Most of those who try to argue this case simply claim that America’s leading role in Europe and the alliances that support it are intrinsic goods which must be preserved for their own sake. But this kind of argument won’t work, because these are not intrinsic goods in their own right for America. They are, as they have always been, policy tools designed to serve more fundamental U.S. interests —especially interests in America’s own security.
America’s strategic commitment to Europe must therefore be justified —as it was in the Cold War—by arguing that America’s own security at home in the Western Hemisphere depends on protecting Europe from threats which the Europeans simply cannot deal with on their own no matter how much they spend.
This argument worked then because it was true then, as it was true in 1917 –18 and in 1941–45. The question is whether it is true today? Does Russia pose the kind of threat to America itself that the Soviets posed in the Cold War, or that the Nazis posed in December 1941? And is Europe as incapable of resisting Russia today as it was of resisting Stalin in 1948 or Hitler in 1941?
Many people would argue that the answer to these questions is “no.” Europe is far stronger today, and Russia relatively far weaker, than in 1948 or for many years thereafter. Russia does threaten the post Cold War redrawing of its western borders, and the extension of the EU and NATO eastwards. But it has no chance of overrunning Europe, let alone of becoming the kind of pan-Eurasian hegemon that Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s or Ludendorff’s Germany could have become. It therefore has no chance of threatening America directly in ways which cannot be deterred by America’s still-formidable nuclear forces. So the answer to Trump’s questions might well be that Americans should not spend so much to defend Europe. Perhaps they should leave the Europeans to defend themselves. That’s not because there are no good reasons to maintain America’s long-standing strategic commitments in Europe. It’s because those reasons are not good enough to justify what that commitment may cost.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump returns a salute while boarding Air Force One as he departs Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S., August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque