IISS: What is Europe without America? Nothing…

11:12 30.05.2024 •

The sculptural composition, installed in Stockholm, was created on the basis of the ancient Greek myth about the sinful relationship of Pasiphae, the daughter of  the Sun god Helios, with a bull, from which a monster with a human body and the head of a bull was born – the Minotaur. In terms of its unnaturalness, this is very reminiscent of the end product of modern relations between Brussel's Europe and the Anglo-Saxon West.

Europe faces the re-emergence of an old security threat on its borders at the same time that its security guarantor of the past 80 years threatens to disengage, writes the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in a new report.

The stench of battle and bloodshed wafting over most of Europe’s history is common to the human experience across our planet. Europe, however, differs from other strategically significant continents in several important ways. The most recent of these distinctions lies in the nature of the security order established there after the Second World War and expanded after the Cold War, founded on the power and engagement of the United States, which now faces potentially mortal challenges.

In more positive terms, the post-war period also saw the emergence in Western Europe of a security order founded upon Washington’s preponderant military and economic power and the notion of collective security across the North Atlantic. NATO, naturally dominated by the United States, was soon accompanied by nascent economic and political European communities, whose overlapping relationship with the Alliance could be both complementary and conflicting.

In effect, both during and after the Cold War, the US served as an historically anomalous form of non-territorial hegemon in Europe. This was far from the ‘offshore balancing’ that certain contemporary ‘realists’ espouse: Washington maintained hundreds of thousands of troops on the continent, along with nuclear weapons, and remained tightly bound to Europe through NATO’s collective-security pact. Yet the US did not occupy or annex European territory, nor did it depose governments within the Alliance which acted against its perceived interests. For example, when, in 1966, Charles de Gaulle withdrew France, one of the major Western powers, from NATO’s integrated military command and expelled NATO’s military headquarters, American tanks did not roll into Paris. Nevertheless, the European security order was indisputably dependent on America’s military (and to an extent its economic) power.

A desire for the welcome budgetary relief brought by increasing conventional disarmament after the Cold War, perhaps combined with an overlearning of the lessons of its own destructiveness and self-destructiveness in earlier centuries, saw a succession of disgraceful military hesitancies or impotent performances in Europe itself or its immediate vicinity which required American muscle to resolve – from Bosnia through Kosovo to Libya. Despite these humiliations and countless reasonable demands from multiple US administrations for more equitable ‘burden-sharing’, most Europeans continued to assume that they would be able to enjoy indefinitely the protection and benefits of a relatively benign and liberal Leviathan.

What happens when the Leviathan leaves? Can Europe continue to enjoy the combination of unity, liberty and security if the US either cannot or will not continue to act as its security guarantor?

The Biden administration has frequently reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the military support of Ukraine and more generally to the protection of Europe through NATO’s Article 5. But both these commitments are dependent on the vagaries of US politics and the larger structural realignment of US security priorities towards East Asia to confront a rising China. The cold realities of Europe’s declining global significance – European states accounted for 28.6% of global GDP in 1990, but only 17.9% in 2019 – are hard to ignore. The US has largely abandoned earlier aspirations to be able to fight two wars in different regional theatres simultaneously. If it wishes to prevail in a war against China in East Asia, it may reasonably aim to provide military materiel for its allies in concurrent conflicts elsewhere, but not itself to fight on two fronts. Even the provision of that military equipment, however, is vulnerable to shifting domestic politics.

In the first two years of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Ukraine’s defence was heavily dependent on US military aid. In January and February 2024, despite a majority of American voters and their representatives in Congress favouring continued US military support for Ukraine, a small but powerful minority in the Republican Party, under the sway of its likely nominee for the presidential election, Donald Trump, held up the passage of a crucial $60 billion package of military support for Ukraine while Ukrainian forces were forced to ration ammunition.

Trump has demonstrated many times that he does not subscribe to the ideal of collective security. At best, he considers NATO as being akin to an American landlord being bilked by ‘delinquent’ European tenants, at worst something closer to a Mafia protection racket, and he has boasted that he would ‘encourage’ Russia to attack any Europeans not paying their dues. It is possible that this is a cynical attempt both to entertain his resentful supporters and to frighten parsimonious and parasitical Europeans into paying for their own defence.

Europe therefore faces the re-emergence of an old security threat on its borders at the same time that its security guarantor of the past 80 years is threatening either to disappear or at least to diminish.

A Europe composed of around 30 sovereign states of very different sizes, economic and military capabilities, and strategic perspectives will predictably struggle to achieve unanimity or even consensus on security priorities. This disunity was somewhat sustainable with the American Leviathan acting as a backstop, especially as a federal Europe is in no way a feasible prospect in the foreseeable future. But with the possibility of the Leviathan’s withdrawal within a matter of months, rather than years or decades, it is unclear how far the recent encouraging European rhetoric will be matched by meaningful actions. Decades of underinvestment in defence will require significant and sustained expenditure to remedy, at the same time that anaemic economic growth, costly social models and ageing populations put great pressure on those same budgets.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of NATO’s founding, much will be heard of its status as the most powerful alliance in history. Probably less will be said, at least in public, of the reality that its members remain overwhelmingly militarily dependent on a single ally, and even less about how Europe would feasibly and sustainably secure itself during a second Trump presidency. Before America’s presence on the continent, Europe had never developed a sustainable indigenous security order that allowed it to reconcile the trinity of liberty, unity and security. It is unlikely it would be able to do so now if it found itself once more without America.

If there were a full and dramatic US retrenchment from Europe, it is conceivable that a number of European states (notably those nearest Russia) could begin the process of acquiring nuclear weapons. In the shorter term, we might see efforts to develop European nuclear-sharing arrangements, although it is unclear whether Eastern European states would have more confidence in the extended deterrence provided by France or Britain than that by Trumpian America. Increased federal unity is also unlikely.

The birth of the United States of America, and its ultimate role as a security provider, allowed for a period in Europe when relative unity, security and liberty were concurrent and whose happiness and prosperity far outshone that of the second century. It may be that our distant descendants will consider the 80-odd years of the Pax Americana in the post-war – and especially the post-Cold War – period as a brief aberration in Europe’s long history of bloodshed, and itself a golden age long lost.


In Europe, they are beginning to estimate the prospect of US turning away. The author clearly points out that without America European arrogance will turn out to be artificial. Europe is nothing without America.


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