While the EU is weakening in the corona crisis, NATO is organizing air transportation and medical aid. It is good for the reputation of the allegedly “brain dead” alliance. The actual consequences of the pandemic for the allies are not yet foreseeable.
Is NATO the better EU? At least when it comes to quick support in the Corona crisis, the military alliance is cutting a better figure these days than the alliance. Aid was recently given to Italy and Spain quickly, not through the EU’s civil protection mechanism, but through a similar NATO instrument – the so-called Euro-Atlantic coordination center for disaster relief.
At the end of March, the Czech Republic delivered protective suits and samples for respirators to both countries, which can be produced with 3-D printers. Turkey also flew protective equipment to Italy and Spain, and the new NATO member North Macedonia received relief supplies Hungary, Slovenia, and the Netherlands. Further requests and offers from helpful states are currently coming together at the coordination center.
Europeans, therefore, do not seem to lack solidarity in the crisis. The fact that NATO is better positioned than the EU in civil protection is part of the picture. In addition, the pressure to help each other within an alliance, the core of which is mutual support, should be much greater.
Propaganda and counter-propaganda
At any rate, the crisis missions in which the allies can demonstrate unity provide good images of NATO’s self-confidence. They have forgotten the “brain death” statements by French President Emmanuel Macron from last year, as well as Donald Trump’s legendary outbursts of anger about the failure to meet the two percent spending target or the ongoing conflict of the alliance with its difficult member state Turkey. It seems that the partners have not been as united as in the corona pandemic.
NATO and the EU appeared late as crisis managers and left the field in Italy to the two opposing countries China and Russia. German foreign minister Heiko Maas said at a video conference of NATO foreign ministers at the beginning of April that nobody could criticize the corona aid from these countries. But it is problematic if the countries exploit the situation for propaganda purposes.
To be better prepared for disinformation campaigns, the NATO defense ministers also put this topic on the agenda on Wednesday. State and non-state actors would be interested in taking advantage of the crisis, said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in advance. Even more, the Norwegian is likely to be concerned that Russia could also acquire intelligence from its military doctors on the soil of a NATO member country.
Stoltenberg has recently spread the motto that NATO has lost none of its defensive and deterrent capabilities, even in Corona times, despite the civilian aid missions and sporadic infections. Nevertheless, the pandemic is already having serious consequences: the “Defender Europe” maneuver, the largest military exercise by the Alliance in 25 years, was canceled in mid-March. The NATO mission in Iraq was interrupted – however also because of the security situation there – and the withdrawal of soldiers in Afghanistan was accelerated.
Defense budgets are shrinking
In order to be able to act even more “resilient” in the future, the NATO defense ministers want to expand their disaster management skills, as was said on Wednesday. Admittedly, this is an important concern, security expert Christian Molling from the German Society for Foreign Affairs, but it should by no means be the greatest concern of the ministers. According to Molling, the real danger for NATO lurks in the economic crisis, which will inevitably follow the health crisis and will probably lead to shrinking defense budgets.
The European states are already too weak militarily and too dependent on the Americans, argues Molling. Uncoordinated cuts in European defense budgets are likely to increase the imbalance between transatlantic partners. Under the economic pressure, the United States could also reduce its support for Europeans. The recession would mean that many allies would move towards the alliance’s two percent spending target faster than expected. Of course, the states would not spend more money on the armed forces. “If the defense ministers do not want to become the national economy ministers in the future, they must now listen to their concerns,” says Molling.