Slovenian soldiers erecting barriers along the border with Croatia near Gibina, Slovenia, November 2015
Slovenian soldiers erecting barriers along the border with Croatia near Gibina, Slovenia, November 2015
Srdjan Zivulovic / Reuters

The transatlantic alliance is experiencing a renaissance. The war in Ukraine has drawn Washington’s attention back to Europe in ways not seen since the 1990s, when the United States orchestrated NATO’s eastward expansion and fought two wars in the Balkans. The United States has supported Ukraine with massive quantities of weapons, rallied the West around unprecedented economic sanctions against Moscow, and bolstered NATO through additional force deployments. It is hard to think of a time in the last generation when transatlantic relations were stronger.

Yet the Biden administration’s engagement with Europe is ultimately unsustainable. Russia and the war in Ukraine will no doubt remain a significant focus of the United States in the months and years to come. But even though U.S. support for Ukraine is unlikely to waver, there is no way Washington will be able to maintain the current level of diplomatic engagement, force deployments, and resourcing to Europe over the longer term. The pivot to Asia has not ended. The risk of conflict in Asia, where China may attack Taiwan, could abruptly reshuffle U.S. priorities. China’s continued rise will pull U.S. attention back to the Pacific. Washington will likely find it impossible to balance the demands of its allies in Europe and Asia while maintaining the force presence necessary to deter Russia and China. The United States is overstretched.

But instead of developing a strategy to address this dilemma, especially given Europe’s newfound focus on security—not to mention its population of more than 450 million and an economy equaling that of the United States’—the Biden administration has pretended it does not exist. While the United States has shown itself to be indispensable, it has not used this moment to tackle the deep-seated structural issues plaguing European defense. The United States should be pursuing a strategy to push Europe to take charge of its security, turning Europe from a security dependent to a true security partner. The United States should call for the creation of a European pillar within the NATO alliance and to fully back the European Union becoming a stronger defense actor. The danger is that instead of transforming European defense in response to Russia’s invasion and ushering in a new era, the response merely entrenches a status quo that both sides of the Atlantic ultimately find deeply frustrating and untenable.

AMERICAN AMBIVALENCE

Washington does not know what it wants from Europe. Every U.S. president has called for Europeans to spend more on defense, but the overarching goal of U.S. policy has not been to push Europe to stand on its own, shoulder to shoulder with the United States. U.S. political leaders and top officials may believe that the United States is being clear that it wants Europe to do more to handle its security. But the diplomats and officials who develop U.S. policy on Europe enjoy European dependence and the influence it provides: the United States gets to call the shots—and they want as much American sway in Europe as possible.

In 2000, Lord George Robertson, then NATO’s secretary-general, highlighted this split. “The United States suffers from a sort of schizophrenia,” he said. “On the one hand, the Americans say, ‘You Europeans have got to carry more of the burden.’ And then when Europeans say, ‘OK, we will carry more of the burden,’ the Americans say, ‘Well, wait a minute, are you trying to tell us to go home?’” Nearly two decades later, when French President Emmanuel Macron led the push for European “strategic autonomy,” Washington fretted about a renewed plot to decouple Europe from NATO. As a result, the United States has used its immense influence in Europe to block efforts that could lead to a more independent Europe.

U.S. policymakers enjoy European dependence and the influence it provides.

It would be acceptable to preserve American indispensability if U.S. attention and resources were limitless. But the challenge for the United States is that there is only so much senior-level attention to go around. Time is precious, and the fight for resources within government and Congress is often zero-sum. Moreover, U.S. military assets are not limitless, despite a $750 billion budget. This leads to intense bureaucratic infighting over what region or theater should be the U.S. priority for high-level attention and resources.

The Biden administration entered office prioritizing Asia, rightly describing China as the “pacing threat.” But Russia’s invasion has now put Europe temporarily on top in the bureaucratic struggle for resources and visibility. As a result, Europe has been flooded with visits from senior U.S. officials and additional U.S. troops—20,000 extra personnel as of the end of June, everywhere from the Baltics and Poland to Italy and Spain.

European officials praised the United States’ return to the continent. But as Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan has presaged, the foreign policy pendulum will ultimately swing back to Asia. Europe will lose this zero-sum fight over U.S. attention and resources.

A NEW ERA FOR EUROPE

On the surface, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems like the shock that would finally force Europe to accept U.S. entreaties to increase its defense spending. European countries will mostly hit NATO’s two percent spending target. Germany announced a Zeitenwende (new era) and approved a 100 billion euro increase in defense spending. Europe has committed to spending about $200 billion in the coming years. The additional funds should improve the woeful capabilities of European militaries, strengthen NATO, and reduce some of Europe’s fundamental combat reliance on the United States.

But the increase in spending is unlikely to alleviate much of the strain on U.S. forces or go far enough in the long term. Over the past six months, European countries have sent enormous quantities of advanced equipment to Kyiv. Eastern Europe has divested fleets of Soviet-era equipment into Ukrainian hands. Western European countries have sent advanced antitank weapons and artillery, depleting stocks that will eventually need to be replaced. Moreover, rising inflation is also eroding the value of European defense-spending increases.

The more significant structural problem is that European defense-spending increases are going not toward Europe’s collective defense but to individual countries’ national defense. Europe does not spend to protect the continent as a whole; the United States does. Washington provides the critical capabilities and high-end assets (transport, air refueling, and air and missile defense) that enable Europe to fight for Europe. Almost none of the additional defense spending will go toward acquisitions that enable Europe to fight as Europe and therefore reduce the strain on the U.S. military. Germany, given its size, could fill some of the gaps, but its needs are too great elsewhere—for example, to replace fleets of equipment and increase the readiness of its forces. European militaries all have NATO capability targets, which ensure that member countries can fill certain roles, but these targets are designed to help European forces integrate with the United States through NATO, meaning the reliance on the U.S. military is baked in. Despite spending tremendous amounts on defense, Europe is still likely to be dependent on the United States, underscoring the broader problem with the current approach to European security.

DEFENSE DYSFUNCTION

The European Union should be a global military power. It collectively spends $200 billion annually on defense, its economy equals that of the United States, and its members are tied together in a political union. Yet European militaries are in a woeful state, despite increases in defense spending since 2014. Europe does not just need to spend more on defense; it needs to rationalize and integrate its efforts. But proposals for reforming European defense inevitably run into U.S. opposition, bureaucratic turf wars (particularly between NATO and the EU), parochial national outlooks, and vested commercial and political interests.

As the guarantor of European security, the United States must lead the transformation by insisting on the creation of a strong European pillar of NATO that is capable of defending the continent. Europe would strive to operate as one within NATO, as the alliance would focus on turning European forces into a capable fighting force, with or without the United States. Creating a European pillar within NATO would require empowering the EU, a political and economic union that looks out for broader European interests. The EU’s shared currency and central bank provide the potential financial underpinning for the EU to adopt a prominent defense role. The union has legal and institutional leverage to drive national-level compliance and coordination, critical to rationalizing Europe’s unwieldy defense industrial sector. The goal of the EU is not to conjure a European army but to enable Europe to defend itself.

The United States must insist on a strong European pillar of NATO.

The EU can take on the role of the primary financier of European defense, filling gaps beyond the capacity of member states, such as procuring air and missile defense, air tankers, and transport. Nothing prohibits the EU from buying military equipment, which could be made available to member states or NATO. For instance, the EU could finance the acquisition of massive stockpiles of munitions, rounds of artillery, and precision-guided missiles (which Europe ran out of during its intervention in Libya). The EU has already played a similar role in Ukraine, providing 2.5 billion euros out of its new lethal assistance fund to backfill the defense budgets of countries supplying arms to Ukraine. In June, the European Commission also announced the formation of a 500 million euro fund to incentivize countries to coordinate their new defense spending, make joint procurements, increase interoperability, and create economies of scale.

These are important initiatives to integrate and rationalize European defense efforts, and the United States should be pressuring the EU to dramatically expand these programs. Although the Biden administration has described itself as the most pro-EU administration ever, it can claim that title only on the grounds of economic cooperation. On defense, it has largely maintained the United States’ traditional skepticism. It has not actively encouraged EU defense initiatives or called on the EU to expand them. For example, when President Joe Biden attended a European Council Summit in March in the early weeks of the war, he missed a golden opportunity to back a proposal on the table for the EU to borrow funds to invest in defense. If the president had simply told European leaders that if the EU could borrow money for military purposes, just as it did for the COVID-19 pandemic, he could have helped to usher in a new era in European defense. The United States retains immense influence in Europe, especially on defense. If the EU is to play a more prominent defense role, it will need strong U.S. backing.

DEPENDENT TO PARTNER

The question U.S. officials need to ask themselves is whether their goal is to make the United States indispensable to Europe or to make Europe an indispensable partner of the United States. A Europe that can take care of its security will not fracture the alliance, undermine NATO, or prompt a decoupling from the United States. The transatlantic bond will strengthen as Europe strengthens.

Just look at what is happening economically between the United States and the EU. The need for transatlantic cooperation to set the economic rules of the road in the face of a rising China prompted the launching of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council. Overall, it has dramatically improved transatlantic relations. A stronger Europe, with capable land, air, and naval forces, would be a boon to the United States and its Asian partners. It would also prompt closer coordination within NATO, as the United States would stop taking Europe for granted.

The real threat to the transatlantic alliance is the status quo. The 25-year U.S.-led effort to prevent the EU from being an independent military actor has been largely successful. But although this has preserved the United States’ indispensable role, the result is that the state of European defense could hardly be worse. There is also a clear danger that the United States will decide it does not want to be indispensable to Europe anymore. The next president could be an anti-Atlanticist such as Donald Trump or Josh Hawley, the latter of whom voted against Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership on August 3. But just as likely is an outcome in which Europe gets demoted, Russia is again wrongly dismissed as a paper tiger, and the transatlantic alliance suffers as its indispensable partner loses interest.

To avert this future, the United States must acknowledge that it wants Europe to be an indispensable partner that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States. Pursuing such a strategy and building a European pillar within NATO would be a generation-long process that will require intensive U.S. engagement, pushing European allies and partners in a new direction. The time to start the transformation is now.

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  • MAX BERGMANN is Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served in the U.S. State Department from 2011 to 2017.
  • More By Max Bergmann