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Lingering Security Imbalances

September 12, 2019
Editor's Note: This piece is part of a full report, "Reassessing 1989," which looks at the major events

Editor's Note: This piece is part of a full report, "Reassessing 1989," which looks at the major events of that year, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The transatlantic relationship has experienced some turbulence in the decades since the Cold War ended, but populations and leaders have largely remained committed to the raison-d’être of the transatlantic strategic partnership. The dedication is laudable, but the legacy of the bipolar world has created an imbalanced relationship, one that rests on the paired assumptions that Europe’s stability and security will remain the priority of the United States at the global level, and that the strategic future of European powers should be reduced to being followers of U.S. leadership on the global stage. Interestingly, the terms of this partnership changed little after 1989, despite the elemental shift in the global security architecture. The partnership needs to be modernized.

Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have sought to redefine U.S. global leadership, and their presidencies have offered opportunities to modernize the transatlantic security partnership accordingly. In parallel, several initiatives and new agreements have aimed to make the EU and European countries more credible actors in the security field, and political leaders have expressed their will to assume more responsibilities. Despite these dynamics, the transatlantic security debate seems stuck, unable to update itself as the question of burden-sharing and the articulation of different frameworks of European defense cooperation still poison the discussions. It has proven very difficult to overcome the comfortable habits of the pre-1989 world. Europeans still have to prove that they can sustain the political and financial investments required to take on more of the burden of collective defense, while the United States needs to accept the emergence of a more credible Europe as a strategically autonomous partner. The time for slow and small-step approaches has passed.

The strategic environment, and more contentious domestic politics on foreign and defense policies in the United States and in Europe, will force transatlantic partners to adapt quickly. The U.S. commitment to European defense is strong, but the nature of the threats faced by Europeans demand new answers, many of which cannot be covered by the traditional transatlantic deal. The focus of great-power competition, as highlighted in U.S. official strategic documents, will also affect U.S. engagement in the stability and security of Europe and its neighborhoods. The United States will put increasing pressure on its European allies to do more for their security as well as to support U.S. policy vis-à-vis China. The solutions can only arise from updating the terms of the transatlantic partnership, rebalancing the security inputs of each partner, and showing political will to accept the implications of a more robust European power.

More Reciprocity Needed

Transatlantic allies have sought to adapt their defense policies and multilateral initiatives to the new strategic priorities since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This effort has been successful in that NATO has remained the key to collective defense in Europe, but it has also left the transatlantic security partnership structurally imbalanced. The need for an update based on more reciprocity is driven by three main trends.

The German, French, and Polish divergences are symptomatic of the EU’s disunity, which stems from different degrees of dependence (trade and military) on the United States.

First, the well-worn issue of transatlantic burden-sharing is only becoming more serious. As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of NATO, we should remember that U.S. presidents have complained about European free riding since the 1950s. Already when he was the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Dwight Eisenhower was weary of the long-term burden of guaranteeing the security of Europe, while John F. Kennedy, in a tone that seems almost Trumpian, declared in 1963: “We cannot continue to pay for the military protection of Europe while the NATO states are not paying their fair share and living off the fat of the land. We have been very generous to Europe and it is now time for us to look out for ourselves.”1 Tension over inequitable balances rose to new levels in the 2010s. During the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s last policy speech in 2011 illustrated the new level of frustration of the United States toward Europeans’ lack of will to “pay the price” of alliance commitments.2 Then followed 1 Quoted in “Promises, promises; Spending.” The Economist, March 16, 2019. 2 “In the past, I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance […] This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.” h President Trump, who has used even stronger rhetoric around the idea that the United States is being taken advantage of by its allies.

The question of burden-sharing is not going anywhere, and it is more complicated than the two percent GDP threshold.3 In the United States, the idea that European allies should do more for their own security is one of the rare points of bipartisan agreement, shared by the population, the political leadership, and the foreign policy establishment. This reality and its implications are still difficult to grasp for many in Europe. In fact, the Trump administration’s obsession with the 2 % figure has distorted the burden‑sharing debate in Europe, deviating attention from the real issue, which is about providing useful capabilities for the security of allies and being able and ready to use them. It is about having a sense of responsibility that has direct implications on financial and political investments. The issue of defense spending has become particularly toxic in Germany, where leaders are hesitant to make the case for increased military spending so as not to be associated with one of the most unpopular U.S. presidents in history. Instead, as Karen Donfried has pointed out, Germany advocates “strategic patience” – the willingness to minimize the risk of political confrontation with the United States pending Trump’s departure to stabilize the situation. In contrast, France calls for greater European “strategic autonomy,” while Poland deepens its “strategic alignment” towards Washington.4 The German, French, and Polish divergences are symptomatic of the EU’s disunity, which stems from different degrees of dependence (trade and military) on the United States and different degrees of strategic maturity.

Second, the emergence of Asia-Pacific as the strategic center of global affairs in the 21st century will have several implications for the transatlantic security partnership. U.S. defense and foreign policy resources, although immense, are limited, and Europe will lose its primacy in the difficult choices that will need to be made.5 Europeans have to be ready and able to take the lead on security of the European continent as well as its neighborhoods, while the United States will provide support.6 This is especially true in the Middle East and Africa, where Washington would like to shift the burden of crisis management and counterterrorism to regional and European partners. Furthermore, the Sino-U.S. competition will also require Europeans to be more active in the Asia-Pacific region itself, in addition to containing Chinese influence in Europe. It will also have implications in terms of technological investments, as the U.S. push to outpace Chinese and Russian innovation will require Europe to review its technological policy as well not to become a second-tier power in this critical domain.

EU member states will have to decide whether to deepen integration in foreign and defense policy, or admit that the EU is not the right format to defend their interests globally.

Last but not least, the European project itself is at a crossroads, and transatlantic relations will have to adapt to a new European political environment. The EU status quo is not sustainable, and member states will have to decide whether to deepen integration in foreign and defense policy, or admit that the EU is not the right format to defend their interests at the global level. In either case, the role of European powers in transatlantic security affairs will be affected. If European defense cooperation is strengthened in the years to come, the United States will have more capable partners, as European powers will take more security responsibilities and become credible actors in the great-power competition. However, more responsible Europeans will also better define their own strategic interests, which might differ from U.S. interests and could lead to transatlantic uncoupling in the future. On the other hand, a weakening of the European project is likely to make European powers even more dependent on the United States for their security and the stability of their neighborhood. Washington would then have reliable but ever less efficient security partners.

Lasting Legacy of the Cold War and Strategic Pull Factors

The Cold War established the transatlantic security architecture we still inhabit today. The United States provided security guarantees to European allies, who in return accepted its political leadership and supported its endeavors. Each side of the Atlantic, however, had different expectations about how interests, values, and obligations related to each other. The United States saw the transatlantic link more as a business-like contract, expecting European allies to “do their part,” while most European capitals leaned toward the idea of a compact, expecting a permanent partnership that unites Europe and the United States in a common vision, but not necessarily translating into specific commitments. The late U.S. ambassador to NATO (1965-1969) Harlan Cleveland famously noted, there was an inbuilt conflict from the outset, as the alliance seemed an “organized controversy about who is going to do how much.”7 Yet, the United States accepted the free riding of many European allies because NATO, as a whole, still served its interests, some Europeans at least made serious efforts to meet military requirements, and Europe accepted U.S. political leadership most of the time. The general outline of this bargain – the United States pledging continued involvement in European security arrangements in return for Europe’s commitment to organize itself for external defense and internal stability – has remained unchanged.

The end of the Cold War left transatlantic partners in a fundamental imbalance that they failed to address. The 1990s were marked by a feeling of hyper-confidence in U.S. leadership in the success of Western liberal democracy. This euphoria overshadowed the emerging divergences within the alliance, while the United States promoted a vision of a “global NATO,” expecting European partners to align with U.S. priorities under U.S. leadership. Following September 11, Washington focused on the “global war on terror” and counterinsurgency operations, which left little space for serious strategic debate at the transatlantic level on a reassessment of major security challenges or on the division of labor among allies. The 2004 NATO enlargement could have been an opportunity to update the terms of the debate, but instead the 2000s were a lost decade. The election of Barack Obama was another favorable moment for transatlantic partners to set new rules and understandings for their security partnership, but despite some improvements, especially following the wake-up call of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, structural hurdles have prevented a more comprehensive revision. Europe continues to experience crippling capability shortfalls due to years of insufficient investment in its defense, and has shown limited political willingness to take more responsibility in the security and stability of its neighborhoods.

On the other hand, the United States is torn between its desire to have European allies become more credible security actors and its concerns about them becoming more strategically autonomous. Both sides have also yet to design a coherent vision for transatlantic cooperation in Asia, which constitutes the long-term priority of Washington.8 Thus, over the last 30 years, the need for continuous defense policy coordination and dialogue, as well as new challenges and objectives – from crisis management to counterterrorism to energy security to cybersecurity – kept alive yesterday’s transatlantic bargain.

European countries, for their part, are still struggling to agree upon and implement what needs to be done in order to become more responsible powers. The 2011 operation in Libya proved that even the most militarily potent European states were incapable of conducting a major military operation without substantial U.S. enabling support. The operation also underlined that the EU Common Security and Defense Policy was far from mature enough to address a major crisis in Europe’s neighborhood, and this despite prior ambitious rhetoric and longstanding efforts to enable the EU to conduct autonomous military operations.9 Since then, numerous initiatives inside and outside EU institutions have been launched to increase European capabilities and capacity to act, but the endless debates on strategic ambitions reveal the scope of what remains to be done.10 A pointless opposition between proponents of the concept of “European strategic autonomy” and those who advocate keeping strong transatlantic defense ties continue to derail intra-European discussions. The inability to overcome this conceptual and semantic dispute, and the constraints stemming from domestic politics in key countries, only delays the much-needed definition of Europe’s shared strategic interests.

The United States is at best ambivalent toward initiatives that aim to make the EU less reliant on U.S. capabilities.

In the United States, too, there are conflicting goals. Washington has not reconciled its need to see Europeans become more capable allies and its opposition to initiatives that reinforce Europe’s defense and industrial power outside the transatlantic framework. Washington supports the development of European capabilities to better balance burden-sharing within the transatlantic alliance. Yet it is at best ambivalent toward initiatives that aim to make the EU less reliant on U.S. capabilities if it means Europe could become more autonomous. As a result, current U.S. officials have warned Europeans against the risk of decoupling of European and transatlantic cooperation, reaffirming the prohibition against the “3 Ds” (de-linking, duplicating, discriminating) inherited from the 1990s.11 Concerns that more European cooperation could weaken commitment to NATO were expressed by every administration since that of George H. W. Bush, when the idea of European defense cooperation was embryonic.12

The United States is also worried about competition from a European defense industrial base, and recent European initiatives have been portrayed as protectionist measures against U.S. defense companies. The U.S. industries and government have been actively lobbying to enable participation of U.S. companies in the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defense Fund projects, which has heightened the tensions with EU institutions and private sector. The political reality here is that, absent an existential threat similar to the one posed by the Soviet Union, many European countries – and in particular those in Western Europe – can only sustain defense investments if there are direct economic benefits for European companies.

Shape the New Political Reality or Be Shaped by It

Political and security dynamics will force European countries to take more security responsibilities, whether they are ready or not. Underlying political and security trends will reshape the transatlantic partnership, despite stubborn hopes that the transatlantic security deal of the Cold War can somehow persist. The current instability of the security order should be seen as an opportunity to finally transition to a new era for U.S.-Europe relations. The exact outlines of the new order are no clearer than they were in 1989, but there four key elements are identifiable.

In the next transatlantic order, domestic politics will matter even more. In the United States, President Trump is the expression, albeit a radical one, of a tendency to question the country’s role in the world and the implications of the “liberal hegemony” promoted by liberal interventionists and neoconservatives since the 1990s. The mistakes of the last 30 years and the perceived lack of accountability of the foreign policy establishment has fueled criticisms that will influence U.S. foreign policy decisions in the coming years.13 On both sides of the political spectrum, voices argue for a more restrained use of military forces abroad, the relocation of resources, and the redefinition of alliances.14 The intention to “break the silos between domestic and foreign policy”15 will have implications for the U.S. engagement in European affairs and the willingness to absorb the costs of European security. Furthermore, a cultural and demographic transformation in the country may lead to reconsidering the U.S. role in European security, as personal ties to Europe – either through migration or memory of the World Wars and Cold War – are less prevalent in today’s population and make the value of the transatlantic link less obvious. In Europe, domestic politics has also played an important role in strategic affairs, either in the case of the German defense spending debate, the ideological closeness to different U.S. administrations, the relationship to Russia, and now the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU. The so-called populist wave has not faded away, and whether it will take a pro- or anti-U.S. turn remains to be seen. This will most notably affect European and transatlantic discussions on trade, defense cooperation, and foreign policy priorities. These evolutions are not necessarily negative for the transatlantic partnership, unless we continue to try to ignore them.

Second, Europeans are increasingly aware that they are facing threats that demand collective responses. As EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini stated, “this is no time for global policemen and lone warriors.”16 Cooperation and coordination among European countries and with their closest allies are the only way to manage crises and deal with interdependent challenges. Either in the hard or soft security domains, no European country can pretend to address contemporary challenges on its own. Recent years have also shown that diverging threat perceptions do not prevent Europeans from working together. The negotiations leading to the Iran nuclear deal or the maintenance of sanctions against Russia are a good illustration of the EU member states’ ability to adopt an approach of pragmatic coordination even when the strategic priorities are not shared.

Despite a drive toward more European cooperation there is no united desire – and indeed no ability – to uncouple the European project from the transatlantic security partnership in the near future. The United States can rest assured that the strongest proponents of European strategic autonomy are not planning to cut ties with it. This is likely to remain the case regardless of the political evolution in Europe. What is being negotiated is not a break, but a delineation of the security space European partners can take ownership of on their own, between NATO’s collective defense mission and current limited military operations like the EU military training mission in the Central African Republic.

For Europe, the priority is to be an active player rather than the chessboard on which competition is played out.

The U.S. position on China is clear. There is a bipartisan consensus on the Asia-Pacific region. The tactics may differ, but political figures all argue for a more assertive engagement with China. This provides a much-needed predictability to U.S. strategic priorities, to which European allies can adapt. It also gives leverage to European countries as the United States will need them in this global competition with China. For Europe, the priority is to be an active player rather than the chessboard on which competition is played out. That means first developing the policy and tools to contain Chinese involvement in European affairs.17 In addition, Europeans have to be ready to take more responsibilities beyond the European continent. The Trump administration has openly acknowledged that it considers Europe as an instrument that it can use to respond to crises elsewhere. In that sense, the shifts in the U.S. priorities away from counterterrorism and deep military engagement in Africa and the Middle East strengthen the French case for greater European strategic autonomy and the need to think beyond the scope of the European territory. The United States, in return, would continue to provide security guarantees to European partners while helping them take a more balanced share of deterrence. This means encouraging European defense initiatives and articulating constructive and fair competition in the industrial realm. The United States will have to allow European industry, especially in the defense sector, to have an advantage in Europe in order to see real strategic changes in the continent.

Thirty years is a rather long period of infancy. It could be a positive upshot of today’s uncertainty and the lost promise of U.S. post-Cold War dominance that the partners may find the urgency and humility to create a new, mature transatlantic security relationship.

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1 Quoted in “Promises, promises; Spending.” The Economist, March 16, 2019.
2 “In the past, I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance […] This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.”
3 Lucie Beraud-Sudreau and Nick Childs, “U.S. and NATO allies: costs and values”, IISS Military Balance Blog, July 9th, 2018.
4 Karen Donfried on Europe’s three responses, GMF’s Out of Order Podcast, May 30, 2019.
5 Although not purely a zero-sum game, the increased engagement of the United States in the Asia-Pacific will have implications for its presence in other regions. Obama’s “pivot” strategy had aimed to rebalance the military and diplomatic resources from the Middle East, and a similar process is likely to affect other continents.
6 Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell, Remarks at the Atlantic Council, October 18, 2018.
7 Harlan Cleveland, NATO: The Transatlantic Bargain, New York, Harper & Row, 1970, p. 5.
8 See Derek Chollet, The Long Game, PublicAffairs New York, 2016
underscored the inherent limits in European-only (and thus EU) military action.
10 Since 2016 and the release of the EU Global Strategy only: PESCO, CARD, EDF, MPCC, EI2
11 Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, statement to the North Atlantic Council Brussels, December 8, 1998: “Any initiative must avoid preempting Alliance decision-making by de-linking ESDI from NATO, avoid duplicating existing efforts, and avoid discriminating against non-EU members.”
12 Stanley Stone, “The United States and European Defense,” Institute for Security Studies, April 2000. h
13 See for instance Stephen Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2018
14 See for example Bernie Sanders’s speech at SAIS, Elizabeth Warren’s “A Foreign Policy for All” in Foreign Affairs, and Michael Anton in American Affairs, Volume I, Number 1 (Spring 2017): 113–25.
15 Ganesh Sitaraman, “Th e Emergence of Progressive Foreign Policy, ” War on the Rocks, April 15, 2019.
16 Federica Mogherini, Foreword to “Share Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe – A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy”, p.4 June 2016.
17 Bart Szewczyk, “Europe’s Strategies in Asia: Toward a Transatlantic Consensus?”, in Transatlantic Security Cooperation toward 2020, GMF Policy Paper, March 2020