July 13, 2023 - 10:10am

Rishi Sunak tweeted out a five word message from the Nato summit in Vilnius yesterday: “NATO is where Ukraine belongs”. To emphasise the point, there was an accompanying photograph (above).

The American President is centre stage, with European leaders looking towards him as if for reassurance. As the defence editor of the Economist, Shashank Joshi, commented, the image “shows where the power lies in European security”.

That’s a big problem for some people. For instance, the New York Times has a piece by Grey Anderson and Thomas Meaney arguing that Nato is an instrument for exercising American dominance over Europe — to which the obvious answer is, “well, what do you expect?”

The US famously spends more on defence than the next ten countries combined. And as Anderson and Meaney note, American military aid to Ukraine in the first year of the Russian conflict was double that of the EU countries combined. America calls the shots because it pays for them.

Europe placed itself in this position of weakness and its honour will not be restored until it takes more responsibility for its own protection. Most obviously, that means spending a higher proportion of GDP on defence, but money is just the start. Just as important — and even more difficult — is the need to realign diplomatic relationships within Europe.

Above all, the defence of Europe depends on sidelining the European Union. Focused on economic policy, the EU has proven itself thoroughly incapable of organising a meaningful defence policy. Its primary diplomatic relationship — the Paris-Berlin axis — is especially useless in this regard. 

Though France has a relatively serious military, Germany does not. Last year, in the wake of the Russian invasion, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a landmark speech promising a historical turning point — or Zeitenwende — in his country’s security policy. The gist was that there’d be no more dodgy deals with the Russians on energy, and that Germany would take more responsibility for Europe’s defence. 

Sadly, it’s become increasingly clear that there’s rather less to the Zeitenwende than first advertised. Germany’s growing economic difficulties mean that the promised investment in defence could be a long time coming. Meanwhile, on the political front, support for the far-Right AfD has soared to record levels. The party is now polling in second place — just four points away from first.

In short, the Germans cannot be relied upon. Rather, a new coalition of the willing is required, an alliance of European nations with the military heft and diplomatic commitment required to counter the threat from Russia. Four nations stand out. As already mentioned, there’s France. Secondly, there’s Britain, as the only comparable military power in Western Europe. Then there’s Poland, with its rapidly growing economy and robust attitude towards Vladimir Putin. And, finally, if it prevails, there’s battle-hardened Ukraine.

This quad wouldn’t be an alternative to Nato, but instead a meaningful European pillar within the organisation. Of course, two of its members, the UK and Ukraine, are not in the EU, while Poland is almost perpetually in Brussels’s bad books. That could prove a stumbling block for the EU-focused French. And yet when the honour of Europe — and perhaps its very survival — is at stake, some things matter more than “ever closer union”.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.