Europe needs to take primary responsibility for its own defense
The pivot to Asia is still a good idea
Mitt Romney is one of two Republicans I’ve voted for in my life (the other was a failed D.C. Council candidate). I think he did a good job during his one term as governor of Massachusetts. And while it wouldn’t have earned him my vote as a presidential candidate, I think he probably would have beaten Obama if he’d run on his record as a moderate technocrat rather than embracing hard-right austerity economics. Over the past few years he’s done a lot to get back in my good graces though, standing up against some of the toxic elements of Trumpism and outlining a solid child allowance proposal.
But one of the positive re-evaluations of Romney I don’t agree with is the idea that “Romney Was Right About Russia” (Chris Cillizza) or “Romney Was Right About Putin” (McKay Coppins) because Romney didn’t say that Vladimir Putin is bad. He said that Russia was the biggest geopolitical threat facing America. I thought that was silly then and it remains silly today.
Still, I respect that even though he maintains he was right in 2012, Romney is actually open-minded enough to tell Coppins in the middle of the Ukraine War that he doesn’t believe that anymore (emphasis added):
I guess politics can be blinding. My guess is the Obama team thought that would be politically advantageous to say, and the compliant media picked up the message and drove it home as hard as they could … I mean, I think it was The New York Times that said, “This proves Romney is unqualified to be president.” Like, oh my goodness, guys. Come on. Who do you think was our geopolitical adversary back in 2012? I’d love to know what their suggestion was. Clearly, today, China is a greater threat to our security and our economic vitality. But they weren’t a geopolitical player in the sense that Russia was back in 2012.
This just underscores the extent to which Obama was right all along. It’s not like China’s continued economic growth was some unforeseeable turn of events.
My biggest critique of Obama’s foreign policy is that he wasn’t sufficiently forceful in executing the pivot to Asia. In his defense, he was pushing against deeply entrenched political forces that made it hard to actually pull off. But conceptually, he was right all along, and the idea that we should have gone all-in on anti-Russian foreign policy 10 years ago doesn’t make sense. Of course today, after the seizure of Crimea, the 2016 election hacking, and now the renewed invasion of Ukraine, it makes more sense — especially because now we have European partners who are working with us. But the basic question of priorities remains. And I think the stark reality is that China is a more formidable adversary and America’s democratic friends in Asia objectively need support more than our European allies.
All of this means that while “the West” in some sense does need a sustained focus on Russia-related threats, the United States really should find a way to offload this responsibility primarily to Europe, with us remaining helpful but with a lighter touch.
Against sentimental oversimplification
My big thing across a range of contexts is prioritization, prioritization, prioritization. And I think many aspects of the political and media ecosystems push against that. You can see anti-prioritization in the internal coalition politics of the Democratic Senate caucus, and also in takes like this from my step-uncle George Packer, where he posits a kind of cosmic unity of geopolitical conflicts:
Now Putin, along with his patron and enabler, Xi Jinping of China, has pushed into American and European faces a truth we didn’t want to see: that our core interests lie in the defense of those values. To be realist in our age is not to define American interests so narrowly that Ukraine becomes disposable but to understand that the world has broken up into democratic and autocratic spheres; that this division shapes everything from supply chains and competition for resources to state corruption and the influence of technology on human minds and societies; that the autocrats have gained the upper hand and know it. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, following its earlier efforts to stifle independence and democracy there, as well as in Georgia and Belarus, is the most dramatic but far from the last point of conflict between the two spheres.
There is obviously something to this global clash of values, but there are also lots of very real limits.
The European countries most enthusiastically supporting Ukraine are not the most solidly democratic ones, but the ones with the most historical conflict with Russia. This includes the deeply admirable Baltic states but also the fairly illiberal and at least a bit autocratic governing group in Poland.
Israel has refused to back Ukraine, largely because of considerations related to Russian forces in Syria.
But Turkey, which has taken a very autocratic turn under its current government, has given Ukraine critical assistance in the form of military drones in what seems to be an extension of conflicts between Turkey and Russia in Libya, Syria, and the Caucuses, none of which have anything to do with democracy.
In an extension of its Cold War-era alliance with the USSR, India has largely backed Russia during the current crisis.
It is perfectly possible for autocratic regimes to avoid being geopolitical troublemakers (Singapore) and for democracies to run off the rails and launched unproved invasions of weaker states (the USA in Iraq).
The United States will want to collaborate with autocratic (Vietnam) and semi-autocratic (Philippines) states in geopolitical competition with China.
Taking advantage of the falling-out between the USSR and China in the 1970s was smart, and we should be prepared to try to do the same thing again in the future — ideally because Russia becomes a cuddly pro-western democracy but really under any circumstances where they are prepared to be reasonable.
Again, none of this is to deny that there is something to what Packer is saying.
Democratic, rights-respecting publics feel special obligations to uphold the rights of other democratic, rights-respecting nations. Democracies are also capable of engaging in deeper, longer-term forms of cooperation than non-democracies, so it serves our interests to see democracies spread. And while democratic states are not immune to capricious lashing out (again, Iraq), this is at least less likely to happen in open societies with accountable rulers.
That said, adopting democracyism as the basis for American foreign policy — as George W. Bush tried to do in his second inaugural address — would be dangerously destabilizing. The Ukraine situation went from manageable to outrageous when Putin tied himself irrevocably to the idea that Ukrainian nationalism (and therefore the Ukrainian state) is per se illegitimate. If the United States says to Russia and China (and Qatar and Uganda and Vietnam) that their governments are fundamentally illegitimate, that eliminates any basis for cooperation and greatly raises the risks of apocalyptic outcomes.
My point is just that pro-democracy considerations, while real, are not big enough or important enough to eliminate the need for strategic prioritization or to think about tradeoffs.
Europe should be able to defend itself
The key to prioritization is that, fundamentally, Europe should not need significant American help to achieve its continental security goals.
Russia has roughly the population of Germany and France combined and is dwarfed once you start adding other European countries into the mix.
And while Russia is not a poor country by any means, it is considerably poorer than the other large European states. Indeed, Russia is so much poorer than western Europe that at pre-sanction market exchange rates, Russia’s GDP was smaller than Italy’s and dramatically smaller than France’s or Germany’s. With purchasing power parity adjustment (basically accounting for the fact that stuff is cheap in Russia), they pull even with Germany but are clearly swamped by a European aggregate.
What’s more, even with the PPP adjustment, Russia is poorer on a per person basis than all of these countries, including relatively poor Spain and Poland. That means that in principle, almost any individual European country could outspend Russia on a per person basis on military-related items while maintaining higher civilian living standards.
This is not what happens in practice, and Russia has spent a much larger share of its GDP on the military, so at market exchange rates they are spending more than any European country.
That said, even though Europe is relatively stingy with its military spending, its combined military spending of $165 billion is more than Russia’s $62 billion.
Russia’s spending goes up with the PPP adjustment, but the PPP concept is only partially applicable to defense issues. For personnel spending, the fact that a dollar goes further in Russia than in Germany is a big deal. But for defense hardware, the market rates matter more.
The bigger thing of course is that to keep the figures manageable, I’ve been comparing Russia to just five EU members. But if you set those five countries aside, the Netherlands + Belgium + Sweden + Romania + Austria + Czechia + Ireland + Portugal combine for a GDP that (in PPP-adjusted terms) is equal to Russia’s. And there are still a bunch more small EU states, plus the non-EU United Kingdom, whose GDP is about 75 percent of Russia’s. All of which is just to say, again, that from a material resources perspective, the United States does not obviously need to be a major player in securing Eastern Europe.
How you spend it is what matters
Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement that Germany will raise defense spending to two percent of GDP was a political earthquake and a welcome sign that major European countries are stepping up to the plate.
But it’s worth saying that the whole fuss over the two percent threshold is much more a political issue than a military one. NATO member states, at the behest of the U.S. and the Baltics, keep agreeing to this number. But because most NATO members are also in the European Union and subject to its deficit strictures, they’ve found it politically challenging to make that fiscal commitment. If Germany is going to do it (and especially because they appear to be bending their fiscal rules in order to do so), that’s a good sign for the continent as a whole.
At the end of the day, though, the combined EU defense budget is much larger than Russia’s, even without hitting the two percent target. Aggregate PPP-adjusted EU GDP is four to five times higher than Russia’s, so spending just 1.5 percent of the EU’s GDP on defense would yield a combined military budget far larger than Russia’s.
But while Europe could mount a powerful defense without spending more, my basic understanding is that the problem is twofold.
One problem is that a lot of European countries treat their military spending as essentially a make-work jobs program, concentrating their spending on personnel rather than on high-tech (and often imported) equipment. That’s the opposite of how countries at war operate. Ukraine is happy to rely on cheap volunteers and conscripts to fight Russia, but it needs foreigners to give them effective weapons and ammunition or money to buy them. And Ukraine, because they are actually at war, just wants the best stuff available; they don’t care where it’s made. A peacetime country free-riding on American security guarantees tends to go the other direction, under-investing in foreign hardware and supporting domestic economic interests.
The other issue is that while Europe could match Russia by adding up a bunch of different countries, for that to work, the countries need to specialize to some extent. It’s not really constructive for Denmark and Norway and Belgium and the Netherlands and Portugal to all have miniature versions of full-spectrum militaries. Ideally, each small European country would field a relatively small number of really high-quality military units. Since the Netherlands isn’t going to go to war with Belgium or France, it doesn’t need to meet the full spectrum of defense needs, complete with lots and lots of overhead. It needs to coordinate with its allies and identify one or two specific things that it can take responsibility for. Then Belgium can be responsible for something else and Portugal for something else.
Both of these are tough issues politically. But that’s why I don’t love the emphasis on the two percent threshold. Part of the deal here should be that if you spend the money wisely, you don’t actually need to spend that much. It’s really a political question of coordinating and procuring things that are useful. That’s also why I focused mostly on the biggest countries: coordination among the largest countries is easier than coordination among everyone, and it’s also vastly more important. The five largest countries (especially when joined by the UK and the Baltics) have ample resources to counter Russia.
America needs to want this
But the United States needs to want this to happen.
France, which is kind of wishy-washy on the NATO command structure, has long been the big proponent of European strategic autonomy. Meanwhile, the United States has been torn between urging Europe to spend more on defense while being quite happy to let European countries rely on the United States for things like airlift and basic satellite surveillance. And obviously, from a strictly American viewpoint, the best outcome is one in which Europe spends generously to create well-equipped, highly effective military forces that basically only work as auxiliary troops to U.S.-instigated missions.
But that’s not realistic. The question facing us is whether it’s second-best for Europe to have strong and capable forces that can operate autonomously or for Europe to have forces that are largely weak and ineffective. As Max Bergmann details in this excellent report for the Center for American Progress, back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States very specifically pushed against the creation of EU defense capabilities because they didn’t want Europe to be able to do anything outside of the framework of NATO — i.e., without the United States.
Bergmann’s view, which is correct, is that this was ultimately short-sighted and our second-best option is a strong and capable Europe.
And from a more cosmopolitan viewpoint, a Europe capable of independent operations is even more desirable. The American military is an important upholder of certain liberal values, but also an extremely imperfect one. Having an additional liberal superpower would be very good.
The complication is that apart from the United States, a bunch of NATO members aren’t in the EU (Canada, UK, Norway, Turkey) and a bunch of EU members aren’t in NATO.
Bergmann writes that “EU defense will in no way replace or displace NATO,” but I think that’s a little bit facile. If an EU defense entity existed, then NATO would overwhelmingly be an alliance between the U.S. and the EU with a handful of other countries along for the ride. The UK is big enough and militarily capable enough to be a third wheel in that partnership, but it’s a weird situation for Norway. More to the point, in effect, Finland and Sweden and the other EU neutrals would be joining NATO, which is a big deal for their domestic politics. Frankly, I think the current situation where Finland is formally in a currency union with Germany but not a mutual defense pact makes very little sense. And with the neutrals participating in the support of Ukraine, it’s clear that they’re not really neutral anyway. So I see this as a solvable problem, but a problem nevertheless.
A true pivot means saying “no”
The tough part of this is that just as you sometimes need to let your kid make his own mistakes, if we want Europe to sustain a real defense capacity we need to create a situation where we’re not going to bail them out.
This shouldn’t be accomplished with Trumpy bluster and hectoring or done in a rush or the middle of a crisis. But we need to set a timeline on which we say that while we are happy to help in various ways, we are just not going to be primarily responsible for the defense of Poland and Latvia. That, in our opinion, there should be forward-deployed forces in those countries but they should not be Americans, not because “AMERICA FIRST!!!” but because American support is truly needed in Korea and Japan and Australia and the Western Hemisphere while it’s dispensable in Europe.
What we don’t want is the threats and bargaining around the two percent number.
Right now, a lot of the dialogue is grounded in conditionality. Americans say we’re impatient with European underspending and if they don’t make concessions, we’re going to stop underwriting their defense. Then they move a bit toward our position and we say “okay.” This, to me, is how we should think about our Asian allies — we ought to help them, but we need to demand that they do their fair share.
With Europe, the point shouldn’t be that we’re mad at them or demanding that they do anything. It is simply that in a huge world of limited resources, it does not make sense for the American military to be undertaking that mission, so we want to walk away with a handshake and a smile and no ill-will. That means doing it gradually over time. But it does mean really doing it and pulling American forces out of Europe and probably putting them somewhere in Asia so they’re not just sitting around waiting to be redeployed.
Europe is like a 29 year old with a graduate degree in sociology but no job. It has the skills and the ability to support itself, but it insists on working in its chosen field and refuses to take a job as a paralegal. This strategy only works as long as daddy is paying the bills.
If daddy pulls the plug all at once, Europe might have to move in with a sketchy boyfriend. We love Europe too much for that! But if daddy never pulls the plug, Europe will keep doing what it wants to do rather than learning support itself. Supporting oneself is rarely as fun as cultivated leisure.
The US should announce a three or five year time frame for leaving NATO. Europe will keep under investing in defense as long as it has US security guarantees.
You had me up until the end where you seemed to suggest complete withdrawal from Europe. A smaller footprint makes a lot of sense with rich European countries picking up the slack in personnel and technology. However I think we would always need at small but meaningful contribution, including probably our nuclear deterrent, and a seat at the table. Otherwise my bet is it loses coherence fast in the face of various inter-European squabbles.