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How to Force Europe to Do Its Fair Share for NATO

To do less in Europe, do less in Europe.

Portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower

Though it has resisted, events have dragged the transatlantic community toward the idea of European countries taking a larger share of the responsibility for security on their continent. In particular, the prospect of a second Donald Trump administration has produced more solicitations for meetings from European diplomats in the last six months than probably my entire career did beforehand. With apologies to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, they are moving from Anger to Bargaining.

There’s ample reason for Europe to worry. The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 fatwa advises a new administration not just to “make burden-sharing a central part of U.S. defense strategy” but to “transform NATO so that U.S. allies are capable of fielding the great majority of the conventional forces required to deter Russia.” This would be a sea change. TAC’s own Sumantra Maitra has authored a much-discussed report about turning the transatlantic alliance into a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency “dormant NATO.”


European capitals are in an understandable state of dyspepsia. So is much of Washington. The instinctive reaction has been to treat the discomfort with an old and tested tonic: calls for Europe to step up, should Washington lessen its role in and presence on the continent. In one emblematic look at how Europe could deal with a U.S. de-emphasis of Europe, Max Bergmann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested Europe might step up its own defense efforts while trying “to buy time—perhaps asking the president to give it a few years to complete the transition from a U.S.-led NATO to a European-led one.”

Bergmann is almost certainly right: the Europeans would go to great lengths to slow-walk, if not trip, any U.S. burden-shifting initiative. American transatlanticists would assist them. And if history is any guide, their effort could well succeed. The United States could wind up holding the bag in Europe for decades to come. Europe—and American transatlanticists—have a playbook for how to squash U.S. efforts to shift the burden of European security to Europeans. They have done it before. The next U.S. president should reacquaint himself with this history as a guide how to expect the Europeans to react, as well as how to overcome such efforts.

To understand the dynamic of transatlantic burden-shifting, we can learn from a domestic example. Faced with the prospect of budget reductions, bureaucrats frequently resort to what is known as the Washington Monument ploy. They warn that less money will force them to cut meat because there is no fat to trim. Local governments will cut police and firefighters—highly popular and important services—first, rather than pare back less vital or even wasteful programs. The name Washington Monument ploy comes from an instance in which the National Park Service warned it would have to close the popular and symbolic Washington Monument if its budget were cut.

A similar phenomenon happened under the 2013 “sequester” budget cuts. In that case, facing $40–50 billion in budget reductions, the Defense Department went to DEFCON 1. As early as 2011, when the idea was still abstract, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned the cuts would produce “doomsday.” The department refused to prioritize, insisting that the cuts work like a machete rather than a scalpel, cutting equally from naval maintenance and army training levels as from military parades and stadium flyovers. It repeatedly declined offers to tailor the cuts, choosing maximal pain over minimal disruption. The thought process was, If you cut the defense budget, you are all going to feel it. (At the same time, billions were spirited out of the base budget, stashed in the “Overseas Contingency Operations” account, which had been exempted from sequestration.

Legislators were stung by the ugliness of the process and likely don’t want to repeat it. Bureaucracies, like states, have a remarkable capacity to resist threats to their vitality.


NATO, like the Defense Department, is a bureaucracy. It is led by people who believe in its purpose and seek to protect its interests. Since a U.S. withdrawal from Europe would pose a grave threat to NATO, we should expect NATO and its allies to work to undermine any U.S. burden-shifting effort.

It has happened before. In the 1950s and again in the 1970s, American leaders tried and failed to pass the buck back to Europe. Any American president trying to do the same today should understand the theory and practice of trying to push Europe’s defense back onto European shoulders.

Though it reads as surreal ancient history to a contemporary audience, NATO was initially imagined in Washington as a temporary expedient to help Europe stave off the Soviets until they could recover their own economic and military power. In a much-quoted observation, scholar Marc Trachtenberg marveled at how “the intensity and persistence of America’s desire to pull out as soon as she reasonably could has never been recognized, either in the public discussion or in the scholarly literature, because it comes through with unmistakable clarity” in the historic documents.

From the outset, policymakers were alternately deluding each other and the public. During a 1949 Senate hearing on U.S. accession to the North Atlantic Treaty, Secretary of State Dean Acheson was asked whether the U.S. role in Europe would involve “substantial numbers of troops over there as a more or less permanent contribution to the development of these countries’ capacity to resist.” Acheson responded indignantly, “The answer to that question, senator, is a clear and absolute no!

After taking office in 1953, the Eisenhower administration worked to pass the buck back to the Europeans. Eisenhower’s entire defense concept had been to stand up Europe as a third force that could ultimately balance the Soviets on its own, allowing the United States to withdraw. As Ike famously put it in 1951, “If in ten years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project [NATO] will have failed.”

It failed.

The linchpin of Ike’s vision was the European Defense Community (EDC). Its destruction in 1954 provides an instructive example. Originally designed as a way to tether France, Italy, and the Benelux countries to West Germany, it was the first effort to stand up a serious European pole in the transatlantic relationship. As Trachtenberg notes, it is impossible to read about Eisenhower and Europe and miss the point: “If Eisenhower said it once, he must have said it a thousand times: a large-scale American military presence in Europe was originally supposed to be temporary.” The missing piece was a politically and militarily unified pole in Europe to relieve the Americans of this duty.

Establishing such a pole was a high-wire act for American diplomacy. From the U.S. point of view, the key was to stand up a European defense force that would loosen the U.S. military from its tether in Europe and allow American servicemembers to come home. But from a European point of view, in particular the French one, this was doubly bad.

First, the additional exertion required by France would draw resources away from other priorities. Second, and arguably more important at that time, was the enduring French fear of German rearmament. There was no way to stand up the EDC without it, and no way to assure France of its benignity. Accordingly, U.S. policy relied on a paradox. “The trick,” as Mark Sheetz wrote, “was to convince the French that Americans would stay, in order that they might leave.”

But the French were wise to the ploy. In 1954, the French National Assembly voted down participation in the EDC. After that vote, American policymakers grew more resigned to the idea that there would be no exit from Europe. 

Even so, the idea would resurface a generation later. These same questions of fairness, contingency, and interest rose again in the 1970s. In 1970, Wisconsin Senator Mike Mansfield—an Asia man by disposition—lamented that the United States found itself “carrying a very one-sided burden” in NATO. As such, in 1970, Mansfield offered legislation that would have cut the U.S. presence in Europe roughly in half by 1971. This was shock therapy.

The transatlanticist antibodies sprang into action. The Nixon administration lobbied furiously against the amendment. On the other side, the Europeans introduced the idea of Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions, a string-along series of negotiations with the Soviets to cooperate on moving forces back from East and West Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. The argument was, instead of removing U.S. forces on our own, wouldn’t it be better to get Soviet forces to draw back as well? Secretary of State Henry Kissinger applauded these efforts to the French Defense Minister as the right response to “stop Mansfield.” Kissinger later noted that one reason the United States “went along with MBFR” was “as a counter to Mansfield Resolution pressures. The Europeans went along for essentially the same reasons.”

The effort worked. Although the MBFR carried on pointlessly for decades, doing little to reduce forces in a mutual and balanced fashion, it achieved its other purpose: scuttling American pressures to withdraw from Europe and shift defense burdens to Europeans.

Anyone looking to pare back the U.S. presence in Europe will face similar phenomena. He will hear of intractable “coordination problems.” Did you know that Europe doesn’t have a unified command? That inside Europe’s dozens of armies and more than dozen navies, there are redundancies and shortfalls and disunity nearly everywhere?

Moreover, in a parallel to the Washington monument ploy, transatlanticists on both sides of the ocean will warn that the U.S. interest in Europe—preventing one country from dominating the continent—will be put at risk without the United States manning the ramparts. Instead of diverting resources from various other priorities, European countries will protest that they are unwilling or unable to work together to ensure their survival against a rapacious and capable Russia. Despite the fact that they have ten times Russia’s GDP and three times its population.

Even starting a U.S. withdrawal from Europe would throw NATO’s purpose into ever-deeper uncertainty. As early as 1964, Ronald Steel observed that 

Ever since its creation in 1949 the Atlantic pact has been the object of a remarkable veneration. Our entire diplomacy revolves around it; it is the one constant in a sea of shifting values and allegiances. NATO … has entered our popular mythology, enshrined in the hagiography of the cold war. It has become a kind of passion, the one subject on which liberals and conservatives, management and labor, one-worlders and the radical right are able to agree.

NATO’s veneration—which will be on full display in Washington at the alliance’s 75th anniversary in July—has grown even more pronounced since 1964. The current U.S. president and vice president exemplified the conventional wisdom when they described the U.S. commitment to NATO as “sacred.” One does not question sacred commitments.

If a U.S. president wants to pass responsibility for Europe’s security to Europeans, he cannot wait for Europe to ask for it. He cannot wait for the think tanks to draw up plans for how to do so. He must create new facts on the ground. At the end of Donald Trump’s administration, he proposed withdrawing around 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany, leaving open the possibility of moving them further east to Poland. Restarting that withdrawal—without leaving them elsewhere in Europe—would be a good first step.

There is a growing resignation in Europe that, Trump or no Trump, resource constraints are beginning to bite in the United States and structural pressures in the international system are pulling Uncle Sam’s attention away from Europe. The shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has created space for discussion of European remilitarization and cooperation on security issues. There is unlikely to be a more propitious moment for a U.S. president to lessen Europe’s dependency on the United States, without placing core U.S. interests there at risk. The next president should seize this opportunity to make good on the efforts of previous presidents dating back to Dwight Eisenhower.