The Role of Europe in American Defense Strategy

April 23, 2014
Bundeskanzlerin Merkel empfängt den NATO- Generalsekretär Rasmussen

The United States appears to be entering a period of having to do less with less, particularly in the military realm. In part, this reflects a more discerning attitude on the part of the Obama administration toward national security policy — that is, a more realistic appraisal of American interests at stake in various regions of the globe, and of whether, when, and how U.S. military force can promote those interests, especially in coordination with foreign partners.

But the need to do less with less, especially in the military realm, is also simply a function of the diminished resources available to the Department of Defense. Fiscal constraints, as well as the historically typical post-war rollback of defense spending that is now underway, will decisively affect the Defense Department’s planning for the next several years.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, fiscal constraints are also having a significant impact on European capabilities. Defense spending across Europe dropped by 12 percent in real terms from 2006 through 2012. Although there is hope that collective spending will stabilize by 2015, if the pace of European economic recovery does not improve, further cuts may occur. As for European willingness to employ military power, the imposition of caveats to restrict European military forces’ operations in Afghanistan was evidence to many Americans that these allies had little appetite for fighting.

With both European capabilities and willingness in doubt, it would be nonsensical for the United States to continue to rely on its European allies as partners in the defense of common interests.  Ironically, however, in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) report American leaders have stated their commitment to doing just that. The 2014 QDR report notes that the European allies are the “primary U.S. partners in operations globally,” that Europe is home to the United States’ “most stalwart and capable allies and partners,” and that “Europe remains [the United States’] principal partner in promoting global security.”

The 2014 QDR report is not particularly novel in this regard, however. National military strategies, national security strategies, and QDR reports dating back to the post-Cold War period state that the United States prefers to wield force in a coalition and/or that the United States prefers to partner with its European allies.

It seems particularly ironic that the United States would pursue a policy of developing, maintaining, and relying on European partners to shoulder common security and defense burdens when much of the evidence and most of the conventional wisdom seems to indicate that America’s allies in Europe are neither capable nor willing, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. Why would Washington pursue such a policy?

One fundamental reason centers on the notion of legitimacy. Political science and sociology both tell us that domestic and international legitimacy are critical to the functioning of states, particularly mature democracies such as the United States. Having coalition partners confers a particular policy with the appearance of legality, and hence legitimacy. The public’s perception of a particular policy as legitimate helps to keep in place both the policy in question and the policymaker advocating it.

In addition to legitimacy, capable European coalition partners also provide both quantitative and qualitative operational benefits without which the United States would be unable to achieve its objectives as effectively or efficiently. Consider, for example, the surge in Afghanistan ordered by President Obama. European allies were able to commit an additional 7,000 troops, providing General Stanley McCrystal and ISAF with the forces necessary to implement the “surge” strategy through mid-2011. Could the United States have achieved the surge without European contributions? Perhaps, but not without significant additional costs.

In addition to the quantitative benefits that NATO allies provide for U.S.-led coalition operations, there are also qualitative benefits. European capabilities may appear unnecessarily redundant of American capabilities. However, with American military forces responsible for protecting U.S. interests across the globe, that redundancy is often critical to U.S. and allied war planners, who rely on it to ensure coalition operations can proceed. In business, redundancy is wasteful and inefficient, but in military operations redundancy often provides a vital form of insurance on the battlefield, in which one system or capability substitutes for another that has failed for unforeseen reasons.

Understanding why Washington would want to rely on capable European coalition partners does not necessarily reveal whether such a policy is reasonable. The conventional wisdom that the United States’ European allies lack the capability and willingness to shoulder a share of the burden of meeting common security imperatives is not completely unfounded. But the story of European defense in the coming years is not necessarily one of utter gloom and doom. There are, in fact, countervailing data points and trends that the United States should seek to leverage.

For example, throughout the financial crisis, some European countries such as Finland and Denmark, have managed to hold defense spending constant. Others such as Poland and Sweden have actually increased their defense budgets over the same period. The very latest defense spending figures, released by NATO in February, show that Norway, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and the United Kingdom all increased defense spending in constant terms from 2012 to 2013. Elsewhere, France, Germany, and Greece all held defense-budget cuts in 2013 to less than one percent over 2012 levels. More broadly, even in the midst of Europe-wide austerity measures and the Afghanistan drawdown, Europe still collectively constitutes the world’s second strongest military power in terms of defense spending.

In terms of the willingness of U.S. allies in Europe to wield military power and share both burdens and risks, there is evidence that European states remain interested in defending important and vital interests beyond Europe’s shores. For example, last year’s French defense white paper outlined how Paris will pursue more strategic autonomy — and rely less on multilateral coalitions as a panacea — in the use of its military to achieve French strategic goals in Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean, and how France will seek to maintain a full spectrum military. Meanwhile, the relatively new coalition government in Germany has declared its intent to expand the number of German troops engaged in peacekeeping operations in Africa. In a similar vein, NATO’s Secretary General Rasmussen has made clear the alliance stands ready to provide peacekeepers to support efforts to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian dispute if both sides requested it as part of a future peace treaty.

Moreover, if vital European interests are at stake, America’s European allies have shown a willingness and ability to reprioritize and reallocate resources. For example, although there were certainly shortcomings in how the allies implemented Operation Unified Protector in and over Libya in 2011 and eastern Libya today remains a troubled region, NATO’s operation in fact prevented the Qaddafi regime from slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians and perpetrating a full-scale humanitarian disaster in Benghazi — and did so while European allies had roughly 40,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan.

The U.S. approach toward its allies in Europe as outlined in the 2014 QDR report therefore seems not entirely unreasonable, although it is clearly ambitious. In order to increase the odds that the United States will continue to have reliable, capable coalition partners in Europe, there are some steps Washington could consider taking. For instance, the United States should better leverage its remaining forward-based troops in Europe to focus on interoperability training and unit partnerships with the most effective, most capable, most expeditionary allies in Europe. Regarding those U.S. forces that only deploy to Europe on a rotational basis — for example, as part of the Army’s Regionally Aligned Forces concept — the United States should extend the current short-term, episodic rotations of Army forces to Europe to 11-month tours, creating toe-to-heel, year-round rotational presence, thereby significantly increasing opportunities to maintain the operational and tactical interoperability gained in Afghanistan.

Additionally, Washington should better fund security assistance accounts and programs that benefit U.S. allies in Europe. In the latest budget request, the Warsaw Initiative Fund, which helps less advanced European partners to participate in Partnership for Peace exercises and training, was cut by 28 percent. Foreign Military Financing for Europe and Eurasia, which helps less capable allies and other partners to purchase U.S. military equipment and training, was cut 23 percent. Such cuts frustrate interoperability efforts and make it more difficult for European allies to build and maintain deployable, sustainable forces.

Finally, the United States should endeavor to maintain slots for foreign military officers from allied countries at American military schoolhouses, even as the U.S. military looks to cut overhead and reduce force structure. Given the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is possible, perhaps likely in some specific instances, that some European allies will increase their defense spending, renew modernization efforts, and increase military force structures, even as they continue to shake off the effects of sovereign debt crises. Unfortunately, the United States cannot afford to entirely rely on Mr. Putin to push NATO allies into rejuvenating their defense budgets. Instead, it would be prudent for the United States to make investments in trying to ensure it has willing, capable coalition partners well into the future.


Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor of Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational (JIIM) Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute. He previously worked for eight years as a political advisor for senior U.S. military commanders in Europe and as an adjunct lecturer at Heidelberg University’s Institute for Political Science. Follow him at @JohnRDeni. The views expressed here are his own.


Photo credit: Medien Bundeswehr