Europe Can Defend Itself
The United States does not need to maintain a robust forward presence in the European theater to deter Russia or protect NATO allies.
For American proponents of European strategic autonomy, any hope that U.S. policymakers would draw long-overdue conclusions, and promote and encourage the development of independent and self-sufficient European defense capabilities, seems to have been quashed for now. Paradoxically, the Russo-Ukrainian War, which has revealed the severe limits of Russian conventional military power, has prompted U.S. officials to justify significant new forward deployments to Europe and raise the number of U.S. forces in the region from 80,000 to over 100,000.
U.S. military aid to Ukraine has likewise outpaced that of its European allies, particularly France and Germany. As a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), France and Germany have contributed far less than Estonia, Latvia, and Poland. Finland and Sweden’s impending accession to NATO will also burden the United States with new security obligations and strategic risks in a region of secondary importance.
However, the war in Ukraine has not revised three critical features of the European security environment that predate Russia’s invasion. First, the regional balance of power still favors European NATO countries. By every relevant metric—GDP, population size, and military strength—collectively, NATO-Europe can mobilize its latent power to defend itself against Russia.
Second, Russia’s military performance in Ukraine has demonstrated the inherent difficulties of waging conventional offensive war against a determined defender. Miscalculation of Ukrainians’ willingness to fight, disjointed coordination, supply-line challenges, inflexible command hierarchies, poor air-ground integration, and low morale among Russian forces have all handicapped Moscow’s pursuit of its territorial objectives.
Finally, Western nuclear capabilities have deterred Russia from striking NATO territory, even if Moscow perceives the United States and its European allies to be using Ukraine to wage a proxy war. While Russian officials have made it clear that they consider U.S. and NATO military aid transiting through Ukrainian territory to be legitimate targets, they have not extended their threat to cover facilitation points in Poland. A Russian tactical nuclear strike in Ukraine would place immense stress on strategic stability, but Moscow is still highly unlikely to risk a nuclear exchange directly with NATO.
Taken together, the conditions facing U.S. policymakers in Europe decisively prove countries such as France and Germany are more than capable of providing for their own defense and leading an independent and self-sufficient pan-European security bloc. The United States does not need to maintain a robust forward presence in the European theater to deter Russia or protect NATO allies. Indeed, greater intra-European security consolidation, cooperation, and coordination could fill any gaps that presently leave countries on the eastern flank unable to repel a Russian attack.
The opportunity costs of continuing to act as a regional hegemon in Europe are significant for the United States. Sustaining a robust forward presence in Europe embodies the “everything is a priority” approach that has dominated U.S. foreign policy for decades. China presents an economic and technological challenge of a kind the United States has not faced before. Its military build-up will likewise disrupt the status quo security order in East Asia, and along with its allies and partners, the United States must work to responsibly compete with China to maintain geopolitical stability. But if preparing to meet the challenge of a rising China calls for greater strategic focus and different resources, particularly agile and distributed naval and air assets, then a division of labor in Europe would allow the United States to properly reinvest in optimizing its force posture in East Asia.
A narrower conception of U.S. national interests would be conducive to promoting domestic fiscal health too. Crushing debt and gross domestic fiscal imbalances make massive increases in defense spending financially irresponsible and unsustainable. Historically high levels of inflation only reinforce the case for inaugurating a long-needed period of congressional budgetary discipline.
Shifting security responsibilities to European allies would also incentivize greater investments in under-funded national militaries and strengthen the integrity of NATO’s mutual-defense clause. U.S. treaty allies are obligated to maximize their contributions in a collective defense arrangement that is still too reliant on U.S. hardware and capabilities. There is no reason why wealthy European countries should be unable to defend their territorial integrity without significant support from an ally on the other side of the Atlantic.
Finally, it would be wrong to discount the effect U.S. primacy in Europe has had in the crisis in relations between Russia and the West. Although many Europeans were happy to save on defense costs under the U.S. security umbrella after the Cold War, the perception in Moscow was that NATO expansion represented a “neo-containment” policy aimed at reducing Russia to a second-tier power within its historical sphere of influence. While other issues and disputes also contributed to the present crisis, an alternative post-Cold War European-led security order that emerged after wholesale U.S. retrenchment would likely have sought a modus vivendi with Russia to assuage its security concerns. Promoting and encouraging strategic autonomy could eventually result in a more stable and balanced regional security architecture in Eurasia.
Structural realities within the international system make promoting and encouraging European strategic autonomy an essential plank of a more restrained and disciplined foreign policy. U.S. policymakers, however, have so far chosen to double-down on a grand strategy that treats the prospect of a costly and risky neo-Cold War stand-off in Europe as an inevitability.
Fortunately, there is no iron law of international relations requiring the United States to sustain an indefinite forward presence in Europe, or any other region for that matter. As two astute analysts wrote last year in a reflection on the lessons of the Pearl Harbor attack, “The United States has unequalled strategic depth and the ability to recover from enormous initial reverses.… The truly exceptional thing about America is where it physically sits in the world.” Unlike any of its great power rivals, geography gives the United States an unmatched and enduring geopolitical advantage.
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Accordingly, U.S. policymakers can rectify their misalignment of means and ends by narrowly defining core national interests, allocating resources based on their direct relevance to improving U.S. security and prosperity, restraining the application of military power, and revising or avoiding commitments that risk overstretching. Publicly and privately, the United States should also encourage its European allies to develop independent and self-sufficient defense capabilities. To that end, a more autonomous European defense bloc will expand the strategic choices available to U.S. policymakers and reduce the risk of great-power confrontation.
Conditions in Europe are ripe for the United States to begin an orderly process of shifting the burden for regional security to its allies. To be sure, the Russo-Ukrainian War has made Europe less stable and secure than it was before. Yet it has not fundamentally altered the balance of power between Russia and Europe, empowered Russian forces to pursue expanded territorial aims outside of Ukraine, or diminished the West’s collective nuclear deterrent. The United States does not need to compromise on core national interests to pursue a new strategy in Europe that will free up resources for other regions of greater concern, accommodate impending budgetary constraints, strengthen the military capabilities of treaty allies who are principally responsible for their national defense, and lay the groundwork for a more balanced and stable European security architecture.