Amidst periodic calls from the policy community (including some by me on these pages) for the United States to develop a new grand strategy for Europe, there is also a growing realization in key European capitals that the Transatlantic relationship requires more from Europe than the usual tactical “muddling through.” Security optics in Europe these days are arguably more regional than at any time since the end of the Cold War, with France, Italy, and, to an extent, Germany preoccupied with the Mediterranean and Africa, and the post-communist democracies in Central Europe and the Baltics consumed by Russia and the deteriorating security situation along NATO’s eastern flank. This bifurcation of priorities further complicates the task of crafting a larger European strategy to deepen and strengthen relations with the United States. Add to this the criticism of the election of Donald J. Trump as America’s 45th President one still hears frequently on the Continent, and the task of coming up with a list of strategic priorities toward which the Europeans—inside and outside NATO—could work with the United States going forward seems at times almost out of reach. And yet, today more than at any point since 1990, Europe needs to reach out to the United States with a clearly articulated set of strategic goals and to start talking about the means needed to achieve them.
There are five key issues that the Europeans must address in order to deepen Transatlantic security cooperation. First, there needs to be a closer alignment of threat perceptions in the United States and Europe. While regional security considerations related to Europe’s eastern flank are a well understood part of NATO’s threat assessment, Europe needs to further expand its commitment to fighting terrorism, responding to U.S. requests to become more relevant in light of American security policy objectives.
Next, Europe needs to work with the United States to articulate a coherent Russia strategy, one that will better align the interests of individual European states with American priorities on Russia. At present there has been precious little discussion of what a U.S.-European strategy toward Russia should look like beyond continuing the sanctions regime and strengthening deterrence. As a subset of U.S.-European strategy on Russia, Europe’s coordination with the United States on Ukraine should be of special importance going forward to ensure harmonized action as well as consistent messaging. The question of a shared Russia strategy is of particular importance not just from the point of view of Transatlantic security considerations but also as a means to revitalize multilateralism.
The third priority for the Europeans is to invest in NATO, especially when it comes to meeting the 2 percent GDP defense spending target. And yet, while the 2 percent commitment is an important indicator of intent, it is far more important for NATO to develop a shared threat assessment as the baseline for developing requisite plans and capabilities. This process was started at the Warsaw summit last year, but it needs to move further to address the multi-domain nature of the threats confronting the alliance and to increase the strategic coherence of its operational planning. As a legacy institution, NATO needs to adapt its command and force structures to address the multidimensional nature of the security environment. Since a number of key European states are not in NATO, building a network of networks with partners to increase coherence in how Europe looks at key security challenges is especially important.
The fourth priority is for Europeans to seriously reconsider their historic reluctance to use military force. This is especially urgent when it comes to Germany, which, though the largest economic power on the continent, has shied away from making military action an integral part of its statecraft. Rebuilding their armed forces should become the key priority for NATO members across Europe, starting with joint procurement. This particular aspect of Europe’s relations with the United States has been allowed to languish for too long, creating the perception that Europe is not willing to become a genuine security provider and partner of the United States in the military realm. To achieve meaningful change, governments need to move beyond the symbolism of the 2 percent of GDP spending target, setting instead genuine need-based targets that would be likely to require defense spending at levels of 3 percent of GDP or more. This strategic goal of creating real, usable military capabilities should drive the conversation among European governments, and it should be clearly and frequently communicated in Washington.
Asia is the most neglected aspect of Europe’s security relationship with the United States. Hence the fifth priority strategic objective for Europe, which follows naturally from the fourth, is to prepare itself to take a stand on the potential for conflict in Asia—both in the short-term with North Korea and in the long-term U.S. competition with China. The U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region is a critical and rapidly changing strategic priority, making Europe’s “strategic absence” a weakness in Transatlantic security relations. When it comes to the deteriorating security of Asia, European governments need to articulate a set of principles defining what they would be willing to do to support their American ally in the event of conflict escalation and, if it comes to it, war in the Pacific.
These five strategic priorities for Europe’s relations with the United States are by no means exhaustive, but they offer a solid starting point for deepening the Transatlantic strategic dialogue inside and outside of NATO. More importantly, a display of strategic initiative on the part of Europe aimed at strengthening its alliance with the United States and rebuilding its militaries would go a long way toward improving the situation. Europe has the potential to become a significant contributor to regional as well as global security. In the current deteriorating global security environment, what Europe needs is the political will to start thinking strategically—not just in terms of its own needs, but also in terms of the larger interests of the collective West.