This will only happen if the Europeans quickly commit to a concrete action plan which obliges each member of NATO to fulfill strong and precise military obligations on an annual basis. No less important, governments must place their troops under the control of a unified command structure. If each country sent its fighters into the field under its own national commander, their separate forces would be overwhelmed by coordinated Russian assaults, especially in an age of lightning-fast weapons.
This poses a real institution-building challenge for political leaders on the continent. Only the European Union is in a realistic position to organize a large-scale military effort. Its parliament is directly elected by the citizens of all the states of the Union. After each election, the majority of delegates choose an executive committee – currently headed by Ursula von der Leyen – to make key policy decisions. This body has the precious democratic legitimacy necessary to embark on such an unprecedented military initiative.
At present, however, the treaties defining the competences of the EU do not grant it any warlike authority. Before the commission can step into the breach, another key institution – the Council of Ministers – must propose revisions that allow the commission to move forward with its tough demands on member states.
The council is made up of the chief executives of each country. But fortunately its current leader is Emmanuel Macron, who has staked his presidential campaign against Marine Le Pen on a resolutely continental vision of France’s future. Many commentators have downplayed Macron’s achievement, pointing to Le Pen’s success in generating popular support for his far-right nationalist agenda. Yet the fact remains that Macron is the first French president to win a second term in the past 20 years – and he did so by a decisive 59-41 margin.
The French president is the continental leader with the strongest democratic mandate to extend EU treaties to allow collaboration with NATO to deal with the Russian military threat. Indeed, Macron has already stated that “[i]n the next few weeks, we must bring to fruition a European proposal to forge a new order of security and stability. We must build it between Europeans, then share it with our allies within the framework of NATO.
This is where Joe Biden can play a crucial role. He should not just publicly encourage Macron and von der Leyen to begin the tough negotiations needed to enact the sweeping revisions to EU law needed before a European army can become a reality. Given that the NATO reorganization also requires America’s consent to treaty revisions, Biden should immediately announce his strong support for the necessary changes.
Normally, of course, it is practically impossible to obtain the two-thirds majority in the Senate necessary for the revision of the treaties. The bloodshed in Ukraine, however, has radically transformed the political situation. As Macron and von der Leyen embark on their own intensive efforts to rebuild NATO, Biden will be in a strong position to win the bipartisan support of a supermajority – especially as the Europeans are now ready, finally, to pay their fair share of the overall defense effort. It will take a lot of work to develop a concrete program of action for the new continental army and to ensure its effective implementation in each of the states of the European Union. Unless serious efforts to lay the legal groundwork begin immediately, Europe will have no realistic chance of putting a fighting force on the ground by 2030.
Even if the Democrats lose control of the Senate in 2022, it will be one of the few issues where Capitol Hill is likely to stand behind the President. In the meantime, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his team can offer concrete help to Macron and von der Leyen in their ambitious campaign to win broad political support for the rebuilding of NATO on their side of the Atlantic.
Even with America’s help, their success is by no means assured. At best, it will take a year or two of negotiations before EU leaders can obtain the legal authority to develop a concrete program of action and ensure its effective implementation in each of the European Union states. Nonetheless, there will never be a better time to make this effort – and if he succeeds, Putin and his successors will face a decisive deterrent.
In lending their strong support to the European effort, however, Biden and the Senate should also insist that the new NATO remain true to its founding principles. In particular, when the treaty was first signed in 1949, NATO members attached a fundamental condition to their promise of mutual military assistance. They made it clear that they would only come to the defense of a country if its government made a good faith effort to “strengthen its free institutions”. Otherwise, he could not count on his NATO allies to come to his defense against an attack.
Seventy-five years later, it is painfully apparent that some NATO countries are working to destroy freedom rather than to strengthen it. Turkey is the most obvious example. Over the past decade it has been transformed into an authoritarian state by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Worse still, Erdoğan sent his army to help the despotic Syrian regime fight NATO troops – fighting against the very alliance he and his predecessors had pledged to support. Since Turkey is neither a reliable ally nor an advocate of “free institutions,” Biden and the Senate should refuse to sign a treaty that continues to recognize it as a NATO member.
Hungary is a more difficult case. Like Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán has used his tenure to create an “illiberal democracy”, which decisively undermines NATO’s founding commitment to freedom. Moreover, when running for re-election at the start of the Ukrainian war, he condemned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “as an enemy of the Hungarian nation” and campaigned on a platform that s opposed any EU sanctions against Russia for its invasion. He then used his control of the mass media to deny his opponents a fair opportunity to challenge his celebration of Putin’s assault. As a result, Orbán’s “landfall” victory at the polls only dramatizes his success in entrenching his illiberal principles in the nation’s constitution.
At the very least, Biden should insist that Hungary be suspended from NATO until it can credibly establish that it has radically changed course and is on the verge of rebuilding its ” free institutions. Everything suggests that the leaders of Brussels and Paris would respond enthusiastically to this American initiative. Indeed, von der Leyen is already leading the commission down a seldom-cited path that would deprive Hungary of the billion-dollar EU grants his government receives – which Orbán is now using as a slush fund to support his dictatorial ambitions.
The committee is also seriously considering similar measures against Poland in response to its continued defiance of the rulings of the European Court of Justice, which has declared that the current government violates fundamental principles of constitutional democracy to which the European Union is committed. If von der Leyen wins the support to suspend Poland’s voting privileges in parliament until it complies with court demands, Biden is also expected to back his suspension from the Alliance.
The challenges ahead are extraordinary. But rebuilding NATO does not just represent the West’s best chance of preventing future Russian aggression. It also presents an opportunity for the United States and Europe to revitalize the great Enlightenment tradition of liberal democracy against the nationalist demagogues who seek to destroy it on both sides of the Atlantic.