Europe’s Emerging Vulnerability: A Secure Europe Needs Greater German Defense Efforts
The United States cannot handle all of the world’s potential conflicts on its own, and certainly not simultaneously. It should concentrate on Asia and enable Europe to bolster its own defenses against the threat from Russia. And it is Germany that has to play the central role.
The global geopolitical environment has fundamentally changed, and Europe and NATO will have to change with it. This necessity is now acute, as the United States must focus on China and Asia without delay. Indeed, there is a growing recognition that a major war over Taiwan is possible in this decade, but also that the United States is not adequately prepared for it. Addressing this priority will demand so much from the United States that Europe must take a much greater role in its own defense—and do so quickly.
From the collapse of the Soviet Union until a few years ago, we lived in what some called “the unipolar era.” The United States was far stronger than any other state and, meanwhile, the other most significant states in the world were largely US allies. The international security situation reflected these facts. With a weak post-Soviet Russia and a still-developing China, the US military could essentially handle any plausible threat to Washington’s far-flung alliance network largely on its own. The biggest threats to this network were relatively weak “rogue states.” Indeed, Washington was so powerful that it could aspire to simultaneously defeat adversaries in multiple theaters. This was the vaunted “two-war standard” of US defense planning.
Germany’s Rational Disarmament
This was an exceptionally secure and comfortable situation for most US allies. It was therefore hardly surprising that many of them effectively demilitarized in these years. This was especially the case in Germany, which embraced a peaceful European continent amidst notions of an end of history. But Germany’s demilitarization after the Cold War was in key respects a thoroughly rational decision, and not merely an idealistic delusion. Cold War West Germany faced an immediate and dire security threat, and a robust Bundeswehr was the result. Post-Cold War Germany faced no such threat, and furthermore it could prove it no longer had any aggressive ambitions by disarming. A disarmed Germany under the American security umbrella thus avoided historic German’s multifront quandary, but allowed a revivified German economy to become increasingly predominant in Europe. Thus, a demilitarized Germany fit its post-Cold War world quite nicely.
That post-Cold War world is now gone, however, and requires us all to change our thinking and actions accordingly. And this is for one reason above all: China.
China has now definitively risen, and it looks set to continue rising. China is already an enormous economy—either the largest or second largest in the world, depending on the metric used. And, with the largest peacetime military build-up in generations, China’s armed forces are now by far the most powerful conventional military in the world other than those of the United States itself.
Beijing’s Ambition for Hegemony in Asia
Nor does China appear likely to just sit back and admire this military it has built. Rather, Beijing seems focused on first establishing regional hegemony over Asia, the world’s largest market area, and from that position global preeminence. Its first target, it is now commonly agreed, is likely to be Taiwan. But an increasing weight of evidence indicates that Taiwan would not be the end of China’s ambitions. With a widening network of bases and a military suited for distant power projection, Beijing’s ambitions are clearly global.
Yet China is not the only threat that the United States and its allies and partners face. As we can plainly see in Ukraine, there is also Russia. And on top of these are Iran, North Korea, and jihadi terrorism, among other possible threats.
Together, these factors mean that the United States must consider the potential for getting into several conflicts in widely separated theaters of the world, and doing so on roughly concurrent timelines. Moreover, such conflicts might well involve powerful adversaries like China and Russia, not just the rogue state threats of years past. Such simultaneous conflicts might happen because of chance or coincidence. But they also might happen deliberately. This might be the result of opportunism: For instance, a conflict with one adversary might draw the Americans into one theater, thereby weakening Washington’s position elsewhere to a degree that another US rival sees advantage and strikes. Even worse, however, given the increasing alignment among some of these US adversaries, they might act together purposefully, precisely to divide American attention and resources and exploit the resulting vulnerabilities. Most dangerously for Europe, Russia might stoke conflict in Europe precisely to help draw US attention away from its now close ally, China, upon which Moscow is increasingly reliant.
The Scarcity of American Military Power
It is critical to address this multi-front problem because the US military is sized and shaped based on its preparedness to deal with certain kinds of conflicts—certain scenarios, in the military vernacular. And the fact is that the United States cannot handle all of these potential conflicts essentially on its own, and certainly not simultaneously. Rather, the United States has to focus, choosing where to concentrate its efforts. The simple reality, above all because of the rise of China, is that the United States cannot be everywhere at once with dominant force.
We can think of this as a military “scarcity,” to use a term from economics. The problem is not that the United States does not have a large and very capable military. Rather, it lacks enough of the key forces to fight more than one big war at anything like the same time. Even more, this scarcity is most acute in what are likely to count among the decisive elements in a major modern war—long-range attack aircraft, submarines, munitions, logistics, and the productivity of the defense industrial base. The United States just does not have enough of these things to fight multiple conflicts on even roughly concurrent timelines, especially against major powers like China and Russia, nor is it on a trajectory to have them in the foreseeable future.
Indeed, it is not even clear that the United States has enough of these key things to win in some of the toughest scenarios it has to contemplate, particularly against China over Taiwan. The United States might even run out of key munitions and other assets in such a conflict on a time scale not much different than what Russia has experienced in Ukraine.
It is important to be clear that this scarcity is ultimately a reflection of the structural reality, of fundamental shifts in the global distribution of power, above all the rise of China—a true peer superpower of the United States. It is certainly true that for many years the United States misallocated its military resources on wars in the Middle East and failed to give due attention to the growing challenge from a rising China and a resurgent Russia. But given China’s size and increasing investment in its military, it is not a problem that can be “solved” simply by mustering more resolve, spending more money, or devising a cleverer strategy. To be sure, the United States can ameliorate these dilemmas, but they are not simply going to be eliminated.
In fact, the need to adjust to this structural imbalance has already been recognized in the US defense establishment for several years. The United States officially did so with the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, in which Washington shifted its priority from being able to fight and win two wars at once, with a focus on rogue states, to ensuring America’s ability to prevail in a single great power war, above all against China. Though little noticed, the Biden administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy has carried this foundational policy forward, maintaining the “one war” force planning construct and a focus on China in Asia, with Taiwan now officially ensconced as the Pentagon’s “pacing scenario.”
The Unavoidable US Shift to Asia
Needless to say, this has profound implications for European security. The basic upshot is that the United States does not have the power to handle China in Asia while also maintaining such a dominant military position in other theaters, particularly Europe and the Middle East. The clear consequence of this is that there is and will be a deficit of American military power somewhere. And this will leave vulnerabilities—vulnerabilities which countries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea may very well seek to exploit.
So how should the United States and its allies handle this divergence between America’s military capacity on the one hand and the challenges to the alliance network on the other?
One temptation, which afflicts both sides of the Atlantic, is to try to pretend that the US can still be militarily dominant in multiple theaters or can regain such predominance. On the American side, prominent neo-conservative voices argue that the United States cannot afford to make choices, and should double the defense budget to 6 or 7 percent of GDP. On the European side, many appear inclined to do little, hoping the US will pick up the slack as it has done so often in the past.
This approach, however, does not deal with the facts. Things are genuinely different now in ways that undermine both the American and European version of this temptation. Failing to see the reality and grapple with it will only delay the reckoning, and may make it much more severe when it comes.
On the US side, there seems little chance under current conditions that the defense budget will double. Indeed, it is highly questionable that it would be advisable from an economic point of view for the United States to shoulder this additional defense burden, let alone be fair from the vantage of inter-allied equity. To the extent that such calls to double America’s defense budget obscure the need for prioritization, choice, and grappling with the need for change, they can be very harmful—not only for Americans but for Europeans too. For example, if the United States does not allocate sufficient forces to deal with China in Asia, Beijing will have a greater incentive to attack Taiwan and defeat the American and Taiwanese defenses. At this stage, Beijing would have the option and quite possibly the will to advance beyond Taiwan to decisively undermine any anti-hegemonic coalition in Asia. In these circumstances, the United States would have to shift its attention to Asia, likely radically and disruptively in ways that could leave its allies in other theaters, including Europe, highly exposed if they are unprepared.
In other words, if Europeans are unprepared for this scenario, they could be left very vulnerable to Russian action. This is why it would be imprudent for Europe to rely on what has worked in the past: Calling Washington’s bluff on burden-sharing. Indeed, if Europeans do little, the ultimate result is more likely to be a security vacuum in Germany’s immediate environment rather than the United States continuing to shoulder the burden of filling it. If Europe elects not to assume a greater role in its own defense, in practice this will force a choice upon the United States: Try to maintain deterrence and defense in Europe against Russia at the expense of its ability to do so in Asia against China, or continue increasing the focus on Asia, at greater risk of Russian aggression in Europe.
We cannot know how Washington would choose to navigate this choice. But we can judge what the right choice for Americans would be, and thus what seems likely to win out: Prioritize Asia, the world’s largest market area and thus decisive theater, and accept risk in Europe. Of course, the United States should strongly prefer to avoid this outcome. But a laggardly European response would take that option off the table.
Forthrightly Adapting to the New Reality—Together
There is, though, a better alternative for both America and Europe. This is to adapt to this new reality in concert. The model that would work best is for the United States to focus on China in Asia, while remaining committed to NATO but alongside greater efforts by Europe in its own self-defense. In this model, Europe would take the primary responsibility for its own conventional defense, something which is well within its economic capacity, while the United States would take a more focused role in NATO.
American prioritization of Asia actually makes sense for both the US and Europe for several reasons. First, the Chinese military threat is by far the most acute. The United States is the only country with any possibility of leading a coalition to stand up to China directly. If the United States does not laser focus on Asia, the region will likely fall under Beijing’s hegemony.
Second, Asia is the primary theater of international politics because of the scale of its economy, which dwarfs that of either the United States or Europe—and is likely to outsize both combined over time. This means that, if Asia falls under Chinese dominance, it is a grave concern not only for Asians and Americans but for Europeans, too. A Beijing predominant over the world’s largest market area would be in a position to exercise dominant sway over the economies and politics of both a fractious Europe and even the United States. Indeed, if the United States is so fearful of such an outcome, then a Europe without a unified government and with weaker long-term growth prospects than America should be terrified. Thus, Europe itself benefits, indirectly but very concretely, from the US focus on preventing China’s dominance of Asia.
Focusing Europe on the Russian Threat
At the same time, though, the rise of China has not removed the threat Russia poses to European NATO, as made very clear by Russia’s abominable invasion of Ukraine. And while Russia has faced difficulties in its assault on Ukraine, it is imprudent to count it out. Russia appears to have the will to sustain its military assault on Ukraine for some time, and it seems wise to assume that Moscow will regenerate much of its military power to threaten NATO.
So how do we deal with this persisting Russian threat? The most pressing military scenario for NATO is a Russian invasion against an ally in northeastern Europe, such as the Baltics, Poland, or Finland, which is close to joining the transatlantic alliance. Most dangerously, such a Russian assault would be designed to create a fait accompli that NATO, intimidated by the costs and risks of ejecting the Russian force, would feel compelled to accept. If Russia were to succeed in breaking off significant territory from a NATO ally, the consequences for the alliance would be significant and could even be grave, including possibly the dissolution of NATO. It seems likely that, at a minimum, such an eventuality would result in much greater instability in Europe or, worse, major portions of Eastern Europe falling under direct or indirect Russian control. Few countries, it seems, would suffer more from this outcome than Germany.
Given the American need to focus on Asia, the natural way to fill this gap would be for NATO’s European members to assume the responsibility for providing the bulk of the alliance’s conventional military forces to deal with this scenario. In this model, European allies would quickly develop, ready, and posture the forces needed to blunt and ideally defeat any Russian invasion of a NATO ally, alongside US contributions that would be more limited compared to those expected today. At the same time, the United States would remain committed to NATO but concentrate its contributions largely on forces that it could provide without undermining its Pacific posture too much, such as its nuclear arsenal and more selective contributions from its conventional forces.
Germany’s Contribution Is Central
In this context, a cohesive and effective defense of NATO would benefit greatly from a single actor taking a leading role in this effort. The only plausible candidate in Europe for this role today is Germany. Germany alone has the population, economic scale and sophistication, political relations, and geographic position at the center of Europe to play this leading role.
In this model, Berlin would tightly focus on rapidly fielding the capable ground, tactical air, and logistics forces sized and shaped for a defense of Eastern NATO and Scandinavia, using the defense of the Baltics, Poland, and Finland as planning scenarios. This core German force would enable other states, such as the United Kingdom, France, Poland, and the Scandinavian countries, to complement or even integrate their forces into an effective whole. Such a conventional military would be well within Germany’s capacity to build, given the country’s economic strength, and also its proud postwar traditions as part of an integrated NATO collective defense. And while Germany would muster these forces, they would fall within the rubric of allied collective defense, relieving concerns about a rearmed Germany.
Fortunately, Berlin seems to have already taken a major step in this direction with its “Zeitenwende” commitments, including the new €100 billion fund to beef up its military capability, which should enable Germany to being pursuing this course. The Zeitenwende is thus an historic and commendable step, as it points in the direction of a truly collaborative solution to the global set of problems we as allies now face. Russia’s Ukraine invasion has shown us that the only sure security is an effective defense, and the Zeitenwende promises to begin realizing Germany’s essential contributions to the noble goal of collective defense. Now the critical thing is for Germany to implement those spending commitments, with a focus on developing real, combat-ready military forces that can work with other allied armed forces to be able to defeat—and thus hopefully deter—Russian aggression against NATO.
The key here, though, is urgency. US official assessments increasingly warn that China may attack Taiwan this decade, even by 2027. In the meantime, many assessments of the Zeitenwende’s results suggest that capable German forces will only be available in the early 2030s. This would be too late. If Europe is not ready this decade, it may leave Russia a major gap to exploit. Thus, Germany must act at scale, but also urgently, to develop combat-ready forces as soon as possible.
The basic logic here is to avoid war. But the only prudent way to achieve that goal is to be manifestly and credibly prepared for it. The fact is that Europe will be vulnerable if it ignores the realities of a much-changed global power structure. By facing reality, though, together Europe and the United States can see things plainly and prepare accordingly. That will be the surest guarantee of peace in a time when we very evidently cannot take it for granted.
Elbridge Colby is co-founder and principal of The Marathon Initiative. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development from 2017 to 2018, leading the US Department of Defense’s development and rollout of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. He is the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict (2021).
IPQ's Fall 2022 issue, out on September 29, 2022, will focus on the future of the transatlantic relationship.