It is difficult to give up on the old ways of doing business, for established patterns and routines bring comfort and predictability to everyday interactions, allowing bureaucracies to coast along the lines of pre-existing guidance and leaders to tout minor adjustments as breakthroughs. This truism also applies to how nation states approach national security, how they structure their interactions, and what assumptions politicians and diplomats bring to the table when looking at the international chessboard. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the evolution of U.S.-European relations since the end of the Cold War: Established institutions and familiar processes have remained at the center of U.S. foreign and security policy, even as we, together with our allies, devised a new mission set for NATO, enlarged the alliance, and supported the enlargement of the European Union. The evolution of post-Cold War Transatlantic relations over the past quarter century has been about extending and adjusting the existing “security infrastructure” so as to reach the assumed end point, one in which Europe is “whole and free and at peace” and the United States is finally able to take full advantage of the “peace dividend” that (many in Washington believed) was its due.
That was then, but today Europe is no longer marching toward a universal liberal order. Europe is re-nationalizing, multilateralism is on the wane, and the current form of the EU federal project has all but reached its limits. And yet despite all this change, both the European Union and to a lesser extent NATO remain wedded to the idea that institutional adjustments are the key to addressing the overall security deficit on the continent. Pursuing this trajectory—be it through a “two-tiered Europe” formula for the European Union or the building of still more NATO headquarters—takes us only so far in addressing the fundamental reality of Western security, namely that in the end sovereign states’ decision-making processes continue to trump institutional arrangements. Likewise, the key problem for NATO is not simply the inadequacy of its legacy institutions to address current security threats (though its new headquarters and the development of new logistical nodes are all positive steps), but rather the fact that its capabilities deficit is a direct result of national spending priorities that continue to leave the alliance dangerously overstretched. Simply put, NATO lacks the requisite military capabilities because most of its member states continue to invest at a level insufficient for addressing current and emerging threats. Only when there are changes to defense spending at the state level will institutions adjust accordingly and acquire the capabilities needed to act in a crisis. It is for this reason that the current U.S. National Security Strategy calls on the allies not only to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense by 2024, but also to ensure that 20 percent of those expenditures fund real, usable military capabilities. The current dilemma for NATO’s viability going forward is the fundamental mismatch between the actual priorities of the majority of European NATO allies versus what the United States wants the alliance to be able to do.
Notwithstanding the continual assertions of NATO’s unity and solidarity, the alliance is far from sharing the kind of threat consensus that kept the Euro-Atlantic glued together during the Cold War. Rather, today European security is defined by the progressive regionalization of individual nations’ security optics, with countries along the Eastern flank viewing Russian military pressure and irredentism in Ukraine as the preeminent threats, while Southern and Western Europe look to the Mediterranean, the MENA region, and increasingly deeper into Africa where war, terrorism, and migration are now a clear and present danger for Europe. This progressive bifurcation of how European NATO members prioritize threats presents a dilemma for the United States as the linchpin of NATO and the core security provider for Europe. NATO remains the umbrella covering all of America and Europe, but its institutions also need to be buttressed by a series of strong bilateral relations to undergird the Euro-Atlantic security system. For starters, the United States needs to prioritize three core relationships in Europe to reflect the distribution of threats across Europe. This core “European triad” of U.S. strategic engagement should include London, Berlin, and Warsaw.
As it exits the European Union, the United Kingdom will underscore and leverage its relations with the United States, including the countries’ close military cooperation. Britain’s current reinvestment in its military, most recently through the purchase of two new aircraft carriers, aligns well with the planned rearmament cycle in the United States. More importantly, London has historically shared with Washington the understanding that military power remains part of the full spectrum of statecraft. Admittedly, the jury is still out on whether the National Security Capabilities Review currently being conducted by Theresa May’s National Security Adviser Sir Mark Sedwill will result in cuts to an already strained UK defense budget, or if the country will become a full-bore military partner of the United States. In the coming months, Washington’s continued engagement with London on defense issues may prove decisive for the future of the bilateral security relationship.
Though the positive outcome of UK defense modernization is not yet assured, the good news is that, in growing recognition of the fact that state-on-state conflict should once more be a major focus of planning, London has taken some important initial steps to reassert itself as a serious military power. In addition to British investments in the Royal Navy, British airpower will see a considerable increase in capabilities, including the acquisition of F-35B fighters (with a target number of 138 F-35 aircraft) with the aim of ensuring that that each aircraft carrier has at least a squadron of stealthy aircraft by the time they are both fully deployed in 2023. More importantly from the U.S. and NATO perspectives, this restoration of British military capabilities highlights the importance of carrier strike capability—an essential development for the United States to consider NATO as an integral component of its power projection.
The second and arguably most important pillar of America’s strategic “European triad” is Germany. Despite being Europe’s largest and most powerful economy, it has actually reduced its military capabilities to the point that some have begun to question whether the Bundeswehr could actually deploy in sufficient numbers in a major state-on-state crisis. German national security policy is at an inflection point. On the one hand, the traditional commitment to the Adenauerian vision of maintaining the essential U.S. anchor remains strong, while at the same time—especially in light of the election results from last September—Berlin seems determined at least to explore what some in the German policy community term “strategic autonomy,” manifest in the European Union’s PESCO initiative. And yet, for the first time since the Cold War, Berlin has moved to stop and reverse the progressive reductions in the size of the Bundeswehr, with the country once again poised to expand its military by adding 20,000 soldiers, with the goal being an almost 200,000-strong army by 2024. The Germans have also stood up a new Cyber and Information Space Command (CIR), which became operational in April 2017. Though public opinion in Germany remains divided over the need to expand the country’s military, Germany has been moving in the direction of strengthening its armed forces. It is precisely because Germany’s debate about national power is at an inflection point that Berlin and Washington need to engage in a strategic dialogue about Germany’s contribution to NATO’s capabilities.
Although a growing number of European analysts see Germany’s strategic choices as tracking increasingly towards a reformed and redefined EU federal project, with “strategic autonomy” ever more at the center of thinking about national security, the issue of how much military capability Germany will bring to NATO is far from settled. Contrary to the prevailing skepticism about Germany’s ability to make a contribution to NATO forces commensurate with the country’s economic might and its population, I would argue that it will have this capacity sooner rather than later, as Berlin adapts its military posture to the rapidly shifting geostrategic landscape around it and beyond. As a quintessentially Central European great power, Germany cannot escape the growing pressure along Europe’s eastern and southern flanks, nor can it ultimately build an effective national security strategy that is not anchored in its core relationship with the United States. Bringing about a greater alignment of U.S. and German national security policy optics is as essential as it has ever been post-1945 for ensuring Germany’s security—and European security writ large. Last but not least, as the principal entry point into Europe for U.S. military forces, Germany remains essential to all U.S. and NATO planning going forward. Hence, for both larger geostrategic and practical reasons, the U.S.-German bilateral security relationship remains essential to NATO’s long-term health.
Poland is one of five NATO countries that actually spend 2 percent of its GDP on national defense, and it has pledged by 2030 to reach 2.5 percent GDP, which, at $21.5 billion, will represent a doubling of its defense spending from current levels. The country aims to provide a land power anchor for NATO’s eastern flank, with Warsaw intending—perhaps too ambitiously—to increase its armed forces by another 100,000. Still, though there has been considerable criticism of Warsaw’s plans to rapidly expand its ground forces—especially its new Territorial Defense Forces concept—there can be no denying that, as the Bundeswehr has shrunk, Poland has been trying to position itself as an essential component of NATO’s conventional capability on the Continent. Poland’s 2017 “Concept of Defense of the Republic of Poland” seeks to maximize the country’s ability to defend itself in the event of a Russian attack in order to give NATO forces enough time to assemble and come to the rescue. Although Poland’s military is unlikely to become self-sufficient, Warsaw’s efforts to provide meaningful capabilities which, in a crisis, could buy Washington time, attest to the importance for NATO’s posture along the eastern flank of a closer strategic partnership between Washington and Warsaw.
Poland’s view of the utility of military power is informed by its historical experience as a country that vanished from the map of Europe for more than a century. The seriousness with which Poles approach their military’s readiness is again a function of the past: After defeat in 1939 the country was overrun and subjugated again for half a century after a mere 20 years of interwar independence. Today, as it is entering only its third decade of independent statehood since the collapse of communism, clouds are fast gathering over the eastern horizon.
Today Poland is a country in search of a national narrative that takes it beyond the nearly three decades of post-communist adaptation. Nevertheless it remains deeply committed to its strategic relationship with the United States. Both London and Warsaw provide the essential pillars anchoring U.S. European policy in areas that matter: in the case of the UK, the strategic Transatlantic dimension of (once more) growing British naval power; and in the Polish case, the land power of the largest country on NATO’s eastern flank. As the dominant economic power in Europe sitting at the continent’s geostrategic crossroads, Berlin needs to become again the essential contributor to NATO’s military capabilities that it was during the Cold War. As threats to U.S. security commitments in Asia grow, those allies’ capabilities are an important part of Washington’s overall strategic calculus.
Alliances and security institutions must reflect the real distribution of power and interests of states if they are to be effective and embraced by the public. If NATO is to see real military capabilities emerge from the approaching NATO summit in Brussels, the strategic “European triad” discussed above needs to become the foundation of U.S. bilateral engagement with Europe. Next, Washington should buttress this core triad with enhanced engagement with the states bracketing the larger NATO space—Norway, France, and Italy—with the latter two being key to NATO’s southern flank (especially as U.S. relations with Turkey remain in flux) and Norway serving as the critical entry point for the High North.
Adjusting NATO’s legacy institutions will only take us so far. It is through enhanced U.S. bilateral relationships with allies that the alliance will restore its military capabilities, and with it its ability to deter—and if need be to defend—against rising threats in the east and south. Only then will there be more genuine willingness on the part of the public to continue supporting NATO and a national reinvestment in defense.