Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, there has been a rising chorus among Europe’s politicos that the Continent can no longer rely on the United States for its defense. This narrative had already begun to coalesce during the campaign, when European media interpreted then-candidate Trump’s calls for NATO countries to share more defense costs as the beginning of the end for America’s traditional role as security provider and defender of human rights. Some European commentators even questioned whether, in the event of Trump’s election, the United States might simply walk away from NATO altogether. Others sought to reassure themselves and their increasingly unsettled publics that, while President Trump might indeed be unpredictable, his cabinet would be staffed with consummate professionals who understood the “bigger picture.” So it came as perhaps a bit of a shock when U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, on his first official visit to Europe in February 2017, delivered a stern warning to the other 27 NATO members at a closed meeting in Brussels, telling them that the Allies must either meet their financial pledges on defense or America would “moderate” its commitment to the organization. Since then, the accusations of “Trumpian transactionalism” on defense have only gathered in speed, alongside renewed talk of a “European army,” “European defense,” and finally “strategic autonomy”—the latter presumably implying progressive independence from the United States on security issues.
Action followed words. In December 2017, the European Union launched the so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), with 25 EU members promising to participate in a plan to develop and invest in shared military capability projects. Augmented by the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense (CARD) and the European Defense Fund (EDF), PESCO was intended to focus on specific projects reportedly to avoid duplication and to enhance their effectiveness. However, critics in the United States charged that PESCO would at best have a marginal impact on European military capabilities, lead to duplication and non-interoperable systems within NATO, and was in reality intended to lock out U.S. defense companies from bidding for European contracts. Washington also conveyed the Trump Administration’s concerns that rules for the EDF would prevent companies based outside the European Union, including U.S. defense contractors, from participating in the projects. In short, though PESCO and the EDF were initially met by the Trump Administration with cautious optimism and seen as potentially positive steps to enhance European defense capabilities, both initiatives soon became synonymous with protectionism and a diversion of Europe’s scarce defense resources in a direction that risked creating competition between the EU and NATO.
There was more to come. In November 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the creation of a “true European army,” an initiative subsequently endorsed by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who called for a European army to complement NATO. Soon, and perhaps rather predictably, the idea became muddled by the semantics of the choice between calling it a “European army” or an “army of Europeans;” a year later the conversation had devolved into yet another European debate on “cooperative security” that failed to acknowledge the persistent lack of political will necessary to make the dream a reality. In fact, three years into the “we need to become independent on defense” debate in Europe, there is a real danger that a “common European army” of the sort advocated by some in Europe will do little more than further polarize the EU. Indeed, the assumption that there would be such a thing as “European” (as opposed to national) officers and soldiers is as dubious today as the previous attempts to create similar forces, from the Western European Union (WEU) through the Eurocorps and the Franco-German brigade.
The European media and policy elite’s continuing efforts to call into question America’s commitment to Transatlantic defense carries with it a serious risk—one that goes beyond intra-European relations. The anti-Trump sentiment pervasive among European policy elites has increasingly aligned with anti-American strains of European public opinion, to the detriment of the larger relationship. For instance, according to a February 2019 Pew study, between 2013 and 2018, 30 percent more Germans stated that they viewed U.S. influence as a major threat to their country, with increases of 29 percent in France, 25 percent in Spain, 15 percent in the UK, and 12 percent in Italy. Among NATO countries only Poland saw a 5 percent decline. There is a danger that the current round of posturing on European defense will feed into the perception that, while allies refuse to meet their pledges on defense spending (NATO’s 2019 annual report showed that only seven of the 29 allies met the 2 percent target), they nonetheless have the resources to pursue their national defense industrial priorities. The damage to already-strained U.S. relations with key allies in Europe, especially Germany, may become enduring, bolstering the growing chorus in Washington that what Europeans want is to continue to free-ride on defense.
The larger problem is that the impasse in the current debate about “European defense” is playing out against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating security environment around Europe (and increasingly also within), while the push for an autonomous European army seems increasingly to be the result of ad hoc politics rather than a sound defense calculus. Amidst the various acronyms and semantic exercises of the past three years, what is missing in Europe today is a keen grasp of history as well as strategic foresight. First, politicians seem to have all but forgotten that the European project was possible to begin with precisely because the United States, through the NATO alliance, provided the overarching security umbrella for the Continent, defusing postwar resentments and assisting in Europe’s reconstruction. It bears remembering that, without America’s commitment to Europe, the Franco-German “grand reconciliation” would have taken much longer to attain, if it were to be achieved at all. And so today, as during the Cold War, it makes sense for European states to speak of “Europe” when it comes to trade and economic policy integration. However, Europe’s security has since 1945 been a direct function of its having been embedded into the Transatlantic system, and this fundamental reality still remains true today. Simply put, there is a great deal of difference between the notion of a protected “common market” linking the economies of likeminded democratic governments, and that of Europe acting as a unitary actor on security and defense.
And yet, if a number of governments in Europe believes—as seems increasingly to be the case—that they can establish a “European” defense structure and a “European security architecture,” then the outcome will be a hollowing out of NATO and at the very least a bifurcation of Europe between the countries facing Russia along the eastern flank and the those that during the Cold War constituted Western Europe. (Even here the divergent security optics are likely to pull individual countries in different directions, with countries like France looking south, and others, such as the Scandinavians, focusing on the north.) The endgame will not be a “pan-European” security and defense system but rather a back to the future scenario: a new age of insecurity in Europe, where deep power differentials among states on the Continent will yield a hierarchy of national interests that will quickly decompose a larger sense of European solidarity. The countries in Central Europe, which are deeply invested in the European Union as a pathway to economic modernization, will nonetheless never wager their national survival on a pan-European defense and security architecture, any more than powers in Western European will be able to credibly guarantee that in an extreme situation—without America’s backing—they would be able to bring their societies to the brink of war and beyond to defend the Baltic States, Poland, or Romania.
Europe’s political leaders seem to be losing sight of the fact that, notwithstanding their differences with Washington, they do not have a better security option than working closely with the United States and strengthening NATO as the centerpiece of Europe’s security and defense policy. In the current atmosphere, in which criticizing the Trump Administration and questioning the U.S. commitment to its allies has become a mantra for European media, the situation on the ground tells a different story. A case in point: Next year Defender 2020 will be the U.S. Army’s largest exercise in Europe in 25 years, ranging across ten countries and involving 37,000 troops from at least 18 countries, of which 20,000 soldiers will be deployed from the United States to Europe.
The impasse in the current debate about European security is driven by a seeming unwillingness in key European capitals to realize the core reality that, without U.S. strategic engagement, a “European security architecture” is a lark. It is time for Europe to stop daydreaming about a “European army” or an “army of Europeans,” or whatever the latest institutional permutation might be. Amidst a period of rapidly growing state-on-state competition, it is high time to focus on the fundamentals. If the common European project is to continue, the United States needs to stay in Europe, and NATO needs to remain the centerpiece of our mutual security and defense.
It is worth remembering that, regardless of occasional policy differences, Europe today has no better friend and no stronger ally than the United States of America. This strategic reality should be the starting point of any conversation in Europe’s capitals about the Continent’s security and defense. However, if the current discussion about European defense as autonomous, parallel, or even complementary to NATO continues on its present course, it will cause lasting harm to Transatlantic relations, with the much-vaunted “strategic autonomy” becoming, in an extreme case, a self-fulfilling prophecy and, as such, Europe’s undoing. If NATO becomes dysfunctional, the European project will be reduced to regional groupings, bilateral alignments, or it may fragment altogether.