Even Amidst Change, Europe Still Relies on the U.S. for Defense

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Are there circumstances in which the European Union and NATO will partner fully with the U.S.? At the moment, they don’t. In 2017, for example, only a very few European countries contributed more than 2 per cent to defense, in spite of a 2014 promise to do so. Meanwhile, the U.S. contributed more than 4 per cent.

True, certain Eastern European states feel the heat from Russia more than does the rest of Europe, but they don’t have the heft to be major military allies in the way that Britain, Germany, France or even Italy does. When it comes to Western Europe, neither the financial model of the welfare state nor the culture of the post-imperial and post-militaristic (former) Great Powers will permit such a full partnership. A full-bore military is too expensive and impossible to sell to a public that has long since gotten used to butter before guns. Rearmament, moreover, is too difficult to square with elites’ pacifism and pride. Seventy-plus years past V-E Day some still fear World War II and besides, they believe they can cajole or pay off potential threats. In any case, regardless of what President Trump says, no one seriously expects the U.S. to pull back from NATO.

So what might make the Western Europeans change? If Iran were to become a nuclear power and threaten Europe, that might lead to European rearmament. It is possible that violence in Africa might destabilize Europe’s southern flank in a way that forces major new European military expenditures. Although it is not easy to imagine China engaging in gunboat diplomacy to protect its investments in such southern European ports as Piraeus in Greece, it is not entirely impossible, as a response, say, to major domestic disorder. The most likely military threat, however, is Russia. Russia, is, after all, a major military power.

An expansionist threat on the part of Russia would certainly gain the Europeans’ attention. If the Russians were to conquer Ukraine or the Baltic States, for example, that might make the Western Europeans decide to rearm in a big way. That, however, is a good reason for the Russians to avoid any such steps. Besides which, the Russians have such a profitable relationship with Germany over natural gas that one can’t see why they would jeopardize that with military moves.

So much for external factors; the other issue is domestic culture. Although it is hard to imagine a return to military values in the countries of the EU or NATO, it was also hard, only ten years ago, to imagine today’s European populist movements. Still, it’s not entirely clear whose side a revised European militarism would come down on. After all, in France and Hungary, for example, populist leaders express admiration for Vladimir Putin and Russia as much as if not more so than for the United States. Poland and the Baltic States are much more wary of Russia, given their history, but they alone cannot provide America a sufficient alliance, nor would Russia look kindly on a military buildup there. Although not part of NATO, Sweden has been building up its military in response to Russian saber-rattling, and public opinion is becoming more pro-NATO. Sweden’s political future is uncertain, at the moment, however, and it is hardly a major military power.

Might the “special relationship” move Britain closer to America, and with more arms? With Brexit dominating the political agenda and with a future Corbyn government a possibility, it doesn’t seem likely.

In short, for the foreseeable future, neither NATO nor the European Union is likely to provide the sort of military readiness that the U.S. would like to see.