14 August 2019

US and EU caught in Hormuz Strait's bonds

Niculae Iancu

Germany’s refusal to join the “international maritime security mission” led by US, which aims at protecting the naval trade lines passing through Hormuz Strait is, once more, highlighting the different perspectives that Washington and Berlin have in terms of international policies.Given this situation, the question would be how much are these different visions influencing the US-EU relation, but also transatlantic construction’s solidity, considering Germany’s central role within the European construction?

Image source: Mediafax

Berlin’s refusal to join the maritime security mission led by US in the Hormuz Strait

The US-Iran increased tensions, emerged due to disputes on Teheran’s nuclear program and Iranians’ aggressive behavior in the Middle East, are challenging the entire Euro-Atlantic security construction. The most recent example is Europe’s great superpowers different answer, Great Britain, Germany and France, to Washington’s invitation to join the “international maritime security mission”, led by US, to protect the maritime trade lines passing through Hormuz Strait.

The British have announced, at the beginning of this month, that they will join this international force, as London sees it as “the most important foreign policy mission” of Boris Johnson’s government, except for Brexit, which remains a never-ending issue.

On the other hand, German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, has announced that Germany will not join US’s initiative. Maas added that federal government’s decision was made "closely coordinating with the French partners" and assumes that the “maximum pressure strategy on Iran", promoted by the Americans, is "wrong", "Berlin instead preferring to use diplomatic tools". However, the German minister said that his government would be open to a "European mission", but "it would take time to convince the European Union to get involved in such a mission", highlighting even more the growing dispute between Washington and Berlin. In fact, just days ago, Richard Grenell, US ambassador to Germany, threatened to "withdraw US troops deployed on German territory", amid disagreements between both capitals on Germany's contribution to NATO and the German refusal to join the US-led naval mission in Hormuz Strait.

This is not the first time that both capitals’ visions on security and international order collide. In fact, the different perspectives have emerged since the Cold War. In 1987, the Reagan administration's attempt to coagulate a NATO allied naval force to protect Iran's attack on the Kuwaiti oil tankers transit in the Persian Gulf, in the middle of the war between Iran and Iraq, failed due to Germany's position, which felt that using force creates the risk of "getting caught in an emotional reaction". Furthermore, the mission would have been carried out outside the geographical area described in Article 6 of the North Atlantic Treaty. This is how Germany positioned itself also in the First Gulf War, in 1990, or the American invasion In Iraq, in 2003, and these are only few examples of international crisis moments in similar situations.

Washington and Berlin’s different visions and EU’s security policy

Washington and Berlin’s differences in approaching the key issues of international politics are much deeper and already well settled over time. The Soviet threat decrease, at the end of the 80’s, and the economic power increase of Western Europe states, created the favorable context for outlining the idea of ​​"common identity" within the European Community, at the end of the Cold War. It was the first signal of the need to homogenize European perspectives and priorities, in terms of foreign policy and security, outside US interests’ traditional framework, which had dominated the Euro-Atlantic area for almost half a century. Germany was already seen as the leader of a new European construction and was beginning influence the common voice on global security agenda’s most important topics. A new European security identity involved assuming new responsibilities within the international policy and taking the responsibility of a more consistent part of the common security spending, inside or outside NATO's cooperation framework, but Germany did not seem willing to do it similarly with that Americans had accustomed Europeans over four decades.

The lack of appetite for military solutions in crisis situations has dominated, until today, European common project’s foreign policy stance. The expression of such a vision would be "the greater the security challenge, the more important are the political and diplomatic solutions", as Federica Mogherini, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and EU’s Security Policy, states, clearly having a German influence, when referring to the Iranian nuclear program. The conceptual differences between Washington and Berlin are also increased due to European Union's declared aspirations for strategic autonomy, in a world wherein the paradigm of "strategic competition between states", promoted by the Trump administration, is not accepted by the Germans. Also, the "ensuring peace through the display of power" policy, mentioned in White House’s strategic security and defense documents, is perceived as a danger to the multilateralism functioning model of the international system supported by Europeans, supporters of the regional and global security solutions, after cooperation and dialogue, including with the participation of Russia and China, whenever needed. However, in such situations the tendencies are very important.  

First, both the United States and Germany continue to believe that NATO is the security foundation of the Euro-Atlantic area and the essential guarantee for preserving European prosperity. For example, Berlin, even though it did not contradict the need of the French theme regarding the "future European army", it did not hesitate to immediately include the initiative under the aegis of the current EU functioning framework and, implicitly, of EU-NATO cooperation agreements. On the other hand, Washington has repeatedly warned the German federal government about the need for its substantial and immediate military spending increase, accordingly with the commitments made by all allies, especially since Germany has the largest US military contingent located outside of the national territory, in another NATO member country. Despite the critical tone, Pentagon has never considered the major decrease of the US military presence in Europe, but, maybe, only forces’ relocation closer to alliance’s eastern border. Secondly, Germany, unlike the US, believes that the economic relations should not be dictated by how political relations operate. On the contrary, the economic and trade links between states can change governments’ behavior, meaning that following world’s liberal economic principles would invariably lead to adopting the liberal democracy model in terms of domestic politics. This is probably why the current economic relations between Germany and Russia, especially in energy, could be seen as an area wherein Washington has recently increased its pressure on the federal government to cancel the controversial Nord Stream 2 project.

Thirdly, the constitutional constraints and moral dilemmas determined by historical reasons, have outlined Germany’s extremely low international military presence "outside the responsibility area" and a very low interest in "preemption strategies", Berlin considering that peaceful solutions must be sought until the last moment, regardless of threat’s alleged, but not materialized, extent. That is why Germany has consistently adopted a reserved position regarding US and Allied offensive security policy outside European space, especially since the Germans do not have a permanent member armchair within the UN Security Council.

The defining benchmarks of Berlin's foreign and security policy have significantly shaped the European Union's security policy profile. European integration’s advance in the economic, financial or borders field was not followed, similarly, by security and defense fields, which remained under the aegis of member states’ national sovereignty. Therefore, reactions to international security crises were determined by national interests, sometimes lacking the specific homogeneity of a common cooperation framework.

However, things change. "Security environment’s evolutions call for a strong European Union, capable of promoting peace and providing member states and its citizens’ security," as mentioned in the EU Council Conclusions, November 2016, on the implementation of Union's Global Strategy on Security and Defense. Furthermore, Federica Mogherini’s message in strategy’s preamble is that "[] Union’s purpose and even the existence are questioned. Our citizens and the world need a stronger European Union than ever before. Our extended region has become more unstable and insecure. Crises inside and outside our borders directly affect the lives of our citizens. In times of uncertainty, a strong Union is the one which thinks strategically, shares the same vision and works together." To that end, we need a Union capable of acting independently within the international system to promote its strategic interests and to impose its foreign and security policy agenda. In other words, through its new vision on foreign affairs and security policy, the European Union is entering the "global competition between the great powers".

Limits on EU’s strategic autonomy assumption

“Intensifying great power competition is increasing the number of disagreements between the United States and Europe, despite their overall alignment on global affairs. This friction is manageable; while their interests may diverge on certain issues, the transatlantic relationship is resilient, embedded in political, economic and military realities. However, the relationship can only stretch so much, and the continued escalation of global competition will put their friendship to the test”, concludes a recent analysis by the prestigious US analytics platform, Stratfor.

The importance of the relationship between US and the European Union is extremely important for international system’s stability. However, Western world’s interests’ alignments is tested by multiplying the divergence points on subjects that are increasingly sensitive for relation’s stability. Whenever tensions arise, US’s stance is much stronger, and their political and military attitude more active in supporting their own interests, increasingly perceived by Europeans as protectionist and unilateralist. The split is also accentuated by Washington's harsh speech on the insufficient increase in European defense spending. At the same time, Trump administration's messages also increases concerns that the United States may not intervene in defending the European allies, accordingly with the renowned Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Given this situation, the Union is developing an increasingly strong common voice in security and defense issues and, in the past few years, has been investing important funds to create a community military foundation to support it. The future Defense Union starts from the premise of encouraging member states to voluntarily undertake major joint defense projects using the Permanent Structured Cooperation tools and to join the European military capabilities collaborative development with resources from the European Defence Fund, the most important initiative to finance European defense in Union’s history. Moreover, the current mechanisms will allow the transition to the next level, the cross-border working instruments, where the activity flows will be located "rather at an European level, than a national one", something hardly to imagine a few years ago.  

However, there are important European strategic autonomy limits. And not necessarily in terms of vision, but the concrete possibilities to reach the ambition level that will allow the Union to get a relevant place among the global actors, within the international security space. The decisive elements of such a reality are equally endogenous and exogenous. The internal causes start from the observation that the European Union is not a monolith. Within the union, there is a multitude of national interests, identities and options that sometimes collide with the common interest and what we call, in generous terms, the common European values. It is not that the latter would not exist. Otherwise, the common European construction could not have reached this point. The vulnerabilities are determined by the remaining historical trust cracks between member states and by some inherent dysfunctions of the functioning mechanisms of the general body. The problem is that these vulnerabilities are speculated by European project’s hostile forces and constantly refueled by offensive propaganda and misinformation campaigns. The external causes are marked by the global competition and security environment’s increasing instability, mentioned above.

In the middle of all these causes, stays a critical point for European Union’s existence. Can the Union really be a global player? And because the answer to such a question cannot get an immediate answer, in binary logic, with YES or NO, it is likely that the answers to a multitude of secondary questions should be sought. A possible question would be: why did Washington ask Berlin, London and Paris to join the "international maritime security mission" led by the United States in Hormuz Strait and did not address Brussels, European Union’s "capital"?

Translated by Andreea Soare