Lessons of Ukraine War: Rethinking America’s Footprint in Europe
Washington needs a new approach that structures America’s actions and commitments to match its vital interests.
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine stands as the biggest shakeup in the transatlantic community since the fall of the wall. It has completely changed our world, and we must adapt.
Vladimir Putin is denuding his conventional military force. As a result, the future U.S. footprint in Europe should not be what it was in the past, nor does it need to be as robust as was once considered prudent. It is time to start talking about what the new face of the United States in Europe should look like.
Lord Palmerston, a ruthless and cunning old sot, zealously defended his empire without an ounce of empathy, political correctness, or scruples. Still, it’s hard to argue with his dictum: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” This kind of righteous, hard thinking was lost in the post-Cold War world. Instead of ensuring that politics ends at the water’s edge, modern U.S. foreign policy looks increasingly like an extension of domestic policy squabbles.
Indeed, Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, has said, “We’ve reached a point where foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy.” That is nonsense. We need a third way that structures America’s actions and commitments to match our vital interests. This is nowhere more important than in America’s European footprint.
America’s Global Footprint
America is a global power with global interests and responsibilities. That is just a fact. But it is also true that we can’t protect all those interests and responsibilities without partnering with like-minded allies who carry their fair share of risks as well as rewards. This is confirmed by the Index of U.S. Military Strength, an objective assessment that finds our forces to be, at best, marginally suited to safeguard America’s global vital interests.
Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific are the three regions most critical to U.S. prosperity and security. If all the world were a ballet stage, we could pivot from one region to another with ease. But “pivot” is an apt metaphor, because it reminds us that it would be easy for global adversaries to knock us off balance by threatening critical areas where our presence is inadequate. The United States should have sufficient capabilities in each theater to protect American vital interests there. What each regional footprint looks like should evolve over time, commensurate with the threat and allied contributions. Being responsible in how we allocate assets is also an important part of our national security. As Rep. Chip Roy and former National Security Council staff expert Victoria Coates note, a responsible use of resources makes for a stronger military.
The United States needs the right military, right now. We need to learn the lessons of the still ongoing war in Ukraine to think ahead to where we go from here.
America’s Future Footprint
The U.S. presence in Europe, along with material assistance from NATO allies, has enabled Ukraine to stiff-arm Russia in Ukraine. In the process, Putin has lost a mammoth amount of conventional military capability. He has also witnessed Europeans enhance their energy security by divesting from dependence on Russia.
Further, many Europeans have, with renewed vigor, committed to increasing their defense capabilities and equitably sharing defense burdens. Several NATO powers, like Poland, now not only exceed the 2 percent GDP defense spending target, but their percentage by GDP exceeds that of the United States. Some major European powers, notably Germany, continue to lag behind. But our staunchest allies are not only doing more for self-defense; they are more pro-U.S., pro-NATO, anti-Russia, and anti-China. These governments are also proving remarkably resilient, despite high inflation, energy concerns, and uncertainty over the war against Ukraine.
All these constructive outcomes occurred without U.S. “boots on the ground.” We did deploy some additional troops as trainers, for logistical support, and on some security assistance and training missions, but these are, by and large, temporary deployments—and, most importantly, there was no requirement for Americans to engage in combat.
This experience—paired with the fact, that 1) Russia’s conventional military threat to Europe has been greatly reduced, 2) it will take Russia years, at best, to rebuild this capability, and 3) Europeans are willing and, in fact, doing more to contribute to collective defense—suggests how the U.S. military footprint should evolve in the future.
Ground Forces. There ought to be only a limited need for U.S. combat forces in theater. The 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy is primarily a rapid response for missions across Eurasia and the Greater Middle East. That makes sense. The United States should have some strategically placed rapid response forces. It’s like when you’re out of town and need money: it’s much better to be able to draw cash from a convenient ATM than to have to fly back to your hometown bank.
Washington ought to have two combat brigade equivalents in Europe for training and exercises with allies, as well as part of the forward-deployed deterrence in Central Europe. These can be rotational forces, but the presence, the footprint, should be persistent. In addition, a deployed corps headquarters that could provide the capacity to mobilize a larger conventional force, if needed, makes sense.
Russia may indeed rebuild its conventional forces over time, but then again, our expectations for Europe’s conventional forces will evolve as well. In the future, Washington can adjust as needed, particularly if the United States retains total Active, Reserve, and National Guard land force capability sufficient to meet the needs of theater commanders.
Air Forces. The Trump administration’s plan to rationalize and consolidate the U.S. footprint made sense. The Biden administration canceled that plan, but it deserves a relook.
Naval Forces. The United States has an important role to play in the Mediterranean, much of it centering on assisting allies in capacity building. Yet our efforts in the region are not commensurate with America’s interests. This does not mean a lot more ships. (We do need more ships, but we need them in the Indo-Pacific. For that, we will need to build a bigger Navy.) In Europe, the United States can accomplish a great deal more by pursuing security cooperation and a diplomatic approach that takes advantage of burden-sharing and joint action.
It is not so much what and how much the U.S. military has in many strategic places, but that the United States has presence, access, and the capacity to expand or contract as necessary. Greenland and Iceland are key to safeguarding the transatlantic bridge. Great Britain and Germany are crucial logistical, training, and support nodes. Poland is vital for forward presence. Many countries—Italy, Romania, Greece, Turkey, and, potentially, Georgia—offer essential basing and access options in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
Moreover, small U.S. contingents, such as KFOR in the Balkans, can make an outside contribution to regional stability.
One of the lessons of Russia’s war on Ukraine is that nations that demonstrate a capacity and unshakable commitment to self-defense are much more likely to attract external support from allies in times of crisis. Thus, many European nations are seeking enablers that will enhance their capacity to protect their own populations. These include intelligence sharing, surveillance, and targeting, air and missile defense, training, and technical cooperation.
An increasingly crucial enable will be extended nuclear deterrence. The Ukraine war reminds us how adverse nuclear-armed adversaries are to fight directly with each where there is a risk of escalation. As Russia’s conventional forces decline, its reliance on nuclear deterrence will increase. Further, China’s rapid expansion of its strategic forces is a major concern. The U.S. nuclear umbrella and missile defenses must be capable and robust.
America’s continued presence and engagement in Europe has empowered Europeans who are more pro-American and anti-Russian and anti-China, as well as governments that share concerns of many conservative Americans on domestic issues like life, education, family, religious liberty, and energy policies that are strengthening transatlantic bonds. Pivoting away from them would undermine the relationships, cooperation, and burden-sharing needed to make a smaller U.S. footprint in Europe both more durable and more effective. Strengthening partnerships ought to be a priority.
NATO remains foundational to collective security. NATO enlargement adds partners that better allow for sharing the burden. Sweden and Finland are great examples.
The United States can also enhance bilateral relations with countries that can deliver real benefits through burden sharing and partnership. Italy, Greece, Romania, and Poland are excellent examples. Italy, for instance, is the natural U.S. partner for leadership in the Greater Mediterranean region.
In addition, the United States should support collective efforts to expand security and economic cooperation in Northern, Central, and Southern Europe and across the Black Sea into the Caucuses and Central Asia.
Finally, the United States should continue to push reluctant allies, like Germany, to adapt our joint efforts to the realities of the new Europe.
This rethinking has implications for other regions as well. For instance, if America can work with the Arab nations and Israel in building out the Abraham Accords, the United States can have a similar collective security footprint in the Middle East.