Turning the Recurring Joke of a New European Defense Policy into Reality

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has become a neoconservative heart-throb since he appears to genuinely admire the U.S. He also is a mercantilist, protectionist, and nationalist. Common positions all, but none advance America’s interest.

Browbeating Ireland to reverse the results of its recent referendum rejecting the Lisbon Treaty, which would consolidate power in Brussels and create, nominally, at least, a united European defense and foreign policy, has become Sarkozy’s latest passion. He also wants to enhance European military power.

The former is a dubious venture, since the flow of power to Brussels almost certainly means a respective flow of liberty away from the European people. But this is Europe’s, not America’s, business. Sarkozy’s military gambit is a more positive venture and provides Washington with an opportunity to say “Au Revoir” to its promise to defend Europe.

Until World War II, Europe contained several major if not great powers, while the U.S. was a military midget. The U.S. foolishly abandoned its policy of continental defense and nonintervention in European wars in 1917, briefly demonstrating its globe-spanning military potential,.

Unfortunately, its decision to ally with several imperial powers against several imperial powers led to an unbalanced European peace embodied in the Versailles Treaty, which contained the seeds of conflict in virtually every clause. When the new war came, the threats were far more virulent. With either Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia poised to dominate Eurasia, it was hard for the U.S. to avoid joining the murderfest.

Before the war even Italy had a bigger military than did America. When peace came to Europe in May 1945 the U.S. vied with the Soviet Union as the globe’s greatest military power. Washington continued in that role throughout the extended Cold War, creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to guarantee the security of the war-torn and demoralized western European states.

Such a policy made sense during the 1950s and 1960s. But as NATO’s European members recovered economically, surpassing the Soviet Union and its dismal Eastern Bloc, the American-dominated alliance appeared to do more to deter European military spending than Soviet aggression. The Europeans saw no reason to cut back on their welfare states to provide for their own defense. In their view, the threat from Moscow was an insufficient reason not to construct a natural gas pipeline to the U.S.S.R. European states similarly believed Washington’s antagonism towards the Nicaraguan Sandinistas to be of no account in determining their own policy towards the new Marxist state in America’s backyard.

Little has changed over the last two decades, even though the Soviet Union collapsed, Warsaw Pact dissolved, Berlin Wall fell, and one-time Soviet satellites and constituent republics scurried to join the EU and NATO. The Europeans still leave their defense up to Washington, while subsidizing inefficient welfare states and disdaining U.S. international priorities.

The result is truly scandalous. When the world’s greatest, most powerful alliance grandly went off to its first war in 1999, bombing hapless Yugoslavia over its attempt to prevent Kosovo’s secession (following standard European policy: remember Spain and the Basques, Britain and the Irish, and Turkey and the Kurds), the Europeans did little other than applaud. After all, they acknowledged, while their combined economy and population exceeded those of America, their united combat effectiveness was only about ten to fifteen percent of that of the U.S. One was tempted to ask, why did they bother maintaining militaries?

Nothing has changed since then. The practical firepower of NATO’s European members remains dismal. Yet the alliance keeps expanding, drawing in such powerhouses as Slovenia, Estonia, and Bulgaria, with Albania, Macedonia, and Georgia clamoring to get in the door.

While the Europeans periodically chatter about creating a continental defense policy, they leave their security in Washington’s hands. Moreover, the U.S. is expected to do the military heavy-lifting every where else. America provides most outside troops in Iraq, the majority of foreign forces in Afghanistan, large garrisons in South Korea and Japan, and ships to patrol the globe’s oceans, seas, gulfs, and straits. The U.S. is the only nation, other, perhaps, than Israel, with the capacity to attack Iran, and is the ultimate guarantor against Russian or Chinese aggression.

While Europe has divided over some of these policies, particularly Iraq, most European states have been happy to pocket any geopolitical benefits from Washington’s actions while carping on the sidelines. Other than Britain, the Europeans do nothing meaningful in Iraq. And only Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands help out much practically – as in, really fight – in Afghanistan.

True, Germany and numerous other European nations have troops on station in the latter, but have chosen locations or imposed rules of engagement to essentially keep their forces out of combat. The Germans wouldn’t even shoot a notorious Taliban leader and bomber because the Germans hadn’t been fired upon first. The once feared Wehrmacht has become a gang of armed social workers. The few score soldiers provided by the likes of Albania and Estonia merely demonstrate the hollowness of the Bush administration’s supposedly grand coalition. There’s really the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and nobody else.

The alliance’s terminal flaccidity is evident in its response to the growing need for troops in Afghanistan. Last year Washington’s plea for an additional 3,000 soldiers went unanswered, causing the U.S. to send in another 3,200 Marines. At the April NATO summit the U.S. and Canada, whose small troop contingent has been under pressure, begged for European reinforcements. Allied commanders in Afghanistan said they needed at least 10,000 more troops.

Most NATO members mumbled while looking at the floor. Their militaries were strained, they told U.S. officials, who must scramble to maintain troops at some 800 military facilities around the globe. The alliance collected pledges for an extra 2,000 soldiers, most in dribs and drabs, but only the French actually seem to be moving to deliver, with a promised 700 men. Last week London said it planned to add 230 logistical and staff personnel.

Nor is the problem just manpower. The Europeans notoriously lack lift capacity. Their shortage of helicopters has crippled their troops’ effectiveness in Afghanistan. Other equipment is poor, old, or both. One unnamed Pentagon official spoke of “despair” to the Daily Telegraph: “For many countries being in Afghanistan seems to be about keeping up appearances, rather than actually fighting a war that needs to be won.” The Pentagon is considering sending up to 7,000 American more troops to Afghanistan next year, on top of the 34,000 already there. (Allied states provide about 28,000 collectively.)

But now President Sarkozy is pushing a new initiative. He wants to modernize the French military with full integration into NATO. Moreover, he advocates providing the EU with a “permanent and autonomous strategic planning capacity,” creating a deployable European force of 60,000 and pooling European logistical resources.

Over the years American officials have had an odd ambivalence towards any autonomous European military initiatives. Washington always wanted Europe to do more – but under U.S. control. The whining grew deafening at the thought that the Europeans might create an independent military capability. Horrors! Our populous and prosperous allies might decide to do something with guidance and permission from Washington. What is the world coming to?

Instead of balking, the U.S. should offer encouragement. Left unsupported, Sarkozy’s proposal is unlikely to come to much. His government is about to assume the six-month presidency of the EU Council, but the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty puts the entire campaign for Europeans political integration, with a continental president and foreign minister, managing an EU defense and foreign policy, in doubt. Moreover, every prior proposal for a European military capability, including a formal EU commitment in 1999 to create a Rapid Reaction Force, has come to naught.

Even the governments most friendly to the U.S. – in Germany, Italy, and Poland, for instance – prefer to applaud as American forces traverse the globe. The belief that they would actually spend more money, put more people in uniform, and take greater risks belongs to a late-night comedy routine.

In speaking of European contributions to NATO, British Defense Secretary Des Browne admitted that there was “far too big a mismatch between our aspirations and what we actually deliver.” He pointed to the lack of enthusiasm for bolstering the alliance’s military capabilities and acknowledged: “The public and politicians of many European NATO allies do not yet instinctively see expeditionary operations and capabilities as directly linked to their defense and security.”

Domestic pressure is increasing among Canadians, Dutch, and Germans, in particular, to bring home their forces. Britain, too, is growing weary of participating in America’s wars and plans to soon withdraw its forces from Iraq. Sarkozy might have the clout to remake the French military, but even he could have trouble dragging his nation into another U.S.-orchestrated war.

So what Washington needs to say is: it’s time for Europe to defend itself.

It is truly a scandal that a continent filled with wealthy states run by politicians determined to forge a global power is unable to provide for its own defense and project sufficient military power to protect its international interests. That will change only when it has to change.

Europe could do so much more. To the extent that Russia requires deterring, it should be Europe’s job. To the degree that Eastern Europe can be drawn westward, it should be Europe’s job. To the extent that missile threats from Iran and similar states must be defended against, it should be Europe’s job. To the extent that North Africa can be integrated with Europe, it should be Europe’s job.

A stronger Europe and U.S. could then join in military action elsewhere when their interests coincide. And with a serious military capability, Europe could demand to be treated as an equal, with a decision-making role commensurate with its military contribution.

Of course, this might all be a pipe dream. Perhaps the European people will continue to believe that a serious military is unnecessary. But that’s fine too. It doesn’t matter much to the U.S. if the Europeans can summon up the military wherewithal to garrison Kosovo or support Georgia against Russia. Bizarrely, the Bush administration acts as if both of these issues matter to America. They don’t.

Being a superpower without a hegemonic competitor gives America enormous freedom of action. Frankly, there isn’t much that need concern Washington. Terrorism and proliferation pose the greatest threats today. In decades hence China and maybe India could become geopolitical peer competitors. But America’s traditional security concern – that one power would dominate Eurasia – today looks like a paranoid fantasy. If the Europeans prefer to engage in global social work, let them. The U.S. can protect its own interests irrespective of the Europeans’ behavior.

But doing so requires Washington to turn the defense of Europe over to the Europeans. Nazism and Communism are dead. The U.S. no longer needs to patrol the borders of Europe, whether old or new. French President Sarkozy wants a more powerful European Union. Excellent. America should use NATO’s 60th anniversary next April as the moment to hand over its well-worn defense responsibilities to the Europeans.