warned of the reemergence of the “bad” Germans and that Berlin would have more European influence than Hitler ever had. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher publicly questioned whether uniting the two Germanys would not be “by its very nature a destabilizing rather than a stabilizing force in Europe.”
When it became clear reunification could not be stopped, even the final Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev preferred a unified Germany be in NATO, telling U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, “We don’t really want to see a replay of Versailles, where the Germans were able to arm themselves. … The best way to constrain that process is to ensure that Germany is contained within European structures.”
The guarantee that Germany would remain integrated within NATO and that U.S. troops would remain on German soil comforted Germany’s neighbors and kept the alliance relevant.
The same, but different
While the world focuses on the Middle East, Russia and China, Mr. Kagan believes Europe remains the most important key to the future of the world.
Mr. Kagan contends that “after a few remarkable decades of relative peace, prosperity, and democracy,” made possible by America’s security guarantees, “many became convinced that the human race had changed fundamentally.” But “deeply etched patterns of history, interrupted these past seven decades, remain and exert their pull.” So Europe is “like a garden … under siege from the natural forces of history,” a “jungle whose vines and weeds constantly threaten to overwhelm it” (The Jungle Grows Back, pp. 7, 9, 4).
Mr. Kagan fears that Europe is now returning to destructive old habits.
More than a dangerous fantasy
As the most powerful nation in Europe, Germany has long been the locomotive powering Europe’s financial and political unification, and it is also increasingly the driving force behind what could become a 28-nation military union. When the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, floated the idea of a single EU army several years ago, it was dismissed as a pipe dream or as a feverish nightmare of British “Eurosceptics” who saw it as an ominous sign of an emerging European superstate.
But in 2017, the year after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, member states signed up to a European Union defense structure designed to create a “continental scale” defense force by 2025.
While not officially designated as the EU army, the new force, PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation), incorporated 25 members of the 28-strong European Union. Hailed by Mr. Juncker as the awakening “sleeping beauty” of the European dream, it includes preparation for an EU battle group, shared military headquarters, fully integrated cybersecurity and merging of the more than 178 often incompatible weapons systems found in the European Union today.
New enemies require a new army
[Macron] shockingly proclaimed that the purpose of an EU army would be to protect against China, Russia “and even the United States of America.”The talk of creating an EU army leaped to the front pages when French President Emmanuel Macron called for a “real European army” while on a tour of Verdun. He was there to commemorate the centenary of World War I—a war in which some 116,000 Americans lost their lives defending Europe. Yet he shockingly proclaimed that the purpose of an EU army would be to protect against China, Russia “and even the United States of America.”
Just a week later, in a landmark speech to the European Parliament, German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed calls for a “real, true, European army.” Brussels bureaucrats expressed their delight that Germany and France were leading the charge. Chancellor Merkel has declared, “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent. … We have to know that we Europeans must fight for our own future and destiny.”
Complement or challenge?
After 40 years of blocking the EU from having any military role, the United Kingdom—with Europe’s second most powerful military—chose to remain committed to NATO, but not to join PESCO.
With nearly all NATO members failing to meet current financial commitments, the idea of finding additional funding for a new European army, to exist side by side with NATO, seems preposterous. EU administrators looking to hedge against U.S. disengagement have assured NATO that PESCO would “complement” the work of the international Western defense alliance. U.S. officials warned Brussels not to threaten NATO with a separate EU army or drive a wedge in the defense alliance.
“The recent initiative to create a European army, or European combined armed forces, is not a good idea. It will undermine NATO over time and will further the division between the U.S. and our European allies and partners,” warned James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander and retired U.S. Navy admiral (as quoted by Yaroslav Trofimov, “Is Europe Ready to Defend Itself?”).
A European colossus
EU leaders have talked about an EU military for decades. But now several factors are coming together to make it a reality. These include:
- The rise of Russia and nationalism.
- The spread of terrorism.
- Uncontrolled migration and economic insecurity.
- And the pulling back of the United States and Britain from European partnerships.
Bible prophecies have long foretold of the rift we are witnessing as current NATO members begin to move in opposing strategic directions. Long ago God prophesied that He would bring certain events to pass to accomplish His purpose (Isaiah 46:9-10; Revelation 17:17).
Amazing as it may seem, we are given a prophetic outline of a final resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire rising in Europe, this time comprised of 10 kings (nations or groups of nations) who will be “of one mind, and will give their power and authority” to an emerging European colossus (Revelation 17:10-14).
The Bible describes how this economic superpower will be transformed into a dreadful and devouring, war-making beast (Daniel 11:40-41; Revelation 13:2-4, 7) by a cunning and charismatic leader.
Though this end-time confederation of European nations, referred to as the “king of the North,” will be fatally flawed with inherent weaknesses and incompatibilities (Daniel 2:41-43), it will be drawn into the turmoil of the Middle East and launch a massive military strike (Daniel 11:40-45). This will cascade to the point that Jesus Christ must return to earth to bring an end to the destruction or mankind would be obliterated (Matthew 24:21-22).
Sobering as these events are sure to be, these things must happen before the return of Jesus Christ to earth and the establishment of a wonderful 1,000-year time of peace (Revelation 20:4).
Learn more about the timeline of end-time prophecies in our online article “Where Are We Now in Bible Prophecy?”