United in Powerlessness

The war between Georgia and Russia has shown just how powerless Europe is to resolve crises, militarily or diplomatically. Will Brussels ever take responsibility for its own neighborhood?

Even that's not a lot. After all, the British think tank Open Europe estimates that the EU bureaucracy is made up of about 170,000 people. Perhaps Brussels believes that Europe can defend itself by issuing regulations rather than deploying soldiers. Nevertheless, even an EU force of sixty thousand would be something-and would symbolize a seriousness long absent from the continent. Bruce Ackerman of Yale argues that the Caucasus imbroglio might help overcome Irish objections to the Lisbon Treaty, strengthening EU central authority. But Open Europe is skeptical. Moreover, it dismisses the notion "that Europeans will do anything real about the state of their armed forces." Open Europe points out that EU members collectively spend but 1.6 percent of their GDP on the military and have been steadily cutting expenditures since the 1990s: "Why will the short war in Georgia change this long trend when the other wars-which EU members are actually fighting in-have not?" The group points to the "strong element of make-believe in Europhile thinking about EU defense." Writing in the Times of London Gerard Baker is even more dismissive: "This, remember, is the same EU that wants to take over foreign and security policy from member states, an institution that is always eager to pump itself up at the expense of democratic institutions in those member states, but which crumbles into puny submission when faced with authoritarian bullying overseas." But if the Europeans aren't willing to do more, they should shut up instead of asking the United States to do more. Calls on NATO to act really mean the United States, since in any conflict with Russia-especially if it centered in the Caucasus or Eastern Europe-we all know who would do most of the real fighting. Europeans should discuss what Europe should do, not U.S.-led and U.S.-dominated NATO.

After all, moral umbrage is running high. For instance, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt denounced Russia for using tactics pioneered by Adolf Hitler. The British blogger "Cicero" says we are in a "Rhineland moment." If the West does not act, it "could be facing an all out conflict situation before too long."

Simon Scott Plummer wrote in the Daily Telegraph complaining of "NATO's ambiguous response to Georgian and Ukrainian requests to join its Membership Action Plan." He advocated "a united reassertion of the principle of self-determination."  

The Times of London called for using NATO "to draw a line between countries that share principles and those that do not," and thus rewarding Georgia with membership. The Economist magazine said simply, "let them in," meaning Georgia and Ukraine. More extreme was "Cicero," who declared: "It is time to return to the Cold War policy of containment. NATO bases should be moved to places like Romania and the Baltic to make it quite clear that the North Atlantic Treaty holds good for these former Warsaw Pact territories. Ukraine should be brought under the Western nuclear umbrella, and any Russian attempt against that country should be resisted fiercely."

Of course, he acknowledged, this required a transformation in attitudes. "That a brutal government in the Kremlin holds so much power and threatens us should stir us, should remind us that we have grown fat on prosperity and drawn envious eyes. Yet, we can still return to our core values, to build freedom and the open society."

Yes, "we" must do so. That is, the Europeans. After all, if the Europeans aren't willing to be serious, why should Americans join the barricades? Admittedly, that question does not occur to the Bush administration, which is prepared to confront any nation and intervene in any region in any dispute, no matter how small the stakes. Deputy National Security Advisor James F. Jeffrey and Senator John McCain have explicitly refused to rule out using military force. Thus, calls for "Western unity" from Washington probably scare some Europeans who otherwise might support more action. German Social Democratic parliamentarian Gert Weisskirchen observed: "We can't afford and don't want to address Russia in terms that risk reviving Cold War sentiments." Fair enough.  

But assume a more realistic administration in Washington more concerned about defending America than Europe. Europe still lacks anything close to the necessary capabilities to do much about much of anything. As Jan Techau of the German Council on Foreign Relations put it, "The Europeans are united in powerlessness."

That should change. But the United States needs to stop treating the Europeans as helpless dependents who must be defended. The obvious place to begin is to stop expanding NATO.  That should be backed up by bringing home U.S. troops and cutting off aid for newer alliance members. Ultimately, Washington should restructure its relationship with NATO to reflect America's core national interest, preventing one power from dominating Eurasia. Not included would be making Georgia and Ukraine, or even Estonia and Poland, feel more comfortable facing the Russian Bear. That job would fall to Europe. It's easy to condemn Russia for its disproportionate response to Georgia's attack on South Ossetia, but Russia is behaving as a cautious great power, not a radical ideological revisionist. That strategy should concern Europe far more than America. Which means Europe should do far more in response. If Europeans don't believe a more vigorous response is necessary, that's fine. But Washington shouldn't act in place of them. After all, it is America's, not Europe's, defense with which the American government should be most concerned.


Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire (Xulon Press).