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Why Can’t Europe Defend Itself?

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Ted Galen Carpenter

The sense of relief among European political and policy elites in response to Joe Biden’s election is almost palpable. So, too, is their desire for a return to the pre‐​Trump status quo ante with respect to Washington’s policy toward NATO.


There are some dissenters, especially French President Emmanuel Macron, who has called for European defense “sovereignty” regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, now or in the future. But there also is intense opposition to his call on other European Union (EU) members to take security issues more seriously and develop a credible, independent European defense capability. Washington’s client states in Eastern Europe seem all‐​too‐​willing to perpetuate the current system of overwhelming reliance on the United States for their security. Worse, the EU’s leading member, Germany, appears content to do the same.

That attitude creates the very real danger that Europe’s long‐​standing habit of free‐​riding on America’s security exertions will resume after a brief (and partial) interlude during the Trump years. The foreign policy team that President‐​elect Biden is assembling has a lengthy track record not only of being tolerant of such behavior but eagerly encouraging it. However, such a development would be unhealthy for Americans, and ironically, for Europeans as well.

Berlin’s response to Macron’s stance, while unsurprising, bordered on pathetic. Annegret Kramp‐​Karrenbauer, Germany’s defense minister asserted: “Without America’s nuclear and conventional capabilities, Germany and Europe cannot protect themselves. Those are the plain facts.” Those are “plain facts” only if one accepts several popular but questionable or blatantly absurd Atlanticist propositions.

One is that that the European Union, with a collective population larger than America’s and a highly sophisticated economy nearly as large, cannot build a capable continental defense. nother is that Russia, despite being a pale shadow of the defunct Soviet Union with an economy barely one‐​tenth the size of the EU’s economy, poses a dire threat that the EU cannot hope to deter. A third faulty assumption is that Russia is hell‐​bent on an expansionist binge despite reducing its military expenditures in both 2017 and 2018 and barely increasing them in 2019. Moreover, even the 2019 figure ($65.1 billion) is far less than the annual defense outlays (nearly $300 billion) of NATO’s European members. Finally, one has to accept the implicit assumption that the EU powers cannot handle on their own the threats that ragtag, stateless terrorists, and weak Middle East countries pose.



The reality is that continuing to rely on the United States is merely a convenient security blanket for Europe. Washington’s willingness to tolerate such dependence spares European taxpayers from possibly have to accept greater financial burdens to create more robust defenses. But more fundamentally, it absolves European political elites from having to address troublesome security issues in their own region and take responsibility for managing them. At the same time, the current arrangement feeds the egos of America’s own policy elitists who believe, in Madeleine Albright’s infamous expression of national narcissism, that the United States is the “indispensable nation.”

Even President Trump’s repeated hectoring of NATO’s European members to fulfill the pledge they made years ago to devote at least two percent of their annual gross domestic product to defense had limited impact. Currently, only ten of NATO’s 30 countries meet that spending target. Although that’s more than double the number that did so when Trump took office, it’s a modest change at best. Moreover, despite the administration’s pressure on the allies over the past four years to spend more on their militaries, U.S. leaders did not reduce Washington’s commitment to the Alliance—or their insistence on U.S. domination of Alliance affairs—to any meaningful extent.

Macron’s call for European security sovereignty is a refreshing dose of realism that should be heeded on both sides of the Atlantic. It recognizes that the transatlantic security relationship is experiencing severe strains that will not disappear with the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. Indeed, many of them are the product of diverging fundamental strategic, economic, and political interests between the two continents. Although U.S. and European interests overlap, they are no longer even close to being congruent. What happens in the Balkans, for example, may be of considerable importance to EU members, but should matter little to America. Conversely, what takes place in Mexico or Central America is significant to Washington but has little relevance to European countries. The United States and the major European powers also increasingly find themselves on different pages when dealing with major global issues, such as relations with China.

An attempt by the Biden administration and like‐​minded European elites to restore an idealized status quo ante marked by incessant happy talk about transatlantic solidarity will not make those fundamental differences go away. It merely will feed an unhealthy delusion. The time has come for the Europeans to grow up and for the European Union to take its rightful place in the world as a meaningful political and military, not just an economic, player.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs. His latest book is NATO: The Dangerous Dinosaur (2019).


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