Going It Alone: European Security after Trump

August 22, 2021 Topic: National Security Region: Europe Tags: NATOEuropeRussiaNational SecuritySuperpower

Going It Alone: European Security after Trump

The result of the Trump administration has been a return of the idea that Europe needs to be capable of defending itself in case the United States can no longer be counted on. Shouldn’t Europe have its own grand strategy and the means to pursue it?


FOR THREE-QUARTERS of a century, a highly developed continent composed of sovereign nations put its defense in the hands of someone else. In practice, European defense depended on the United States, although this relationship, as embodied in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), was supposed to be mutual. One has to go back to the time of the Delian League to find a historical precedent. The relationship was based on several assumptions shared on both sides of the Atlantic: 

-That the Soviet Union was an existential threat to Europe and that Russia remained a serious threat. 

-That Europe was vulnerable and could not defend itself alone. 

-That the United States and Europe constituted an Atlantic community that shared basic liberal democratic values. 

-That the United States could be trusted to defend Europe. 

These assumptions are no longer broadly shared for many reasons. But most important has been the impact of Donald Trump and his presidency. Its “America First” pronouncements raised the question of whether the United States would always remain committed to defending Europe (although congressional support for NATO remained strong). It was not uncommon to hear people in the Atlantic security community say that a second Trump administration would mean U.S. withdrawal from NATO. The Trump administration made Europeans question whether the United States and Europe shared the same values. Certainly, the election of Joe Biden was hailed by most Europeans, but who can be sure that the political movement embodied by Trump would not return? The Republican Party still seems to be the party of Trump, and it’s not clear whether or not it will stay that way. How long are European leaders and populations willing to live with the possibility that a “Trumpist” government will return? Even if this does not happen, the legacy of the last administration’s policies and the perceived need for Republicans to support them to avoid primary challenges has left a significant impact. Americans may not fully appreciate how much damage the Trump administration did to faith and trust in America—not only on the part of European leaders but also on European publics. 

The result of the last four years has been a return of the idea that Europe needs to be capable of defending itself in case the United States can no longer be counted on—an idea promoted by French president Emmanuel Macron. Shouldn’t Europe have its own grand strategy and the means to pursue it? In other words, why shouldn’t Europe, an economic “superpower,” be a superpower in all respects? If the world is not prepared to follow Europe’s example as a new form of post-modernist political organization, shouldn’t Europe accept the need to play in the league of global superpowers and develop its own self-reliant system of defense? 

MOST OF the great security issues Europe faces do not require vast armed forces; the industrial age military capabilities that have served as effective deterrence may still be necessary but certainly are not sufficient. Some issues call for solutions that do not involve armored brigades. For example, the significant migrant problem requires only small, specialized military forces and, of course, a much broader collection of actions across governments, individually and collectively. China also poses a variety of serious security challenges to Europe. It is not clear to Europeans whether it is just a robust competitor or constitutes a security threat as the debate over 5G demonstrates. China is not a military problem for Europe in the traditional sense: no one fears a Chinese army sweeping across the steppes like Genghis Khan or Tamburlaine. But the risks associated with key acquisitions of ports, critical infrastructure, and advanced technology firms may be even more dangerous—and difficult to defend against. Finally, the rising tensions between the United States and China make Europeans question whether they share the same strategic interests as the United States. Does Europe want to be caught up in a new Cold War between the United States and China? 

The principal defense risk Europe faces is Russia, no longer the USSR but still a serious problem. Without a threatening Russia, there would be little need for NATO, at least not in anything like its current form. Therein lies a paradox: with the end of Communism, it would seem that Russia’s interests lay in a close and cordial relationship with Europe, which would facilitate its economic development and strengthen its social and cultural resurgence. But Russian president Vladimir Putin seems to have returned to the vision of Nicholas I—“Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”—with the difference that Putin is far more interventionist than Nicholas. Russia’s appeal is once again Slavophilism and religion—although that is a multi-edged sword since Russia contains significant Muslim minorities—and Putin’s aura as a defender of the “White Race.” Putin is thus a supporter of tin-pot dictators like Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, a model for potentates like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, the darling of the European Far Right. 

Russia’s great economic resources are gas and oil, whose days are numbered. The pace of development of alternative energy sources, and particularly the adoption of clean energy in Europe, will have striking implications for Russia as well as other oil producers. Putin has allied Russia to China, defying the basic rules of geopolitics. Surely a border separating a thinly populated Russian Asia from a densely populated China should give Russia pause. Additionally, the demographic bell tolls for Russia with its low birth rates and high mortality (but higher birth rates for Muslim minorities). Recent protests over Alexei Navalny and the roiling discontent in Belarus offer ominous portents for harnessing the power and potential of younger Russians. 

For Putin, weakening EU cohesion, undermining its members, paralyzing Ukraine and Moldova through frozen conflicts, and keeping Belarus under dictatorship substitute for a real strategic vision. Now Putin has even been able to insert Russian forces into Armenia and Azerbaijan. Many of these schemes may serve Putin’s near-term interests, but ultimately bring risk, suffering, and retaliation to the Russian people. All this seems truly self-defeating in the long term. Europe as a post-modern entity has trouble understanding an atavistic ruler like Putin. But Russia and Putin—including his supporters—cannot be ignored; Russia remains a threat because of its vast if aging nuclear arsenal and its newly acquired skills at projecting its limited power in clever and unpredictable ways. It is also important to recognize that if Putin’s regime feels seriously threatened, that there are few limits to what it might do to retain power. 

Europe would not need NATO if it were not for Russia’s self-defeating policies. Ironically, if Putin wanted to destroy (or at least transform) NATO, he could do so by ending Russia’s hostility to the West and deciding on a policy of rapprochement with Europe. That almost happened under Mikhail Gorbachev and could happen after Putin. Thus, Russia constitutes an anomalous but real problem for Europe. For Europe to have a common defense, it must be able to defend itself collectively against Russia. 

ONE OF the central questions for European nations and Europe as a whole is whether the development of inexpensive weapons and associated capabilities offer a satisfactory opportunity for deterrence and/or defense against Russia. This includes not only the threat of invasion or significant incursion as witnessed in Georgia and Ukraine, but other forms of aggression such as cyberattacks, information warfare, and energy blackmail as well as assassination and sabotage. Will changes in military technology reduce the relevance of industrial age forms of defense such as massed combined arms warfare? Some weapons systems that are currently available and others that are under development appear to be effective against armor, air defense systems, and other major equipment at a small fraction of the cost of their targets and could cause significant disruption to attacking formations. They offer the possibility that Europe and its small frontline states can impose an unacceptable cost on a conventional invader. But they do not eliminate the need for key combat enablers such as strategic lift; command control, communications, and intelligence; and logistics that are essential for victory in a major kinetic war. If the Americans who play a key role in so many of these areas are not available, can Europe deter conflict without them? 

There is no question that European technology is every bit as advanced as American; in some cases, owing to the lengthy and cumbersome U.S. acquisition processes, some of the newest technology is more readily available from non-U.S. sources. At the same time, there is also significant reliance on U.S. equipment systems, in part because of the formidable development expenses and cost of maintaining repair parts and maintenance capabilities. Additionally, some countries perceive political pressure to “buy American.” These are challenges to the idea that Europe could reduce its dependence on American military and technological support or even go it alone. 

National Defense University scholar T.X. Hammes has written extensively on the potential damage and disruption that these weapons can cause. For example, the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone, reported to sell for under $2 million, can loiter for up to twenty-four hours and can be used for spotting or direct engagement against targets—and no pilots are put in harm’s way. Long-range precision missiles can be procured for $1 to $1.5 million and could easily be hidden in cargo containers on commercial ships. In addition to the cost advantage, the range and precision of drones, missiles, and larger unmanned aerial craft are already changing the strategic calculus of future warfare. The efficacy of cheap armed drones against various types of equipment in the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is certainly sparking recalculation by military leaders worldwide. Several years ago, inexpensive Russian drones armed with grenades executed a devastatingly successful attack on a Ukrainian ammunition storage facility that destroyed a significant portion of its inventory. The potential damage and disruption that these weapons can possibly make combat as we have known it untenable. The opportunity to attack logistics resources—ammunition storage/distribution activities and petroleum, oil, and lubricant storage facilities are obvious targets, but airfields, control towers, road junctions, train stations, and bridges can impact military operations. It is noteworthy that Ukraine is purchasing Turkish drones—to Russia’s consternation. The development of these new technologies raises the question of how wise it is to focus investment primarily in the conventional defense of Eastern Europe.