Is Europe Irrelevant?

Paul Starobin at the National Journal’s Security Experts Blog has kicked off a spirited debate surrounding Europe’s military capabilities (or lack thereof). The jumping off point in the discussion is Robert Gates’s speech to NATO officers last month, in which Gates lamented that:

“The demilitarization of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it – has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.” [Justin Logan blogged about this here.]

Starobin asks: “Can America Count On Europe Anymore?”

Is Gates right? What exactly does “the demilitarization of Europe” mean for U.S. national security interests? Should Americans care if Europe has to live in the shadow of a militarily superior post-Soviet Russia? Is NATO, alas, a lost cause?

[…]

In short, should the U.S. be planning for a post-Europe world? Does Europe still matter? Can we count on Europe any more?

My response:

It would be unwise for Americans to write off Europeans as a lost cause, congenitally dependent upon U.S. military power, and unable to contribute either to their own defense or to policing the global commons. We can’t count on Europe – right now – but that doesn’t mean we can never count on Europe in the future.

Americans who complain about Europe’s unwillingness to play a larger role in policing the globe, and who would like them to do more, should start by exploring the many reasons why Europe is so weak militarily.

Consider, for example, Europe’s half-hearted and inconsistent steps to establish a security capacity independent of NATO – and therefore independent of the United States – since the end of the Cold War. Such proposals have failed for many reasons, but we shouldn’t ignore the extent to which Uncle Sam has actively discouraged Europe from playing a more active role. Most recently, Hillary Clinton expressed the U.S. government’s position that political and economic integration would proceed under the EU, but security would continue to be provided by NATO. This echoes similar comments made by the first Bush and Clinton administrations with respect to European defense. (See, for example, Madeleine Albright’s comments regarding European Defence and Security Policy (EDSP) in 1998).

We can dismiss such comments as useful cover for Europeans who were looking for an excuse to cut military spending in the first place. The demographic pressures of an aging population consuming a larger share of public resources are being felt in many advanced economies, but are particularly acute in Europe.

But the problem goes well beyond the fiscal pressures associated with maintaining an adequate defense. Washington has been openly hostile to any resurgence of military power in European, no matter how unlikely that might be, on the basis of what political scientists call hegemonic stability theory. That theory holds that it is better for security to be provided by a single global power than by regional players dealing chiefly with security challenges in their respective neighborhoods. The argument is that such self-sufficiency is dangerous, that it can lead to arms races, regional instability, and even wars. One can think this a smart philosophy or a dumb one, but we can’t ignore that it has guided U.S. foreign policy at least since the end of the Cold War.

It could be argued that the costs to the United States of providing such services for the rest of the world are modest, but that is ultimately a judgment call. To be sure, the dollar costs will not bankrupt us as a nation, but Americans spend $2,700 per person on our military, while the average European spends less than $700. The bottom line is that Europeans have little incentive to spend more because they don’t feel particularly threatened, and they aren’t anxious to take on responsibilities that are ably handled by the United States. The advocates of hegemonic stability theory would declare that a feature, not a bug. Mission accomplished.

And that might be true, if the greatest threat to global security were a resurgence of conflict in Europe, and if it is truly in the U.S. interest to forever have allies with few capabilities and many liabilities. But that seems extremely shortsighted. The sweeping political and economic integration in Europe has dramatically reduced the likelihood of another European war. In the meantime, the fact that we have many allies with little to offer by way of military assets, and even less political will to actually use them, is forcing the U.S. military to bear the disproportionate share of the burdens of policing the planet. And in the medium- to long-term, while I doubt that we will be facing “a militarily superior, post-Soviet Russia,” allies with usable military power might ultimately serve a purpose if Moscow proves as aggressive (and capable) as the hawks claim.

In short, Secretary Gates’s comments last month suggest that he has stumbled upon the realization that being the world’s sole superpower has its disadvantages. This by itself would be a significant shift of U.S. policy, and therefore drew favorable comments by others who welcome such a change. (See, for example, Logan, Steve Walt, and Sean Kay.)

Getting Europeans to take a more active role – even in their own backyard – will be difficult, but not impossible. It starts with blunt talk about the need to take responsibility and to assume a fair share of the burdens of policing the global commons. But we’ve heard such comments before. What is also needed is greater restraint by Washington, behavior that over time will force the Europeans to play a more active role.