Exactly How Helpless Is Europe?
If the United States stops protecting its closest allies, it won’t be a catastrophe. It’ll be exactly what they needed.
One of the more durable beliefs in the foreign-policy communities on both sides of the Atlantic is that Europe cannot handle its own security problems and must therefore rely on the United States for protection. Although European leaders and defense experts have spoken of wanting greater strategic autonomy and occasionally suggested that it was time to take their fate into their own hands (as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it in 2017), the belief that security in Europe ultimately depends on the United States dies hard.
This conclusion is puzzling. Although the nations of Europe face several security problems, the only threat to the continent for which U.S. military power might be relevant is a direct military clash with Russia. Yet, on paper at least, Europe has more than enough latent power to deal with that problem. NATO’s European members contain more than 500 million people; Russia’s population is only 145 million. Europeans are also much healthier: Average life expectancy in Europe is roughly 82 years, whereas in Russia it is only 72 (and even lower for men). NATO Europe’s combined GDP is more than $15 trillion; Russia’s GDP is only $1.7 trillion, which is smaller than Italy’s alone. More remarkable still, NATO’s European members spend three to four times what Russia does on defense every single year. Indeed, Germany and France together spend more than Russia does, and Russia must devote some of what it spends to the Far East, its large nuclear arsenal, and its engagements in places like Syria.
Even if one allows for the duplication of defense efforts and other inefficiencies (which could be reduced in various ways), Europe appears to have the underlying capacity to deter and eventually defeat a Russian offensive in Eastern Europe. Even today, Britain and France possess their own nuclear deterrents, and Europe’s defense industries produce some of the world’s best conventional arms, including first-class tanks and artillery, superb air-to-air missiles, advanced surface ships and submarines, and sophisticated fighter aircraft. Europe’s defense preparations certainly have some deficiencies, but the idea that it lacks the raw potential to defend itself and thus requires the United States to do the job in perpetuity seems risible.
Not so, write Hugo Meijer and Stephen G. Brooks in a recent article in the academic journal International Security. Contrary to those of us who believe the United States should focus on other priorities and gradually let Europeans assume responsibility for their own defense, they argue that Europe is incapable of mounting a credible defense on its own. If the United States wants a stable Europe, therefore, it must continue its policy of “deep engagement” and remain Europe’s primary security guarantor. For their part, Europeans should abandon the goal of strategic autonomy, adopt more modest defense ambitions, and continue to rely on Uncle Sam.
To be clear: Meijer and Brooks’s article is a serious effort to analyze some of the potential obstacles to greater European strategic autonomy. But the bottom line—that autonomy is impossible and that stability in Europe requires a substantial U.S. commitment for decades to come—is wrong.
Meijer and Brooks base their pessimistic conclusion on three main arguments. First, they claim that Europe’s existing capabilities are so deficient that it would require a massive and protracted effort to bring them up to speed. Second, they argue that Russia today is much more capable than comparisons of GDP, population, or defense spending suggest, mostly because its armed forces rely on poorly paid conscripts and its weapons manufacturers produce a lot of bang for the ruble. In particular, they argue that comparing defense expenditures using purchasing power parity (PPP) instead of market exchange rates brings Russia’s defense spending closer to NATO Europe’s numbers (though it is still lower).
But the real problem, according to Meijer and Brooks, is “strategic cacophony” inside Europe. Based on a detailed survey of European security experts, they conclude that threat perceptions across Europe are too disparate to support a coordinated effort to balance Russia. The United States remains essential, therefore, to keep European attention focused on the Russian danger and to provide the military capabilities that Europeans are incapable of fielding.
Neither of their first two claims stands up to close scrutiny. Regarding the first, Meijer and Brooks misrepresent the views of those who argue it is time for the United States to draw down or end its military presence in Europe. They claim that restrainers and offshore balancers believe Europe “can easily and quickly balance Russia” (my emphasis), but I know of no restrainer or offshore balancer who has said anything of the sort. On the contrary, offshore balancers recognize that it will take some time for Europe to address its current deficiencies and prepare for specific scenarios (such as a limited Russian attack in the Baltic area). Opinions vary as to how long a buildup would take, but no one says it could be done overnight.
In my own case, for example, I have argued that the United States should gradually draw down its military presence to allow time for Europe to improve its forces. Even the enthusiastic proponent of U.S. restraint Barry Posen, who recently published an important analysis showing how Europe could defend itself against a Russian assault, recognizes that achieving that goal will require certain European countries to plan wisely and acquire some capabilities they currently lack. To repeat: No serious analyst is saying the United States should leave NATO next week.
Even so, rectifying Europe’s deficiencies would almost certainly take less time than Meijer and Brooks suggest, assuming the need to do so was apparent. As already noted, Europe has world-class arms industries, an advanced space launch and satellite capability, considerable military expertise, and the ability to purchase advanced weaponry from the United States. It would not take a decade or more for European countries to develop conventional forces that could defend against a Russian attack, especially when one considers that Russia’s forces have limited offensive capabilities and remain a pale shadow of the Soviet divisions located in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Europeans would also have the advantage of fighting on the defensive.
In addition, the speed with which major industries around the world have adapted to both U.S.-Chinese decoupling and the pandemic suggests that parts of Europe’s sophisticated manufacturing base could be repurposed more rapidly than Meijer and Brooks maintain. Similarly, a portion of Europe’s highly educated workforce can be trained for military missions far more readily than illiterate Afghans. The experience of many previous wars suggests that modern states can assemble potent military capabilities in fairly short order if given sufficient incentive to do so.
As for the second claim, there are a number of reasons why military equipment might cost less in Russia than in the West, including the possibility that much of it is of lower quality. For this reason, defense experts disagree about the validity of spending comparisons based on PPP; the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute uses exchange rate comparisons and believes they are more informative. Thus, the claim that the more populous and far wealthier nations of Europe cannot possibly match Russia’s military power is hard to accept.
More importantly, the threat perceptions that they document were measured under current conditions, with the U.S. security blanket still firmly in place. As long as that is the case, European elites are likely to concentrate on their particular national concerns and focus less attention on the risks that American power takes off the table. Even so, it is striking that Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 led European states to balance more vigorously, even though the U.S. guarantee was unquestioned at the time.
In point of fact, Meijer and Brooks do not know how European perceptions would change if that protective blanket were removed, although it is revealing that interest in strategic autonomy rose during the Trump administration, when confidence in the U.S. commitment declined. They speculate that a complete U.S. withdrawal would have only modest effects, but it is hard to believe that downgrading or removing a security guarantee that has been in place for nearly 75 years would not spark a substantial reassessment among Europeans.
Indeed, as the political scientist Sebastian Rosato has shown, European fears in the early 1950s that the United States would soon head home helped kick-start the successful effort to promote European economic integration. Post-Cold War concerns about a U.S. withdrawal also sparked some short-lived efforts to upgrade European defense efforts, but these initiatives languished in the face of strong U.S. opposition and renewed assurances that Uncle Sam wasn’t going anywhere.
Perceptions of threat are not cast in stone and often change with surprising speed. The first Bush administration was actively trying to improve relations with Iraq in early 1990; it abandoned that effort when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and went to war against it a few months later. The second Bush administration took office discounting the threat from al Qaeda and intending to focus on great-power relations; it reversed course completely after 9/11 and launched a global war on terrorism instead. If Russia is as big a danger as Meijer and Brooks think, the likely European response to the removal of U.S. protection would be to do more on their own to balance against it. That balancing process might not be perfect, but it would have to be massively inadequate to negate Europe’s considerable advantage in latent resources.
And let’s be clear about the real scenario envisioned here. Imagine that U.S. forces were no longer deployed in Europe and a revisionist, risk-acceptant Russia is threatening or attempting to expand its territorial control into the Baltics and possibly beyond. Leaving aside the questions of why Russia would risk a major war to reincorporate countries containing some of the most anti-Russian populations in the world, or why it might believe it could somehow occupy and govern the rest of Europe, is it plausible to believe that the rest of Europe would not see such actions as a serious danger and respond vigorously? Were any of these things to occur, the strategic cacophony one observes today would dissipate rapidly.
It is also unsurprising that the European experts consulted by Meijer and Brooks tend to be pessimistic about their defense prospects in the absence of U.S. help. Why? Because there is one issue where European elites typically display not cacophony but unity: They all want U.S. forces to remain. And why shouldn’t they? Having the world’s most powerful country committed to your defense and willing to put a fair bit of skin in the game is a pretty sweet deal. If one of your primary goals is keeping Uncle Sam engaged in Europe, the last thing you’d admit is that you might be able to get along fine without him. As the political scientist Jolyon Howorth has shown, European efforts to reinforce the U.S. commitment by emphasizing their own weakness have a long history.
There is another possible explanation for Europe’s differing threat perceptions, one that Meijer and Brooks do not consider. Because they see Russia as a powerful and aggressive state that might be a potential hegemon, they think U.S. disengagement would be feasible only if all Europeans viewed Russia as the main danger and were prepared to do a lot more to contain it. But what if Europeans with a less alarmist view of Russia are correct? What Meijer and Brooks decry as a dangerous level of cacophony may actually reflect a rather sensible European assessment of the real security challenges they face. Relations with Russia are a problem for various reasons but only one among several and more political than military in nature. Russia today is certainly not a potential hegemon in the way the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. If so, then the goal of preserving peace and preventing hegemony in Europe is best furthered not by an all-European effort at containment and a major military buildup but by a serious effort to reduce the mutual suspicions that have risen between Russia and NATO since the late 1990s.
Back in the heady days of post-Cold War triumphalism, American and European leaders repeatedly assured us that enlarging NATO would create a durable zone of peace in Central Europe and safeguard the democracies that had emerged from the so-called velvet revolutions. They also emphasized that enlargement was not directed at Russia and that Moscow had no reason to fear it. Moscow, however, saw things differently from the start. The result of this policy is the opposite of what NATO’s leaders promised: Enlargement (and other provocative U.S. acts) poisoned relations with Russia and helped trigger the frozen conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine. Meanwhile, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey have marched steadily toward autocracy under NATO’s protective umbrella. Russia is far from blameless in this process, and some of its recent actions are egregious, but no serious student of great-power politics should have been surprised by how it responded to NATO’s open-ended eastward march. Letting Europeans chart their own course and take the lead in managing relations with Moscow is likely to work better than America’s efforts to spread liberal values and extend security guarantees right up to Russia’s borders.
Indeed, it is somewhat odd that Meijer and Brooks are defending more or less the same prescription that U.S. defense planners adopted in 1949, even though Europe’s security situation today is vastly different. Committing U.S. forces to Europe made sense back then, with the Red Army occupying Eastern Europe and much of the continent in ruins. Given the balance of power at that time, supporters of deep engagement and offshore balancers agree that the United States had to be “onshore.” Today, however, Europe is rebuilt and prosperous, most of its members have decades of peaceful cooperation behind them, Russia is a pale shadow of the former Soviet Union, and China has emerged as a more serious peer competitor than the USSR ever was. Yet for Meijer and Brooks, none of these changes affect the case for deep engagement at all.
Ironically, Meijer and Brooks’s core thesis could unwittingly fuel the result they hope to prevent. Their bottom line is that Russia is a growing threat and Europe is in such a state that it cannot handle the problem without substantial help from the United States. Not only could this line of argument fuel an unhelpful level of European defeatism, but it could also lead to big trouble in the United States. If enough Americans embrace Meijer and Brooks’s description of an irredeemably cacophonous Europe, will they want to go on defending those feckless and appeasement-prone foreigners who insist on passing the buck back to Washington? Remember: This scenario would be playing out at a time when nearly everyone thinks the United States should focus more on China and address long-neglected problems at home. Meijer and Brooks would no doubt be horrified by such an outcome, but it is a plausible conclusion to draw from their analysis.
There is a potentially attractive formula for trans-Atlantic security cooperation, but it requires a more thorough rethinking of the matter than Meijer and Brooks provide. This formula rests on a coordinated response to China and a new division of labor between the United States and Europe. As competition with China heats up, the United States will want its European treaty partners to line up alongside it. After all, the United States can hardly be expected to go on defending Europe if its allies remain neutral vis-à-vis its principal global rival. Washington will need Europe to take on more of the burden of its own defense so that the United States can focus more resources in Asia. It also wants to make sure that Europe’s economic dealings with Beijing do not markedly aid China’s efforts in sensitive areas of advanced technology and especially those with military applications. For its part, Europe will want the United States to remain committed to its defense and to coordinate on issues such as digital governance and climate change.
Herein lies the basis for a new and improved trans-Atlantic bargain. If Europe agrees to align with the United States in the emerging Sino-American security competition, then Washington could agree to leave some U.S. troops in Europe and remain an active member of NATO—including the Article 5 commitment to collective defense. Over time, however, NATO’s European members would be expected to bear the main burden of upholding the regional balance of power, thus reducing but not eliminating America’s role in the defense of Europe. In time, a European would assume the role of NATO supreme allied commander, and the U.S. military would no longer play the leading role in the defense of Europe. It would remain an important strategic partner but more as an ally of last resort than a first responder.
Americans should welcome this formula because the United States faces expensive demands at home and abroad. Instead of a dependent Europe that cries out for protection every time a Russian tank commander revs his engine, Americans should want a capable set of European states that can do much more to handle their own security problems. Europeans should also welcome a more equal partnership with the United States; it cannot be comfortable to be so dependent on a capricious superpower whose judgment often leaves much to be desired.
Meijer and Brooks think this goal is a pipe dream; apparently I have more faith in Europe than they do. European concerns about China are rising steadily, and they are eager to prevent a complete U.S. withdrawal, so they are likely to see this arrangement as the best available option. As for the United States, its efforts to limit China’s power and influence will be enhanced if Europe is on board and increasingly united. Creating a new and sustainable trans-Atlantic partnership begins by recognizing that Europe is far from helpless and can do much more to defend itself in the decades ahead.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.