There are times when both data and experience conjure up a picture so plain that its very simplicity is its most compelling feature. Europe today has arrived at such a moment.
What truth about Europe has now become undeniable? That Europe, with all its wealth and resources, remains strategically inert; that it has done so despite incessant admonitions from Washington to spend more on NATO’s common defense, despite calls from the “new allies” along Europe’s northeastern flank to prepare for the escalating Russian threat, and, last but not least, despite ominous warnings about the terrorism virus that’s about to jump across the Mediterranean. When it comes to the use of hard power, Europe, like Bartleby the scrivener, “would prefer not to.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in its shirking response to Russia’s neo-imperial drive.
In much less than a decade, Russia has managed to execute two successful wars—first in Georgia in 2008, severing two provinces from that sovereign state, and now in Ukraine, annexing Crimea and lopping off portions of the country’s eastern territory. In both wars we witnessed the destruction of a normative regime many had assumed would permanently undergird Europe’s security and, by extension, the European Union’s integrative project. (Who still remembers the incantations of a “Europe whole and free and at peace”?). Europe has offered quite a lot of political thundering and condemnation in its response, but little in the way of hard power. (The United States has made noise too, though the Yanks have proved willing at least to exercise some of their military muscle, even if only on a “persistently rotational basis.”) Europe has remained unwilling to offer much in the way of its hard power capabilities to shore up the northeastern flank of NATO, not to mention extending military assistance to Ukraine. This inertia and determination not to counteract Russian aggression should not be mistaken for lack of capacity; Europe’s economies have military potential in spades.
Over the past five years, Russia has increased its defense spending by about 50 percent, while Europe has seen a 20 percent decline in its own. Throughout, Europe has continued to avert its gaze from these facts. This unwillingness to spend money on defense has hampered Europe’s militaries, crippling Germany’s Bundeswehr and Air Force and transforming the air forces of Western Europe’s lesser players into glorified flight clubs. When it comes to the most basic tasks of the NATO alliance, 75 percent of all capabilities are now American; less than a decade ago Europe contributed half.
Europe’s postmodern “narratives” (yes, there’s that clichéd word again) are again serving to obfuscate the simple power politics Russia has unloaded onto the post-Soviet space. The remarkable effectiveness of Putin’s “little wars” in Georgia and Ukraine lies in the very directness of his ends and means—no matter how many times Russia Today declares that it’s all really about protecting the rights of ethnic Russians. Through all this Europe wants to be reassured that at some point somewhere Russia will be satiated enough to just stop on its own. Dream on.
There is a lesson here for the United States. Even if the Obama administration has decided that its primary focus lies in Asia not Europe, America is better off when it works with its allies. NATO, the most successful alliance in history, defined America’s global influence and leadership for the duration of the Cold War, and also bolstered it in the 25 years of the post-Cold War transition. But now it’s trapped in Europe’s “I would prefer not to” paradigm. This was especially clear at the Wales NATO summit, when Berlin insisted on revisiting the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, but then yielded in the end when the final communique was being drafted while the issue of permanent NATO bases in the northeast had been deferred. In the two key theaters today, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East/North Africa, the European NATO allies are at best of tangential importance. Even in NATO’s key original area of responsibility, Europe’s largest powers seem unable to grapple with the challenge facing Europe from a resurgent Russia. And so the strain on the U.S.-Europe axis goes beyond the usual American complaints about “reluctant Europeans” or the gripes from Paris or Berlin over past actions by an overzealous leadership in Washington.
Today Europe finds comfort in postmodern language, with inactivity substituting for a strategic foresight. But in an exchange with a European diplomat a week ago I got an inkling that, at least for some, this passivity may be approaching an end. In a moment of unexpected clarity (or perhaps it was pique—take your pick), my European interlocutor called for a new directness in how Europe’s leaders talk about Russia among themselves, and in how they communicate on this subject with Washington. In this arguably clairvoyant moment, he quite undiplomatically called for “simply cutting through the bull when it comes to Russia’s goals” —in other words, saying out loud what elites in Europe perhaps already know but consistently refuse to articulate in public, that Vladimir Putin wants to decompose NATO and change Europe’s normative framework. Should this strategic clarity finally materialize, Europe’s views of and contribution to NATO will again align.
Should European leaders finally begin to speak directly about what NATO faces from the east, it would be a moment of rare strategic clarity that would negate the Continent’s current indolence and allow them to reach the conclusion that has for so long eluded them: Europe needs to return to the world scene as a military player.