Europe’s Voice Is Absent in the Discussions on European Security

January 10, 2022
Markus Kaim
5 min read
Photo credit: Vitalii Vodolazskyi /
The future of the European security order is at the center of international attention this week, and yet Europe’s voice is absent.

Diplomats from Russia and the United States have just met in Geneva; a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council is expected on January 12; and a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe the day after. The focus of these meetings is on Russia’s demands for a revision of the European security architecture as it has existed since the end of the Cold War. To this end, Moscow submitted treaty proposals for a security agreement with the United States and NATO in December. These include that the United States and other NATO members should pledge not to admit Ukraine or any other former Soviet republic as members. The alliance should also restore its military infrastructure in Eastern Europe to 1997 levels, the year the NATO-Russia Founding Act was concluded.

If these proposals were implemented, it would not only create a security buffer zone across Europe and diminish security in the eastern part of the NATO area. It would also be the basis for a return to a European order in which major powers could demand exclusive zones of influence with reference to historical claims and perceived threats. The history of the 20th century in Europe provides ample evidence of the fatal, destabilizing consequences of such great-power politics in disregard of the wishes of the other countries concerned.

Russia’s claims that the existing peace order for Europe is outdated and do not stand up to serious scrutiny. The Charter of Paris of 1990 (which the Soviet Union signed) still guarantees the territorial integrity of all participating states, reaffirms the commitment to renounce violence, and declares “equal security” for all as the basic principle of security in Europe. Numerous agreements on confidence-building, disarmament, and arms control since then have become expressions of this consensus. In one perspective, elements of Russia’s proposals for a return to military-transparency regimes or for specific regional agreements on the non-deployment of certain weapons systems could be said to offer interesting starting points for further negotiations. However, the bulk of Russia’s proposals reflect a renaissance of geopolitically motivated great-power thinking.

It is little consolation that the Biden administration has successfully sought to formally multilateralize the US-Russian dialogue through NATO and OSCE meetings.

In this context, what Europe should be particularly concerned about is that the Biden administration is also encouraging this epochal change, at least in formal terms. The United States and Russia have been discussing the contours of the European security order on the main stage in Geneva without the participation of the European countries. It is little consolation that the Biden administration has successfully sought to formally multilateralize the US-Russian dialogue through NATO and OSCE meetings. These will have only symbolic significance and are not expected to take into account genuine European inputs. One of the few European politicians who has recognized this deficit and publicly called for a stronger European role has been EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. But in matters of security policy, the EU’s weight is too little for it to be heard.

Where Is NATO’s European Pillar?

The European NATO members remain depressingly silent right now, despite their multiple assurances that they want to strengthen the European pillar of NATO as a political consultation forum. The conclusion reached at the end of the Trump presidency that Europe could not rely on US leadership any longer—and would therefore have to stand up for its security interests more strongly, more comprehensively, and more independently than before—seems to have been forgotten. This is no easy task, given the polyphony of European states and their different interests but, without appropriate coordination of foreign-policy positions, Europe risks further marginalization in terms of international security.

Russian foreign policy these days comes as little surprise. President Vladimir Putin sees Russia as a world power on a par with the United States. The states of Europe play no role in his great-power plans and he pursues their division. This applies not only to the EU but also to NATO. Thus, Putin has discussed Russia’s demands for an end to NATO’s eastward expansion with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, probably to draw Ankara to Moscow’s side and make consensus in NATO more difficult.

On the other hand, one is learning something new about the United States’ foreign policy. The Biden administration agreeing to the talks with the Europeans excluded was a concession to Russia that inadvertently gave political weight and legitimacy to the latter’s concerns. This should deeply worry those NATO allies that have feared for some time (and not unjustifiably) that they will be abandoned by the United States in favor of other priorities.

A fatal message emanated from Geneva—the United States and Russia are negotiating with each other the cornerstones of the future European security architecture while European countries are at best marginally consulted by Washington. This is reminiscent of the structure of transatlantic security relations during the Cold War and contradicts Biden’s announcement at the beginning of his term that he would return the United States to “substantial” multilateralism. If they want Europe to be perceived as a geopolitical power and to avoid becoming the pawns of rival great powers, European countries must represent their interests more robustly. A loud and clear voice from NATO’s European pillar would be a start.

Markus Kaim is senior fellow in the International Security Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs