Europe may no longer be able to rely on the US for defense against Russia. Here are its options

Time to plan.
Time to plan.
Image: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke
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Even before German chancellor Angela Merkel made her Munich beer hall speech on May 28—calling for Europe to “take our fate into our own hands”—the previous week’s NATO summit had made it clear that the old continent was unhealthily dependent on its American ally.

Besides his litany of gaffes in Brussels (calling Germans “very bad,” giving Montenegro’s prime minister a shove, and trying to rip the French president’s arm off), US president Donald Trump delivered a real blow to Europe’s safety by declining to reaffirm Article Five. The cornerstone of the NATO alliance, Article Five decrees that “an attack against one ally is considered an attack against all.”

The promise of Article Five—that America would come to Europe’s aid in case of attack—had reassured small NATO members such as Estonia and Lithuania that Russia wouldn’t try invading them after it annexed Crimea in 2014. Given that the US spends around twice as much (paywall) on defense as the rest of NATO combined, you can see why Merkel is now looking for a plan B.

That’s not an easy task, though. Trump’s complaints about European allies spending too little on defense are nothing new; this has been a point of contention since the alliance’s founding in 1949, and has left Europe utterly vulnerable to the double whammy of an aggressive Russia and disinterested America. As Tomáš Valášek, the Brussels-based director of the Carnegie Europe think tank, puts it, “We simply cannot fight a war with Russia without the United States.”

A Europe without US support is militarily underfunded, unsure of its allies, wary of a genuine threat on its eastern border, and trying to hold itself together in the wake of the Brexit vote. So what are its options? We spoke to experts in Brussels, Berlin, London, and Washington to get an idea.

Don’t bother attempting a European army

Right now Britain, Germany, and France account for 61% of the defense spending of NATO’s 27 European members. If this were a collection of businesses and you asked a management consultant what to do with those figures, there would be an obvious answer: create an unified European army, says Josef Janning, director of the Berlin office of the European Council of Foreign Relations. “You would actually merge, you would create an economy of scale,” he says. “That‘s what the Europeans are facing; they need a military of scale, with a procurement of scale, with a development of scale, and also with a policy of scale.”

However, an army like this would require changes to EU treaties. These changes would in turn have to pass through each of the 28 member states’ parliaments. No expert thinks that’s likely, given the unprecedented levels of skepticism on the continent currently towards the whole European project. That brings us to the next best option.

Step up spending and pool resources

First, acknowledge that Europe is never going to be entirely independent of the US in the worst-case scenario, a Russian invasion. “Nobody in Europe thinks that we can, within our lifetime, arise at defending ourselves against a World War Two type onslaught without the Americans,” says Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington and an expert on German and European foreign policy.

But while Europe may never have an invincible army, it can use its resources more wisely. In terms of pure military power, every expert we canvassed agreed this means starting to integrate from the bottom up, such as two or three armies merging their territorial defense forces: “Germany, Poland plus X,” says Janning. Then, other countries could join as they become interested—meaning no risk of the vetoes an EU-wide integration effort would likely face.

This process is already going on to some degree with various groupings across the continent, says Valášek. Germany, Denmark, Poland, and the Czech Republic have some integration in their ground forces, as do the Brits and Dutch with their air force. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg have a highly integrated navy. Doing this saves countries from overlapping on spending; they can avoid each buying the same types of ships and aircraft, making their money stretch further.

But to be even remotely serious about succeeding without the US, says Valášek, the allies would have to go far beyond this low-level coordination and dramatically increase their military budgets. “We find it already difficult to meet the capacity targets in NATO that we need to credibly deter Russia even with the US on our side. If they’re taken out of the mix, that by definition means that they’ll need a lot more spending,” Valášek says. “If EU allies go down the route of seriously thinking through how to fight wars without the US involved, the answer is it’s never going to look pretty—we’ll always be militarily far inferior without the US.”

Get good at what’s actually possible without the US

European countries can also earn some credibility by taking control of smaller operations that they don’t need the US for. “It’s entirely within the European allies’ capabilities to manage, for example, the migration crisis; to restore control over external borders,” Valášek says. “It’s going to be more difficult without the US, but still possible with good intelligence, to continue thwarting the most obvious—not all but most—terrorist plots.”

There’s also much Europe can do to secure itself without touching the military budget at all, by making sure European governments are as robust as possible, says Stelzenmüller. “[We must] address our political vulnerabilities; the stuff the Russians are meddling with from the inside. That’s really the functioning of the nation-state—our representative democracies, our institutions, our markets, our social contracts,” she says. “What I’m talking about here is strategic patience and calmly making sure our ship is seaworthy as the storms gather.” She argues that things are looking up slightly on that front—pointing to the Dutch and French elections, where populists failed to take power.

Show the US just how much it needs Europe

Doing all of the above kills two birds with one stone. First, it makes Europe more secure by improving its own defense and political structures. Secondly, by becoming less dependent on America, it becomes a less worrisome partner for it. As Janning put it, “Only a Europe that demonstrates the will and capacity to defend its territorial integrity would be a welcome and sought-after party [for the US].”

Then Europe can begin reminding America of just how valuable a partner it is. Pretty much everyone in Washington, other than some in the Trump administration, already knows this, says Stewart Patrick, director of the International Institutions program at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington. ”There’s no question that to some degree the Europeans have been free-riding on the American security guarantee, but [the US has] gotten a lot out of that too—we haven’t been doing it out of charity, let’s put it that way,” he says. “This is something the Russians and Chinese would die for, to have this set of allies.”

That could start with being more forthright on foreign policy issues where the two continents already diverge. The obvious one is the Middle East—specifically Iran and Israel. “With Donald Trump’s whole-hearted embrace of the government of [Israeli prime minister] Benyamin Netanyahu, I think we will see a greater European effort to try to insist on what they see as a more evenhanded approach,” says Patrick. ”There’s [also] a lot of scepticism in many parts of Europe over the notion of the really hard line on Iran and the effort to rally the Sunni world against Iran.”

“Having them stand on their own feet cuts both ways for the United States because it will diminish US diplomatic influence over [the Europeans]—for sure,” he added. In other words, if the US takes away its promise of military support to NATO, it will lose European diplomatic support on other issues. This is no small thing given France’s and Britain’s UN security council seats, and the network of foreign aid that exists around the world. 

Richard Whitman, of the London think tank Chatham House, says the US could even start to feel lonely if Trump follows through on all of his foreign-policy promises. Besides announcing this week that the US would quit the Paris Agreement on climate change, the president has at various points threatened to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal (Europe’s signature diplomatic achievement in recent years), tried to get closer to Russian president Vladimir Putin, and hit out against free trade.

If Trump were to act on all these things, “the US could create the perfect storm for itself…you’re basically knocking at everything that is central to the European worldview,” Whitman says. What’s more, if China keeps moving closer to Europe on areas like climate change, you could start to see something like “a recalibration of where Europe looks to for friends on key international issues,” he said.

Don’t do anything drastic

None of this, of course, is what the Europeans want. As Janning puts it, “the European countries are trading states; there’s no desire in Europe to be powerful for the general purposes of greatness—nothing like the US foreign-policy orthodoxy that would maintain that America needs to remain strongest military power on earth.”

So, instead of signaling any definitive rupture with the US, as Merkel seemed to be doing in her Munich speech, the Europeans should be patient and have the humility to actually listen to Trump when he’s right, says Valášek. “Some of us in Europe simply like Trump to say outrageous things; we like him to look like an oaf because it kind-of affirms our sense of cultural superiority to the US,” he says. “We’re blind to the possibility that he’s right about some things… In the long run it is unsustainable that the US should be paying more for the security of Europe than the Europeans.”

The Europeans have, as many have pointed out, been stepping up their defense spending since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. But making a bigger effort is probably worth it, both to placate Trump and for European security, Valášek argues. On top of that, he notes, no president is permanent—especially one with record-low approval ratings. “Rather than breaking up a 70-year-old alliance that has served us well and is admittedly in a difficult spot because the US president has such different and frankly unpredictable views… it would be better to simply, for lack of a better term, wait Donald Trump out,” Valášek says.