Washington Should Stop Reassuring Europe: Time for NATO Members To Grow Up

Russia is threatening Ukraine, causing yet another "crisis" in Washington. Kyiv isn’t a formal ally let alone in NATO. Yet the foreign policy establishment talks and acts as if Ukraine was a member of the transatlantic alliance. Which could lead to war between Washington and Moscow.

Yet defending Ukraine would be no cakewalk. Especially since Kyiv matters much more to Russia than to the US. Worse, justifying war with a nuclear-armed power over a country thousands of miles away with no connection to US security would be an especially tough sell to the American people.

Moreover, the more fervent Washington’s rhetoric – America has an "unwavering" commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, said Secretary of State Antony Blinken – the more likely Kyiv will believe that it enjoys an implicit security guarantee. Which might encourage the Zelensky government to recklessly provoke Moscow. A similar assumption led Georgia to attack Russian troops in the breakaway province of South Ossetia in 2008, with predictably disastrous consequences. Tbilisi discovered that love letters from an American president did not an alliance make.

However, the easternmost members of NATO aren’t even satisfied with formal membership. They expect endless expressions of love and affection, and constant assertions that Washington cannot live without them. For instance, before Blinken arrived in Riga at the end of November Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told the press: "We would like to have a permanent United States [military] presence in our country."

The garrison’s purpose would not be to stop the Russian military. Rather, it would be to ensure that American personnel died if Moscow invaded. The goal would be to short circuit the decision-making process, benefiting Latvia, not America. Similar tripwires were used during the Cold War to eliminate the need for debate over going to war.

Some policymakers would go further. For instance, the Lexington Institute’s Daniel Goure argued: "The best deterrent of such a threat is the presence of strong U.S. conventional forces along NATO’s eastern border. If Russia sees the prospect of territorial aggression to its west as a risky proposition, such aggression is less likely from Moscow." He would move the army headquarters, at least one armored brigade, and assorted other combat units to Poland.

Nor is that all. Even as Uncle Sam defends his rich European buddies who spend their earnings on wine, women, and song, they insist that he should constantly "reassure" them that he will always pay, irrespective of circumstances. Stefan Kornelius of The Suddeutsche Zeitung reported talking with top US military commanders: "the Americans seem to know at least from the European perspective, a military perspective, that they actually have to double their efforts after Afghanistan to reassure Europe."

And how better to reassure European shirkers than to deploy more American troops, or at least that’s what the Europeans say. Proposals from continental policymakers calling for ever more US support should be seen as the foreign policy equivalent of emails from professed Nigerian bank officials with money to distribute. Yet Americans continue to fall for both scams.

John Deni of the Army War College deployed the usual Euro-NATO clichés when he called for a "durable" military presence on the ground in the Baltic States: "Particularly in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the concerns generated over American credibility, only a consistent US military presence in each of the Baltic states can convincingly reassure allies that Washington has their back while also signaling to Putin the rock-solid American commitment to NATO. The seemingly rushed, chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused some American allies in Europe to question Washington’s commitment to NATO."

The obvious question is, so what?

The Europeans have enjoyed a cheap ride from the start of NATO. In the early years it made sense for the US to provide a security shield behind which the continent could recover. However, those days are long over.

Today European dependence is taken as a given. However, that was not America’s initial plan. To the contrary, "American policymakers from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower strenuously tried to avoid having the future of Europe dependent on a permanent US military presence on the continent," wrote James McAllister, author of No Exit: America and the German Problem. Dwight D. Eisenhower, no isolationist dove, opined: "We cannot be a modern Rome guarding the far frontiers with our legions if for no other reason than that these are not, politically, our frontiers. What we must do is to assist these people [to] regain their confidence and get on their own military feet." In fact, Washington intervened initially to avoid having to intervene in the future: "The purpose of America’s ‘temporary’ intervention in Western Europe was to eliminate the need for ‘permanent’ intervention," contended scholar Mark Sheetz.

There is no persuasive case for European dependence today. The continent enjoys a collective GDP comparable to America and a larger combined population. Europe’s only plausible adversary is Russia, over which the Europeans enjoy an economic advantage of 11 to one and population advantage of three to one. Moreover, with the slight exception of Britain and France, which are active in vestigial colonial affairs, the Europeans worry about Europe and nothing else. In contrast, the US also defends other populous and prosperous allies in Asia, wages endless regime change wars in the Middle East and Central Asia and fills Africa with counter-terrorism operations.

It would be one thing for NATO members to press for US aid if they were poor nations facing overwhelming odds, unable to contribute much to their own defense. That isn’t the case, however. Only Greece devotes a larger share of its GDP to the military than America, and that is mostly to defend against fellow NATO member Turkey. Germany, Italy, and Spain have sizable economies but scrimp on military expenditures. Latvia wants American troops, but, along with its Baltic neighbors and Poland, spends little more than two percent of GDP on defense. If Riga really believed a Russian invasion is possible, then Latvians should be spending a lot more than two cents on the Euro to ensure that any invasion would be costly.

The US cannot change the past, but it can improve the future. Washington should tell its allies, politely but firmly, that the good old days are over. If Latvia wants more NATO troops, it should talk to the Germans and French. If the Europeans want to be reassured, they should spend more on their own militaries. The continent should stop expecting defense welfare from Washington.

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.