Look below and you will find an eighty-seven second video about NATO and the security implications of climate change. As far as soft-focus videos featuring a succession of images, alternately arresting and heartening, and music of a mildly urgent kind usually go—and that’s how they usually go—it’s not at all bad. I’ve had to watch it several times in preparing this article, and I now more or less enjoy it.
That must count as a success story for the producers because the video is not aimed at me or people like me. I am a supporter of NATO and have been ever since I first became aware of what it was and what it did. Since I was six years old when the organization was founded in 1949, that epiphany probably took place around 1954-55. But it was reinforced very strongly by the Soviet invasion of Hungary and its brutal repression of Hungarians in the following year. The Hungarians were crushed precisely because they weren’t members of NATO which, being a defensive alliance, didn’t cross the Iron Curtain to protect them.
Many people felt a sense of shame at that—and certainly the West might have done more to protest the savagery of the repression—but the conclusion that almost everyone in Western Europe drew was that if NATO protected them from the Soviet forces on the other side of the Iron Curtain, then it must indubitably be a Good Thing.
And most people on both sides of the Atlantic continued thinking that until the velvet revolutions of 1989 and 1991 produced the collapse of the Soviet threat and the first hesitant emergence of an identity crisis in NATO. “Why are we here?” agonized five-star generals and former Secretaries of State. If NATO’s original purposes had been (in the brilliant summary of its first Secretary-General, Pug Ismay, previously Churchill’s wartime military aide) “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” what were its purposes since the Russians were now “out” of their own accord?
Fortunately a new and plausible reason for NATO’s continued importance was quickLy found in Ismay’s second justification: to keep the Americans in (in Europe, that is.) Membership of NATO—which meant U.S. security protection when translated into local languages— became the carrot to persuade the former communist satellites in “Eastern Europe” to adopt painful reforms that would transform them into “market democracies.”
Though genuinely painful for workers in communism’s wasteland economies, the reform programs succeeded well and in a short time-scale of less than two decades. And though the EU has tried to re-write history (an EU specialty) on this matter, the transformation of “Eastern Europe” into a zone of stability and democracy was overwhelmingly achieved mainly by NATO and the U.S. (with, of course, the help of local governments.) The EU stepped up later to share in the benefits.
That brings us and NATO to the present. For the embarrassing fact is that at least one central purpose of NATO is now is Ismay’s cold-bloodedly realistic desire “to keep the Germans down.” As long as NATO exists under the informal leadership of the United States, no single European country can dominate its security structures. Since only one country could hope to do so if the U.S. were to pull out of Europe, namely Germany, maintaining NATO as the main provider of European security is a way of keeping Germany down or if not actually down, then at least not at the top of the tree.
That’s not an argument that anyone who is near these decisions can make openly. But it is something that shapes the opinions of all the defense ministers around the NATO table—and around the European Union defense table too. For the debates now happening in Europe about a future European defense structure are really proxy arguments over whether Europe should be defended by forces under American command or forces under German command.
It’s hard sometimes to make sense of what participants in these discussions are saying because they talk in riddles. Those who want the Americans to depart denounce President Trump on the grounds that he’s undermined America’s security guarantees to Europe. Those who want the U.S. to stay criticize Chancellor Merkel for not backing her talk of a Europe compelled to become independent with hard cash for defense. Almost the only people who say exactly what they mean are the Poles and the Balts, who leave no doubt that they want American security guarantees and will accept no paper Euro-substitutes.
That’s the real question facing NATO today. Where, then, does climate change come into it?
NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, a former Danish Prime Minister, addressed that question directly in a virtual speech to the students of ten major universities a month ago. Mr. Stoltenberg begins by mentioning various challenges facing NATO which included cyber warfare, disruptive technologies, the shifting global balance of power, and climate change. Okay, the first three problems are obviously relevant to military power. But he told the students that he would focus on the last one:
“Some may ask if NATO, a military alliance, should be concerned with climate change. My answer is that yes, we should. And for three reasons.
1. Because climate change makes the world more dangerous.
2. Because it makes it harder for our military forces to keep our people safe.
3. And because we all have a responsibility to do more to combat climate change.”
None of these three challenges really adds up to much. The first may not even be true. Many experts on climate policy argue cite statistics to argue that extreme weather situations are not getting worse or more frequent. And if turns out that NATO forces may have to launch more missions to rescue people from floods and other natural disasters, that’s a secondary mission that keeps soldiers busy and has a useful public relations function. We maintain large military forces to preserve our security, not to do social work.
The second reason is we have to protect the ability of NATO forces to fight in difficult climatic conditions. Well, yes. Napoleon and Hitler made an enormous error in sending troops to fight in Russian winters without warm clothing. Obviously, our military planners should always think about such matters—not that they always do as my examples suggest—but climate change alters such calculations hardly at all. And thinking about the conditions of warfare should be second nature.
And the third reason boils down to ensuring that our military and logistical planning should be done in such a way as to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by the usual dates. Insofar as this is a general obligation on everyone, the armed forces will doubtless comply. But thinking about such matters should not be a priority. In comparison with countering the most advanced weaponry being developed by the Russian and Chinese militaries (and the subversive methods of asymmetric warfare), holding down carbon emissions is a third-order consideration.
Truth be told, climate change is not a question of military security at all unless some other power is weaponizing climate change against NATO. That kind of thing happens a lot in James Bond movies—usually through the agency of a mad billionaire—and I imagine that some scientists may be locked away in places like Siberia and Wuhan thinking the unthinkable about the climate. Might there even be some DEFRA-type body looking into how NATO itself might weaponize climate change against our enemies too? I hope so even if only for the purposes of deterrence.
Were that to be so, however, I doubt that Mr. Stoltenberg would be mentioning it to audiences of students. They wouldn’t be the right kind of audience for it. But they are exactly the right kind of audience for talks on NATO as an agency for combatting climate change.
In making the case for its own preservation as the primary vehicle for European defense, NATO has to deal with the massive political fact that much European public opinion—and an even larger percentage of German opinion—is both Green and anti-American. Anti-Americanism is the driving force behind the persistent campaign for a structure of European defense separate from NATO and independent of the United States. It’s to be found on the French Right, the German Left, and in the Brussels Eurocracy.
It is even to be glimpsed in Britain’s Ministry of Defense which is doing its bureaucratic best to keep the UK inside European defense structures “despite Brexit” and without much parliamentary scrutiny. Or so the generals in Veterans for Britain tell us once they are safely retired.
NATO can hardly deal with this directly. It would be too obviously pleading its own (and Washington’s) cause. So it is doing the next best thing—seeking to win over the rising political forces of Green environmentalism which are replacing the traditional social democratic and socialist parties on the Left of European and German politics. On the success of that campaign may depend whether the defense of Europe is conducted in German or English—only thirty years after the reunification of Germany.
And so I must admit to having been mistaken. The video on NATO and the Environment was a hard-headed political pitch for keeping NATO on as Europe’s main engine of defense. It was therefore meant for people like me.
My apologies. I was misled by its green camouflage.