An U.S.-American point of view: Europe must regrow its teeth!

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.

In 2011, this weakness was displayed again during the intervention in Libya, where elements that constituted the core of NATO and the EU force, primarily the British and French, relied heavily on U.S enabler support.

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“,, 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.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, Chad M. Pillai, English, International, Security Policy.

7 Responses to An U.S.-American point of view: Europe must regrow its teeth!

  1. The main point of the article, that Europe needs to get serious and take responsibility for its own defence is correct and something I wholeheartedly agree with. In fact, it’s a position/opinion I’ve held since the late 90s!! I also agree that to do so defence budget increases are necessary.

    However, that aside I have various issues with this article. Firstly, poor editing/grammar – I’m assuming the author’s first language is English. More importantly, the whole number/budget crunching is essentially bullshit/superficial, because while it may serve as an indicator of effort it doesn’t actually necessarily say anything about capability or required capability. The 2% and even more so the 4% targets are pretty arbitrary! What actual basis do they have? Besides the US spending around 4%? I mean since when does anyone worth their salt calculate military parity/capability by comparing dollars? Along the lines of; “Oh we spend $500 on defence and so do they so we’re safe.”

    This whole percentage and budget comparison totally ignores the dictates of geography, flowing from that logistics, then differences in technological capabilities and production costs. Not to mention force structure and organisation. A more serious study would compare actual troop and equipment levels, factoring in the technological capabilities of said equipment. An article/overview in a recent “Y” issue – the Bundeswehr’s Magazine, did exactly this and the picture was far more worrying than the number crunching here. It was similar to, but more indepth than the strategic map above, which is actually useful. Furthermore, such a study would consider the geo- and topographical dictates and realities (including troop/base location/staging areas). Controlling different types of terrain requires different types/numbers of troops. Strategic defence and a defensive posture has different requirements to offence and an offensive posture. The higher one moves up the scale the more important these differences become.

    Force structure/organisation is something in particular that has to be taken into consideration because the NATO and EU forces are divided into over 20 different armies, meaning 20 different languages, doctrines, equipment etc etc. This has a debilitating effect in comparison to an equally sized force with a single organisational structure, culture etc. such as is the case with both the Russian and Chinese forces. Anyone who has briefly looked into command and control knows how important and decisive defects in this area can be.

    My criticism above is not only directed at the article here but at the larger debate around the whole 2%! As stated above I fully agree with the premise and necessity of Europe having to take responsibility for its own defence. For me, it’s not only a matter of facing hard reality but also one of honour, self-respect and pride. Taking responsibility for our own defence, however, also includes developing our own geopolitical stance based on our own interests and priorities and not simply copying or acquiescing to US demands, priorities or worldview. Because the truth is that a few of the commentators/forces in this debate simply want a better, cheaper auxiliary force to aid in the pursuit of US interests. Europe needs to emancipate itself from US hegemony in order to pursue its own agenda, which may overlap with US interests to a lesser or greater degree.

    On a side note; I once read somewhere that in the NATO exercises/war games during the Cold War the Soviets generally if not always won.

    PS: taking potshots at Europe’s free education and healthcare is unnecessary and not the issue. Europe is well capable of doing all three – free education, free healthcare (which isn’t actually free outside of the UK) and independent defence.

  2. It should be noted …the content of that piece reflects broad sentiment among “protectionist patriots” MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) supporters and those who prefer absolute power over politics for persuasion. Unfortunately, this new radical approach to geopolitical affairs is a reversion to the old ways which produced two world wars. As extremism infects our world order, enabled by state sponsored social media disruption campaigns, it remains important to remind the up and coming generation of NatSec folk that there existed a fully functional world order model in Europe over the last 40 years (before Trump/Brexit/Putin) that was a beacon of hope for democracy. Sad turn of the tide now calling for nations to “show their teeth” like dogs in a dog fight. It’s never military might that wins wars….it’s money (socioeconomic stability). Sad to see Germany possibly beholden to the strong-man’s trap – a Pandora box.

    • That was my feeling too. 🙂 It’s a reversion to a zero sum worldview. The Russians have a similar worldview, which is ironically why negotiations between Russia and Germany/the EU around Crimea etc are difficult because they speak a different language. The Russians do not understand value driven politics.

      You’re right that it is economic power/strength that wins wars. Germany and Europe have plenty of this, especially compared to potential opponents. With the exception of China.

      I wouldn’t worry about Germany becoming beholden to the strong-man’s trap. But it doesn’t change the fact that Europe needs to take responsibility for its defence. What it does with that is another matter. But even soft diplomacy/power requires hard power behind it.

  3. Thank you for all comments above, especially for the one from Sebastian, who reflects my own thoughts on that topic very well. That said, I have to mention that this article is intended to be an “op-ed”, which gives the point of view from the U.S.-American side (the title says it all). Even if it is not possible to analyze that topic in-depth in only about 2’000 words, it is interesting to see how important the question of an evenhanded defence spending seems to be for the U.S. side. Although the author does not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, I guess, he isn’t hardly the only one with this view.

    Of course, increased defence spending makes only sense if the money is spent on projects to develop new and strengthen existing operational capabilities (as the author mentioned). This, however, can only happen with a sufficient funding. Nevertheless, the amount of spending money doesn’t say anything about the efficiency with which it is spent. That’s why NATO member states pledged at the 2014 Wales Summit not only to spend 2% of their GDP, but to spend 20 percent of their defence budget on major equipment (including research and development). Regarding that criterion, currently, 11 out of 28 NATO members fulfill it:

    Equipment expenditure as a share of total defence expenditure (based on 2017 estimates; partner countries are designated by * and based on 2014 estimates; Hicks and Rathke, 2018, p. 7; click on the graphic to enlarge).

    Equipment expenditure as a share of total defence expenditure (based on 2017 estimates; partner countries are designated by * and based on 2014 estimates; Hicks and Rathke, 2018, p. 7; click on the graphic to enlarge).

    Currently, neither the defence spending nor the available capabilities or the investment on major equipment are sufficient on the European side. However, the U.S. shouldn’t forget that such changes need time (as Sebastian already mentioned because of the structure, the organization, the different languages, doctrines, political cultures and so on) and that the European states have been said that they will meet the requirements in 2024. To do so, the European Defence Agency plays an important role with its Capability Development Plan and its cooperation with NATO in this area. Finally, it comes all down to the will of the European states to take their responsibility. Whatever someone may think about U.S. President Donal Trump, it was his critical position on NATO and equal burden sharing, which sets something in motion. For too long European states were satisfied relying (free-riding) on U.S. military capabilities. Trump’s pressure on European states was necessary; before that no honest willingness to take responsibility was seen on the European side.

    Even the 20 percent metric has its shortfall because, as with the 2 percent of GDP metric, it is a measure of inputs and not outputs. The data don’t say anything, whether NATO members are spending their defence resources in ways that contribute to agreed transatlantic security goals. Therefore, a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests additional metrics on the input (security assistance spending) or on the output side (troop contributions as a share of total active duty force, pre-crisis military mobility, trade with sanctioned adversaries, and average refugee intake).


  4. Sebastian Diehl says:

    I would like to make several very important corrections. The Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimea is what actually got the ball rolling on more defence spending. Trump’s rhetoric is only additional pressure, which may indeed, as some commentators have argued, make it more difficult for politicians to actually increase defence spending because they will be seen to be giving in to Trump. Which in some countries, such as Germany, will not look good and actually gives ammunition to the opponents of increased defence spending (SPD in Germany). The 2% was agreed to before Trump. The Syria situation was another minor push factor for more spending, also before Trump showed up.

    The fact that Trump brought up 4% as a target at the last NATO summit shows that for him the issue of NATO defence spending is only another issue to exploit and instrumentalise with regards to his support base. Trump doesn’t actually really care about the issue. Besides he has a fundamental aversion to alliances and multilateralism. This is the actual factor! Commentators have pointed out that if one looks back over his comments in the 00’s, 90s and 80s, that he’s been strangely consistent in his attitude to this.

    The actual effect of Trump doesn’t come from his pressure regarding the 2%, but from his disregard for NATO and calling its utility into question. As well as his preference for Putin and authoritarians in general. To paraphrase Merkel, we (Europe) can no longer be sure that we can rely on our Allies (meaning America). It is Trump’s general disregard for established norms, or to put it less politely, his irrational and unreliable action that has made Europeans realise that they have to take care of their own security.

    Some are hoping/assuming that things will return to normal after Trump leaves office, a further hope being that he doesn’t get a second term. Commentators have pointed out that this may be wishful thinking since Trump leaving office doesn’t mean that a Democrat or a more rational Republican will take office. The fundamental political divide and realities of American society will not simply have disappeared. Meaning that America may well stay on an isolationist course. As some commentators have rightly pointed out, throughout its history America has gone through several phases of isolationism. In a way, it’s somewhat naive to have believed that this may not happen again.

    So to sum up, it’s not Trump’s rhetoric on NATO spending alone, but his actions overall and him as a person that are a further factor causing Europeans to contemplate and actually pursue increased defence spending, besides the initial factor of increased Russian aggression.

    • Clark Ward says:

      The 2% might have been agreed upon previously, but it certainly has not been implemented. Additionally, just saying ‘increase military spending’ may not be significant without the money being spent on logical/effective projects… but when none of your submarines can go to sea, your aviators have to train in civilian aircraft because their own can’t fly, and you find yourself having sold off a significant amount of your heavy armor… that’s a problem. NATO’s utility is called into question, not by the American President’s blustering, but by its own lack of capability, American arms aside. What is the utility of a land mass the size of Europe that can’t muster a quarter of the military strength of its likely opponent? Further, with America’s outright dependence on deficit spending to meet its budget, it would be unwise in the extreme for Europe to count on American arms as part of its defenses, as in the coming decades, that deficit spending will collapse as people become unwilling to lend more money.
      I agree with your point in the penultimate paragraph; it seems likely that the US will continue in an isolationist position, although depending on future election results, it is not certain (hopefully).

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