Many in Europe seem to fret over the solidity of the American commitment to their continent. Every personnel move in the current administration, every tweet and interview, and every rumor is analyzed for signs of a weakening of U.S. security guarantees, and thus of NATO. In itself, such a daily agonizing in European capitals is a symptom of a deep insecurity born out of weakness. An insecurity that is not easily assuaged even by facts on the ground—the continued and increased U.S. military presence in Europe, the money and resources expended by Washington on Europe’s security, the discussions on the need to adjust the basing structure in the continent in order to reflect current security needs, the willingness of Washington to impose costs on the main threats to Europe (Russia, Iran, and increasingly, China). It seems that regardless of what the U.S. does, it will have to prove constantly its devotion to Europe’s security.
European fears of a dramatic U.S. retreat from Europe are not justified. The U.S. is not abandoning Europe and its allies. And NATO is here to stay with the United States at its foundation.
By origins, geopolitical necessity, and design, the United States remains a European power. These three features are deeply ingrained in American grand strategy and, arguably, some have been strengthened by the current administration in Washington.
The origins: the U.S. is a Western power, whose domestic regime, culture, and traditions arise out of Europe. Trade, security concerns, and demographic changes may pull the U.S. toward the Pacific and Latin America, but the sources of American political strength come not from those regions but from Europe. This is why the U.S. is firmly part of a wider Western civilization and has defended it with great expense of blood and treasure. And, unlike in the Obama Administration, there is now a stronger awareness of the necessity to preserve the West as a civilization, threatened by external foes and by internal complacency and doubts. President Trump made this renewed purpose clear in his 2017 Warsaw speech and the National Security Strategy reinforced the idea of being confident in the principles underwriting the West.
The geopolitical necessity: U.S. security is not on the coasts of California or New Jersey, but it arises from an equilibrium of power in Eurasia. A Europe that is either under the sway of a hostile power and mired in internal squabbles is not in the interest of the United States. As power disequilibria in Europe become more pronounced—with Brexit, growth of German influence, squabbles between Rome and Paris—the necessity of the U.S. to participate in these continental dynamics only increases. As Yale University academic Nicholas Spykman observed in the 1940s, American “isolation was valid when Europe was in balance, as it was valid for Britain when the continent was balanced.” When Europe is not in balance, there is a geopolitical pressure to avoid isolationism that locks the U.S. on its own hemisphere—a tempting but incredibly costly and dangerous approach.
Moreover, the Trump Administration has clearly recognized great power competition as a key feature of the security environment. It has codified this view in key documents (the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy), setting the course for the various bureaucracies in Washington: these documents institutionalize the need to compete with rivals. This has particular relevance for NATO because the alliance is crucial for the ability of the U.S. to compete with (that is, to deter and, if necessary, defeat) great power rivals in and around Europe.
In fact, NATO was probably at a greater existential risk when the U.S. considered combating terrorism and nation-building as the principal objectives of its foreign policy. With protracted great power rivalries on the horizon, NATO is not a diplomatic luxury but a geopolitical necessity.
Finally, the design: NATO is the main link between the United States and Europe. In the years to come, it is likely to be the principal, if not only, institutional arrangement that supports the key American interest of a stable Europe. Historically, the U.S. implemented this strategic objective by encouraging two parallel paths: an integration of European states that would instill political stability and generate economic growth, combined with a defense treaty and military cooperation geared to deter foreign enemies and to consolidate allied unity. The former was institutionalized in the European Union, the latter in NATO. As the EU loses its capacity to be an ordering force in Europe, the importance of NATO increases.
NATO is the only tool at U.S. disposal to keep Europe safe and stable; there are no alternative means to pursue this core American objective.
But the continuity in U.S. objectives—and thus, the continuity of American support for NATO—should not lead European allies into complacency. Spending more on defense is one of the necessary steps, as President Trump has reminded European allies over and over again, making them uncomfortable. Adjusting the basing structure in Europe, to reflect the aggressive posture of a Russia hell bent in its neo-imperial pursuit, is another adjustment that has to happen.
More broadly—and most importantly at this moment—European allies, at least some of them, have to stop pretending that Europe itself can offer an alternative to NATO. French and German leaders in particular have voiced misguided aspirations to establish common EU forces. This is a recurring desire that never translates into reality because of deeply different security interests: France is interested in the Sahel and North African region (clashing in the process with Italian interests); Germany has deep misgivings about sending its own soldiers abroad (and never in combat operations); other Europeans are either uninterested in such Europe-only military projects or, as in the case of Poland and the Baltic states, their main, if not only, preoccupation is Russia. It is a dangerous illusion, therefore, to believe that Europe can have a continent-wide military alliance without the United States in it.
The U.S. is not leaving NATO. On the contrary, it is likely that in the years to come, U.S. foreign policy toward Europe will be grounded in NATO even more that it has been in the past. But for the alliance to be effective, Europe has to do its part too, starting from a clear recognition that some European states should not undermine the strength of NATO by pursuing implausible projects of military cooperation devoid of U.S. presence.