Much has been written of late about the Trump Administration’s decision to move 9,500 U.S. troops out of Germany and its impact on deteriorating Transatlantic relations. To be sure, the move and the personality clashes among key leaders in NATO that it has brought to the surface have played a part in fueling the current turmoil. But it is also vital to keep sight of the broader historical context. This is merely the latest strain in a relationship that has had more than its share of turbulence over the past few decades. There are deeper currents at work that have exacerbated the current divisions within the Transatlantic community. If pushed to their logical conclusion, these currents could shatter the framework of Transatlantic relations and make NATO unusable if not irrelevant.
What makes the current round of Transatlantic troubles different from intra-alliance friction in previous decades is that it is unfolding against the backdrop of tectonic shifts in the global power distribution, aggravated by the economic recession triggered by COVID-19 and societal turmoil in the West. As great power competition between the United States and China heats up, along with Russian revisionism and geostrategic assertiveness, Europe’s near-term strategic choices will have a defining impact on the future of the Continent’s security and the structure of power relationships worldwide.
Pundits’ tendency to place most of the blame for this “Transatlanticist unmaking” on the alleged transactionalism of the Trump Administration, if not also the President’s personality, obscures the critical importance of the impact of Europe’s decisions on the Transatlantic future. This is not to deny that the language of diplomacy has coarsened in the age of social media—it has. But it is also important to recognize that the responsibility for Transatlantic dysfunction cannot simply be assigned to how the Americans have asked the question; it also matters what question was asked, and how the Europeans have responded. Since taking office, the Trump Administration has been asking (and previous U.S. Administrations have asked as well) for the European NATO allies to rebuild their militaries. For the most part, Europe has demurred. At some point, one has to stop editorializing about American and European personal leadership styles and ask why—over the past six years, after multiple solemn commitments at successive NATO summits to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, and long before the pandemic wrecked their economies—so many allies in Europe have fallen short.
The Transatlantic strain of the past several years reflects the new reality of the end of the post-Cold War American “unipolar moment” and—especially from the U.S. perspective—the return of hard security considerations to the center of alliance politics. Washington needs militarily capable allies to meet the dual challenge of a revisionist Russia and a China determined to displace the United States from its position as the preeminent global maritime power. Anyone who doubts this need only look to China’s naval operations not only in the South China Sea, but also in the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the Arctic, its frenetic pace of shipbuilding, and the anti-access/area-denial system it is constructing not only at key chokepoints but in the blue ocean beyond. After two decades of inconclusive limited wars as part of the Global War on Terror, the United States has finally awakened to the new reality that its vital national interests are being challenged.
With the destruction of the old consensus, the United States and its largest European allies have drifted farther apart on the question of the role of China and Russia in the emerging new world order. In the former case, the disagreement is over the nature of the threat; in the latter, it is over its scope. Like many great powers in history, the People’s Republic of China is pursuing the time-tested pattern of translating its growing economic preeminence into military power, with the grand strategic objective of establishing hegemony, first, over the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia and, then, worldwide. Thus for the United States—the hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, capable of projecting power across both the Pacific and the Atlantic—the economic and military problem sets posed by China are essentially one and the same. In the case of Russia, Putin’s revisionist policy is a military security problem par excellence. Since Moscow is aligned with Beijing in its opposition to the order the United States seeks to maintain, Russian military power adds considerably to America’s increasingly intractable international security dilemma, for the United States is now confronting two great powers in two key theaters in Europe and Asia.
The growing pressure from the United States on its European allies to rebuild their armed forces and military infrastructure is therefore qualitatively different from the perennial complaints emanating from Washington since the end of the Cold War. Today the United States needs allies with strong exercised military capabilities—especially now that the Sino-Russian alignment has tilted power relations both in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific while the COVID pandemic has scrambled pre-existing assumptions about regional balances and power transitions. For the United States to check Chinese military expansionism in Asia, it needs for Europeans to accept not just greater burden sharing or burden shifting, but rather “burden-transferring,” whereby the allies take on the lion’s share of responsibility for their defense within NATO, while the United States continues to provide a nuclear deterrent and strategic enablers to ensure that deterrence holds. Otherwise, if a crisis in the Indo-Pacific demanded a U.S. military response, Europe, with its current woefully under-resourced military, would be dangerously exposed to Russian blackmail, or worse.
The rise of a revisionist Russia and a communist China intent on “Sino-forming” the globe (to borrow David Goldman’s apt phrase)—coupled with the anti-systemic revolutionary spasm gripping the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe—have made the imperative of articulating a shared Transatlantic consensus on security threats perhaps even more urgent today than in 1947, when Soviet communism posed an existential challenge to the democratic West. The center of gravity when it comes to Europe’s hard security has shifted to NATO’s eastern flank. NATO allies farther west from the frontier nonetheless have a different sense of the intensity of the Russian threat and, most importantly, continue to regard China as presenting primarily an economic problem set. Consequently, they see U.S. demands on defense spending and military readiness as questionable at best, and the prospect of being pulled into a larger confrontation with China as antithetical to their economic interests.
During the Cold War, NATO “worked” because all European allies (including Turkey) shared the same threat perception, with the American strategic nuclear guarantee and U.S. military power overall the sine qua non of their survival as independent states. This fundamental national security imperative did not survive the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only grand power imbalances and a brief period before China’s rise, in which America was the unquestioned hegemon, allowed the existing alliance structures to persist—even as the reduction of U.S. troops in Europe and the de facto disarmament of key European allies told a different story. Had it not been for 9/11 and the important role of U.S. bases in Europe for operations in the Global War on Terror, then perhaps allied European governments would have admitted sooner that the fundamental transformation of the security landscape in Europe no longer demanded of them the same effort in the military realm. The post-9/11 change in how Washington saw its continued presence in Europe, however, did not fundamentally alter the larger European security calculus: witness the unwillingness of France and Germany to be drawn into the second Iraq War and their limited participation in subsequent anti-terrorist operations.
Today the security equation in Europe and deeper into Eurasia must be considered against the fundamental shift in national priorities that emerged as the Cold War ended. The unification of Germany in 1990 not only closed the books on the Cold War; it also re-opened fundamental questions about Europe’s relationship with the United States and the parameters of its new relationship with Russia. With the demise of the Soviet empire, the once irreducible security requirement to keep the United States military in Europe, and to keep Western Europe tied to America as closely as possible, morphed into more of a marriage of convenience that, though still solid and buttressed by shared values, no longer rested on the imperative of common defense against a shared overarching threat.
The European allies’ need for U.S. security guarantees declined exponentially with the demise of the Soviet bloc. In this shifting European perspective, maintaining the Transatlantic link, including U.S. bases in Europe, was still an important factor—if for no other reason than it allowed the Europeans to effectively disarm and reallocate spending to social and infrastructure projects. But the U.S. security guarantee was no longer seen in existential terms, for it had ceased to address to the same degree the vital interests of Berlin, Paris, or London. Indeed, America’s subsequent demands on Europe to take on some of the burdens of Washington’s military campaigns within the Global War on Terror were met with a tepid response (save for the Brits and the Poles), for the fundamental bargain that had undergirded Transatlantic security during the Cold War obtained less the farther one traveled from NATO’s flanks. The attendant “regionalization of national security optics” soon began to cut into the larger NATO consensus on threat perceptions, while the primary focus in Europe’s capitals shifted to transforming the European Union into the centerpiece of the Continent’s agenda. There was no longer the same urgent reason for Europeans to follow America’s lead, especially with Washington’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism agenda, including military overseas contingency operations. Evidence of this change in the relationship could be seen already with the straining of the Transatlantic link in the wake of the second Iraq War, but it gathered speed after the disastrous consequences of the Libya campaign and the ensuing implosion of Syria, followed by the Russian military’s re-entry into the Middle East. Though some observers argued at the time (in a manner reminiscent of the current commentary on the Trump Administration, though not as passionately) that it was the Bush Administration’s ham-fisted treatment of the allies that was to blame for the friction, the situation didn’t improve much during the Obama Administration’s two terms. On the contrary, Obama’s “pivot to Asia” marked a clear signal that American priorities had begun to shift long before the Trump presidency was even on the horizon.
During the Cold War Germany and France remained firmly linked to America, for Europe had no viable alternative to Washington’s strategic guarantees. Even France—notwithstanding the periodic resurgence of its Gaullist dyspepsia in various guises—was ultimately beholden to the reality that in an all-out Warsaw Pact aggression it would perish unless it fought as part of the NATO alliance. Moreover, the fact that Yeltsin’s Russia appeared to be all but strategically irrelevant in the 1990s, torn by its brief dalliance with democratic government, which soon became synonymous with massive corruption, allowed the principal European capitals to acquiesce to the series of NATO enlargement cycles beginning in 1999. Still, there were serious questions at the time about the nature of these new security commitments. While step-by-step Article V guarantees were being solemnly extended to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and then the Baltic States, Romania, and Bulgaria and others, no infrastructure, logistics, or deployments along NATO’s new eastern flank were even entertained until 2014, when Putin’s Russia seized Crimea and rolled into eastern Ukraine.
The resurgence of Russian militarism under Putin was in full view already after the Russia-Georgia War of 2008, but was only slowly recognized as such outside of NATO frontline states like Poland, the Baltic States, and Romania. Gradually even Germany, France, and the United Kingdom were willing to concede that something was indeed amiss in Putin’s designs for revising the post-Cold War European order, but there was always diffidence about the scope of the threat and, most of all, the relative impact on different countries in Europe. At the same time, the national security dimension of the penetration of Europe by Chinese capital investment, both portfolio and direct, and the reciprocal incorporation of European companies into China’s manufacturing and supply chains, passed largely ignored. Attendant to this process was the quantum leap in China’s acquisition of assets in Europe, accompanied by the transfer of European technology and manufacturing to China, which resulted in considerable inroads by Beijing into European politics, both in terms of European business interests and propaganda. What began to emerge in the process across the most powerful economies in Europe, especially Germany, France, and the Netherlands—and to some extent the United Kingdom—was the rise of a “third strategic option” for how the EU economy and its security priorities could align going forward.
For the past 30 years, Europe’s debate about its future has been bracketed by two principal concepts: the traditional Transatlanticist orientation and its staunch but declining pro-American and pro-NATO cohort; and a constituency in favor of what I call the “continental-cum-Russian” option when it comes to commerce, one which is also willing to accommodate what it considers “historically legitimate Russian security interests.” This mindset is present in Germany, but also present in France, Italy and, to a lesser extent, in the United Kingdom, and across Western Europe. In contrast, it is all but absent (save for Hungary) in the countries that threw off the Russian yoke in 1990. On the contrary, post-communist democracies see Russia almost uniformly as the greatest threat to their continued sovereignty and independence.
However, in the past decade there has arisen a third school, the “continental-cum-Chinese” option. According to this perspective, the continued and deepening engagement of Europe’s industry and commerce with China’s (and through China that of the growing intra-Asian market) is a way to overcome the current crisis and restore European prosperity. This third option sees ever-deeper integration between Europe’s and China’s economies and trade flows as the path forward, though of late its adherents have sought to hedge against the risk of being fully absorbed into a Chinese-controlled system by insisting on limiting the size of China’s stakes in European countries.
A growing number of European business leaders have expressed their tacit support for this position, even though in the new security environment the price of admission may be the final unraveling of Europe’s Transatlantic option and in extremis the end of NATO. The third option would overlap with the second, including a degree of accommodation with Russia over its influence in Central and Eastern Europe. Such an option would in effect allow Russia to vassalize Ukraine and absorb (in all but name) Belarus, and then to enhance its influence between the Baltic and the Black Seas. Admittedly, the third option is still a minority position. There has also been a decline in Chinese investment in Europe in the wake of the crisis, and China’s “wolf diplomacy” has caused some backlash in Europe against the PRC. Nonetheless, the long-term trends, especially the pattern of European investment in China and the growing importance of the Asian market to Europe’s future growth, make it likely that European commercial relations with Beijing will recover and deepen going forward. And since the largest European conglomerates are being transformed into “transnational corporations” of the kind that have become the hallmark of American capital shifts to China, the attendant “transnationalization” of the Continent’s business and political elites is likely to accelerate the process.
It is hard to put numbers on the three options, but polling and anecdotal evidence suggest that the Transatlanticist cohort in Europe is now supported by fewer than half of elites. Admittedly, their numbers are still greater than the “continental-cum-Russian” option. But more importantly, both options continue to lose ground to the “continental-cum-Chinese” school, which sees China as the promised land of future economic expansion, particularly if Beijing succeeds in implementing the Belt and Road Initiative. In doing so it would create a land-based supply chain to and from Europe that would no longer depend on America’s maritime dominion. (Even there, the PRC is determined to challenge the United States. Though its navy still lags in quality, in strictly numerical terms when it comes to major combatants it is already larger than the U.S. Navy.)
The greatest unknown in all this is how the states along NATO’s eastern flank will fit into this latent tectonic shift in European alliances and alignments. In Warsaw, Tallinn, and Bucharest, Russia remains the number one security threat, and the United States an indispensable ally. It is highly unlikely that such allies will readily accommodate the pro-China option gaining ground further West, even as much of the Continent chooses China as its principal partner. Under such a Eurasia-centered system, these states would struggle to maintain the sovereign status they have enjoyed over the past three decades and again become Europe’s peripheral borderlands. (This outcome could perhaps be avoided if the frontline states—Poland in particular—managed to find an indispensable role for themselves along the BRI linking China to Europe.) Even then it remains an open question to what extent they would be able to adapt their policies and overcome historical fears of Russia and of once more straddling the East-West continental axis. The Balts in particular—once deprived of the American umbrella—would quickly run out of options when it comes to acceding to Russian demands.
It is a truism that states do not have permanent alliances, only permanent interests. It is therefore quite remarkable, and perhaps a testimony to how fundamentally the “American century” has remade the values and relationships based on them when it comes to our relations with Europe, that the framework of NATO has endured this long—and that we and at least some of our allies in Europe are committed to making it work yet again. But to be effective, the alliance must speak to the fundamental power equation and geostrategic interests of its members, or else it will be reduced to performing half-measures and rhetorical gymnastics. Highly bureaucratized alliances like NATO do not suddenly implode; rather, they become hollowed out over time. Regrettably, this process has been underway for awhile.
Can we reverse the slide? I think we can, but with an important caveat: The decision to keep NATO alive and relevant no longer belongs solely to the United States, even though we still provide the core of the alliance’s military capabilities. NATO’s future will be decided in Europe. It will depend on whether the Transatlantic option will once again return to the heart of European politics, or if one of the continental options (or a combination of both the Russian and Chinese schools) dominates instead. Whether Europe remains Transatlanticist or becomes “post-American” depends on Europe’s leaders.