The Danger of Europhilia: Joe Biden Should Stop Treating NATO as ‘North America and The Others’

Europe is aglow with rosy predictions of friendlier relations with the U.S. Although warning that the world will not automatically revert to January 2017, many European officials are almost giddy at the prospect of America being "back," which they hope means handling the continent’s defense with minimal whining about burden sharing. Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations observed: "People were so relieved that Biden won because there was not really a plan B in case Trump won."

Despite much angst and debate about achieving "strategic autonomy" triggered by French President Emmanuel Macron’s sharp criticism of NATO, the continent never was likely to take on a new role so long as the US retained its dominant position. After all, why do what others are willing to do for you?

Ironically, that remained the situation even under President Donald Trump. Despite his contentious rhetoric, his administration increased money and personnel committed to the continent’s defense. Serious change is less likely under President-elect Biden, who never met an alliance that he didn’t like.

There is, however, a more disturbing factor. It is the frank claim, oft made privately and now occasionally publicly, of European helplessness. Last month Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, defense minister of the continent’s wealthiest nation with historically the most competent military, insisted that Macron’s objective of defense autonomy "goes too far if it nurtures the illusion that we could ensure Europe’s security, stability and prosperity without NATO and the US" Why? "Without America’s nuclear and conventional capabilities, Germany and Europe cannot protect themselves. Those are plain facts."

Unfortunately, that is true if one assumes what has always been must always be. Seventy-five years after the end of World War II and 27 years after formation of the European Union, it and its members remain military midgets, excepting only the United Kingdom and France. Collectively the Europeans lag far behind the US

As Kramp-Karrenbauer detailed in her speech before Helmut Schmidt University, a military school for officers and officer-candidates:

"According to estimates by the renowned London-based RUSI institute, the United States currently provides 75 percent of all NATO capabilities.

It provides 70 percent of what we call ‘strategic enablers,’ which include reconnaissance, helicopters, air refueling and satellite communications capabilities.

It contributes almost 100 percent of defense capabilities against ballistic missiles to NATO. And of course, the United States provides the vast majority of nuclear deterrence capabilities.

Some 76,000 US soldiers are deployed in Europe. This is not counting the troops that the United States would send for reinforcement in the event of war.

Credible estimates suggest that to compensate for all this would take decades, and would leave our current defense budgets looking quite meagre."

This is embarrassing, even "pathetic," as my Cato Institute colleague Ted Carpenter put it. Kramp-Karrenbauer admitted: "Only if we take our own security seriously will America do so." Yet, consider the state of the German military. Declared journalist Timothy Ogden in New Europe, "Chronically underfunded, there is no arm of the Bundeswehr that is not currently suffering." A waggish British officer recently described the German military as "an aggressive camping organization."

Despite discussion about turning the EU into something closer to a genuine nation state, the continent continues to put its security in the hands of another country. Although the two percent of GDP NATO standard is arbitrary, it offers at least one measure of effort. Of the nine European states which meet that mark, one (Greece) is primarily worried about another NATO member, Turkey; two (France and the United Kingdom) manage vestigial colonial empires; and six are in the east neighboring Russia. Everyone else is, well, "busy." That likely reflects two very different factors – lack of perceived threat, with little interest in aiding European states further east, and belief that Washington will handle any problems that nevertheless result.

In fact, the two percent level is inadequate, an easy out, a cheap escape from doing what is necessary for defense. In her speech Kramp-Karranbauer observed: "The costs of strategic autonomy in the sense of a complete de-coupling from the USA would, by the way, be much higher than the two percent of Gross Domestic Product that we have committed to in the Atlantic Alliance." Representing supposedly serious nations, European governments should spend what is necessary to safeguard their international interests. However, they have enthusiastically taken to their role as helpless American dependents.

The February Pew Research Center survey found that European publics uniformly have a stronger belief that the US will defend threatened members than that their nation should do the same. Of the 14 countries surveyed, in only four, Canada, Lithuania, Netherlands, UK, did majorities favor aiding their allies. Support topped out at 64 percent in the Netherlands. Lithuania, a front-line state, scraped by with 51 percent. In Poland, another Russian neighbor, the number was 40 percent. Germany came in at 34 percent. Four others were in the 30s. Greece and Italy took up the rear at 25 percent each.

In an equally disturbing survey the year before by the European Council on Foreign Affairs overwhelming popular sentiment in 14 European nations advocated remaining neutral in a conflict between Russia and the US In 11 nations neutralist sentiment was over 60 percent, hitting 85% in Austria. Only in Poland did that number fall below a majority. Backing for Washington barely registered in some countries, coming in at four percent in Austria, five percent in Greece, and six percent in Slovakia, below the share of people preferring Moscow. The number supporting America was 12 percent in Germany, 17 percent in Italy and Spain, and 18 percent in France.

Still, in most countries strong majorities, topping out at 75 percent in Italy, believe the US will act. Those levels persist despite Donald Trump, and his demonstrated willingness to treat allies in a less than friendly fashion.

So, Washington is expected not only to perpetually spend more than everyone else to defend them. The US also is supposed to go to war on behalf of allies whose people don’t support doing so for each other or America.

Admitted Kramp-Karrenbauer: "We thus have a vested interest in ensuring that America continues its commitment to defending Europe while shifting its strategic focus to Asia." Which is precisely the problem.

Europe is incapable of defending, or, more accurately, unwilling to defend, itself. So the US is supposed to protect Europe. As well as the Western Hemisphere. The Middle East. Central Asia. The Indo-Pacific theater. And global sea lanes. All the while dealing with COVID-19, demands for major new spending programs, spiraling entitlement outlays, and burgeoning debt.

How is this fair, logical, or sustainable?

Unfortunately, everything said and written by the president-elect, and Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, his designated secretary of state and national security adviser, respectively, suggests that this agenda is also their view. It certainly is widely shared by the Blob, the Washington foreign policy community. The city’s many think tanks are today awash in webinars setting forth agendas for every region, which all assume renewed American "leadership." At the same time, progressives want to cash campaign chits for an expansive domestic agenda.

It is worth reflecting on America’s precarious fiscal situation. Federal debt held by the public – excluding intra-government borrowing (of Social Security trust funds) – has hit 100 percent of GDP. That is roughly three times the level in 2008, just 12 years ago. By next year that figure will be higher than ever before, even during World War II.

The Congressional Budget Office expected trillion-dollar annual deficits to continue through the coming decade even before the pandemic hit. The total coronavirus red ink could run as much as $16 trillion. Soon to follow are rapidly increasing expenditures on Social Security and Medicare, which will far outstrip revenues. By mid-century, warned CBO the debt to GDP ratio could be 150 percent or possibly much more, well above the level in Greece at the onset of the Euro crisis. Despite the sanctimonious superiority with which American officials tend to address allies, America’s unfunded liabilities are much greater and overall fiscal position is much weaker than those of European states.

Unsustainable trends must end at some point. The result could be a fiscal crisis. As the CBO described it: "a growing level of federal debt would also increase the probability of a sudden fiscal crisis, during which investors would lose confidence in the government’s ability to manage its budget, and the government would thereby lose its ability to borrow at affordable rates." Which would have long-term, negative impact on economic growth and leave Washington ill-prepared to handle another serious challenge – financial crisis, pandemic, large-scale war, or something else.

Thus, though Biden understandably desires a more respectful discourse with American allies, he should make a priority pushing, indeed forcing, Europe to take its security seriously, as Kramp-Karrenbauer discussed. Of course, this won’t be easy. Indeed, she offered several pertinent questions, or what she termed "profound uncertainties within NATO and the European Union":

  • "Is our threat perception the same everywhere in Europe? In Riga or Stockholm, for example, people look at Russia differently than in Paris or Rome.
  • How strong is Germany’s resolve?
  • Will we Europeans be able to rely on each other when push comes to shove?"

According to the Pew and ECFA polls, at least, the answers appear to be negative. Which helps explain a new paper from the Center for European Policy Analysis, which worries that the younger generation is disconnected from the reasons NATO was founded. This is only natural, since the world of the alliance’s birth is long gone, which transatlantic alliance advocates worry could put NATO’s future into question. Without "buy-in" from younger generations "As this next professional class begins to fill the ranks across governments and international institutions," worried CEPA’s Lauren Speranza, "NATO, and the international order it safeguards, will not survive the next seven decades."

If so, rather than concoct new duties to save old organization, Europeans should discuss transforming old or creating new institutions. But no. As public choice economics would predict, NATO appears desperate to preserve itself even if its original role has disappeared. Indeed, a new report from a "reflection panel" appointed by NATO’s secretary general not-so-humbly asserted: "In spite of these challenges, NATO remains indispensable. In fact, the fundamental purpose of NATO is more demonstrably clear today than it has been for decades." Was any other conclusion possible, even imaginable?

Biden and those with whom he has surrounded himself are undoubted believers in alliances. However, it is time to reconsider what those alliances are about and supposed to do. The military organizations which grew out of World War II and the Cold War were intended to defend nations unable to protect themselves. The immediate goal was to safeguard them from the Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and other predator states. In the longer-term the alliances were to shield friends until they recovered economically and eventually took over their normal defense responsibilities.

NATO achieved the first objective, However, the second appears to have been forgotten. Of course, as has been oft said, America is stronger acting with partners to achieve shared ends. However, those objectives should be tasks that require collective action and responsibility for which is appropriately shared. Duties that naturally belong to one party, and which it is capable of performing, do not require an alliance.

Thus, there is no need for Washington to request European aid to protect against security threats from Latin America. Military dangers are few and well within America’s capability to handle. So is guarding the East and West Coast from invasion. And preventing an Arctic surprise assault.

In 1950 the Europeans were not able to defend themselves, so America taking on that role was in the interests of both sides of the Atlantic. However, the world has changed dramatically. MIT’s Barry Posen makes the obvious point: "The main security problem for Europe is Russia. We should be curious as to how Europe’s situation could be so bad, given that Europe’s main military inputs – people and money – exceed Russia’s."

The threat is down dramatically: Russia’s Vladimir Putin is an ugly character and has rebuilt his nation’s military, but it remains a much smaller security challenge than the Soviet Union. Even more important is Europe’s growth and inclusion of the once subjugated Eastern and Central European states. Today the Europeans possess economic strength about 11 times that of Russia, have a population roughly three times as large, and spend more than four times as much on the military. Indeed, Italy’s GDP is comparable to that of Russia while the UK’s military outlays approach those of Moscow.

There is no serious reason why the Europeans cannot organize themselves, whether as part of a European-led NATO or other organization, to protect their own security. True, it won’t be easy, as the EU’s struggles demonstrate. However, Washington acting to shift those responsibilities back to Brussels and national capitals would help concentrate European minds. The focus for cooperation could move to China and other common threats.

Because of his Europhile sensitivities and transatlantic ties, Biden is the best US president to move the alliance to a new and different level. Indeed, Europeans already are thinking of a refashioned relationship. Stated Kramp-Karrenbauer: "We want Europe to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States as a strong partner, not as a helpless child. The new American President, Joe Biden, must be able to see and feel that this is exactly what we are striving for."

To make this happen he would need to be firmer than Trump, who usually backtracked on his most dramatic pronouncements, as well as more reasonable, developing a timetable and process to ease Europe’s takeover while ensuring Washington’s final exit as alliance dominatrix. Such an approach would differ dramatically from Trump’s strategy, if the latter can be called such.

European military spending is up to the Europeans. In the same way, America’s decision as to what it is willing to do for Europe’s defense is up to the US Washington should set forth its vision for the future and invite individual European governments and the EU to reimagine the continent’s defense. The objective of that process would be to encourage Kramp-Karrenbauer and other European leaders to expand the continent’s abilities and take over its defense responsibilities.

No doubt, the president-elect would be reluctant to back away from the expansive alliance vision that has animated his entire professional life. During the campaign he declared: "Day 1, if I win, I’m going to be on the phone with our NATO allies saying we’re back. We’re back and you can count on us again."

However, he has more important issues to worry about than pacifying uneasy European officials. The federal government is heading over a fiscal cliff. Some states, such as Illinois, already are in crisis. Uncle Sam cannot continue doing everything.

Domestic needs must take priority – COVID-19 relief in the short-term, burgeoning Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid expenditures in the longer-term. That will require restraining military expenditures, which will leave Washington unable to simultaneously pamper Europe, war in the Middle East, occupy Central Asia, and confront North Korea and China in Asia. With Beijing widely considered by Washington policymakers to be America’s most serious challenge in coming years and decades, they will have little choice but to rebalance – really! – to Asia and away from other regions.

Europe, with prosperous, populous allies capable of building the necessary force and cooperating in the necessary ways, is the place for America to start shifting responsibilities. The US no longer can afford to treat security commitments as sacred and beyond question, even NATO. Soon-to-be President Biden is the best person to explain that to the Europeans.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.