A Growing Strategic Gap Between America and Europe?


After last year’s fears that President Donald Trump would undermine NATO unity, we now have a clearer understanding of the administration’s ambition for transatlantic security. An unclassified version of the new U.S National Defense Strategy was released on Jan. 19, and it was generally well-received. Critics have lauded the strategy for clearly hierarchizing among competing priorities while others focused on funding issues, but all recognized the important shift towards prioritizing strategic competition with Russia and China (although the specifics of this competition with Moscow and Beijing are unclear), which consequently degraded the relative importance of fighting terrorism.

Simultaneously, the National Defense Strategy heavily emphasizes strengthening alliances:

Mutually beneficial alliances and partnerships are crucial to our strategy, providing a durable, asymmetric strategic advantage that no competitor or rival can match. This approach has served the United States well, in peace and war, for the past 75 years.

When it comes to NATO, the National Defense Strategy states the United States “will deter Russian adventurism, defeat terrorists who seek to murder innocents, and address the arc of instability building on NATO’s periphery,” thus creating a juxtaposition, rather than a hierarchy, of those issues. This phrasing might be an attempt to avoid inflaming the current intra-alliance debate on how to balance issues on the southern flank (terrorism and mass migration) and the eastern flank (Russian aggressive military activities), but this choice seems to contradict the strategy’s overall message that great power competition is back, and will be the focus of U.S. effort.

Therefore, an unintended effect of the National Defense Strategy may be to force Europeans to address difficult questions they have so far been happy to delay answering.

Great Power Competition Cooking versus Anti-Terrorism Dishes?

There is an old saying about the transatlantic alliance that the Americans do the cooking (fighting) while the Europeans wash the dishes (stabilization missions). At first glance, this strategy seems to widen this very same gap between the United States and its allies, particularly in Western Europe. The fight against terrorist organizations has become central for European countries even though they recognize that the ambitions of regional powers have raised the stakes. However, most of these countries treat the return to great power competition mainly as part of their analysis of the global geopolitical context, not as a threat per se. France is a case in point. Its Strategic Review of Defense and National Security released on Dec. 4 states:

The international system that emerged after the Cold War is giving way to a multipolar environment subject to sweeping changes … A growing number of established as well as emerging powers are increasingly displaying military assertiveness, involving power politics and “fait accompli.”

Further, this official posture acknowledges the increased use of military coercion by Moscow (in line with France’s 2013 White Book). Nevertheless, it is an analysis of the overall strategic context rather than an articulation of an urgent threat. In contrast, the fight against jihadist terrorism remains the number one priority, as evidenced in President Emmanuel Macron’s speech to the ambassadors on 29 August. There is a tragic irony in the timing: After opposing the language of the “War on Terror” for a long time, France finally adopted it under Presidents François Hollande and Macron, only for the United States to de-prioritize it.

Paris’ preoccupation with terrorism is highly understandable considering the pace and frequency of attacks carried out in France and other Western Europeans countries by individuals and cells with ties to the Islamic State. This should also be understood in the light of the impact of the civil war in Syria and, not only for France but also for other Western European states, of the perceived risks from jihadist groups in the Sahel. In August, Germany joined the French initiative to expand support for G-5 Sahel forces, a multinational force made up of contingents from Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mauritania to combat jihadist organizations in the Sahel. Germany also contributes to the U.N. mission in Mali by providing surveillance and support for helicopter detachments, aircraft refueling, and drones in addition to its participation in the European Union Training Mission to that country. Italy and Spain have contributed troops and support in the Sahel as well.. Finally, at the recent Franco-British summit on January 18, Theresa May’s government announced the dispatch of Chinook helicopters in support of Operation Barkhane.

Of course, America’s involvement in the fight against jihadist terrorism remains important, particularly in Africa. On the one hand, its role is less visible, primarily involving drones, intelligence, and special forces. On the other hand, Washington’s focus is on supporting regional or Western European initiatives, like the pledge to fund the G5 Sahel Joint Force. In that respect, the apparent convergence between the United States and Western European states — particularly France — seems to translate into a new division of labor. If the posture of the National Defense Strategy is to be taken seriously, the fight against jihadist terrorism could gradually become an ancillary mission left to Western Europeans in a context of seemingly diverging strategic priorities, assuming the shift is possible in practice.

The Russian Threat and Political Competition

The second divisive issue is, of course, the political consequences of acknowledging Russia as an adversary. This assessment risks heightening political divides over this issue in European countries, while changes in the current European force posture towards Russia, already the result of a fragile equilibrium, are unlikely.

It is a euphemism to say that European countries are sharply divided on the issue, as are political parties within European countries themselves. This is revelatory of a deeper trend, also observable in the United States, of partisan divides over whether Russia constitutes a threat. A 2017 poll found that 49 percent of Republicans considered Russia friendly to the United States, or even an ally. This highlights a sharp divide in the perceptions of Russia, since 61 percent of Democrats see Russia as a risk, as opposed to only 36 percent of Republicans. Similar partisan divides can be identified across Europe, with a significant amount of ideological overlap between some European parties, including “mainstream” parties, and the Kremlin’s worldview. This feeds into the rise of right-wing and left-wing populist parties, a consistent trend of Western politics in recent years.

Cas Mudde argues that right-wing populism must be understood not as a pathology of liberal politics, but as the radicalization of values already present within Western societies, particularly the three dimensions of nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. As such, strong leadership, illiberal governance, and “traditional” values have been met with increasing admiration from American and other Western populist elites. But this is not just a problem on the right. Left-wing populist parties usually inspired by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s writings have emerged, such as La France Insoumise in France, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Such anti-establishment parties, from the right and the left alike, usually call for rapprochement, and sometimes alignment, with Russia. The reasons are usually ideological: Such alignment breaks with the liberal-internationalist foreign policy that Western countries have promoted since the end of the Cold War, which those parties oppose. The U.K. Independence Party, the Front National and La France Insoumise in France, the Partij voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands, the Dansk Folkeparti in Denmark, Golden Dawn and Syriza in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary and Podemos in Spain, Die Linke and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, despite their numerous programmatic differences, all call for some degree of rapprochement with Russia or have supported Russian foreign policy. It is therefore misguided to argue that Russia lacks soft power because Moscow does not promote liberal values: conservative and anti-liberal values have an attraction power of their own, which clearly tap into an important electoral reservoir in European countries.

The National Defense Strategy may indirectly heighten debates within European countries regarding Russia. Since the United States clearly expects NATO allies to increase defense spending, and therefore contribute to the U.S. strategy to counter Russia in one way or another, one can expect sharp political disputes in some European countries when it comes to defense policies. Some seem to align with Washington’s strategic assessment and are already preparing for increased military capabilities to deter Moscow. This is particularly obvious in Denmark, where the prime minister proposed a 20 percent hike of the defense budget over a five-year period, but also in the United Kingdom, where the chief of the general staff, Gen Sir Nick Carter, unambiguously described Russia as the “biggest threat to the UK since the Cold War.” Similar dynamics are observed in Poland, where defense spending will increase with Russia in mind, and in the Baltic countries where spending on arms and military equipment is supposed to triple in 2018 from 2014 standards.

Macron announced that defense spending will be steadily raised within the next years, with the goal of reaching the 2 percent of GDP benchmark by 2025. However, France’s strategic narrative is strongly geared towards countering terrorism, and it is unclear whether the government will find political support to portray Russia as a threat. Several key political figures on the right and on the left are always keen to claim that “Russia is not an enemy,” and any move in that direction could be easily portrayed as a submission to American whims, always an anathema in France.

A similar argument could be made about Germany, where the “Putinsversteher” have an important audience, and an attempt to declare Russia the main adversary would be difficult to justify. In fact, 88 percent and 77 percent of the French and German population, respectively, consider ISIL a major threat to their countries, compared to only 45 percent and 33 percent feeling the same way about Russia. Among the major European countries, only in Poland does a majority of the population consider Russia a major threat. In addition, Germany is dealing with the concerning state of its armed forces (plagued by major procurement and training issues , and the draft coalition agreement paints a far too rosy picture of the readiness and training of the Bundeswehr. It is unclear how the German armed forces could contribute more to America’s ambition to rely on allies in order to deter Russia.

Moreover, business interests, for which political and strategic confrontation is always an impediment to profit, regularly call for lifting E.U. sanctions on Russia, and several German politicians seem keen to increase the European Union’s dependence on Russian gas through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The relaunching of “normal” economic relations is also occasionally mentioned by major political figures (recently by French finance minister Bruno Le Maire), which is the result of an important lobbying effort from business interests. However, it should be noted that the impact of sanctions on the E.U. economy is estimated to be less than 0.2 percent of the total value added and employment (the potential impact of the sanctions for the Russian economy is estimated at 8­–10 percent of GDP).

In that light, it is important to gauge the significance of Western European contingents participating in the posture of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. After participating in the NATO EFP Battalion in Estonia in 2017, a French contingent is currently deployed in Lithuania. The United Kingdom leads the multinational battalion in Estonia (with Denmark and France, and support from Iceland) and contributes to the operation in Poland. Germany did the same in Lithuania, alongside the Netherlands and Norway (Belgium and Luxembourg contributed in 2017). Finally, Italy and Spain deployed troops to Latvia.

Nevertheless, the character of this participation highlights the differences of interpretation between Western Europeans and Americans. Notably, the U.S. contribution in Poland is more capable of fighting a potential aggressor while multinational battalions in the Baltic states are more likely to resemble the classical tripwire forces of the Cold War, designed to deter aggression through the threat of immediate escalation to full-blown conflict with NATO. This is of course due to the differences in scale between American and European military capabilities. But it also shows a different appreciation of the practice of the deterrent stance: Where the United States insists on the need for credible capabilities to contain Russian aggression, Western Europeans prefer to play on the ambiguity of the response in the event of tripwire violations. Finally, it shows a hierarchy of priorities: The Europeans can agree to build up the tripwire to a certain degree, but will not accept going all the way in terms of high readiness and follow-on forces.

In other words, the participation of Western European contingents is more a matter of political utility than a military necessity and stems from different threat perceptions, which are heavily influenced by geographical proximity to Russia. For some states, Russia is an opportunistic power that can be deterred with the Enhanced Forward Presence, while others see greater threats on the southern flank. Those in the former camp do not wish to enter into a spiral of provocation with Moscow, while the latter fear an imbalance between the two fronts to which the alliance is called.

The current degree of European activities to counter Russia is already the result of a fragile balance, and can only marginally increase. The two most important European states (France and Germany) will likely be reluctant to get more involved, while the other major European military power (the United Kingdom) is embroiled in the disastrous management of the Brexit process and its dire economic consequences.

The Challenges of Alliance Management, Redux

To be sure, this is far from the first time in NATO’s history alliance that a U.S. strategic decision will stir tension within the alliance. One only need to think about the tensions over German rearmament and forward defense, flexible response, or the “preemption versus prevention” logic for military interventions (among other examples) to observe how transatlantic security issues have regularly led to strong political discussions among European members of NATO. However, the regularity does not imply that the situation will be easy to manage.

By firmly stating that the post-Cold War hopes of international cooperation are shattered, that great power competition is back, and that Russia is an adversary, the National Defense Strategy exposes what many European countries have been reluctant to acknowledge. It effectively signals the end of any hope that a “normative power Europe” would help guide the international system towards greater cooperation. True, the EU is gradually creating more possibilities to cooperate in defense, but the new PESCO mechanism (Permanent Structured Cooperation, aimed at increasing cooperation in defense capabilities development) looks more like a technical solution than a real attempt by the European Union to think strategically. Acknowledging the risks of great power competition has been an issue within Europe for a long time, which it could afford to ignore in the “intervention era” of small wars that characterized the post-Cold War period. Moreover, Russia has essentially become an identity politics issue, uniting European anti-liberal forces (with some selected Russian help) in support of Moscow. Finding a political agreement, like Western states did against the Warsaw pact during the Cold War, seems unimaginable right now, and any bargain will be hostage to the changing political dynamics in European countries (and the United States).

It’s true that NATO is a “victim of its own success” and lacks a common enemy that would provide unity. But the National Defense Strategy is unlikely to create a new one, since this would be resisted by several members of the Alliance. Inventing new ways to manage evolving alliance dynamics will be of paramount importance to minimize frustrations on both sides of the Atlantic. The irony is that a strategic decoupling between America and Europe, resisted by so many for so long, could be the most effective mechanism to reduce this tension.


Olivier Schmitt is an associate professor at the Center for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark. His next book, Allies that Count. Junior Partners in Coalition Warfare, will be published by Georgetown University Press in March 2018.

Stéphane Taillat is a lecturer in International Relations and Strategic Studies at St Cyr Military Academy (France) and a research fellow at the St Cyr Research Center.

Image: U.S. Army/Seth LaCount