by Lt. Col. Chad M. Pillai. He is a military strategist who has served in assignments in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Lt. Col. Pillai was assigned to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from 2012-2013 where he worked on U.S. and NATO policy. He is a published author in a variety of journals and received his Master of International Public Policy (MIPP) degree from the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The opinion in this article reflect the author’s personal views and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government.
Europe is confronted with a United States that is tired and frustrated as seen by the recent NATO Summit that exposed this frustration when the president of the United States confronted NATO allies, especially Germany to spend more on their defense. The world’s sole Superpower is tired of the responsibility of managing the “Liberal Empire” built on the notions of democracy and free-trade since World War II.
After decades of asking Europe to spend more on its security and to uphold the NATO Alliance’s pledge of 2% of the gross domestic product (GDP), the United States is letting its rage show to the discomfort of the European nations for failing to meet their commitment. Germany was singled out because of its strong economy and its large population in comparison to the rest of Europe.
While the United States spends close to 4% of its GDP on defense that figured its spread across the world to support alliances in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As Europe and the United States face growing competition and threats from Russia, China, and rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea along with transnational terrorism, it is time for Europe to grow its teeth again.
While the European Union as an integrated economic union is rich, it remains militarily impotent compared to its latent potential. In fact, as George Friedman, author of the book “Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe” wrote, “Hannah Arendt, a postwar philosopher, once said that the most dangerous thing in the world is to be rich and weak. Wealth can only be protected by strength, as unlike the poor, the wealthy are envied and have things others want, and unlike the strong they are subject to power.” (Friedman, Flashpoints, p. 157).
While Europe remains scarred by the catastrophic period of war between 1914-1945 where over a 100 million perished, the period after World War I and II under the protective umbrella of U.S. military might have given Europe the space needed to rebuild. This allowed European nations to rebuild their societies and economies, and eventually worked towards the project of European integration that hadn’t truly existed since the Holy Roman Empire brought some form of resemblance to the former Greco-Roman world. After the end of the Cold War, the Europeans sped ahead with integration of their economies while cashing in their “peace dividend” by dramatically reducing their military capability.
The fractures between the United States and Europe materialized in the 1990s during the Balkan conflicts of Bosnia and Kosovo, where the European nations, the European Union as a collective body, failed to stop a bloody conflict in its backyard until it became a NATO operation when the United States took lead to end the bloodshed.
The European Union proposed the European Security and Defense Policy as an alternative security force to NATO (meaning when the U.S. and Canada were not involved) when it was not needed to lead an operation. While it has evolved since 1998, it never grew into an actual military force capable of deterring aggression from the likes of Russia. As Friedman points out regarding the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008, “[w]hen…no one came to Georgia’s aid, a founding premise of the European Unification – that the European Union would take care of the economy while NATO would take care of security – became more uncertain.” (Friedman, Flashpoints, p. 119).
The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country. Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference. — U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates cited in Ian Traynor, “US Defence Chief Blasts Europe over Nato“, The Guardian, 10.06.2011.
The Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 with irregular forces and then annexation further demonstrated the EU’s and by default NATO’s impotence. The European Union could not muster a significant military force to deter conventional Russian aggression and Russia presents an uncomfortable reality as Friedman once again points out that “[t]he problem of the EU was that the Europeans had nothing to offer but peace and prosperity – an Ode to Joy. But what would happen if the joy failed, if either peace or prosperity evaporated? Then what would hold men together in brotherhood, and what would hold the European Union together?” (Friedman, Flashpoints, p. 119).
Some would counter argue by rightly pointing out that neither Georgia nor Ukraine is a NATO member. Therefore, there was no justification for the NATO alliance to invoke an Article 5 response. At the same time, NATO has stepped up its military presence in eastern Europe to include its Air Policing Mission over the Baltics, and forward stationed troops ranging in eastern Europe, and establishing a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VHJTF) to respond to Russian aggression. These steps are designed to serve as both a tripwire and as means to initially inflict punishment on any Russian aggression; however, RAND war games conducted between the summer of 2014 and spring 2015 highlighted NATO’s vulnerabilities to stop a full-scale Russian ground assault near the Baltics in large part due to NATO’s inability to project sufficient power from western Europe as major seaports, airports, road and rail networks would be targeted by Russian advanced systems such the Iskandar missile and NATO airpower would be under threat from Russian S-300/S-400 air defense systems (see also Patrick Truffer, “Zapad 2017 demonstrates the modernisation of the Russian armed forces“, offiziere.ch, 16.02.2018). Right now, the European Union, and NATO with U.S. assistance can provide some deterrence against Russian aggression; but without the U.S., the EU and NATO do not have a credible conventional military force capable of defending its interests against Russia without risking nuclear escalation (the UK and France maintain a small yet credible nuclear deterrence to Russian adventurism).
Despite the European Union total population exceeding that of the United States, the current force structure of various European allies is appalling compared to the U.S. When comparing forces in the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Military Balance 2018, one sees that the U.S. Marine Corps with its three active divisions and three active air wings is larger than the entire British Military establishment. The U.S. Special Operations Command total force structure is about equal – and if further UK cuts are made – will be larger than the entire British Army. The once vaunted Royal Navy has less personal than the U.S. Coast Guard. However, the British do field very capable forces, especially its Special Forces, that continue to serve alongside the United States in various conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
As the chart above illustrates, NATO without the U.S. spends only about one-third of the U.S. defense spending. For comparison: Russia’s small military spending is almost five times lesser than the one of NATO without the U.S. If NATO without the U.S. were to meet its 2% pledge, it would equal roughly 50% of the U.S. defense expenditures and would not reach parity until it would reach 4% of GDP.
Increased spending will not solve all of NATO’s problems. NATO’s spending must address the gaps in operational capability, material stocks, transportation networks (air, sea, road, and rail networks sufficiently hardened and standardized), etc. Germany has recently been the target of criticism when stories leaked that only a small portion of its Eurofighters are operational, significant problems with its naval assets, and army helicopter pilots have to train on civilian ones because of chronic maintenance issues (George Allison, “Less than a Third of German Military Assets Are Operational Says Report“, UK Defence Journal, 21.06.2018). If the Europeans want the United States, and by extension Russia, to take them seriously, they need to rectify their chronic military shortfalls.
To effectively deter Russian aggression, considering Russia’s formidable A2/AD systems that could challenge the rapid introduction of U.S. forces, European forces need to have the capability to deter and at a minimum buy time for U.S. reinforcements to arrive (and more than likely will have to fight their way from western Europe again if key air and sea ports are disrupted in eastern Europe). If the U.S. walks away into isolation, all that free education and healthcare in Europe will not defend them from others who are more powerful (a U.S. critique without the proper context since Europeans pay for those benefits with higher taxation).
In addition to military shortfalls in Europe, Europe states need to reduce or eliminate the caveats they place on their forces when deployed to operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The joke that the acronym for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan really meant “I Saw Americans Fight” was partly due to the maddening frustration with caveats from nations on if and when their militaries would conduct actual combat operations. Of course, some were better than others, but after watching the torturous process of getting force commitments from European partners for ISAF, it became clear that things needed to change. Again, it should not be a struggle to get combat ready brigades (plural for a reason since one brigade is about 3-5,000 Soldiers) from a nation(s) whose population is more than 60 million.
The relationship between the United States and Europe is not only challenged by the current Russian threat, but in the long-term will be increasingly challenged by China’s global ambitions. The growing Chinese influence as a result of its “One Belt and One Road” (OBOR) initiative along the routes of the famed “Silk and Spice Road” traveled by Marco Polo, the geography that separated Europe from Asia continues to shrink while the challenges increase. This astute observation is made by famed geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan in his recent book, when he wrote:
As Europe disappears, Eurasia coheres. I do not mean to say that Eurasia is becoming unified, or even stable in the manner that Europe was during the Cold War and the Post Cold War — only that the interactions of globalization, technology, and geopolitics, with each reinforcing the other, are leading the Eurasian supercontinent to be come analytically speaking, one fluid and comprehensible unit. Eurasian simply has meaning in a way that it didn’t used to. Morever, because of the reunification of the Mediterranean Basin, evinced by refugees from North Africa and the Levant flooding Europe, and because of dramatically increased interactions across the Indian Ocean from Indochina to East Africa, we may not speak of Afro-Eurasia in one breath. The term “World Island,” early-twentieth-century British geographer Halford Mackinder’s phrase Eurasia jointed with Africa, is no longer premature. — Robert D. Kaplan, “The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century“, Random House, 2018, p. 7.
In light of these challenges, Europe must regrow its teeth – actual military capability to match its economic status. If it wants to be taken seriously by competitors and threats ranging from Russia, China, and/or Iran, it needs to demonstrate it has the capability to back its “soft power” with credible “hard power”. Finally, if Europe wants to regain the respect and trust of a frustrated U.S.-America, it must prove it has the means to be an equal partner. The famous quote by Winston Churchill: “There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is to fight without them” still applies. However, the current situation lies somewhere in the middle where the United States is frustrated with its allies who lack the capacity to fight alongside it – a worrying reality if the United States finds itself in a major conflict with a near-peer competitor such as Russia and/or China. Europe needs to recall its martial ghost of Sparta, Alexander, Rome, and Charlemagne once again if it wants to be taken seriously upon a growing multipolar world.
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Note (August 9, 2018): This is a revised version of the original article. Due to a mistake in the transmission of the final draft, the original article had several grammatical errors. We apologize for the inconveniences.