As French President Emmanuel Macron travelled back from Beijing in April, he sparked an uproar. Speaking to reporters, Macron stated that European and U.S. interests were diverging, particularly in their approaches toward Asia. Washington greeted Macron’s comments with dismay. However, the French president’s remarks intensified the simmering debate over whether the United States should seek to pull European states into its competition with China, or should instead reduce its leading role in the defense of Europe in order to prioritize security needs in Asia, writes ‘Foreign Affairs’.
For many analysts in Washington, the latter move would be a costly mistake.
The United States’ defense commitments in Europe would validate the grim picture that China and Russia now paint of a United States that is pitilessly self-interested and transactional, and would severely undermine the United States’ painstaking attempts to build a reputation as that rare great power that offers something to the world other than naked ambition.
This is a common refrain among those who believe that any meaningful U.S. military drawdown from Europe — most likely involving other states stepping up to shoulder the lion’s share of the defense burden — would sever U.S. ties with the continent and even the world. Pulling back, they argue, is prohibitively risky, would save little money, and could destroy broader cooperation between the United States and Europe.
This concern is overblown. It rests on excessive optimism about the United States’ ability to deter both China and Russia indefinitely and on unwarranted pessimism about the trajectory of a more capable Europe. In reality, countries on both sides of the Atlantic would benefit from transferring most of the responsibility for defending Europe to Europeans themselves, allowing the United States to shift to a supporting role. The result is more likely to be a balanced and sustainable transatlantic partnership than a transatlantic divorce.
The case for European defense is straightforward: with the rise of China and the intensification of the Chinese-U.S. rivalry, the United States gains little and sacrifices much by serving as the primary security provider for European countries that can afford to fund their own defense against Russia.
The United States is not capable of conducting full-scale operations against China and Russia simultaneously.
A significant peacetime presence in both theaters is feasible in the short term. But war in at least one region is a real and growing possibility that cannot be discounted. Direct conflicts with China or Russia have become likelier in recent years, and there is a sizable gap between the rhetoric of U.S. leaders and the country’s military capabilities. Although policymakers talk about deterring both China and Russia indefinitely, the 2018 National Defense Strategy effectively abandoned plans for the United States to maintain forces sufficient to fight wars in two regions — let alone against two major powers — at once.
Today, the United States military is not capable of conducting full-scale operations against China and Russia simultaneously. The United States’ adversaries know this, and the knowledge may embolden them to test Washington’s commitments. Peacetime deterrence and wartime defense, in other words, are connected.
It would be foolish to ignore the medium- and long-term risks. A future crisis over Taiwan or the nearby Diaoyu/Senkaku islands could abruptly pull the United States away from Europe. Such a situation could hand Russia an opportunity to challenge or invade suddenly exposed neighbors. To count on the United States always being able and willing to devote significant additional resources to Europe, should war break out, is to put all the transatlantic alliance’s eggs in one already overloaded basket.
Even if deterrence succeeds in both theaters for the time being, maintaining the status quo imposes significant tradeoffs.
Strategic priorities will ultimately dictate how the United States organizes its forces and which weapons it chooses to procure. If Asia is consistently deemed to be the most important theater for U.S. interests, then the Pentagon will put a premium on procuring systems and designing forces optimized for conflicts in the Indo-Pacific. This means that it will devote fewer resources to those assets better suited to Europe (or the Middle East, for that matter). Likewise, the relative strength of the services will be determined by strategic priorities—and how they shape the defense budget. In the long run, European defense needs will be in competition with Asian ones.
Orchestrating the defense of Europe is costly for the United States, and not just in dollars and cents. Acting as Europe’s protector fuels U.S. hubris and allows Washington to discount the often valuable advice of its friends. When western European governments spoke out against the war in Iraq in 2003, they were ignored even though they were right. If Europe had greater strategic autonomy, Washington would be less prone to engage in the fantasy that the United States alone can shape the world as it wants. U.S. dominance also infantilizes European states by treating them as incapable of providing security for their own citizens and reducing their agency in foreign policy. And it is increasingly risky, as a darkening strategic picture creates the prospect of a sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces under dire circumstances.
Better, then, to empower European allies to begin to fill future gaps in U.S. capacity. The original goal of U.S. policymakers in the decade after World War II was to help Europeans get back on their feet and defend themselves. Yet rather than recognize that these countries are now capable of doing so, some officials in Washington ironically seem to fear this real success, grasping for a reason to make the U.S. presence in Europe permanent and extend U.S. defense commitments further.
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