Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Europe’s great fear of another Great War

In Paul Miller’s excellent post below, he makes a persuasive case that much of the European reluctance to make the necessary resource commitments to NATO stems from a decades-long "rational choice" to free ride under the American security umbrella. I think Paul is largely correct, but would add that there is an additional dimension of ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images
Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images
Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images

In Paul Miller's excellent post below, he makes a persuasive case that much of the European reluctance to make the necessary resource commitments to NATO stems from a decades-long "rational choice" to free ride under the American security umbrella. I think Paul is largely correct, but would add that there is an additional dimension of culture and historical memory that also shapes the European mindset on defense.

Last week when Secretary Gates gave his Brussels speech, I happened to be on vacation with my wife in southern France. We spent a few days touring the French countryside and its many villages. As enchanting as each village was, with their timeless stone houses, quiet streams, and idyllic vineyards, every last town center also featured a monument to death, in the form of an obelisk listing the names of the men of the village who had died in World War I. These monuments, each one bearing witness to scores of names, serve for the French as inescapable reminders of the carnage and costs of war. In France's case, this meant the deaths of 1.3 million of its soldiers in the Great War alone. Even as the World War I generation has now passed from the scene, such obelisks, and their comparable memorials in other European countries, continue to shape Europe's collective memory - a memory further seared by the Great War's even bloodier sequel.

This traumatic twentieth century history forms much of the prevailing twenty-first century European worldview on security issues. The German Marshall Fund's invaluable annual survey, Transatlantic Trends, offers one of the most vivid illustrations of these transatlantic differences. According to the most recent 2010 edition of the survey, "when asked whether they agree that war is necessary to obtain justice under some circumstances, three-quarters of Americans (77%) and only one-quarter of EU respondents (27%) agreed. Although both numbers are up slightly from last year, these numbers have largely remained the same over the past several years and represent a significant and lasting divide in American and European public opinion....The differences are even more pronounced when considering 49% of Americans and only 8% of EU respondents agree strongly."

In Paul Miller’s excellent post below, he makes a persuasive case that much of the European reluctance to make the necessary resource commitments to NATO stems from a decades-long "rational choice" to free ride under the American security umbrella. I think Paul is largely correct, but would add that there is an additional dimension of culture and historical memory that also shapes the European mindset on defense.

Last week when Secretary Gates gave his Brussels speech, I happened to be on vacation with my wife in southern France. We spent a few days touring the French countryside and its many villages. As enchanting as each village was, with their timeless stone houses, quiet streams, and idyllic vineyards, every last town center also featured a monument to death, in the form of an obelisk listing the names of the men of the village who had died in World War I. These monuments, each one bearing witness to scores of names, serve for the French as inescapable reminders of the carnage and costs of war. In France’s case, this meant the deaths of 1.3 million of its soldiers in the Great War alone. Even as the World War I generation has now passed from the scene, such obelisks, and their comparable memorials in other European countries, continue to shape Europe’s collective memory – a memory further seared by the Great War’s even bloodier sequel.

This traumatic twentieth century history forms much of the prevailing twenty-first century European worldview on security issues. The German Marshall Fund’s invaluable annual survey, Transatlantic Trends, offers one of the most vivid illustrations of these transatlantic differences. According to the most recent 2010 edition of the survey, "when asked whether they agree that war is necessary to obtain justice under some circumstances, three-quarters of Americans (77%) and only one-quarter of EU respondents (27%) agreed. Although both numbers are up slightly from last year, these numbers have largely remained the same over the past several years and represent a significant and lasting divide in American and European public opinion….The differences are even more pronounced when considering 49% of Americans and only 8% of EU respondents agree strongly."

For Europeans, despite the European Union’s prevailing economic woes, the EU’s great political achievement has been forging the bonds and identity that make another continent-wide war almost unthinkable. And as Paul points out, NATO’s formation after World War II may have been prompted most immediately by the Soviet threat, but it also played an important role in the Franco-German reconciliation and the foundations for European peace.

While American policy-makers should be mindful of how this historical sensibility influences European choices, this is not to excuse those choices. In Europe’s case, the fact that history helps shape a culture does not mean that history should determine a culture. As a matter of policy, Secretary Gates’ sharp critique is correct, both in its substance and tone. European nations do need to increase their defense budgets and their political will to use force for alliance missions, whether in Afghanistan or Libya or future conflicts. Just as Europe has largely been able to escape its past of catastrophically destructive continent-wide wars, Europe also needs to escape its more recent past of anemic commitments to security.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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