By Matthew C. Mai
President Trump’s confirmation last week that his administration will cap the U.S. troop count in Germany and withdraw 9,500 personnel appeared to validate the worst suspicions of the foreign policy establishment. Denouncements of the “America First” ethos and Russia fear-mongering were predictable with a former U.S. ambassador to NATO insisting that “We deploy troops in Germany and elsewhere to prevent wars so we don’t have to fight them.”. For their part, German officials were reportedly “blindsided” and, as the chairman of Germany’s foreign affairs committee seethed, served as further evidence that in the Trump era “It’s all about him, it’s not about a vision of the world, not about politics, it’s about him, about his need for validation — and sometimes his need for revenge”.
Yet, while the Europeans have pursued greater integration through the development of a common market and an ever-expanding political union they remain incapable of effectively projecting power when their interests are contested. Petty insults and elementary criticisms aside, there is a reality facing the Transatlantic relationship that is now both undeniable and unavoidable. As the great power reinforcing NATO’s Article Five mutual defense clause the United States is inhibiting the European states’ transition from protectorates into independent powers. While an incremental step, the gradual drawdown of the U.S. forward presence in Europe and elsewhere challenges those enjoying the security provided by the American taxpayer to take their standing in the world more seriously. Various figures on the Continent have expressed this concern in recent years. In a candid interview with The Economist last year, French president Emmanuel Macron warned that Europe “stands on the edge of a precipice” and that unless it begins to think of itself as an independent geopolitical power it “will no longer be in control of its destiny”.
So far, what we have seen is that Europe’s leaders will not accept this sentiment with open arms. The 1992 Maastricht treaty that established the euro, bodies like the European Parliament, and expanded the EU’s jurisdiction into issues of domestic law was supposed to compliment the liberal hegemony of the United States by creating a collective identity for the citizens of Europe. This collective identity would remove the sources of conflict thought to have plunged the Continent into two world wars. Hard borders, unilateralism, and the primacy of national sovereignty would all be washed away in the face of an ever more free movement of labor, goods, and capital combined with a dedication to multilateral diplomacy.
The West’s populist events of the last four years, especially the pro-Brexit campaign which drew on these themes, indicated that something was deeply wrong with this arrangement. An alliance built for the Cold War, NATO is as much a part of this dysfunction as the EU Court of Justice or the World Trade Organization. Global communism has already been soundly defeated and in its wake stands an arrogant strongman willing to sink blood and treasure into dead-end proxy wars in the Middle East while presiding over a pariah state with a weak and stagnant economy. If Russian tanks rolled into Estonia tomorrow would the United Kingdom or Germany feel compelled to rush to its defense as they might have during the Cold War? The answer is likely not.
It is all too apparent that the Europeans are just cynical free-riders hoping to claim their assumed share of the American defense budget as long as Washington will let them. The Continent rightly regards Russia as an adversary, though not in the same way as they once did, but would like the United States to foot the bill for as long as possible. However, whether they realize it or not, taking responsibility for their own defense would actually be a better way to strengthen their posture against Moscow while also giving the Transatlantic relationship a renewed sense of purpose.
President Trump’s threats to abandon the alliance have led to some positive, albeit impermanent, changes as between Canada and Europe an extra $25 billion was spent on defense between 2017 and 2019. Nevertheless, since at least 2014, countries such as Germany, Italy, and Belgium continue to fall well short of the two percent requirement. No doubt the dominant power in Europe, Germany under the chancellorship of Angela Merkel has remained especially stubborn. If all of Europe is going to take the necessary steps to take their own defense seriously threats will have to give way to real fundamental changes in the current security framework.
One particular area for improvement is in defense R&D. According to a 2019 report by the European Defence Agency, while Europe has increased total defense spending, expenditures on defense research, technology, and equipment procurement have stagnated since 2008. Compared to the United States, which spent .285% of its GDP on defense R&D in 2017, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France, only spent .035%, .080%, .048% respectively. NATO’s comprehensive missile defense system, created in 2010 and reliant on voluntary contributions from member states, would be nonexistent if not for the American AEGIS system currently deployed in countries like Spain, Poland, Turkey, and Romania. While NATO’s dissolution would mean some countries lose the privilege of appropriating cutting-edge technology to maintain deterrence, any ally worth having, particularly one treaty-bound to defend 29 other countries, should be able to reciprocate by developing their own unique and robust capabilities. In 2020, there is no excuse for why the United Kingdom, France, or Germany cannot develop their own missile defense technology to contribute.
Germany, France, and Italy all have GDPs that rank in the global top ten. Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy have the top four largest populations on the Continent aside from Russia. More importantly, France and the UK are two of five officially recognized states possessing nuclear weapons with the fifth and eighth strongest militaries in the world. Even if the mutual security blanket is removed, these countries still have the ability to become respectable powers in their own right. As the United States looks to decrease its global commitments, pursuing its interests through allies who can throw their weight around would no doubt reduce the costs of countering an expansionist power like China unilaterally.
NATO once served a noble purpose as it played a vital role in deterring the expansionist ambitions of the Soviet Union. Yet, if the Europeans are to regain their status as global power players, the NATO framework will have to be abandoned so they can take charge of their own self-defense. For their sake, and that of the Transatlantic alliance, it is a necessity in a world that has long moved on from the bipolar order of the Cold War. Europe has the potential to effectively project its power abroad but it will only become a reality if the United States forces them to adapt. Only then will the Europeans become allies worth having.
Matthew C. Mai is a rising junior at Rutgers University and a freelance writer covering international politics and American foreign policy. You can find him on Twitter @realmattmai.