The Europeans are in a whiny mood. So what else is new, you ask? True, but the Biden presidency was supposed to be a halcyon time for Euro-enthusiasts.
Senator and Vice President Joe Biden was the ultimate Atlanticist. Candidate Biden ran promising to restore America’s alliances, widely interpreted as doing ever more for and giving ever more to Washington’s well-pampered defense dependents across the pond. His expected secretary of state even spoke French. "Happy days are here again!", declared the continent’s Eurocratic elite as they celebrated Biden’s victory last November.
Alas, that was then, this is now. Tragically, to the Europeans, anyway, President Biden decided that his main responsibility was to the American people. Early in his tenure he held a summit with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to improve relations, horrifying Eastern European governments. Biden also dropped sanctions against Germany over its Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project with Moscow, abandoning a distasteful example of economic bullying but triggering extended caterwauling in Kiev.
The president decided to withdraw from Afghanistan without asking the Europeans for permission. Then came the Australian submarine deal, in which the U.S. trumped France’s diesel submarines with nuclear vessels. The latter both makes money for Americans and reinforces the ongoing Pentagon shift away from Europe to Asia.
The result has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth, especially from the French. Perfidy, screamed America’s oldest ally. Feeling scorned and humiliated, President Emmanuel Macron, up for reelection next year, ordered home the French ambassador "for consultations," the diplomatic equivalent of a raised middle finger. Macron and Biden subsequently held a conciliatory phone call, but hard feelings are likely to linger.
Although few Europeans believed that, given a similar opportunity, Paris would hesitate stealing a commercial contract worth tens of billions of dollars from them, they nevertheless were angry about the administration’s dismissive treatment of Europe. Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens criticized the "almost casual breach of trust" regarding the sub deal. He also complained about "how careless and ruthless the US can be in its treatment of allies." Despite sometimes lofty claims and rhetoric, he added, "the US never strays far from the pursuit of selfish interest."
Thierry Breton, a member of the European Commission, charged that there was "a strong perception that trust between the EU and United States has been eroded." Indeed, he said, "there is growing feeling in Europe that something is wrong" in the transatlantic relationship.
No doubt, the US did act arrogantly and dismissively, but how could it do otherwise? Seventy-six years after the end of World War II the continent remains embarrassingly dependent on America for its security. Last year German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told a military audience: "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."
Which is pitiful.
Even the countries that warn most often about Moscow’s potential malign intentions do little for themselves. Poland and the Baltic countries spend just north of two percent of GDP on the military – two cents on the Euro for their freedom and independence? Others, including Germany, make a much smaller effort. Indeed, several European nations probably would dismantle their armed forces entirely if they believed doing so was politically palatable.
Thus, the US is treating Europe as warranted by its actions. In fact, none of Washington’s many military allies is an equal. Not Japan. Not the Republic of Korea. Not the Philippines. And none of the European states. Not even the United Kingdom, supposed beneficiary of the "special relationship." Indeed, the Biden administration is slow-walking British hopes for a free trade treaty out of concern over the UK’s treatment of Ireland after London departed the European Union. Having dumped his continental allies, John Bull doesn’t have many other options these days, which Washington understands and is exploiting.
The critical question is, who needs whom? Although Washington believes alliances to be beneficial – and they often are, though usually not as much as commonly claimed – the decision for America is almost always discretionary. That is, the US faces few existential threats and remains well-protected geographically, beyond the reach of most powers and weapons. In contrast, America’s allies are far more vulnerable and approach Washington cup-in-hand, desperate for protection from one threat or another.
Perhaps even more important, like the child who still lives with his parents at age 50, US allies never grow up. Decades after recovering from war, developing sophisticated economies, challenging America commercially, and following independent foreign policies, virtually every member of every US alliance still claims to be helpless in the face of most military challenges. The most recent failure by Europe was the inability of any state to evacuate its citizens from Afghanistan. It was America or nothing, which turned out to be a poor bargain when the administration botched the withdrawal.
Under such circumstances, why would the US be anything but arrogant in dealing with such "allies"? Which helps explain why the Biden administration, though not quite as rude as Donald Trump & Co., has proved to be equally dismissive. The only reasonable explanation for the Europeans refusing to spend more for their own defense is that they don’t perceive any serious threats. That is certainly plausible in today’s environment, but then why is the US creating extra force structure, expanding its European garrison, and risking a confrontation with a nuclear-armed power on their behalf?
If not that, then what explains Europe’s behavior? The Europeans might believe their societies are not worth protecting or figure Americans can be expected to take care of the continent irrespective of circumstances. These cases also should be disqualifying. The US should politely tell the Europeans that they are on their own. No hard feelings, but Americans are busy – and essentially bankrupt as well – and have other things to do with their money and time.
Indeed, there seem to be glimmerings of understanding on the continent. For instance, in response to alleged US neglect Breton advocated "a common defense for Europe" as the remedy. He defined that "as about being able to act on our own when needed when these alliances are not ready or able to do so." That is, act on their own behalf rather than expect American defense welfare. The details matter less than the approach – such a defense could be rooted in the European Union or NATO run by the Europeans.
Such an outcome would not preclude cooperation between Europe and America. To the contrary, the US and European nations should work together – economically, politically, and militarily – on issues of mutual interest. In fact, the continent acting as an equal would make more serious cooperation possible. And force the US to take its allies seriously.
The starting point, however, must be for European governments to act responsibly, confront their challenges, and stop shifting their problems onto others, namely the US Ultimately, that is the only way to avoid an angry, messy divorce. The American people, in contrast to the Washington foreign policy elite, are tired of being treated as suckers by populous and prosperous "friends."
The Europeans, surely, and Americans, probably, didn’t expect transatlantic relations to be worse after eight months of the Biden administration. Yet, declared French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of the submarine sale: "This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do. It’s a stab in the back."
There’s an easy solution for the French and other Europeans who feel that way. They should stop leeching off the Pentagon and provide for their own defense. Then they could stop whining about their terrible mistreatment by an arrogant America.
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.