Apr 30, 2024

For NATO to Thrive, Europe Needs to Wake Up

Donald Trump’s possible re-election as US president hangs over the transatlantic alliance like the Sword of Damocles. Europeans need to face facts and build a much stronger European pillar of NATO.

Bild: Militärübung nahe der Danziger Bucht, April 2023.
Die stärkere Europäisierung der NATO ist auch für Demokraten Voraussetzung für ein fortgesetztes US-Engagement in Europa: Militärübung nahe der Danziger Bucht, April 2023.
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Since the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, NATO has become more relevant than at any time since the end of the Cold War. At the same time, the Russian full-scale invasion has exposed Europe’s security dependence on the United States and the European Union’s military (and economic) vulnerability. Even if Europeans are now spending more on defense, there is still a lot of catching up to do after decades of underinvestment. Without the US, Europeans would not be able to defend themselves at present.

The Americans provide the lion’s share of the so-called “strategic enablers”—reconnaissance, aerial refueling, and satellite communications, for example. They can draw on rapidly deployable, combat-ready armed forces with extensive stocks of ammunition, which most European countries do not have. In view of Russian President Vladimir Putin's posturing in regard to nuclear threat, the US nuclear guarantee is Europe's life insurance and an elementary component of deterrence. The American think tanker Max Bergmann puts it in a nutshell when he writes in a policy brief for the Center for Strategic and International Studies that NATO is organized in such a way that the European armed forces are essentially docked to an operational plan led by the US.

But it's not just about military superiority. The US is also the undisputed political leader. No European capital is able to bring Europeans together like Washington. After the start of the Russian invasion, US President Joe Biden’s administration spent many hours and a great deal of shuttle diplomacy trying to involve the Europeans and coordinate Western reactions to the Russian war. Europe was more than grateful that the United States took the lead, just as it had during the Cold War, and made enormous resources available.

For a while, many in Europe have ignored the fact that the war has not changed two fundamental trends in the US—the refocusing of US foreign policy on Asia and the deep internal division in the United States on the question of whether the defense of Europe remains a vital American national interest. However, the lack of US aid to support Ukraine since the beginning of the year and the prospect that the US could withdraw altogether have alarmed Europeans. The closer the US presidential election in November 2024 approaches, the more the prospect of another Donald Trump victory hangs over the transatlantic alliance like a Sword of Damocles.

No Empty Threat

Trump’s statement that he would encourage Russia to “do whatever it wants” to any NATO country that does not pay enough is no empty threat. It is a promise to Trump’s “Make America Great Again faction and to the ever-growing camp of Republicans who favor a more isolationist foreign policy. It is true that Trump could only leave NATO with the approval of both chambers of Congress or with a two-thirds majority in the Senate. But even without a formal withdrawal, the NATO plans being drafted in conservative US think tanks close to Trump have serious consequences for Europeans.

In particular, a paper by Sumantra Maitra, Director of Research and Public Affairs at the American Ideas Institute, has become somewhat notorious. In it, he advises the US to turn away from Europe and propagates the concept of a “dormant NATO”—a NATO in which the US acts as a quasi “silent” partner. Like many in the MAGA camp, Maitra believes that supporting Ukraine is not of vital national interest to the US and that the high costs are not justified, as Russia no longer represents “a hegemonic threat in Europe.” He says instead it is “high time for the US to abandon the [European] continent as a national security priority.”

Maitra takes a critical view of NATO's institutional development since the end of the Cold War. He deplores its eastward expansion and its “supranational bureaucratization” in the name of promoting democracy. Above all, he argues that the Europeans will never bring about a stronger security policy commitment in Europe as long as the US continues to bear the main burden of European defense.

This is why Maitra wants to put a virtual gun to the Europeans’ head. His ultimate aim is to build a non-US-centric European security architecture in which American troops no longer form the backbone of forward defense on NATO’s eastern flank, but are only available as a last resort.

His goal is not a complete US withdrawal from Europe. The nuclear umbrella and a very limited US naval and air defense presence should remain in place. However, NATO should not strive for further territorial expansion, should limit itself to its absolute core tasks, and only maintain those organizational structures that would be needed and activated in the event of a major war. The Europeans should manage the conventional deterrence of Russian aggression without the US. Instead of sharing the burden more evenly between the US and Europe, Maitra wants to hand over American burdens completely to the Europeans—“burden-shifting” instead of “burden-sharing.”

Similar ideas can be found in the political program of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 and other publications that aim to outline the foreign policy of a Trump-led US government. The concept of “burden-shifting” is not only advocated by those who are fundamentally skeptical of greater American military involvement, but also by the so-called “prioritizers” who want to put all their energy into overcoming the Chinese challenge.

No Illusions

As early as 2020, the mastermind of this camp, Elbridge Colby, wrote in IPQ, “US forces would still play a critical role, especially in the event of conflict, to the extent that doing so would not hollow out American defenses for Asia. The lion's share of the forces required to deter or defeat a Russian attack on NATO would, however, be provided by European nations.” Pressure is also coming from the American electorate. Many Americans simply cannot understand why their tax money and soldiers are needed to defend a prosperous continent whose total population far exceeds that of the US.

Europeans should therefore be under no illusions. Even if Joe Biden wins the US presidential elections on November 5, this will at best give the Europeans more time for the necessary adjustment processes, but will not free them from the fundamental need for greater Europeanization of NATO. This is not only a concern for Republicans, but is also demanded by Democrats who have a fundamentally positive attitude toward NATO—as a prerequisite for continued US involvement. The aforementioned progressive think tanker Bergmann recently wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs that a stronger, less dependent Europe would treat the United States as a true partner and give Washington a new reason to engage in the relationship.

The Europeans must face up to this fact and invest in building a strong European pillar of NATO if they want the alliance to survive a (partial) US withdrawal. This is primarily about building up military capabilities. While Europeans have talked a lot about “wake-up calls” in recent years, in reality they have fallen even further behind the US, whose military capabilities have grown much faster than Europe's military capabilities for all the European talk of “strategic autonomy.”

As Jeremy Shapiro and I wrote in a policy brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations in 2023, US military spending increased from $656 billion to $801 billion between 2008 and 2021. In the same period, the military spending of the 27 EU member states and the United Kingdom only increased from $303 billion to $325 billion. Worse still, US spending on new defense technologies is still more than seven times higher than that of all EU member states combined.

Of course, military spending is only a rough indicator of military strength. But the fragmented nature of the European defense landscape means that even these figures probably overstate the European contribution. Europeans barely collaborate in the use of their relatively small military budget, so it remains inefficient. EU member states have not fulfilled their 2017 commitment to spend at least 35 percent of their budget on collaborative equipment procurement. The current rate is only 18 percent.

A Weakening Industrial Base

Efforts to create a strong, competitive, and innovative defense technology and defense industry base in Europe have been overshadowed by the war against Ukraine. EU initiatives that emerged in response to the war, such as ASAP (Act in Support of Ammunition Production) or EDIRPA (European Defense Industry Reinforcement through common Procurement Act), are suffering from a lack of financial and political support from the member states. The EU ammunition initiative to supply Ukraine with 1 million artillery shells within a year has missed its target by half.

As European capabilities are often not available in time, but gaps need to be filled quickly, many European countries are turning to solutions outside Europe, increasing dependence on third countries and weakening their own industrial base for defense in Europe. Figures from September 2023 show that 78 percent of the financial resources of EU countries for the period 2022-23 was spent on procurement outside the EU,  63 percent of which in the US.

However, a strong, innovative, and competitive European defense industry, whose expertise in strategic technologies is on a par with that of the other major powers, is essential for a more capable and autonomous Europe. This does not mean weakening, but rather strengthening the transatlantic relationship in the long term.

The most important contribution the EU can make to a more Europeanized NATO is to commit member states to invest more, and more intelligently, in their defense capabilities and in innovative technologies. More money is not the only solution, because without the reorganization of existing structures and processes, European armaments cooperation will be neither more innovative nor more effective. But without sufficient and sustainable funding, the incentives for joint development and procurement will be lacking.

We need resilient and long-term prospects. To this end, the financial scope for security and defense in the next Multiannual Financial Framework must be significantly greater than last time. Instruments such as the European Defence Fund must receive more funding in order to strengthen standardization and interoperability in Europe.

With this in mind, the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, presented the first, very ambitious strategy for the defense industry at EU level (EDIS) at the beginning of March 2024, combined with a first legislative proposal to implement this strategy (EDIP). However, even if the goal is widely shared within the EU, many member states are skeptical about such a considerable expansion of the Commission's competencies. This must be overcome. The main objective should be to develop and procure joint military capabilities within the EU that can also strengthen NATO's deterrence and defense capabilities.

It will also be a matter of organizing support for Ukraine in the long term without the US and ensuring that forward defense on the eastern flank is more strongly guaranteed by European troops. The permanent stationing of a German combat brigade in Lithuania is therefore sending the right signal.

Jana Puglierin is Senior Policy Fellow and head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

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