What are the Prospects for a Transatlantic Division of Security Responsibilities?
In the last quarter-century, the United States and its European allies have had fairly clear security priorities. In the first decade after the Cold War, Europe and the United States focused on enlarging and strengthening the sphere of democracies to build a Europe whole free and at peace. After 9/11, the United States embarked on a far-reaching global campaign against al Qaeda, which many European nations joined.
Recently, however, the task of clarifying priorities has become much more difficult. Europe and the United States both face an unprecedented array of pressing security threats that are not easily prioritized. From a U.S. perspective, the world’s three critical regions — Asia, the Middle East, and Europe —all pose major security challenges. In Asia, the United States faces a rising, nationalist China that is at once an indispensable economic partner and an implacable military rival. In the Middle East, multiple overlapping conflicts — whether Shia-Sunni, Arab-Israeli, Arab-Iranian, democratic-authoritarian, or jihadist — are creating chaos and human suffering on an unprecedented regional scale. In Europe, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has proven willing to use its still growing military strength to revise the post-Cold War settlement to conform to its own vision of Russia’s historical place and destiny, thereby creating a renewed threat to NATO and Europe’s political and economic prosperity.
Under these circumstances, the U.S. ideal division of transatlantic labor when it comes to security cooperation is straightforward: Europe should take care of its southern and eastern flank, and leave Asia to the United States. In this ideal, European states, drawing on their long experience with North Africa and the Middle East, would develop a hard-hitting strategy that combines diplomatic skill, political realism, and military coercion to set the region back on a course away from extremism and toward state-based order in which the rule of law and even respect for human rights were the norm. Simultaneously, European states would arrive at a common analysis of the Russia problem and join forces to manipulate the many levers of power and influence they hold over the Kremlin, while simultaneously bolstering the military defenses of the EU’s frontline members in ways that reassured them yet did not exacerbate a Kremlin apoplectic about the eastward spread of European democracy.
Indeed, if Europe could cover the South and the East, the United States could then do what it has been longing to do for years: focus on Asia and figure out what to do about China’s rise. Relieved of the burden of having to worry about the Middle East, North Africa, and conflict in Eastern Europe, the United States would have clear priorities. Developing a coherent national strategy would be much less contentious. A singular focus on Asia might even allow for fewer tradeoffs between bread and butter, the chance to pay for things many citizens need domestically without having to raise taxes or resort to inflationary financing.
Of course, we all know that Europe’s current state of division — even fragmentation — over the future of the European project, immigration, economics, and even the value of liberal democracy itself will prevent it from taking on any such responsibility. For Europe, accomplishing these tasks would require, at a minimum, much higher levels of military spending in addition to more adequate means of coordinating that spending; evolution of more power to Brussels and especially to the European External Action Service; far greater cooperation, collaboration, and capabilities in the intelligence field; and the underlying resources and political will to sustain this dual front war beyond the next decade.
Despite Asia’s gravitational pull, then, the United States has no choice but to work with its European allies in devising and implementing strategies to deal with the South and the East. If Europe is weakened by the anti-liberal, revisionist forces of the 21st century, the United States cannot but grow weaker too. That is a truth at the core of the transatlantic relationship.
But how much can the United States actually handle? In Central and Eastern Europe, Washington will be hard-pressed to deploy even a few brigades to reinforce the defenses of exposed allies in the Baltics. In North Africa, U.S. intelligence assets, refueling aircraft, and special operations ground teams may be critical enablers in dealing with the long-standing problem posed by al Qaeda in the Maghreb, not to mention the self-proclaimed Islamic State group, but the United States is hardly ready to deploy ground or air combat forces in any significant number there.
Transatlantic burden sharing when it comes to the East and the South is thus the only real option. To the East, Europe will need to continue to deploy its political and economic power in a coordinated and unified manner. It would also help if Germany would deploy defensive forces of some kind to Poland and the Baltic states. German leadership on economic and political matters is helpful, but without a demonstrated willingness to connect those forms of influence to military measures, Germany — and hence Europe — may never obtain the dominance that it seeks over its difficult Eastern neighbor. Germany should be prepared to match any permanent or persistent U.S. deployments to the region. For example, if the United States contributes a brigade of combat forces to the defense of its eastern neighbors, Germany should do the same.
To the South, France has commendable ambitions to lead, but risks major capabilities shortfalls if it is forced to tackle the region’s problems alone. The United States is very unlikely to support any French operations that smack of neo-imperial ambition, but in operations on the Mali and Libya models, where U.S. interests are implicated, U.S. logistical support can again enable a French (or EU) lead.
When it comes to Iraq and Syria, the primary challenge today is one of strategy development — and perhaps timing — more than capabilities, but this will eventually change. Then European allies, including especially the U.K., which is sadly poised to further reduce funding for its dilapidated military, will need to be prepared to contribute not only with airpower, but with special operations teams, trainers, and other ground forces in significant numbers over a long term. Germany, France, Italy, the Visegrad region, and other countries must also contribute to this effort preferably through NATO, but perhaps through the EU.
In Europe itself, enhanced cooperation between U.S. and European (and within European) intelligence agencies is needed to combat both the rising soft influence of the Kremlin and the rising hard threat of foreign fighters.
These measures will not themselves be adequate. Addressing security to the East and South is a necessary but not sufficient condition for remedying these problems over the medium term. The European Union will ultimately need to reinvigorate its own state-building efforts on its periphery. Only with stronger states and more just societies can the problems that have reared their heads in the last two years reconcile with the transatlantic project, and tranquility — or something like it — be restored.