Donald Trump said frequently during his presidential campaign that he did not want the US involved in all these expensive foreign wars. Americans were lead to believe that the US was finally realising that other countries should pay for the lion’s share of any mutual defence; at their own expense. Trump also said that he wanted other NATO partners to pay their fair share for any action undertaken, the implication being that operational decisions will be based on who has paid for what rather than what the enemy is doing—and if the enemy is real or perceived.
Despite the promises, sources on the ground in Ukraine confirm that preparations are being made for further war, a hot war, and as if Kiev expects the US to back it morally and financially. It is worth mentioning that the US has yet withdrawn from other conflicts it has provoked or encouraged, such as that in Syria.
Indeed, it is unrealistic to imagine that it will, when a vast military-industrial complex with a global footprint is involved. All that complex has to do is wait for a new president who is more supportive, as no one is going to actually take control of all its many tentacles during a four or eight year term of office when they have many other issues to deal with and a very vocal population of over 300 million to satisfy.
It is also obvious that there is no love lost between the new president and Congress. The legislative body may also be Republican controlled but is likely to oppose the president for the sake of it, as part of an internal battle for the soul of the Republican Party. As a party of the Right, the Republicans tend to attract people who like the established order, but Trump supporters see themselves as anti-establishment, regarding the political class as dangerously liberal. It is the outcome of this internal feud, rather than anything the Democrats might do, which will ultimately define what happens to Trump over the next four years.
However all sides involved in this argument see the logic of finding positions on which they can publicly agree. As we remember from the Carter years, Americans are terrified of their country appearing weak, as it soon will if all the branches of government are squabbling all the time. This is one of the reasons the US keeps identifying enemies and starting campaigns against them – it wants to rally the people round the flag and a loosely defined “American ideal”, which the fissures in both the Republican and Democratic parties demonstrate is increasingly less understood. The fact that innocent people die as a result doesn’t come into the equation when you could buy or take over those countries tomorrow, if you wanted to, and they know it.
The evidence currently available suggests that war will once again provide such a common position, however much the parties involved disagree with each other at present. The military-industrial complex will still be able to profit from war, Congress will be able to give people what they want in a traditional American way and Trump will be able to pretend he is getting the US out of unnecessary involvement. But the war is not against one of the identified enemies but against the US’ own allies – which is hardly a new development, but is now being taken to an extreme which previous administrations have not done, even though some may have wanted to.
All things to no men
During the Cold War there was an organisation called the Western European Union, a “mutual self-defence alliance” composed of seven European states, which were all members of NATO but could act autonomously with general NATO structures. None of these countries was attacked by the Soviet Union, so in effect it was little more than a paper organisation. However in 1992 it decided that with Eastern Europe transformed into a number of new states which had yet to prove their pro-Western credentials it should adopt terms of reference to decide what it could and could not do.
These terms became known as the Petersberg Tasks, named after a hotel in Bonn. Specifically, they stated that the Western European Union could independently conduct humanitarian, rescue and peacekeeping work and send combat forces to engage in crisis management. However it also said that the Union’s role “included” these elements but was not limited to them – in effect, it could do what it liked provided these tasks were embedded somewhere in the action.
Same MO as the CNN effect
This appears to be the same MO as the CNN effect, and how the EU can undertake whatever it wants in crisis management operations. Much can fall under the guise of humanitarian tasks, peacekeeping, and peacemaking. In 1997 these Petersberg Tasks were incorporated in the Amsterdam Treaty, meaning that the EU was now responsible for fulfilling them. They formed the basis of the Common Security and Defence Policy of the EU, an inevitable consequence of the EU’s transformation from economic to political union. Though it still had to operate within NATO structures, it could eventually develop a common European force involving non-EU members which could act on its own to address threats. This would, of course, be something the EU paid for itself, even though it would still be achieving broader NATO, and therefore US, policy objectives and be expected to contribute to US attempts to fulfil these.
Europe sees this common defence force, which is still largely a paper exercise as the EU still acts within NATO, as giving it a greater and more independent role in world affairs. The US now sees it as a way out. If the US wants to start a war the EU is not going to refuse to cooperate, whatever misgivings individual members of it have. The common European Defence Force enables the US to have its cake and eat it – the military-industrial complex can still do what it likes, Congress can still protect the nation and Trump can avoid involvement in foreign wars by getting the EU to pay for them, and making European mothers rather than American ones grieve for their dead children.
The US doesn’t want more proxy war with Russia in Ukraine and Syria. What it wants is to make the EU develop this common defence force into a reality. It will use the tactics the EU itself has long used – create an impasse and then present a predetermined solution, devised without due oversight, when there is no choice but to accept it. The way the US will resolve its internal problems is to force the EU defence force to exist and to do its dirty work for it – and the EU will be in no position to complain, as it has said it wants to do the same for the past twenty years.
Blind leading the blind
The idea of creating a Common European Defence Force is fraught with difficulties. The structure of the EU, with all its checks and balances which prevent either governments or peoples having the final say, is alien to that of an army.
Theoretically the US has a similar system, but in practice the president is the Commander-in-Chief and can bypass or browbeat a Congress which does not want to be seen as weak or unpatriotic. The EU has no analogous figure with a public mandate, and therefore finds it much more difficult to pull everyone into line when this is necessary.
There is a European Defence Agency, charged with helping EU members improve their military capabilities, but the member states still set their own defence policies and budgets. Furthermore, as with the EU as a whole different members want different things out of it, and therefore contribute different things for different reasons, which makes it all the more difficult to get everyone fighting the same battle.
The newer members often want to send a lot of troops to NATO operations to show they are part of the Western club. Aspiring EU members such as Georgia make a big issue out of how many they send – with obvious strings attached . The older EU members are not so keen on being seen as US puppets or sending their citizens to be killed. They continue to commit regular troops but under ostensible protest, for reasons purely of domestic security, actively encouraging their partners to distrust their commitment to what was, initially, their own idea.
The two-speed Europe is also a problem. Whatever the politicians may say, no one really believes that the poorer and more recent EU nations, or their representatives, are the equals of the big boys who have been around longer. In colonial times it was often considered inappropriate for native personnel to be put in command of colonial forces, even if no one from the colonial power was serving under them. It is no coincidence that the EU’s four High Representatives for Common Foreign and Security Policy, the nearest thing the EU has to a civilian Commander-in-Chief, have been German, Spanish, British and Italian respectively.
The EU resolves the problems all these issues create by using what is now the US method – doing the opposite of what its principles say it should do. Most of its policies are not made in the European Parliament or the Commission. They are made by committees which meet in secret, examine evidence no one is allowed to see or to know the existence of and then declare “this is EU policy, based on the evidence we have seen“. Opposing this new policy means marshalling all kinds of forces which will never work together to oppose it, and pitting representatives from the same country against each other.
The EU keeps its weaknesses in place precisely so it can act in this undemocratic way, whatever it may tell the public. This is one of the reasons it now arouses such hostility even in countries still desperate to be part of it, such as the East Europeans who went running just because it represented “the West“.
As the US sees it, the lack of a functioning European Defence Force is a problem which can be resolved in the same way. Start a war in Europe, do nothing to stop it because you say it is a “foreign war”, make sure it harms Europe (by creating floods of migrants, which the EU insists are a threat to exonerate its own people from any blame) and then tell Europe it must act to protect its borders and its allies, on the grounds that one day these people might attack the US, despite those big oceans around it.
Is Europe going to fight the US over Ukraine? It will be bounced by a secret Pentagon committee in the same way it bounces its own members, and one way or another the Common European Defence Force will come into existence, and do the US political bidding. Operational need, however that is interpreted, will supercede any political structure or guarantees. That is how armies like to act, and how the European force will be obliged to act, thereby reducing the independent voice of Europe on the world stage rather than allowing it to make a defence contribution in keeping with its own principles and character.
Know your enemy
The current High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, knows what is going on. On a visit to the US, she has warned Trump to stay out of Europe’s politics . This is being interpreted as a response to Trump welcoming Brexit, but this is hardly an issue he can now influence. Attempts to force the EU to do US bidding in the defence area, which Mogherini is responsible for, are a much more likely target of this comment.
Mogherini has also seen what happens when the US “reconstructs” countries where it has changed the regime. Despite spending millions on training, it consistently leaves the new local forces unable to defend their countries. The US does not really want countries to defend themselves when there are so many financial and political profits to be gained from securing these countries and their resources itself. If the EU thinks it is dependent on NATO now, wait till it accepts US assistance in training its new army, which will have been structured, and then forced into existence, on the back of a classified envelope.
The EU does have a way out. It can create its own functioning force on its own terms, before the US obliges it to, and work out a new inter-operational agreement with NATO and the US which defines roles and responsibilities to the EU’s advantage. But it hasn’t done so yet, and with Euroscepticism on the rise all over the continent it isn’t likely to be able to do so now.
Even if the UK refuses to be involved, persuading 27 other national parliaments to sign up to something their electorates will see as another erosion of the sovereignty they joined the EU to maintain is not going to be easy or quick. As one of the things that army would do is control borders, superceding national border agencies, no one is going to attempt this in the near future.
So the best hope of avoiding a war designed to “Fuck the EU”, in Victoria Nuland’s infamous words, is for the EU to enter Ukraine and Syria and ensure a lasting peace, whilst giving the US other carrots to bite on, such as Iran. Does it have the guts? Probably not, because it is not the highly paid Eurocrats, often failed politicians or civil servants at home, who will actually be going to fight these wars – and this, ultimately, is where the problem lies.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.