[Skip to Content]

Register to receive the OMFIF Daily Update and trial the OMFIF membership dashboard for a month.

* Required Fields

Member Area Login

Forgotten Password?

Forgotten password

How Europe loses twice in Greece

How Europe loses twice in Greece

Greece threatens US and Nato engagement in Mediterranean

by John Kornblum

Thu 2 Jul 2015

The threat of Greek exit from the euro comes at a very delicate time when Europe needs the support of both Greece and the US through Nato for assistance on myriad dangerous security issues it is facing in the Mediterranean.

However, security co-operation between the US and EU members has been sliding for many years. If Greece suddenly refused to work with the EU on issues such as refugees, it is not at all certain that the US would come to the rescue. Germany in particular has been berating the Americans regularly in recent months on issues such as the activities of the National Security Agency and on sending weapons to Ukraine and troops to the Baltic.

Angered by the heavy insolvency payments which US taxpayers would incur if Greece defaults on IMF loans, a European call for help from Nato might fall on deaf ears. The US could easily tell the Europeans to take care of the Mediterranean by themselves. It no longer maintains a carrier battle group in the area, for example. The vaunted sixth fleet has been shifted – to Asia, of course.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to deny the obvious deterioration of US-EU military security co-operation when she told the Bundestag on 18 June that the EU’s fledgling security and defence structures were ‘explicitly not in competition’ with Nato. Frank Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, demonstrated the opposite during a speech marking the 60th anniversary of Germany’s entry into Nato. He spent most of the time criticising the US for exercising its ‘old reflexes of the cold war’ by taking a harder line on Russia.

In the past, the US understood the need to bear the criticism which accompanied the emotional security policy debates which are common in Germany. But the near-collapse of a common Atlantic security policy has sown the seeds of the US unilateralism Europeans so often criticise. Greece could be the first test case. 

These tendencies underline a more unsettling fact. Europeans are losing their historical memory. Even senior officials seem to have forgotten that German entry into Nato was above all designed to make European unity possible. When the French parliament killed off plans for a European army in 1954, the question was how to organise a common European defence with Germany integrated into it. The answer was a strengthened Nato military structure, which included a rearmed sovereign Germany. With Nato as the platform to guarantee US engagement, European unification became imaginable. Germany’s Nato entry was the real first step towards European unity. 

Current problems began in 1996, when US President Bill Clinton sought to reverse the drift in EU security behaviour by proposing a reorganised Nato structure, including France, to facilitate a common Nato-EU strategy. Having lost the strategic advantage of straddling the Cold War line of division, Europe’s most important goal after 1990 should have been to define, through Nato, a new Atlantic strategic relationship with the world’s strongest power. Instead, Europeans rejected Bill Clinton’s offer and committed a dramatic blunder. They decided to build a separate club of weak nations in competition with Nato. This move away from Nato steadily robbed Europeans of influence on American behaviour.

The eminent German sociologist Ulrich Beck argued that an active American role in Europe, through Nato, has always been the essential foundation for integration of conflicted European societies. In 1993 Beck wrote: ‘The birth of the non-belligerent Europe after the second world war [was] made possible by the organising power and the continental presence of America.’ He labelled as historic the ‘amalgamation’ of the Atlantic community, EU and Nato. ‘The extent to which a merely European Europe… is possible is highly questionable.’

But the vision of a ‘European Europe’ accurately defines the dead end into which Germany and its EU partners have manoeuvred themselves. European Commission President Jacques Delors’ 1990 declaration of Europe’s ‘rendezvous with history’ was recently echoed by European parliament President Martin Schulz, who warned the US not to interfere with the ‘European moment’ in Ukraine. 

This ‘moment’ has come to reflect a Europe increasingly inward-looking and which often defines the US as a threat to its comfortable world rather than as a protector of its freedom.

Europe’s real dilemma thus lies not in too little defence spending, but in loss of common purpose with the US. By returning to an active role in the Nato council, Europeans could enter the security debate as Nato allies, rather than as representatives of a competing EU organisation. Unfortunately, the wider impact of the contortions over Greece may result in the Europeans doing neither – but instead going backwards. This is a matter of concern not just for the US, but for the world.

John Kornblum is a former US Ambassador to Germany and Senior Counsellor at Noerr LLP.

Tell a friend View this page in PDF format