Spotlight: Israel in the International Arena

Insights on strategic issues facing Israel, the Middle East and the International Arena

 November 28, 2019 


From Brain-Dead to Brainstorm:

An Israeli Perspective on NATO & European Defense


In early December, NATO leaders will meet on the outskirts of London to mark the 70th anniversary to the signing of the Washington Treaty that founded the alliance. Formally, the meeting is not designated as a "summit", but it could become a significant milestone in the future evolution of the alliance. In the run-up towards the leaders' meeting, French President, Emanuel Macron gave a comprehensive interview to the "Economist" in which he determined that NATO is experiencing "brain-death". The subsequent political storm drew attention to the ongoing debate in Europe on the future of Europe's defense and strategic posture; a debate, triggered by the election of President Trump.


Most European leaders, top among them Angela Merkel, rejected Macron's harsh characterization. However, they virtually all agree that the total strategic reliance on the U.S. since the early days of the Cold War, is no longer tenable. The emerging broad consensus across the continent is that Europe must bolster its defense and geopolitical power by itself and to establish strategic independence.


Many European countries are expanding their respective defense budgets and have set in motion concrete defense and military cooperation under the EU aegis. Both Germany and France have and are advancing military initiatives in the Middle East. Notwithstanding, the debate in Europe has also exposed deep gaps between France and Germany concerning their joint strategic objectives and operative measures.


Casting doubt on Europe's ability to move ahead in defense and strategic cooperation is not unwarranted. Nevertheless, Israel has a vested interest in following the European debate on defense and to explore opportunities to expand its cooperation menu with Europe to the defense and military realms – both at the bilateral level with individual European countries and at the multilateral level with NATO and the EU. At the end of the day, both Europe and Israel have to contend with the limits of the respective strategic reliance on the America.


Despite their substantial political differences, the EU and Israel have deepened their cooperation in the fields of technological R&D. Should the EU deepen its intra-European defense and military cooperation, Israel and Europe could benefit from expanding their partnership menu accordingly. Notably, the U.S. protested over its exclusion from EU defense and military projects and demanded to allow it to access them. Considering that the U.S. values participation in these projects, surely Israel should seriously examine its interest in them. This is particularly important as Israel's defense industries will have to contend with the decrease in U.S. defense aid funds that can be spent in Israel. The increasing European spending on defense – for R&D and procurement – offers a unique opportunity.


Finally, the diminishing strategic interest of the U.S. in the Middle East, may compel Europe – even if reluctantly – to increase its engagement in the region to protect its interests. In that case, it would be in Israel's interest to position itself as a strategic partner of Europe in the Middle East.


Macron rekindles the debate on Europe's strategic future

President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Northern Syria and abandon the Kurds to the mercy of Assad and/or Erdogan demonstrated the risks entailed in Europe's strategic reliance upon America. From a European perspective, the haphazard withdrawal raised the threat of terror on Europe. Trump's glaring indifference to Kurdish-held foreign ISIS fighters – mostly from Europe – along with Erdogan's aggressive land grab and issuing of threats to Europe – reminded European leaders that they can rely only on themselves.


This understanding is what probably led Germany's new defense minister and heir-apparent to Chancellor Merkel to propose an international safe-zone in northern Syria along the border with Turkey. The initiative was rapidly shelved, but Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, also known as AKK, has been forcefully advocating for substantially increasing Germany's defense spending – a position long-considered a political taboo in Germany. Following her lead, Merkel agreed that Germany's defense spending could reach the 2% of GDP benchmark by 2031 – a position hitherto she refused to offer.


For France, Trump's pullout from Syria triggered a far harsh response. Along with the UK, France was an active member of the global coalition to defeat ISIS and held boots on the ground in Syria and in Iraq.


The American withdrawal – without consulting or informing its allies – led Macron to deliver a series of critical remarks regarding NATO and U.S. reliability. In an extensive interview with the Economist, Macron determined that the U.S. withdrawal without consulting its strategic allies indicates that NATO is "brain-dead". He further explained that the instability of the U.S. and the tensions among the allies have reinforced the rationale for European defense. Macron lamented that NATO is not doing enough to address the threats emanating from its "southern flank", the Middle East and North Africa. He elegantly ignored France's traditional reluctance of endorsing substantial NATO engagement in the Middle East.


Macron, however, did not stop there, and offered two more critical observations. First, and in light of Turkey's incursion to the Kurdish-held zone in northern Syria, Macron questioned the validity of the key pillar of NATO – the Article 5 commitment that stipulates that an armed attack on one ally – is an attack on all. Second, Macron went on to outline the French "realist" approach to Russia – in light of the great power rivalry, Europe should pursue "rapprochement" with Russia. Effectively, Macron suggested that Europe should come to terms with Russia's "role" in Ukraine and drop its sanctions.


Macron's stance on Russia was not new, but together with questioning the validity of Article 5, most European leaders thought that the French president went too far. The flowery compliments of the Russian envoy to the EU underscored his peer's dissatisfaction. In Berlin, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Merkel characterized Macron's observations as "drastic". According to the New York Times, in private, Merkel reprimanded Macron and told him that she is fed up of picking up after him the pieces of cups he breaks, so that they can occasionally have a cup of tea together. In his defense, Macron explained that he could not accept passively the reckless behavior of the U.S. and Turkey – two major NATO allies.


Beyond the flamboyant theatricals of Macron vis-à-vis Merkel's reserved conservatism, there is a fundamental agreement between Berlin and Paris of the need to bolster Europe's independent defense and military capabilities. Merkel was the first European leader to publicly and straightforwardly question the strategic reliability of Europe upon America. More than a year ago, Macron followed by Merkel both endorsed the formation of a European military force. Back then, Merkel clearly stated, however, that this would not compete with NATO, but complement it by strengthen Europe's own contribution to NATO's collective defense.


Notably, there are considerable gaps between France and Germany with regards to European strategic objectives and policies – and the Russia file is a key point of dispute. On its part, Germany has a complex relationship with Russia, but it rejects outright normalizing Russia's power plays in Ukraine.


Following the Merkel-Macron meeting, it seems that France is attempting to mend fences with its European partners. The French foreign and defense ministers have repeated France's commitment to the alliance and to the principle of collective defense. The German foreign minister and the French defense minister separately suggested establishing an "expert" group to assess NATO's strategic priorities and policies. The French minister suggested to move on from debate on "brain-dead" to brainstorm.


Meanwhile, most European NATO allies are increasing defense spending – some of which allocated to joint project under EU aegis, while stressing that EU programs are not undermining NATO cohesion. Quite the contrary, for most European allies, NATO and its collective defense remain the cornerstone of their national security. Nevertheless, European countries will simultaneously pursue an effort to augment Europe's independent strategic posture.


The EU's Pursuit of Strategic Independence

The incoming President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has repeatedly declared that she intends to lead a "geopolitical" commission. The designated Vice President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrel, contended that the EU has to learn to use the language of power. Von der Leyen even added to his official title a clear message – Borrel will serve as "Vice President for a Stronger Europe in the World".


Without explicitly saying so, the President-Designate of the EU Commission – with clear support from Merkel and Macron – is attempting to establish the EU as a major power alongside the U.S., China, and Russia. From her perspective it appears that while the U.S. is losing interest in the Atlantic arena, the EU cannot remain idle.


The geopolitical dimension of the new European Commission is likely to play a key role in two main – and related – fields. First, strengthening Europe's "technological sovereignty", and second, expanding EU defense and military cooperation.


Expanding Europe's capabilities in advanced technologies is a direct response to the ensuing rivalry between the U.S. and China. The Sino-American rivalry over technological superiority with no effective European response would place Europe in an inferior position that would harm its economy and its global standing, both of which have already eroded over the past decade. The EU is intent on allocating resources and creating preferential market conditions for European corporations that will challenge Chinese and American technological giants. These preferential conditions will not only be provided on cutting edge technologies – AI and Quantum – but also on all aspects of the digital world controlled by American entities, including Google and Amazon.


Simultaneously, the EU intends to expand its cooperation programs on defense and security. Two years ago, the EU established a dedicated mechanism for military and defense cooperation, known as PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation). This mechanism allows EU members to carry out joint military and defense projects. Currently, PESCO oversees nearly 50 different programs on a broad span of military and defense initiatives, ranging from a new assault helicopter, cyber academy and innovation hub, unmanned submarines, land missiles, and a series of joint instruction facilities, including military medicine and CBRN.


The expanding portfolio of PESCO's programs even yielded an American demarche demanding that the U.S. would be entitled to participate in some of the initiatives. The American approach and the expected departure of the UK have prompted a debate within the EU of how to allow non-EU countries access to the programs. The EU's Finnish Presidency tabled a draft proposal that would allow non-EU countries to participate in PESCO programs as long as those countries share the EU's core values. Without explicitly stating it, the proposal suggests to welcome the participation of countries such as the U.S. and the UK, and block access to China and Turkey.


Implications for Israel

Considering European leaders' track record over the past decade and the EU's heavy bureaucratic structures, one ought to remain doubtful regarding the ability of Europe to overhaul its defense and military standing. However, one cannot overlook the concrete steps taken by European countries and by the EU collectively.


For one, the increasing defense spending across Europe offers important opportunities for Israel's defense industry at a critical juncture. According to Israel's agreement with the U.S. on the defense aid, the funds that Israel can spend on procurement in Israel will gradually phase out. With less resources available for the Israeli defense industry, the growing demand for military procurement in Europe will be a life-saver for Israeli defense manufacturers. Most recently, Israeli defense manufacturer – RAFAEL – signed a €200M deal to provide the German military with "Spike" anti-tank missiles.


Furthermore, Israel has a vested interested in following European defense and technology initiatives. Considering that the U.S. demanded access to PESCO programs, it seems reasonable to argue that Israel might find at least some of those programs useful. In light of the harsh political differences between the EU and Israel, expanding the menu of cooperation could contribute to the overall relationship.


Israel should also follow the – and contribute to if possible – debate on NATO's strategic futures. The French criticism centered on NATO's shortcomings in addressing threats emanating from its "southern flank" – the Middle East and North Africa. This might lead to increasing the engagement of the alliance in Israel's immediate neighborhood directly affecting Israeli interests.


Finally, the dwindling American interest in the Middle East might force Europe to increase its engagement in the region to protects its interests, even if reluctantly.  Under those circumstances, Israel ought to position itself as a strategic – and reliable – partner of Europe in the Middle East.

"Spotlight: Israel in the International Arena" is a weekly brief on topical strategic issues facing Israel The Middle East and the International Arena. The brief shares the insights of the research team of IDC Herzliya's Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) and is authored by Tommy Steiner, a senior research fellow at IPS. @Herzliya_Tommy


If you wish to receive the weekly brief regularly, please follow the link to register