(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The matter of a naval mission to the Persian Gulf is a test of whether the U.S. – or at least Donald Trump – has any serious allies in Europe other than, perhaps, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Germany, at least, isn’t on board.
The administration has formally asked Germany, France and the U.K. to join a naval mission to secure the Strait of Hormuz and combat Iranian aggression. In Berlin, U.S. embassy spokeswoman Tamara Sternberg-Greller added a taunt: “Members of the German government have been clear that freedom of navigation should be protected. Our question is, protected by whom?”
Germany wouldn’t take the bait. It has rejected the request. So the answer is: “Not by us.”
Unlike in France or the U.K., German troop deployments must be approved by parliament, and nearly all political forces there are aligned against taking part in any U.S. mission against Iran.
Most importantly, neither party in the ruling coalition is in favor. The usually pacifist Social Democrats’ argument, voiced by the parliamentary group’s foreign affairs spokesman Nils Schmid, is that any European force in the Persian Gulf would be hostage to a situation over which it has no control. It would essentially mean committing to take part in any conflict on the side of the U.S. “We wouldn’t be able to pull out should the U.S. decide to escalate,” Schmid argued.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party takes a more ambiguous stance. While it’s not interested in joining a U.S.-led operation, it’s open to a European mission. Norbert Roettgen, a CDU member who heads the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, tweeted on Wednesday:
The CDU’s position, though, is that any such mission should only observe the situation rather than get militarily engaged.
Of the three top European military powers – France, Germany and the U.K. – Germany has the least interest in whatever happens in the Strait of Hormuz. The country gets most of its oil from Russia and other countries that don’t route shipments through the area, so its energy security is unaffected by any turmoil there.
France, for its part, hasn’t announced a decision yet. President Emmanuel Macron spoke with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday in an effort to reduce the tensions with the U.S. A decision on whether to commit actual ships to any U.S.-led operation or some alternative European effort may come after a meeting of European and U.S. military representatives Britain will convene on Wednesday.
France gets much of its crude oil from the Persian Gulf: Saudi Arabia is its top supplier. So, unlike Germany, it has a direct interest in the region. This at least partly explains Macron’s hesitation.
Schmid has a point, however, that is as valid for France as it is for Germany. Given Trump’s volatile temper and his hawkish advisers, sending warships to the Gulf carries the risk of getting embroiled in yet another U.S. war in the Middle East.
France, like Germany, was lucky to be able to dodge the Iraq imbroglio in 2003, though not the 2011 North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s intervention in Libya. The benefit of Europe’s involvement in that operation remains questionable: Anarchic Libya served as a key embarkation point for asylum seekers heading for Europe in 2015.
It is the U.K. that has the most skin in the game. Iran continues to hold a British tanker, the Stena Impero, and Saudi Arabia is the country’s main supplier of aviation fuel.
Given the U.K.’s own insufficient forces in the Gulf, and the reduced state of the Royal Navy, its eagerness to work with the U.S. is understandable. Unlike Germany and France, Britain has never sought strategic autonomy from Washington. Even so, it took Johnson’s takeover of the U.K. government for the country to come forward as a willing participant in any U.S. operation. He may be right to work with the U.S. if his European partners don’t: America is more powerful than they are, and Johnson is determined to take the U.K. out of the EU soon, anyway.
There’s little doubt that the U.S. is capable of securing the Strait of Hormuz without any help at all from Europe. But its difficulty in getting such help shows the hollowness at the heart of the transatlantic alliance. Years of U.S. foreign policy misadventures have made key NATO allies too cautious to get involved even when the U.S. isn’t proposing an all-out war on some distant country but merely an operation to secure a major shipping route from an adversary that is unlikely to take on a broad Western coalition.
Even so, it’s probably for the best that the U.S. decided to wade in. Had it kept out, the Europeans could have spent weeks and weeks discussing a joint operation of their own without deciding on anything.
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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