Josef Joffe famously referred to the U.S. presence in Western Europe as "Europe's pacifier." The idea was that you stick the American pacifier in there and the *cough* recurring problem emanating from Europe goes away.
After the Cold War ended, and the official reason for the NATO alliance blew away as if in the wind, we never considered letting the alliance go with it. That tells you something. Instead of coming home, we pushed NATO "out of area" rather than allowing it to go "out of business." Christopher Layne argues that this was all by design. U.S. policymakers never intended to allow Europe to establish its autonomy and worked diligently to ensure that efforts at autonomous European defense would fail. They succeeded.
In February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was whining about the "demilitarization of Europe" and how the Europeans have grown "averse to military force." I responded by pointing out that this was dumb. Mancur Olson's logic and the history of American policy on the European continent that Layne documents show that we were as much to blame for this state of affairs as the Euros themselves.
And now here's the Wall Street Journal pointing out that the Euros are slashing their defense budgets further still.
There are two schools of thought on this. The first says that European defense spending isn't so low as it's commonly made out to be. This group argues (implicitly at times) that there is no pacifier. War has been "burned out of the system" in Europe, to steal a phrase, so the Euros should just invest in capabilities that can help out with the sorts of overseas noodling-around missions we're doing now in Afghanistan and that NATO/America is likely to create in the future.
But I don't think you have to be John Mearsheimer [.pdf] to belong to the second group. This group buys pacifier logic but worries about both the prudence and the sustainability of Washington playing the pacifier role indefinitely. It worries about the larger role the United States appropriates for itself in the world as it promotes the infantilization of Europe. And it worries, ultimately, about how this all ends.
The question for the first group, it seems to me, is how little European defense spending is too little, and why. Further, if we approach or cross the "too little" line, what should we do to promote more European defense spending? Would this include promoting a larger European role in the world, which has historically been the main reason America has opposed EU defense efforts?
Regardless, the perennial American lament about European defense spending is likely to wind up again, particularly in the shadow of the dubious Afghanistan campaign.