Small Wars Journal

The European Albatross Tries to Fly

Thu, 10/06/2016 - 12:09pm

The European Albatross Tries to Fly

Robert Murphy

“…your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.”

“…it is rather … subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.”

-- Athens to Melios, History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides

European Union ambitions for a military force distinct from NATO are absurd. The list of challenges to forming such a force are legion, and beyond the capability of a barely credible and fractious body whose decrees lack meaningful authority. To think that a body that struggles to manage the official naming of cheeses, beer and wine could magically transform Europe’s ambivalence towards self-defense and overcome crippling disunity is naïve in the extreme. However, the evidence of political will to break with NATO should encourage the US to pursue a long overdue update of the terms of its contributions to the Continent’s security, and usher in changes led by the next US president.

The Franco-German effort to duplicate NATO’s capability faces insurmountable challenges. Among the greatest is the lack of cohesion among European partners. The Financial and Refugee crises depicted the larger, more easily discerned fault lines between the states essential to the project. Suppressing national interest for the common good has not been the EU members’ strong suit, and as anyone who enjoys deep relationships with Europeans can attest, individual Europeans are further divided by an inscrutable array of fine fractures along historic, nationalist and culturalist lines. All politics are local. Just ask a Bavarian about Prussians, or a Calabrian about Tyroleans. 

Despite the likelihood of failure, it is in America’s best interest to support the endeavor. Europe’s pursuit provides the US with the single greatest opportunity to extract itself from the entanglement NATO has become, and return the alliance to being a net provider, rather than a gross consumer of American security. A North Atlantic alliance winnowed down to the UK and Canada would retain three quarters of the capability and a fraction of the liability of the current regime.

The liabilities NATO currently presents are unsustainable and unnecessary. They represent the obsolete financial legacy of post war reconstruction and the hangover that followed the alliance’s relatively recent, euphoric banquet of ill-conceived expansion into the Baltics and Balkans. The US is now actively considering further indebting itself in order to place young American men and women on the borders of nations too ambivalent about security to do so themselves.  The US finds itself inextricably tied to nations like Lithuania, who contribute little to their self-defense, yet expose the US to increased risk of conflict with sophisticated potential adversaries like Russia. No less significant is the continuing gravy train of financial subsidy provided to nations like Germany, who despite being the world’s fourth largest economy, and host of the largest defense exporter in Europe, is seemingly unable to contribute 2% of its GDP to defense spending or field a meaningful Army, Navy or Air Force.

Disencumbering the US from such unreliable allies not only reduces and simplifies our Global problem set, it allows for the reallocation of billions of dollars in defense spending to address the widening gap between today’s force and the modernized force needed to meet future challenges. The steep drop in trans-Atlantic training and rotational force commitments frees US forces to not only meet other, more pressing global challenges, but allows for the kinds of collective training opportunities that enabled the US to win the first gulf war in 100 hours. Exercises conducted with reliable and fully compatible allies such as Canada and the US would be devoid of the usual NATO interoperability challenges and result in substantive advances in readiness and proficiency. Overseas operations unburdened by a smorgasbord of national caveats would be easier to command and coordinate, contributing to greater success. This smaller, more effective and agile NATO presents a far greater deterrent to America’s adversaries than today’s sprawling, bloated, imbalanced and divided security co-op.

The proposition by the EU serves as a logical start point from which to renegotiate the NATO charter. Combined with an expanded menu of benefits for Canada and the UK, American diplomats establish an aggressive timeline for transitioning continental security responsibilities to the EU. The objective is to redraw NATO, and thereby American force presence off of the continent. If expenditure on self-defense is any indicator, our European partners estimate the threat to their sovereignty as low, and ought to assume these new requirements without much of an argument

In the best case, Europe succeeds and America wins. With American diplomatic support, it achieves heretofore-unforeseen levels of cohesion and commitment to self-defense. Europe leverages the strength of its remarkable defense industry and fields a potent military force based on the framework of the NATO agreement. In gratitude for decades of American support, the EU becomes NATO’s greatest ally and an active partner in addressing global security challenge. Its cohesion is the envy of the world’s continents, and Russia’s ambition is effectively checked. Intra-European factionalization is suppressed and the Euro competes with the Dollar. American troops stationed in the US are not at risk of being consequential victims of European ambivalence over security.

In the worst case, Europe fails to build a security force, but America still wins. Despite America’s best efforts, tensions between German taxpayers and the entitlement benefactors in Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain escalates into violence. Egregious social offenses by groups of Middle Eastern refugees accelerate and fuel xenophobic security policies, and Russia takes advantage of the distractions to launch asymmetric military operations across Eastern Europe that further erode European cohesion. The Euro collapses as a common currency, and nations return to deflated version of their former currency. Economic depression and poverty engulfs the continent as it faces a winter as Russian manipulates delivery of natural gas. All these possibilities are variable, however, most importantly, American troops are stationed in the US and have not been the consequential victims of European ambivalence. The American people have the time and space to deliberate over what actions it should take, if any, to intervene. Our Allies in Canada and the UK stand ready to support or lead a military effort.  The US military, modernized and ready, prepares to lead or join them.

The absence of meaningful European unity will doom any attempt to form an EU security force to replace or even support NATO. It is a fundamentally flawed grasp at leadership by the only two nations in the EU that can afford the project, and whose domestic arms industries stand to benefit from it. Despite the likelihood of failure, disencumbering the US and NATO from the nations pursuing this plan may be this centuries greatest gift to American security policy. A salvaged NATO, trimmed of the excess liability and demand of its European albatross stands a chance of actually deterring America’s adversaries. The boon to American military readiness and security this latest European experiment represents is an opportunity we cannot miss.

Categories: NATO - European Union - Europe

About the Author(s)

Robert Murphy graduated from The Citadel with degrees in History and French. He graduated from the US Army’s Advanced Military Studies program, commanded an infantry company in combat, and served as the special assistant to the Commanding General, US Army Europe. He is a professional strategist.