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End Europe’s Security Welfare Check

It is past time for a rebalancing that reflects American interests.

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In a recent opinion piece for The American Conservative, Senator Marco Rubio wrote: 

In the 21st century, Europe must take the lead in Europe. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom are more than capable of managing their relationship with the nuclear-armed belligerent to their east. But they’ll never take ownership so long as they can rely on America. If this were a welfare policy debate, conservatives would be calling for work requirements. We need something similar for Europe, encouraging our allies to take ownership of their future, security, and prosperity.

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The senator’s counsel is right on the mark. This is probably the hardest reset in all of U.S. foreign policy. Nostalgia about the role the transatlantic alliance played in the defeat of Soviet communism, even now more than three decades after the fact, has hard-wired the current partnership for many U.S. policymakers. Too many senior American foreign affairs leaders, as well as career diplomats, military officers, academics, and consultants—including some otherwise reliable U.S. conservatives—are all trained and invested in maintaining the status quo in the transatlantic security framework.  

But it is past time for a rebalancing. It must reflect an updated view of U.S. national interests in Europe that accounts for the economic power of both continents. And that reckoning should not be postponed because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet without some imaginative thinking from the America First community, rebalancing seems unlikely. 

While restructuring obviously cannot happen overnight, we need to push towards several obtainable goals. These include imposing consequences on European countries that fail to increase their national defense spending; demanding that Berlin pay the military-basing costs for U.S. troops in Germany; fostering Poland’s emergence as a major new conventional military force; encouraging European home-grown nascent initiatives to develop security capacity outside of NATO; and handing off secondary conflicts, such as those in the Western Balkans, thereby transforming them into fully owned European projects. 

Let us examine these all in more detail.

Regarding national defense spending levels, we see just how unserious Brussels-Berlin-Paris policymakers are even a year after Putin invaded Ukraine. By their own report, eight of 29 NATO members (if you count the U.S.) reach the 2 percent-of-GDP target on national defense. It is time for a unilateral U.S. corollary to the NATO treaty announcing that Washington is no longer automatically bound to join in Article 5 collective defense of member states that ignore their 2 percent commitments.  

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Germany continues to be the most significant non-performing alliance member. Even after promising massive new defense funding, Berlin’s ruling coalition remains unserious about implementing programs and policies that would modernize the Bundeswehr and make Germany a real NATO ally. Permanently ducking this responsibility seems part of the programming of the pacifist Social Democratic and Green politicians who run that country.

Memories of President Trump’s attempt to invoice the Germans for U.S. military base costs still evoke scorn in Berlin. Unfortunately, the Biden administration, in its haste to send billions of dollars to Kiev, predictably abandoned Trump’s initiative and even apologized for him. Smart U.S. diplomacy needs to return to demanding financial contributions from Berlin to fund basing American troops in Germany. If Germany does not pay these costs, U.S. forces should not stay. Such an announcement would command Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s attention.

Washington should look beyond Brussels-Berlin-Paris and bless the emergence of new military powers in Europe, best typified by Poland, which is systematically rearming and committing up to 5 percent of GDP on defense. Poland is modernizing its armed forces to a level that could effectively remake the old continent’s conventional military capacity, putting a new power on the European geopolitical chessboard. 

In the same vein, U.S. officials should make space for, not actively oppose, independent European defense cooperation projects, designed outside NATO, such as the E.U.’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Our European allies can only reduce America’s military load and take on more responsibilities to the extent they have prepared themselves. They must undertake this outside the NATO framework, because otherwise the Pentagon would insist on dominating the process. Likewise, Washington policy should not undermine Europe’s expansion of its defense and military technology industries.  

Washington needs also to reverse itself and encourage French President Emmanuel Macron’s independent streak on defense policy, in particular his calls for a European army and a new security community of European countries. If Macron really believes NATO is experiencing "brain death,” as he famously said, give him a chance to show how he can do better. Too many American policymakers, who erroneously equate Putin’s Russia with Brezhnev’s USSR, dismiss Macron’s independence with the same disdain that Washington gave President de Gaulle when in 1966 he pulled France out of NATO’s integrated military command. That is a mistake. 

Another overlooked push opportunity with Brussels-Berlin-Paris is for American diplomacy to hand off secondary conflicts in Europe that Washington has become entangled in. One effective way to start the ball rolling on this is to end our role in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). While most Americans are very aware of NATO, they have likely never even heard of the OSCE, but its work is well-known in Europe, and reframing what the U.S. does or declines to do in that organization would send a sharp message to our European allies that things are changing.  

The OSCE grew out of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which in the 1970s and ‘80s did admirable anti-Soviet work, particularly in supporting human rights activists in the USSR bloc. As Moscow’s communist empire collapsed, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe morphed in the 1990s into the OSCE, becoming the regional security organization for Eastern Europe and Eurasia, eventually encompassing some 57 countries, including the U.S. and even Russia. 

Based in Vienna, the OSCE has several thousand permanent staff, diplomatic missions from all member countries, countless advisors and consultants, and a strategy of using multilateral tools to deal with conflict zones from the Balkans to Ukraine to Kazakhstan. Acting like a modern version of Metternich’s Congress of Vienna, OSCE diplomats convene, argue, and try to win consensus about the hot spots across the region. 

While most TAC conservatives would probably urge immediate U.S. withdrawal from this hybrid regional organization, the more viable option—post-Biden administration—is for Washington to announce its intention to transition out of the OSCE and defer leadership to its European allies on all OSCE-involved conflicts. Because Brussels-Berlin-Paris would seek desperately to save the OSCE, our European allies would surely take on all the funding and field-mission staffing responsibilities. Such a transatlantic rebalancing would be both symbolic and operational, nicely constituting one of Senator Rubio’s recommended “work requirements.”

In this spirit, the United States should fully exit from the ongoing disputes in the Western Balkans, which continue to be loosely co-managed between Washington and our European allies. No one knows how the historic blood feud between Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the multilayered ethnic and religious disputes of Bosnia-Herzegovina, will end. These countries admittedly represent real conundrums, but they are Europe’s problems that Brussels-Berlin-Paris should manage by themselves without U.S. security guarantees and foreign assistance funding. While U.S. financial outlays for the OSCE and the Western Balkans are admittedly small in comparison to the overall funding that Washington pours into its national defenses and foreign aid, turning these security matters over to our European allies is another important step in transatlantic rebalancing. 

Defenders of the Atlantic alliance status quo, of course, automatically reject such an approach, asserting the United States is too entwined in numerous multilateral commitments, such as the OSCE, to even contemplate such decoupling. They argue that these far-flung U.S. commitments represent not “welfare” for the Europeans, but arrangements that serve vital American interests. 

Our challenge is to convince more U.S. policymakers of how outdated that argument is. These decoupling initiatives must not take place overnight, but with time and in consultation with our European allies. Any perceived “openings” for Moscow, as the United States withdraws, must and can be met by Brussels-Berlin-Paris. What is truly in the U.S.'s vital interest is not managing places like the Western Balkans, but implementing initiatives that push our European allies into greater roles of security responsibility. 

Treating all U.S. commitments abroad as if they were of equal geopolitical value represents the same hubris that kept Washington pouring valuable national treasure and irreplaceable blood for two decades into an obviously failing strategy in Afghanistan. It typifies how too many American security policymakers think: the U.S. must be everywhere, do everything, and pay for everything.

Certainly, in an era in which Washington politicians have recklessly run up a national debt of more than $31 trillion, currently costing the federal government around $600 billion annually to service that debt, the Republic has entered a phase where our commitments abroad—even conceding that some might be in our secondary national interest—need to be managed with a new approach. Frederick the Great said it well: “He who defends everything, defends nothing.” 

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