Bold measures are needed to revitalize the alliance and deter Putin’s aggression.
As Vladimir Putin made clear in his recent Victory Day speech, the war in Ukraine will grind on for years. Even if Russia ultimately retreats, this won’t lead to a lasting peace. During the Cold War, Western Europe could confidently rely on American military power to deter Soviet aggression. This is no longer true. And Putin and his successors will continue to exploit this fact — unless and until NATO decisively reorganizes itself.
The United States and Europe are understandably wary of engaging in direct conflict with Russia, but they can still do more than provide short-term assistance to Ukraine. Now is the time to start taking steps to establish NATO as a credible force for the defense of Western democracy in the 21st century. Bold measures are required, including dramatically revising the NATO treaty, raising an army in Europe and even expelling countries who have betrayed their democratic commitments. But it’s the best way to deter the Kremlin and ultimately avoid more brutal wars in the future.
European democracies have resisted this path in the past, but the only realistic response to the attack on Ukraine is to construct their own powerful army as part of a reorganized NATO. The Ukraine tragedy has generated dramatic increases in European defense budgets, but this is only the first step toward building a large and permanent fighting force that could take the field against future Russian invasions of NATO members in the Baltic — or Finland or Sweden once they join the alliance. While the Europeans can continue to rely on American air and naval power, they themselves must be prepared to take the leading role in their own defense on the ground.
This won’t happen unless Europeans rapidly commit themselves to a concrete action plan that requires each NATO member to fulfill strong and specific 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 sends its fighters into the field under its own national commander, their separate forces would be overwhelmed by coordinated Russian assaults, especially in an era of lightning-fast weapons.
This raises a very real institution-building challenge for the continent’s political leaders. Only the European Union is in a realistic position to organize a broad-based military effort. Its parliament is directly elected by the citizens of all the states in the Union. After each election, the majority of delegates choose an executive commission — currently led by Ursula von der Leyen — to make key policy decisions. This body has the precious democratic legitimacy required to embark on such an unprecedented military initiative.
At present, however, the treaties defining the powers of the EU don’t grant the Union any war-making authority whatsoever. Before the commission can step into the breach, another key institution — the Council of Ministers — must propose revisions that empower the commission to move forward with its rigorous demands upon the member states.
The council consists of the chief executives of each country. But fortunately, its current leader is Emmanuel Macron — who staked his presidential campaign against Marine Le Pen on an emphatically continental vision of France’s future. Many commentators have downplayed Macron’s achievement by emphasizing Le Pen’s success in generating popular support for her hard-right nationalist program. Yet the fact remains that Macron is the first French president who has won a second term in office in the last 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 expand the EU treaties to authorize collaboration with NATO to confront the Russian military threat. Indeed, Macron has already stated that “[i]n the coming weeks, we need to bring to being a European proposal to forge a new security and stability order. We need to build it between Europeans, then share it with our allies in the NATO framework.”
Here is where Joe Biden can play a crucial role. He should not only publicly encourage Macron and von der Leyen to begin the hard bargaining required to enact the dramatic revisions to EU law required before a European army can become a reality. Since the reorganization of NATO also requires America’s consent to treaty revisions, Biden should immediately announce his strong support for the necessary changes.
Normally, of course, it is virtually impossible to win the two-thirds Senate majority needed for treaty revisions. The Ukraine bloodbath, however, has dramatically transformed the political situation. With Macron and von der Leyen embarking on their own intensive efforts to reconstruct NATO, Biden will be in a strong position to gain the bipartisan support of a supermajority — especially since the Europeans are now prepared, at long last, to pay their fair share of the overall defense effort. It will take a lot of hard work to develop a concrete action program for the new continental army and assure its effective implementation in each of the states of the European Union. If serious efforts to lay the legal foundations don’t start immediately, Europe won’t have a realistic chance of putting a fighting force on the ground by 2030.
Even if Democrats lose control of the Senate in 2022, this will be one of the rare issues where Capitol Hill will likely 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 gain broad-based political support for the reconstruction 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 wheeling-and-dealing before EU leaders can gain the legal authority to develop a concrete action program and assure its effective enforcement in each of the states of the European Union. Nevertheless, there will never be a better time to make this effort — and if it succeeds, Putin and his successors will confront a decisive deterrent.
In giving their strong support to the European effort, however, Biden and the Senate should also insist that the new NATO remain faithful to its founding principles. In particular, when the treaty was first signed in 1949, NATO members attached a fundamental condition to their pledge of mutual military assistance. They made it clear that they would come to a country’s defense only if its government was making a good-faith effort to “strengthen their free institutions.” Otherwise, it could not rely on its NATO allies to come to its defense against attack.
Seventy-five years later, it is painfully apparent that some NATO countries are working to destroy freedom rather than 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 yet, Erdoğan sent his army to help Syria’s despotic regime fight NATO’s troops — battling against the very alliance he and his predecessors had pledged to support. Since Turkey is neither a reliable ally nor a defender 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 tougher case. Like Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán has used his time in office to create an “illiberal democracy,” which decisively undermines NATO’s founding commitment to freedom. Moreover, when he was running for reelection during the early days of the Ukraine war, he condemned Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “as an enemy of the Hungarian nation” and campaigned on a platform that 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 aggression. As a consequence, Orbán’s “landslide” victory at the polls only dramatizes his success in entrenching his illiberal principles into the nation’s constitution.
At the very least, Biden should insist that Hungary be suspended from NATO until it can credibly reestablish that it has dramatically changed course and is on the way to rebuilding its “free institutions.” There is every reason to believe that the leadership in Brussels and Paris would respond to this American initiative with enthusiasm. Indeed, von der Leyen is already leading the commission down a rarely invoked path that would strip Hungary of the billion-dollar EU subsidies its government receives — which Orbán now uses as a slush fund to sustain his dictatorial ambitions.
The commission is also seriously considering similar steps against Poland in response to its continuing defiance of decisions by the European Court of Justice, which has declared that the current government is violating fundamental principles of constitutional democracy to which the European Union is committed. If von der Leyen gains the necessary support to suspend Poland’s voting privileges in parliament until it complies with the court’s demands, Biden should support its suspension from the Alliance as well.
The challenges ahead are extraordinary. But the reconstruction of NATO not only represents the West’s best chance to prevent future Russian aggression. It also offers an opportunity for the United States and Europe to revitalize the great Enlightenment tradition of liberal democracy against the nationalist demagogues seeking to destroy it on both sides of the Atlantic.