The Art of Vassalization: How Russia’s War on Ukraine Has Transformed Transatlantic Relations
The issue of sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine roiled German and European politics for months in late 2022. The United States and Europe had collectively committed to support Ukraine in its war with Russia. Ukraine said it needed Western tanks — and the German-made Leopards were the tank that best fit the bill. But the government in Berlin, worried about escalation with Russia, refused to move first. “We always act together with our allies and friends,” Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, insisted. “We never go alone.”
The curious part was that no one was asking Germany to act alone. By January 2023 Britain had announced that it would send 14 of its Challenger main battle tanks to Ukraine. The Polish and Finnish governments had publicly signaled that they would be ready to supply Leopard 2 tanks in conjunction with other allies. The European Parliament voted in favor of a European Union initiative in this regard in October 2022. The United States, France, and Germany itself had already committed to send infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine, a weapons system that a layperson cannot even distinguish from tanks.
But “alone” had a very specific meaning for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He was unwilling to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine unless the United States also sent its own main battle tank, the M1 Abrams. It was not enough that other partners would send tanks or that the United States might send other weapons. Like a scared child in a room full of strangers, Germany felt alone if its Uncle Sam was not holding its hand.
In the interest of allied unity, the Biden administration eventually stepped in and agreed to provide Abrams tanks to Ukraine. No longer “alone,” the German government approved the export and transfer of Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Once again, U.S. leadership proved necessary to resolve an inter-allied dispute. The episode raises more fundamental questions about the Atlantic alliance than just the issue of which weapons system to send to Ukraine. Why does the leader of the most powerful country in Europe believe he is alone and defenseless unless he acts in lockstep with the United States? Why, with a war taking place on the European continent, does U.S. leadership remain necessary to solve even minor inter-allied disputes? A few short years ago, stunned by Donald Trump’s entry into the White House, European governments seemed poised to take control of their own fates from a distracted and politically unreliable America. But when the next crisis came, both the United States and the governments of Europe fell back on old models of alliance leadership.
The immediate cause was, of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But, as we explain in a recent report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, the deeper answer lies in the structure of transatlantic relations and internal divides between E.U. member states. As a result, Europeans have embarked on a process of self-vassalization, in which they sacrifice much of their independence in foreign policy to Washington in return for protection. Some in Washington may applaud a weak and compliant European Union, but a vassalized Europe and unbalanced transatlantic relationship serves the interests of neither side of the Atlantic. The U.S. will need a strong European partner for the geopolitical struggles to come.
The Americanization of Europe
In what now seems like the distant past (the Trump administration), the future of the alliance looked very different. U.S. foreign policy was focused on China and Trump was flirting with Russia and threatening to abandon America’s European allies. Policymakers across Europe began talking about “sovereignty” and “autonomy” as mechanisms to establish their independence from an increasingly capricious American ally. “The times,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told a campaign rally in 2017, “when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over.” In 2019, the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, formed a new “geopolitical Commission” and vowed to make the European Union an independent actor in global affairs.
The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 did more than just call that idea into question. It exposed it as almost entirely empty. As in so many crises during the Cold War, the United States took the lead and contributed the lion’s share of resources.
At one level, this is not surprising. The nations of Europe are not currently capable of defending themselves and so they have no choice but to rely on the United States in a crisis. But that observation just begs the question. These are wealthy, advanced nations with acknowledged security problems and a growing awareness that continuing to rely on the United States entails long-term risks. So why do they remain so incapable of formulating their own response to crises in their neighborhood?
There are two fundamental causes. First, all the focus on America’s decline relative to China and the recent upheavals in U.S. domestic politics have obscured a key trend in the transatlantic alliance over the last 15 years. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the United States has become ever more powerful relative to its European allies. The transatlantic relationship has not become more balanced, but more dominated by the United States.
The second cause is that European governments have failed to reach a consensus on what greater strategic sovereignty should even look like, how to organize themselves for it, who their decision-makers would be in a crisis, and how to distribute the costs. More profoundly, the nations of Europe do not agree on what to do and do not trust each other enough to reach compromises on these questions. American leadership remains necessary in Europe because Europeans remain incapable of leading themselves.
Europe’s Relative Decline
The growing dominance of the United States within the NATO alliance is evident in virtually every area of national strength. On the crudest GDP measure, the United States has dramatically outgrown the European Union and the United Kingdom combined over the last 15 years. In 2008 the E.U.’s economy was somewhat larger than America’s: $16.2 trillion versus $14.7 trillion. By 2022, the U.S. economy had grown to $25 trillion, whereas the European Union and the United Kingdom together had only reached $19.8 trillion. America’s economy is now nearly one-third bigger than both, and more than 50 percent larger than the European Union without the United Kingdom.
The European Union looks somewhat better in purchasing parity terms, but of course, power is determined by absolute size. Moreover, Europe is falling behind on most other measures of power as well.
That growth differential has coincided — again, contrary to predictions — with an increase in the global use of the dollar relative to the euro. American technological dominance over Europe has also grown. The large U.S. tech companies — the ‘big five’ of Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Meta (Facebook), and Microsoft — are now close to dominating the tech landscape in Europe as they do in the United States. New developments such as such as artificial intelligence to reinforce U.S. technological dominance over Europe.
Since 2008, Europeans have also suffered a dramatic relative loss of military power when compared to the United States. Between 2008 and 2021, U.S. military expenditure increased from $656 billion to $801 billion. In the same period, the military expenditure of the E.U. 27 and the United Kingdom rose only from $303 billion to $325 billion, according to our calculations based on the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database. U.S. spending on new defense technologies remains more than seven times that of all E.U. member states combined.
Europe’s divided approach to such expenditure means that even these figures probably overstate European power. Europeans barely collaborate in spending their relatively small budget — so it remains inefficient. E.U. member states have fallen short of a 2017 commitment to spend at least 35 percent of their equipment procurement budgets in cooperation with one another. This figure stood at just 18 percent in 2021.
More fundamentally, the European Union, for all its geopolitical ambitions, remains incapable of formulating a common foreign and security policy that can make use of its latent power. Instead, the financial crisis divided north and south, the migration crisis and the war in Ukraine divided east and west, and Brexit divided the United Kingdom and practically everyone else.
The Consequences of Weakness
And so, the United States has outstripped all E.U. member states combined in providing military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and has also agreed to backfill many of the weapons systems that these allies have provided to Ukraine. In just a few months, U.S. troop deployments in Europe increased from a post-war historic low of around 65,000 to 100,000.
Of course, many European countries and E.U. institutions are making important contributions and providing essential assistance to Ukraine. But American leadership is about more than just resources. The United States has proven necessary to organize and unify the Western response to the Russian invasion. Within the European Union, countries such as Poland, Sweden, and the Baltic states deeply distrust E.U. members such as France, Germany, and Italy on the question of Russia.
Overall, easterners believe that the leadership of these countries is either corrupted by cheap Russian gas and lucrative payouts or are hopelessly naive about the nature of the Russian regime. “President Macron,” taunted Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki in April 2022, “how many times have you negotiated with Putin? What have you achieved? Would you negotiate with Hitler, with Stalin, with Pol Pot?”
In this sense, no autonomous European policy was possible because, without the United States, Europeans probably would not have agreed on anything at all.
The Atlantic Alliance after the War in Ukraine
American policymakers have announced their intention to return to their previous efforts to shift resources to Asia when the war in Ukraine ends, or perhaps even before it does. After all, the China challenge in U.S. foreign policy has not gone away while the West has focused on Ukraine. Indeed, by diverting Western attention and resources away from the Indo-Pacific and by ensuring Russia becomes dramatically more dependent on China, the war in Ukraine has only made addressing this strategic challenge even harder. For some influential foreign policy thinkers, the severity of the China problem means that even “if we have to leave Europe exposed, so be it … Asia is more important than Europe.”
Despite this clear view coming from Washington, the perspective in Europe on America’s future role in European security seems entirely different. As Liana Fix of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations notes, American leadership “has been almost too successful for its own good, leaving Europeans no incentive to develop leadership on their own.”
This dynamic is particularly clear in the case of Germany, the most powerful nation in Europe. The chancellor’s February 2022 speech about the Zeitenwende (turning point) and the associated increases in German defense spending raised hopes in Europe and the United States that Germany might emerge as a leader of European defense. More than 16 months later, Berlin is still struggling with this idea. The implementation of the Zeitenwende has been proceeding extremely slowly in defense, which is particularly striking because Germany is advancing at lightning speed in other areas, such as the construction of terminals for the import of liquefied natural gas. Germany missed NATO’s 2 percent of GDP spending target in 2022 and is not expected to meet it in 2023 either. Meanwhile, the Social Democrat (SPD) led government clearly feels very comfortable under Washington’s wing.
The attachment to the U.S. alliance is even more profound in most of the northern and eastern states of the European Union. Poland, Sweden, and the Baltic states believe events have shown that their assessment of the Russian regime was correct and that western E.U. states did not listen to them as they should have.
These states feel vindicated in their view that only the United States can ultimately guarantee their security. Always skeptical about the idea of strategic autonomy, they now think that this would amount to strategic suicide. They are accordingly taking measures to encourage greater U.S. involvement and leadership in Europe, particularly through advocating greater and more permanent U.S. troop presence in eastern Europe and promoting NATO membership for Ukraine.
Overall, the new internal European political dynamic is already structuring European defense policy for the future. Even as the Russian invasion has spurred real increases in European defense spending, the structure of that spending means that it will actually create greater dependence on the United States. European policymakers now see EU or transnational European procurement programs as too time-consuming and complex. The focus is on quickly filling capability gaps. The German government, for example, has decided to buy off-the-shelf, mainly American, equipment including the F-35 and the Chinook heavy transport helicopter. Poland recently decided to buy Abrams tanks from the United States, as well as tanks and howitzers from South Korea as it rapidly builds up its army. This will create dependencies that will last for decades.
The Vassalization This Time
The United States and its European partners may have returned to their Cold War alliance habits, but of course, the current geopolitical situation is vastly different than during the Cold War. Europe then was the central front in the struggle with the Soviet Union, and U.S. strategy, especially in the early days, hinged on rebuilding western Europe both economically and militarily so that it could stand up to the challenge from the east.
The 21st-century struggle with China looks quite different. Europe is not the central front, and its prosperity and military strength are not central to U.S. strategy. The Biden administration has consciously adopted a strategic industrial policy aimed at American reindustrialization and technological dominance over China. This strategy is part domestic economic policy — “a foreign policy for the middle class” that responds to deindustrialization at home — and part a foreign policy response to China’s success in recent years at capturing dominant positions in strategic industries such as solar energy and 5G.
European allies have a role in this geo-economic struggle with China, but it is not, as during the Cold War, to become rich and contribute to the military defense of the central front. To the contrary, their key role from a U.S. perspective is to support U.S. strategic industrial policy and to help ensure American technological dominance vis-à-vis China. They can do so by acquiescing to U.S. industrial policy and by circumscribing their economic relations with China according to American concepts of strategic technologies.
As these policies have the potential to reduce economic growth in Europe, cause (further) deindustrialization, or even deny Europeans dominant positions in key industries of the future, they might be expected to generate serious opposition throughout the European Union. And to some degree, they have. A debate rages in the European Union and the United Kingdom about whether Europeans need to follow U.S. policy on China or whether they can strike out on their own.
However, it is far from clear that any of this debate will translate into policy measures that will affect U.S. foreign economic policy. Many administration officials, in various author interviews since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, have expressed the view that Europeans may whine and complain, but that their increasing security dependence on the United States means that they will mostly accept economic policies framed as part of America’s global security role.
The Perils of Vassalization
Vassalization is not a smart policy for the coming era of geopolitical competition — either for the United States or for Europe.
From a European perspective, while the alliance with the United States will remain crucial for European security, relying fully on a distracted and inward-looking America for the most essential element of sovereignty will condemn the nations of Europe to become, at best, geopolitically irrelevant and, at worst, a plaything of superpowers.
For the United States, a vassalized Europe will forever lack the capacity to defend itself and will always rely on U.S. protection and U.S. military assets that are already in short supply. Most U.S. policymakers, in the authors’ experience, know they need a strong European partner for the geopolitical competition to come. Such a partner would be more independent, but that independence, while not always welcome by the United States on specific issues, is much less of a threat to a functional partnership than increasingly weak and irrelevant European partners. American policy needs to nurture that independence, not strangle it in its crib.
Ultimately, the transatlantic alliance will persist only if the leadership on both sides of the Atlantic believes they have something to gain from its partners. That sense requires a more balanced partnership, not vassalization.
Jeremy Shapiro is the Director of Research at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. He served in the U.S. State Department from 2009-2013.
Jana Puglierin is the Head of the Berlin Office and a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Image: The White House