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Time for the Europeans to Step Up

Aggression in Ukraine is compelling Europe to address long-neglected defense obligations. Washington should encourage this changing of the guard.

(Photo by Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images)

Forty years ago this month, President Ronald Reagan visited France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and West Germany to rally our flagging allies to resist what would turn out to be Moscow’s last significant Cold War-era threat against Western Europe.

A fierce and effective propaganda campaign orchestrated by the Soviets and their fellow travelers had permeated daily life across the Continent in the early 1980s, a drumbeat opposing the stationing of U.S. Pershing mid-range missiles in Europe. Armed with tactical nuclear warheads, the Pershings would counterbalance Moscow’s SS-20 missiles, which were provocatively deployed in Eastern Europe to worrisome Soviet advantage. The political uproar against the Pershings was intense, particularly in West Germany, which endured waves of massive “peace” demonstrations decidedly against the United States and in favor of accommodating the Soviets.


For most conservatives, Reagan’s courage and leadership against this onslaught marked one of his finest hours. Buoyed by Reagan’s example, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stayed the course and accepted the Pershings, responding directly to the Soviet military challenge while absorbing unrelenting political blows from European elites and millions of anti-U.S. activists.

Without the U.S. arsenal backing them, the Western Europeans in the 1980s could not have credibly resisted Moscow, a situation which is starkly different today as they mobilize against Putin’s Ukraine war. The final phase of the Cold War was an extraordinary time that called for an extraordinary U.S. response, one that laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union’s disintegration. That conflict was very much about vital U.S. national interests. It was a unique ideological and global struggle that contested the nature of political freedom and core values of humankind. That same challenge does not exist for the U.S. in dealing with Putin’s misguided and stumbling military efforts to salvage the rump-state of old Russia.

Seizing on Europe’s reaction to Putin’s war, Washington policymakers need to create a new Atlantic defense architecture that passes much more of the costs and responsibility for collective security to the Europeans. Although many American critics of the trans-Atlantic alliance, harking back to our first president’s counsel on entangling alliances, call for the United States to exit NATO, such a security realignment is not in the political cards. A more realistic American approach is to continue with Donald Trump’s NATO cost-sharing diplomacy, not only rigorously insisting that all members meet the 2 percent pledge, but imposing real debts and penalties on those who fail to do so.

When Reagan visited West Germany in 1982, a young Social Democrat youth leader and committed Marxist named Olaf Scholz, today’s German chancellor, was protesting in the streets of Bonn, helping to mobilize hundreds of thousands of demonstrators calling for unilateral disarmament. Deeply committed to pacifism at any cost, these activists essentially advocated for a non-aligned Western Europe, a surrender policy that accepted a permanently divided Germany and Soviet predominance. In a shameful chapter not fully researched, they even covertly accepted KGB cash subsidies to fund their movement.

A generation later, with Germany reunited, the Cold War won, and Brezhnev long succeeded by Putin, it is remarkable how little Scholz and other German leftists, many now in leadership positions in the “traffic light” coalition government in Berlin, have to say about their pro-Soviet past. Upon coming to the chancellorship late last year, Scholz doubtless believed his Social Democrat credentials and accommodationist pro-Soviet record would put him in a sweet spot to continue Germany’s chummy relationship with Moscow. After all, from the time of German reunification right up to the Ukraine war, Berlin’s diplomacy for three decades in dealing with Russia was a narrow self-serving project that slyly avoided both any serious confrontation with Moscow and taking responsibility for the duties and costs of European security. German short-sightedness in developing the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline project is the classic example of that misguided policy.


For Russia strategists in all major German political parties, Moscow was best managed by constantly updating Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and hosting talk-fest events like the annual Munich Security Conference. When it came to actual defense spending, they ducked and sheepishly invoked the convenient ghost of Hitler to avoid paying Germany’s fair share. This approach had functioned marvelously for Scholz’s predecessors Gerhard Schröder (SPD) and Angela Merkel (CDU). Today, Scholz is likely more furious with Putin for upsetting this cozy arrangement than for actually invading Ukraine.

Americans understand that Germany is burdened with a complicated history, but too often our political elites acted as chumps amidst it all. Today, while Washington is overwhelmed by spending chaos, endless borrowing and red ink, Berlin has for years managed federal budget surpluses and even began to reduce Germany’s national debt. At the same, the country’s economically powerful “Mittelstand” enterprises gave Germany one of the world’s fiercest export engines (vying with China’s), generating massive current account trade surpluses year after year. During the same period, American industry shipped manufacturing jobs abroad while Congress continued to increase the national debt ceiling. Washington’s feebleness over the past three decades in advancing our national interests in the U.S.-German relationship, particularly in defense cost sharing, is staggering.

When President Trump broke with past U.S. diplomatic ineptness and presented Frau Merkel with a $10 billion invoice for Berlin to pay back some of the annual outlays for garrisoning American troops in Germany, the chancellor smiled shyly and politely demurred. Trump was right to have continually lambasted Berlin’s political leaders for security free-loading, but pre-Ukraine war his complaints rolled off their backs as German diplomats impishly insisted that nobody in Europe really wanted to see the rebirth of “Prussian militarism.” Pre-Ukraine, Berlin had no sincere intention of ever spending the pledged 2 percent of GDP on defense, as Merkel and Scholz took zero historical inspiration from Helmut Kohl in rising to meet Germany’s security obligations.

But the security Zeitgeist in Europe is finally changing. Of all the unintended outcomes that Putin brought about with his foolhardy decision to invade Ukraine, the most consequential for U.S. national interests is Germany’s abrupt about-face on defense spending, now overwhelmingly supported by a majority in the Bundestag that wants to modernize its military and become a serious security force in Europe.

Finding a political majority in Germany for such a turnabout was simply unimaginable before the Ukraine invasion. Now the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, both parties ironically full of pacifists throughout the rank and file, along with their coalition partner the Liberals (FDP), have agreed to a new special €100 billion fund to rearm the Bundeswehr. In fact, earlier this month, Scholz’s government managed to amend the complicated German constitution to allow for deficit borrowing to finance the special fund aimed at procuring advanced battlefield technology and heavy weapons systems. How long this commitment will last is unclear, but these are expensive and complicated defense programs that normally require years of funding.

With at most only ten NATO members (out of 30) currently meeting the 2 percent commitment, and with Finland and Sweden now applying for membership, the U.S. needs to fundamentally change the financial terms of alliance participation and entry into the pact. On this, President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker set fine examples after the first Gulf War, when they compelled reluctant allies who had planned again to stiff Washington to actually pay a share of U.S. financial outlays in that conflict. Thus, not only Saudi Arabia ($16 billion) and Kuwait ($16 billion) paid up, but also Japan ($10 billion), and even Germany ($6.5 billion), along with others who dragged their feet until American diplomacy exercised leverage. It can be done with the right leadership, just as Reagan succeeded with Kohl.

Over the long term, U.S. policy must promote more independence for Europe’s own military capabilities, such as supporting, not opposing, French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative to begin creating a European Defense Force or European army. European domestic efforts that develop more home-grown conventional military capacity will carry the Continent toward more collective security responsibility and less dependence on the United States.

But Washington policymakers, including even during the Trump years, denounced these efforts as distractions that diverted European powers away from meeting their 2 percent NATO pledges. This view is short-sighted, particularly since the start of the Ukraine war, because Europe can do both. Moreover, Washington policy should not exclusively lock our European allies into a defense framework that is NATO-dominated, indefinitely making all their security policies dependent on U.S. leadership. In this outdated Cold War framework, Washington will always pay the lion’s share of costs and spill the most blood, even where U.S. vital national interests are not at stake.

To foster the Continent’s home-grown security capacity, a wise U.S. policy should also encourage robust European domestic defense industries, but predictably Washington has done the opposite. When the E.U.’s Defense Agency in Brussels took baby steps towards developing stronger European defense industries, Washington swooped in to try to derail the initiative. Known as the E.U.’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), this obscure but significant military preparedness program became a U.S. diplomatic hobbyhorse, as the Defense and State Departments lobbied hard to insist that American defense contractors, typically far more advanced than their European cousins, be allowed to compete to win these commercial projects. U.S. contractors wanted to grab an emerging European defense procurement and weapons market, as if they did not already have enough in servicing the Pentagon’s $800 billion annual budget.

As with thwarting Macron’s European army initiative, Washington’s long-term objective in undermining PESCO was to resist changes in the alliance status quo that keep the U.S. military dominant, always in the driver’s seat and the Pentagon paying the bills. Instead, a creative America-first policy would find new ways to retrench our far-flung exposure and reduce our unaffordable financial commitments. Wise American leadership should encourage rich Europeans to create and pay for their own military-industrial complex, capitalizing on the new-found willingness of Brussels, Berlin, and Paris to respond to Putin.

It has been 40 years since Reagan effectively pressed our European allies to do more for their own defense in the face of an historic Soviet ideological and military threat. That challenge, along with the Soviet empire, happily now lies in the dustbin of history. The United States, today with less financial flexibility and vastly more debt, and comparatively stronger allies in Europe, needs to sharpen, and act on, its national interests. In dealing with Putin’s Russia, the Europeans can take the point. Let’s give Herr Olaf Scholz a big push.