America Has Itself to Blame for Europe’s Weakness

Last Monday, published an article about Europe’s weakness. In his article, Sid Lukkassen focused his remarks on a socialisation of men in Europe which was influenced by feminism. The article thus provided some impetus for a critical discussion (see the manifold comments and my own response to the article).

This second article by Nick Ottens gives you another, different perspective on the issue. He argues that the European countries are not solely responsible for Europe’s military weakness; but that the United States deliberately wanted to keep Europe weak and divided after the Second World War.

Nick Ottens is the editor of the transatlantic news and commentary website Atlantic Sentinel and a contributing analyst for the geostrategic consultancy Wikistrat.

Dean Acheson

Former secretary of state Dean Acheson meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House in Washington DC, July 8, 1965 (LBJ Library)

As America struggles to cope with a revisionist Russia and unrest in the Middle East, distracting it from its desired “pivot” to East Asia, calls on Europe to rearm and “take responsibility” for the deteriorating security situation in its neighborhood can be heard louder and louder.

Such calls not only overestimate Europe’s political ability to muster a common defense and security policy; it overlooks America’s own efforts to keep Europe weak and divided. When taking this historical context into account, complaints of a feckless Europe seem somewhat ironic at best.

The United States never wanted the Europeans to get their act together on defense, Justin Logan, a foreign policy expert at America’s libertarian Cato Institute, pointed out in a Foreign Policy essay in June. “From NATO’s founding,” he wrote, “American policymakers were concerned both with preventing Soviet domination of Europe and with preventing the emergence of a ‘third force’ of Western European power divorced from Washington.”

This second objective of American postwar strategy in Europe appears to have been largely forgotten. American policymakers were quite explicit about their intentions. President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, told his diplomatic staff in Paris in 1952 that NATO should be prioritized in order to preclude the possibility of a European Union “becoming [a] third force or opposing force.” (see also: Christopher Layne, “Supremacy Is America’s Weakness“, Financial Times, 13.08.2003). National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy wrote to President John F. Kennedy in 1962 that it would be better for the United States if Britain spend its resources on conventional arms and “join with the rest of NATO in accepting a single US-dominated [nuclear] force.” The Americans were apprehensive about Charles de Gaulle’s attempts to position France — and, by extension, Western Europe — as a third pole in international relations, between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Even after the Cold War, in 1998, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, told NATO allies a common European security policy could only come about if it meant “no diminution of NATO, no discrimination and no duplication.” (“Transcript: Albright Press Conference at NATO HDQS December 8“, 09.12.1998).

Nixon De Gaulle

President Richard Nixon of the United States and Charles de Gaulle of France meet, March 2, 1969 (Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum)

As recently as 2003, President George W. Bush’s ambassador to NATO, R. Nicholas Burns, condemned European security cooperation as “one of the greatest dangers to the transatlantic relationship.”

Yet now Americans are upset Europe never got around to mounting a common defense?
A more reasonable American complaint involves Europe’s underspending on defense. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned last year that “NATO is turning into a two tiered alliance with shrinking percentage of members willing, and able, to pay the price and bear the burdens of common defense.”

Looking at the numbers, Clinton’s worry seems justified. Only six European NATO members spend 2 percent of their economic output or more on defense: Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom. And Britain and France are presently making reductions, leaving the former — America’s closest transatlantic ally — short of fighter planes to put on its new aircraft carrier.

America’s share of total NATO spending has only risen since the end of the Cold War, from roughly 50 percent before the Soviet Union collapsed to more than 75 percent today. But that has more to do with increases in American defense spending that European cuts. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the military’s budget grew from $291 billion to an $880 billion high in 2010, including financing of the war effort in Afghanistan.

Should the Europeans have kept up?
International terrorism is certainly a threat to European countries as well, evidenced by the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the suicide attacks in London the following year. But Europe was, and remains, far less convinced that the best defense is to occupy Middle Eastern states that produce terrorists. Let alone that there is a role for NATO in this.

David Cameron Barack Obama

British prime minister David Cameron, American president Barack Obama and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso observe a moment of silence in honor of NATO military personnel that have lost their lives, Lisbon, Portugal, November 19, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

Which is perhaps the main issue. Too often, America has seen and used its European allies as a means to give its own foreign policy an air of multilateralism — which put an unreasonable burden on them.

New NATO member states in Central and Eastern Europe have been more willing to share the burden. They needed something in return: American protection. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March proved they were right to be concerned about future Russian aggression and it was a reminder of what NATO is for. As General Hastings Ismay, the alliance’s first secretary general, famously put it: “to keep the Russians out” and “the Americans in.”

Certainly, Europe could do more. But as American politicians learn to live with an increasingly isolationist electorate of their own, perhaps they can sympathize with their counterparts in Western Europe whose voters have long seemed — not altogether unreasonably — under the impression they face no security threats whatsoever? Due in no small part to American efforts to keep the region both free and divided, it has had no war in almost seventy years. Little wonder so many Western Europeans don’t see the point in keeping huge standing armies.

This entry was posted in English, History, Nick Ottens, Security Policy.

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