While the American news media were preoccupied with Donald Trump’s latest tweet or Hillary’s Clinton’s latest explanation for a scandal that barely passed the straight face test, a more important development took place in Europe that received scant attention. The prime ministers of both Hungary and the Czech Republic urged the European Union to build its own army. That is a very significant shift in attitude. Until now, The European countries had been content to channel security matters through NATO and to focus the EU’s attention on economic issues.
The insistence on NATO’s primacy also reflected Washington’s wishes, since it guaranteed U.S. control of transatlantic security decisions. That control came at a high cost, however, since it enabled the European allies to free ride on Washington’s security exertions.
U.S. leaders have repeatedly discouraged independent security initiatives on the part of the European nations. There was a tremendous opportunity to change policy and off load security burdens with the end of the Cold War. Perhaps the clearest opportunity was when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the early 1990s. When the initial European diplomatic and peacekeeping efforts faltered and, predictably, the allies then sought U.S. “leadership,” the Clinton administration’s response should have been a firm rejection.
U.S. officials should have told their European counterparts that the turmoil in the Balkans was a regional matter that had little impact on the United States. And just as we would have no right to expect them to take a leading role in resolving a similar parochial bout of disorder in Central America or the Caribbean, they had no right to expect U.S. military involvement in the Balkans. Such a stance would have pressured the Europeans to address security issues in their region as competent adults instead of hapless dependents.
Instead, Washington continued to play a dominant role in the Balkans through NATO, first with the Bosnia intervention in 1995 and then with the Kosovo intervention in 1999. Democratic Europe’s security dependence continued unabated. Indeed, NATO’s prominence and Washington’s risk exposure increased steadily as the alliance expanded first into Central Europe and then into Eastern Europe. As defense analyst Nikolas K. Gvosdev laments, the U.S. Senate, in a monumental dereliction of its constitutional duty, failed to ask the hard questions that needed to be asked as Washington undertook increasingly far-flung, questionable security obligations. With a few exceptions, that was also true of the broader foreign policy community.