The headlines in the run-up to the July 11-12 NATO Summit are filled with foreboding, and the prognosis of most Europe-watchers is grim. It seems the Euroatlantic alliance is facing an existential crisis triggered by a U.S. President who is at the very least dismissive about NATO’s relevance for America’s interests or, worse, has NATO squarely in his crosshairs as part of his grand scheme to demolish the Liberal World Order. Some even mutter darkly that the Siberian Candidate is taking orders from his Russian handlers, intentionally wrecking an otherwise thriving, cohesive Euroatlantic alliance at the behest of his Muscovite puppet-master. Alarmed experts can hear the Evil Kremlin Dwarf gloating as NATO collapses in disarray, precisely at the time when the United States most needs its European allies to counter a resurgent Russia.
The dire warnings about an impending crisis in NATO might turn out to be true, but the plaint about America’s crying need for European allies underscores the muddle-headedness that has come to characterize so much Transatlantic thinking about European security. What a pity—and how ironic—that it has taken Donald Trump to bring the long-festering, pus-filled abscess of the Euroatlantic alliance to a head.
Simply put, there is essentially only one reason for Washington to get agitated about a resurgent Russia: if the United States cares about European security and sees it as an American priority. Minus the European-security angle—principally, the issue of current and prospective Russian depredations in neighboring countries—there is no U.S.-Russia standoff, only a smattering of secondary disagreements and irritations that would never add up to a systemic conflict. Whatever his faults, the current occupant of the White House has taken an accurate measure of this state of affairs, including the question of whose interests are most jeopardized by an assertive Kremlin and who is actually willing to do something about it. Trump is rude, but he’s right.
A resurgent Russia is not under any circumstances going to invade Alaska, although it might, given the right conditions, entertain the notion of military action against certain members of the European Union. The United States will not need Trump’s infamous wall to fend off millions of refugees generated by Russian military operations, current and potential, in Syria, Ukraine, or some other places on the EU’s periphery. Americans will not huddle shivering in their homes if Russia should demonstratively shut off gas exports for a week or two in mid-winter (for purely technical reasons, they’ll surely claim) to buy Western acquiescence with some priority geopolitical project of the Kremlin. Europeans are not doing the United States any great favors with half-hearted endeavors to lend a hand—within the limits set by their tight budgets and dilatory public opinion—with America’s solemn obligation to defend Europe. While I have always believed that European security ought to matter to Americans, it really ought to be of greater import to Europeans. They’ve got to want it more than we do.
This is hardly a novel concept, and American officials have been complaining politely for several decades about burden-sharing and the yawning disconnect in contributions to Euroatlantic security. While some Europeans have acknowledged the problem, precious little has been done to remedy it. Then along came President Trump, who, in his inimitable, undiplomatic fashion, has administered a good, hard rhetorical kick to the collective European derriere, which appears finally to have gotten people’s attention. It’s a shame things had to come to this, but there you have it.
The public discussion about burden-sharing has focused on getting European allies to pony up a minimum of 2 percent of GDP in annual defense spending, a long-standing NATO goal that has been repeatedly agreed in principle and shamelessly evaded in practice. While the 2 percent figure serves as a handy metric, as a remedy to what ails the Euroatlantic alliance it is, in fact, woefully inadequate. Heretofore it has been an heroic assumption to suppose that European allies could muster the political will even to meet the minimum agreed financial burden-sharing expectations. Beyond that, an additional quantum leap in political will would be required to accomplish what the Euroatlantic alliance truly needs: European strategic autonomy. Europe must be willing and able to act alone in its security interests, with minimal or no American input.
After the Kosovo conflict in 1999, pundits tartly noted that “the Americans cook the meals, and the Europeans clean up the dishes.” The imbalance between the two sides of the Atlantic has only gotten worse since then. This is not an expedient division-of-labor arrangement, with European soft power as a welcome complement to American “hard” security. Rather, the disconnect in capabilities inclines the two halves of the alliance to view one another with suspicion and disdain. Europeans are prone to regard the Americans, who wield the only effective security “hammer” in the Western world, as seeing every problem as a nail, while Americans are apt to dismiss the Europeans as feckless whiners in all things security-related.
This is a deeply unhealthy arrangement that’s guaranteed to perpetuate mutual resentment. Americans and Europeans have allowed it to fester so long because it was convenient for both sides. For all their grumbling about burden-sharing, Americans assumed they were the true experts at hard security and didn’t really trust the Europeans to do things right anyway. For all their irritation with perceived American arrogance and belligerence, the Europeans didn’t really want the expense and hassle of doing hard security themselves. Moreover, the Europeans had managed to secure U.S. military intervention when necessary in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya, where European security interests were at stake but American equities were minimal. Why expend political and economic capital for European security if, when push comes to shove, you can get the Americans to do the heavy lifting?
European strategic autonomy has been given new urgency by Trump, who is effectively calling into question Europe’s collective manhood and warning of a diminished American willingness to undergird European security. For all the agonizing over Trump’s lukewarm commitment to NATO’s Article 5, the real crunch for Euroatlantic security cooperation is likely to come in a different context—quite possibly a breakdown of one or more of the post-Yugoslav peace settlements, whose enforcement has relied on an over-the-horizon threat of U.S. military intervention. This intervention can no longer be assumed, as Trump might well decide, echoing James Baker, that “we haven’t got a dog in that fight.” The fact that Europeans were unable to handle the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s was deplorable. The fact that Europeans appear even less capable now to deal with a renewed crisis in the western Balkans is absolutely scandalous. Critics of Europe’s lackadaisical approach to security are right to be indignant.
Much of the traditional American reserve toward European strategic autonomy has emanated from a concern that it would be EU-centric and would undermine NATO without actually creating any robust, effective EU alternative. Judging by recent statements from some American officials, this concern persists. It is misplaced, for a number of reasons. First, Western security simply requires a stronger European component, and the question of whether that component wears an EU or a NATO hat is tertiary. Indeed, because of the overlap between EU and NATO membership, there is no reason it could not be dual-hatted. It would be far better, especially for Washington, to have EU-centric security arrangements that could handle a Balkan crisis than to have an impotent NATO-centric Europe that relied completely on the United States for all hard-security measures. Second, European strategic autonomy could hardly undermine NATO more than the resentments engendered by the current imbalance in capabilities and political will. Third, if the Europeans manage to wreck NATO without creating any capable alternative, it is they, not the United States, who will bear the consequences. Donald Trump seems to grasp these considerations, and for all his bluster and seeming hostility toward America’s European allies, he is instinctively the greatest friend of European strategic autonomy ever to sit in the White House.
The rise of Trump prompted the intriguing idea of proclaiming Angela Merkel as the new leader of the Free World. Realistically, however, Germany’s atrophied military capabilities make such a suggestion risible. I remember some 15 years ago hearing Germany described as the Sick Man of NATO. Well, the patient hasn’t shown any improvement in the interim. In the absence of German/European strategic autonomy, Merkel’s devotees might aspire at best to elevate her to the leadership of some postmodern fantasyland devoid of hard-security challenges. Unfortunately, the real-life Europe—with an assertive Russia, unstable borderlands, disruptive immigration, and terrorism—bears little resemblance to such a vision. Moreover, with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, selfless German multilateralism is very much taking a back seat to German economic interests, at the cost of seriously undermining both the economy and security of Ukraine and Germany’s easternmost EU partners. “Germany First” might not be the slogan, but at least as far as Nord Stream 2 is concerned, it is the reality.
In fact, the Free World would be best served not by having a leader at all, but by having a partnership. It need not be a fully equal partnership with respect to every facet of security, but something must replace the current relationship of radical disproportion and dependency, which is both corrosive and unsustainable. Instead of the United States taking the lead on European security and relying on its European allies as a force multiplier, we need to see Europeans safeguarding European security and calling on the United States as a force multiplier. We must dispense with the pernicious American conceit that Europeans cannot be trusted to manage their own security, and we must rid ourselves of the pernicious European illusion that Europeans need not be bothered to manage their own security. If Donald Trump manages to push us in this direction, he will have earned a hallowed place in Euroatlantic history.