There’s No Partnership in Pivot

If the United States is going to shift focus to Asia it’s going to have to do it without Europe.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Photo by GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images

If you’ve been obsessing over recent events in Iraq and Syria, or perhaps the World Cup, you probably haven’t spent much time thinking about the evolving situation in Asia. But if you stand back and take the long view of global developments, the shift in economic and military power toward Asia will be far more significant than the events that have been dominating the headlines of late. For realists, the distribution of material power has always been a central driving force in world politics, and that is why smart geopoliticians will not lose sight of Asia for long.

Here’s today’s puzzle: Assuming China overcomes the various obstacles it is now facing and continues to become richer and stronger, what will happen to the alliance relations that have been a central feature of the global political landscape for more than 60 years? In particular, what will happen to the "trans-Atlantic partnership," which is arguably the most significant geopolitical arrangement since the "Grand Alliance" of World War II? Or, to put it bluntly: if the United States does in fact "rebalance" toward Asia, will Europe rebalance with it?

The answer is no. If "rebalancing" means NATO acting together to counter a rising China, that just ain’t gonna happen. If the United States pivots to Asia in order to prevent Chinese hegemony there (as I believe it will), Europe is not going to play a significant role in that effort and its strategic importance will continue to decline. To the extent that NATO Europe does contribute, it will be by taking responsibility for security in its own region, so that the United States can focus its energies and attention elsewhere.

Here’s why.

For starters, remember that states form alliances and cooperate on security issues largely to counter a common threat. Powerful states are obviously a potential danger, but the level of threat is also affected by: 1) proximity (i.e., strong states are more dangerous when they are close by), 2) offensive military capabilities, and 3) revisionist intentions. In short, threats are greatest when powerful states are nearby and seek to alter the status quo in their favor, and especially when they seem willing to use military force to do it. Under these conditions other states usually join forces to deter, contain, or defeat them.

Taken together, these factors explain why the Soviet Union was such an obvious threat to Western Europe — it was powerful, right next door, had an offensively-oriented military doctrine, and espoused an ideology of world revolution. It’s no accident NATO arose in response to this danger, and no surprise that NATO has been searching for a convincing rationale for its continued existence ever since the USSR and the Warsaw Pact imploded.

But China won’t provide that rationale, because the United States and Europe don’t share similar perceptions of threat. The United States wants to remain the only regional hegemon, which means it wants to keep China from establishing a hegemonic position in Asia. Hegemony in Asia is precisely what Beijing wants, however, which is why it is pressing various territorial claims, courting South Korea, and in general challenging the U.S. position there.

This situation looks very different from a European vantage point. Chinese power is growing, but it is a long, long way from Europe. Chinese power projection capabilities are also increasing — mostly to deny the United States free access to areas close to China — but these capabilities do not threaten European interests in any serious way. Similarly, China is a revisionist power, but the elements of the status quo that it seeks to change are all in Asia, not Europe. If Europe is worried about revisionism today, it’s Russia, not China that looks like trouble.

The bottom line is that there is little basis for close security cooperation vis-à-vis China between Europe and America. As Frans-Paul van der Putten of the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands observed in a 2013 report, one option is*:

"to closely follow the US strategy, and thus support Washington’s policy of increasing pressure on Beijing. The problem in this regard is that it is not in Europe’s interests to support the perpetuation of US global leadership at all costs, if this involves the danger of long-term global instability, the paralysis of global governance, and possibly even a Sino-US war."

The second reason why the EU and the United States won’t be "rebalancing" together is economics.

During the Cold War, neither the United States nor Western Europe traded very much with the Warsaw Pact, so there was no tension between our military commitments and our economic ties. On the contrary: transatlantic security and economic ties were both extensive, and the Soviet bloc was outside both. But China is now the EU’s No. 2 trading partner and total trade revenue quadrupled to nearly €430 billion over the past decade. Given Europe’s delicate economic condition, leaders there aren’t going to want to do anything that might put those ties at risk. 

Beijing is also a small but rapidly growing source of direct foreign investment and it has been a consistent supporter of the Euro, in part because the Euro is a potential rival to the dollar as an international reserve currency. Both considerations give European leaders additional incentives to remain aloof from a U.S. effort to contain China either now or in the future.

The third reason Europe and America won’t "rebalance" together is the role of the arms trade. During the Cold War, NATO had elaborate export control procedures to deny the Warsaw Pact access to sophisticated weapons technology. Nothing similar exists with respect to China today. True, the EU has had a weapons embargo on China ever since Tiananmen Square, but the ban was nearly lifted a few years ago and it is increasingly a sham. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 15 percent of Chinese arms imports are from France, which provides advanced sonars and ASW helicopters. But Britain also sells China advanced jet engines and Germany supplies the sophisticated diesel-electric engines that power many Chinese submarines. 

One may safely conclude that if Sino-American relations worsen and the United States asks its NATO allies to stop selling arms or arms-related components to China, the answer from European capitals will be "sorry, but no." After all, if France didn’t stop the sale of naval vessels to Russia after Moscow seized Ukraine, its unlikely to halt arms sales to China over some territorial dispute in the Pacific.

Finally, Europe won’t help the United States balance China because it has little capacity to contribute to that effort. We all know this story: European defense capabilities have been eroding for decades as military budgets have shrunk, despite repeated promises to increase spending and improve efficiencies. America’s Asian allies will be crucial partners in a future coalition to prevent Chinese dominance, but not NATO.

NATO has been extremely creative in devising new rationales for its existence –mostly by taking on various "out-of-area" (OOA) missions — and this strategy for keeping itself in business might have worked had these various adventures turned out well. But they didn’t, and nobody is interested in repeating the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Indeed, recent events in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) have raised new doubts about whether NATO expansion itself was a good idea.

In short, if trouble starts in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, or over North Korea, Taiwan, or even the Indian Ocean, Europe has no meaningful capabilities to contribute and no vital interests at stake. Nor is there any enthusiasm for a more assertive role: a recent survey by the Koerber Foundation found that only 37 percent of Germans favored "more involvement in international crises," a decline from roughly 62 percent 20 years ago. Needless to say, this feeling will be even more potent if the crisis occurs on the other side of the world.

All this is not to say that Europe has no role to play. The main contribution that Europe could make would be to take on more responsibility for security within Europe itself. Despite its recent woes, Europe is a rich continent with ample military experience and potential. Even today, its combined military spending dwarfs Russia’s, and it faces no other geopolitical challenges of any consequence. If it can’t handle its own security problems on its own, then something is very, very wrong. (And if divisions within Europe make effective security cooperation impossible without U.S. leadership, what does that tell you about the EU itself?) Unfortunately, the habits of the long Cold War have taught several generations of European leaders to look to Washington whenever trouble arises. 

It’s time to wean our European friends off of this demeaning dependence, and a good way to start would be for the United States to announce that it no longer insisted that a U.S. officer be Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Letting the Europeans compete to head up the Alliance might even convince a few of these countries to put some serious money into defense.

Whether they do or not, the main implication of the above analysis is that the much-heralded "transatlantic partnership" is increasingly a dinosaur. Europe and America share some important political values, they have closely integrated economies, and no reason to be rivals. But assuming China continues to rise — which is by no means a sure thing, by the way — Europe and America will have less and less reason to be allies either. NATO might survive as a residual insurance policy against an uncertain future, but it just won’t contribute much to major international security issues. 

And one more thing: if I’m right, and if European countries strive to maintain commercial ties with America and with China, then they won’t be able to complain quite so much when they find out that Washington is spying on them.

Correction, Aug. 7, 2014: The 2013 report from which Frans-Paul van der Putten was quoted was published by the European Union Institute for Security Studies. An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that the Clingendael Institute, where Frans-Paul van der Putten works, published the report. (Return to reading.)

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.