A Post-American Europe? Not Just Yet
PARIS—The Obama administration’s new defense strategy should come as no surprise to observers in France and across Europe. The question of rebalancing American military involvement between Europe and the Asia-Pacific has been a recurring theme of transatlantic relations and of U.S. policy debates since at least the 1950s. In large part, it reflects the historical evolution of U.S. perceptions of the transatlantic relationship, from what the United States should do for Europe to what it should do with Europe. In the context of economic austerity, this evolution assumes an even more urgent quality. There are certainly legitimate reasons for concern. The stationing of U.S. troops in Europe is not only a key component of deterring potential aggression against U.S. allies, it also significantly enhances its power projection capabilities by locating U.S. forces closer to hotspots in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe’s eastern periphery. A recessed U.S. posture in Europe will have direct implications for the military’s ability to respond to future conflicts or strategic surprises. In the lead-up to intervening in Libya, confusion related to the United States’ role illustrated the increasing and dangerous ambiguity that underscores U.S.-European strategic relations. Whereas the United States “transferred” the command and control of the Libya mission to its European allies, Europeans had been counting on U.S. leadership to conduct the military operations. At the same time, closer strategic cooperation between the United States and Europe has become even more vital in an unpredictable environment being transformed by the emergence of new powers and threats. In Obama’s words, U.S. rebalancing should “create new opportunities for burden-sharing.” Indeed, the key questions induced by an increasingly Asia-oriented U.S. foreign policy do not concern the United States’ military posture in Europe itself, but rather whether Europe is ready to take responsibility for hard security matters in and around Europe, and across the world. France’s chief of the defense staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, recently noted that while “Europe is disarming, the world is rearming,” a trend that could impact Europe’s future in terms of its power projection and influence in world politics. Burden sharing need not entail a geographical division of labor between Americans and Europeans, whereby the United States focuses on Asia and the Middle East, while Europeans concentrate on their near and Mediterranean neighborhoods. Under certain circumstances, the United States will need European support, as in Afghanistan or sub-Saharan Africa. In others, the EU will need U.S. support and unique capabilities, as in Libya. Defining clear modalities of transatlantic cooperation would help avoid future Libya-like scenarios. It is as yet unclear whether Europe is ready for all this. While the United States would wish for Europe to develop a more coherent military capacity, Europe is actually evolving in the opposite direction. At the present juncture, virtually no European country has the will or the means to assume these responsibilities. European decision-makers may have welcomed Obama’s commitment to draw to a close the perceived over-militarization of the post-9/11 era, but the Libyan campaign showed that hard power still matters in the 21st century. Ad hoc coalitions are a short-term solution, Franco-British defense cooperation suffers from ideological divergences, and Germany is occupied dealing with the Euro crisis. NATO can therefore be expected to continue to enhance interoperability and coalition building, rather than acting as the core transatlantic security alliance. What may appear a pragmatic and natural shift in U.S. geostrategic priorities to Asia and the Middle East means fewer resources for the traditional transatlantic alliance. But this does not entail a post-American Europe or less U.S. interest in the transatlantic partnership. On the contrary, the Obama administration has, in a way, renewed its defense commitments to Europe and acknowledged the continuing strategic importance of Europe in terms of ongoing security challenges and unresolved conflicts. Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer is Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Paris office.
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