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?

Another aspect of the strategic investment calculus for Europe and the United States is a sober assessment of the viability of what can be called industrial age deployment and sustainment concepts. Almost every assessment of NATO’s ability to deploy and defend against a major Russian incursion into the Baltics comes to the stark conclusion that our current capabilities are not adequate; the alliance would be presented with a fait accompli before it could emplace traditional defensive forces to meet the obligations of Article V of the NATO charter. At the present moment, the United States and Europe together are not in a good position to accomplish this mission; Europe alone is even less equipped to do so. 

Are new technologies and innovative defensive capabilities sufficient to make it possible that Europe could realistically defend itself from a Russian invasion or major incursion without significant U.S. support? There will always be a need for conventional ground forces to take and retain territory; the issue is how to balance investments in future defensive capabilities or threaten retaliatory effects that will provide deterrence. If forward-positioned drones, low-cost and highly dispersed missiles, and even unmanned combat fighter-bombers can inflict major damage at an acceptable price tag, perhaps spending many billions of dollars or euros on enabling the movement of equipment into eastern Europe is a poor strategic option. It may be that there are more effective deterrence investments and ways to reapportion tasks across European nations and the United States and Canada. Moreover, some modern security capabilities could also represent better economic opportunities and assist other nations in enhancing stability, security, and progress for their people. 

It is easy to answer the question of whether Europe can defend itself against a determined Russian invasion of the Baltics or other NATO allies in eastern Europe—the answer is no. As noted above, geography and the current correlation of military power favor a successful attack. The cost of mounting a counterattack to reclaim and secure the territory would be tremendous for all concerned—and catastrophic for the nations and people in the areas where kinetic warfare would actually occur. Beyond that, the destruction of infrastructure and other enabling capabilities—obvious targets in such a war—would have massive impacts on both sides. This is all without including the possibility of nuclear escalation. Even the limited use of tactical nuclear weapons would have devastating consequences. 

In short, new technologies may be necessary but not sufficient to mount an adequate defense in Europe. They might increase the chance that Europe could defend itself in case of attack, but it would be imprudent to think that they would render American support unnecessary. And it is equally questionable whether Russia would consider a purely European defense—even with nuclear weapons—a sufficient deterrent. A purely European defense would be an extremely risky venture indeed. 

IT’S NOT surprising that President Macron of France has been the advocate of “strategic autonomy.” Since the early stage of the Cold War, France has been the major proponent of European rather than Atlantic defense cooperation, what one of us has called the “French thesis on Europe.” The initiator of this idea was Charles de Gaulle. Fearing that the United States would use its role in European defense to dominate Europe, de Gaulle talked about a “European Europe” and European defense cooperation. Above all, he worked to convince Germany to follow him. At the same time, de Gaulle torpedoed the possibility of a more federal Europe. In some ways, the postwar represented a dialogue of the deaf between de Gaulle and Jean Monnet. Monnet advocated a federal United States of Europe but supported an Atlanticist approach to European defense, de Gaulle a Europe of Fatherlands coupled with European defense. 

A major reason for the failure to create a synthesis of these two ideas was the debacle of the European Defense Community (EDC). After the outbreak of the Korean War, the United States decided that Europe needed to rearm to face a potential threat from the USSR. That, in turn, required rearming Germany, an idea which was anathema to France and not very popular in Germany. French prime minister René Pleven came up with the idea of the European Defense Community, which would constitute a European pillar of NATO. Germans would be rearmed, but not Germany, since German forces would be dispersed under the EDC command. There would be a European minister of defense under the European institutions that were being created thanks to the Schuman Plan. But the French military would lose its autonomy. This proved unacceptable to France and after years of controversy, the EDC failed ratification by the French National Assembly in 1954. German rearmament took place under NATO. From that time on, defense was not within the purview of European institutions until after the Cold War ended; the Treaty of Maastricht gave the EU a mandate for issues pertaining to security and defense. 

Especially after the defeat of the European Defense Community, few supported combining federalism and European defense cooperation. During the Cold War, de Gaulle’s efforts to create a European defense arrangement failed; this was an offer that the rest of Europe could easily refuse, especially the Germans. They wanted—they needed—the American nuclear umbrella. The French force de frappe was no substitute. Not that de Gaulle was willing to extend the French nuclear deterrence to the rest of Europe. After the end of the Cold War, with the Russian threat briefly gone, the French espoused the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), which was seen by the United States as threatening NATO. Even if little tangible was accomplished, the French thesis on Europe gave France a leadership role in Europe since it embodied the ambivalence of many states towards the United States. The British opposed ESDP, and Germany was schizophrenic, supporting both ESDP and NATO. But ESDP was never intended to have warfighting capabilities, and its ultimate implementation (with British involvement following the St. Malo declaration) was never as earth-shaking as its proponents hoped nor its opponents feared. In 2003, President Jacques Chirac went far beyond de Gaulle by taking on the United States over its invasion of Iraq. The result was a virtual cold war between the Bush administration and France and Germany. The rift was repaired when Chirac’s successor (and political rival) Nicholas Sarkozy brought France back into NATO’s integrated military command. France became a “good” American ally but thereby lost some of its influence as representing an alternative to American policy. This happened around the time of the Great Recession, which tipped the balance of the Franco-German relationship against France. At a time when economic and financial power counted most and when French leaders were ineffective, Germany was clearly the dominant power in Europe. Macron’s European activism, in general, and his proposals on strategic autonomy, in particular, serve to restore France’s position as a European leader. They also mark a return to the French thesis on Europe, this time based not on fears of American dominance but on loss of trust in an enduring American commitment to Europe. 

But let’s assume that strategic autonomy implies some form of self-reliant European defense. Could it take place under the auspices of the EU? That seems highly improbable. First, there would need to be a robust mutual defense pact of EU nations. Secondly, there would have to be a European rapid response force that can move quickly before a fait accompli is established. That, in turn, requires the existence of a European command structure. But such a structure requires a European executive authority that can give orders on its own just like presidents of the United States or France can do for their respective armed forces. Strategic autonomy thus requires a fundamental restructuring of the European Union—virtually impossible within a reasonable time frame. Any change would require an intergovernmental conference to amend the treaties undergirding the EU, unanimous approval of all governments, approval by their parliaments, in some cases popular referenda and in others like Belgium, passage by sub-national parliaments. Recalling the fate of the Treaty of Lisbon, this approach seems doomed to failure or at the very minimum long delay. Another approach could be the creation of a totally new organization for European defense including such members as choose to join. Again, a difficult and unlikely project. 

It makes more sense to finesse the problem by basing European defense on NATO. NATO already provides a recognized and legitimate command structure and a decisionmaking process. It also provides the possibility of undertaking various forms of actions like peacekeeping without U.S. participation. Returning to the old idea of a European pillar in NATO, which could act jointly with the United States or on its own, might simplify the process. This approach would combine the advantages of common defense together with the United States while providing for the alternative of independent European action without it. But for this to work, a “European deterrent” would have to be credible. To be sure, a European deterrent would be more credible if it included the British, but a post-Brexit Britain is unlikely to participate in a purely European enterprise. Cooperation within NATO would be more probable than cooperation outside of it.