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Collective Defense is Now at the Forefront of NATO

April 07, 2022
5 min read
Photo Credit: Sergei Chuzavkov / Shutterstock.com
The American policeman in Europe is back. Under pressure from the US Congress and NATO’s eastern allies, the Biden administration is recalibrating its defense posture in Europe in a ways unseen since the end of the Cold War.

The number of US forces deployed on the continent has risen from 80,000 to 100,000 in two months, approaching its 1997 levels, when the United States and its allies began the process of expanding the alliance to the east.

By comparison, according to Pentagon data, in 1991, there were 305,000 US troops in Europe, 224,000 of whom were positioned in Germany. The number of US troops then declined steadily to 64,000 in 2020. Washington has no intention or political will to return to the 1991 levels, and its medium- and long-term strategic goal remains the containment of Chinese power. But the war in Ukraine is forcing it to “re-pivot” at least partly to Europe.

The war will increase European countries’ military and energy dependence on the United States. To be sure, the European Union has taken important decisions in both areas, including pushing for increased defense budgets, delivering lethal weapons to Ukraine through the European Peace Facility—a financial instrument with a €5 billion budget, and by granting the European Commission a mandate to carry out bulk gas purchases on behalf of all member states.

Nuisance Capabilities

But the ambition for strategic autonomy, which has advanced among several of France’s partners, such as the Netherlands and Finland, is now being supplanted by an appeal from European countries to the United States for security guarantees, its liquefied natural gas, and access to its defense industry. This US re-engagement in Europe will be accompanied by strong US pressure on its allies to contribute more to the collective defense of their territory, to stay true to their commitments (this will be especially true for Germany), and to align with its tough policy toward China.

The war in Ukraine is redrawing the geopolitics of alliances and shows that Russia is not isolated internationally. The Western approach of trying to “break” Moscow’s alliances will be much more complex, if not impossible, to achieve.

The February 24 Russian intervention marks a brutal return to basics

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most significant geopolitical crisis for the United States since 9/11. If the terrorist attacks plunged the United States and NATO into 20 years of the war on terror, the February 24 Russian intervention marks a brutal return to basics; that is, the collective defense of the Euro-Atlantic space. The interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Mali in the case of France, are today analyzed by Western political and military leaders as strategic distractions that have caused their armies to lose the reflexes of high-intensity combat and have allowed Russia and China to strengthen their capacity to cause harm, in their immediate neighborhood and beyond.

European countries are rushing to 'buy' US guarantees of security with F-35 jets—this has been the case for Germany, Finland, Romania, and Poland—to ensure an US presence on their soil and to get back into the game of collective defense.

Collective defense is now the primary focus and all other NATO missions (crisis management, resilience, partnership policy) will be calibrated to support this. The four new battlegroups deployed on the eastern flank contribute directly to this. This also requires appropriate equipment. The US military aside, nearly two-thirds of NATO’s tanks are owned by Turkey and Greece. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom no longer provide the necessary numbers. European countries are rushing to “buy” US guarantees of security with F-35 jets—this has been the case for Germany, Finland, Romania, and Poland—to ensure an US presence on their soil and to get back into the game of collective defense.

De-Westernization

The United States is forcing European countries to acquire F-35s to fulfil their nuclear-sharing responsibilities within NATO (except for France and the United Kingdom) because it is the only aircraft currently certified to carry US nuclear bombs, a mission that the aging Tornado also performs. The Eurofighter Typhoon is paying the price of this exclusion. The desire of European countries to quickly fill their capability gaps in terms of collective defense favors the purchase of readily available US weapons, but it compromises the objective of developing a European industrial ecosystem capable of supporting the EU’s strategic ambitions.

In this war, it is difficult for Europe to maintain a position as a “balancing power,” a status that has been reappropriated by Turkey, Israel, and China, which play the role of mediators between Ukraine and Russia. A form of de-Westernization of crisis diplomacy is taking shape, increasingly pushing the West out of the picture. It is illusory to believe that the West can break the alliances forged between Russia and other countries. China and Russia thus find themselves aligned in their disdain for NATO and the West in general, as do many Latin American leaders who blame the West for the war in Ukraine, or as do India and Africa for which Russia is the most important supplier of arms. The United States’ idea of excluding Russia from the G20 is opposed by China, Brazil, and Indonesia, which chairs the group. This new geopolitical situation limits sanctions against Russia. In the short term, intensifying the delivery of arms to Ukraine is the most effective measure.

This article was first published in Le Monde under the headline “La défense collective est dorénavant au premier plan de l’OTAN” on March 29, 2022.