The war in Ukraine has sparked a puzzling development in U.S. national security thinking. At the same time as U.S.-European cooperation has surged, an influential group of American scholars, analysts, and commentators have begun pressing the United States to prepare to radically scale back its commitment to Europe. The basic idea is not new: restraint-oriented realists such as Emma Ashford, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Stephen Walt have long called for the United States to rethink its security posture in Europe.
Now, however, they have been joined by an influential band of China hawks, led by former Pentagon official Elbridge Colby, who argue that the United States must curb its European commitments. The main contest, this group believes, is in the Indo-Pacific, against China—and Washington must focus all its resources on that confrontation.
The specific wishes of these realists and hawks are often vague, combining ill-defined cuts to U.S. forces in Europe with demands for Europe to step up its own security, though without necessarily calling on Washington to ditch NATO outright. But if the United States is to reduce its obligations to NATO, to go all-in on the China threat, as they argue it should, it will have to slash its forces in Europe and at least raise the possibility of pulling away from the alliance.
On a conceptual level, this idea is bold and thought-provoking. In theory, by empowering allies to take the lead in Europe and liberating U.S. resources for use in Asia, Washington can significantly bolster its Indo-Pacific posture. But a closer look at the dynamics in play shows how self-defeating such a shift would be in practice. Instead of strengthening Washington’s hand in Asia, the result could be to badly weaken the United States in its growing competition with China.
To begin with, the tradeoff between Europe and the Indo-Pacific is not nearly as great as some skeptics suggest. The military needs of the two regions are quite different. The Indo-Pacific, because of its vast distances and maritime orientation, primarily requires ships and airplanes, not ground forces of the sort that Europe needs. Both theaters do place demands on common capabilities, including air and missile defense, and advanced munitions, but the Defense Department is now buying more, and allies can help in these areas.
The long-standing charge that the United States needlessly lavishes resources on Europe is also mistaken. In 2018, for example, one estimate of the total cost of U.S. contributions to NATO budgets, U.S. forces in Europe, European Deterrence Initiative programs, and security assistance came to about $36 billion, which was less than six percent of the U.S. defense budget that year. With the Biden administration’s decision to deploy roughly 20,000 additional troops to Europe after February 2022, that bill has grown, but only temporarily. The 2024 defense budget is $842 billion, of which the United States’ European commitments represent only a small fraction.
Advocates of disengagement from Europe often ignore an uncomfortable fact. The only way to save significantly on European commitments would be for the United States to take the most extreme and risky step of leaving NATO—a step few if any of the Europe critics recommend. It would, however, be necessary: no other measure would lead to big reductions. If, for example, the United States were to seek merely to reduce its presence in Europe but stay in NATO, it would still need to maintain sufficient forces and capabilities to fulfill its NATO obligations. The U.S. defense bill would not shrink by much.
U.S. interests preclude any complete separation from Europe. Consider what would happen if the United States were to leave NATO to focus on the Indo-Pacific, and then Russia decided to attack one of the Baltic countries or Poland. It is inconceivable that a U.S. president could sit by and do nothing as Europe fought for its life against a brutal autocrat. Such inaction would be particularly implausible if Russia were getting major help from China, the very power that the United States had pivoted to challenge. If a European war will almost certainly draw in the United States, then the best way to avoid massive cost and risk is not to penny-pinch on peacetime commitments. The most cost-effective option is to stay, strengthen existing alliances, and keep war from happening in the first place. Moreover, the growing partnership between Russia and China means that Europe and the Indo-Pacific are now inextricably linked. However much the United States may wish to prioritize one region over the other, backing off from Europe will empower Russia, China’s primary partner and ally, even as it feeds Beijing’s narratives about U.S. decline and the triumph of autocracy.
The proposal to move troops from Europe to reinforce the Indo-Pacific misreads the requirements for deterrence. China is most likely to attack Taiwan if it becomes desperate, believing it will lose any hope of unification if it fails to act. At such a moment, Beijing is unlikely to be deterred by modest additional capabilities shifted from Europe. Indeed, such a redeployment could easily spark Chinese escalation by signaling the beginning of a more determined phase of U.S. efforts to “contain” China. In other words, the dramatic demonstration of U.S. disengagement from Europe to reinforce its military presence in the Indo-Pacific could well induce war rather than deter it.
MEMBERSHIP HAS ITS PRIVILEGES
The United States also derives diverse benefits from NATO membership that contribute directly to its global military effectiveness, including in the Indo-Pacific. Washington’s cooperation with European allies in areas including coordinated ballistic missile defense operations enhances capabilities that the United States can use to address threats beyond Europe. U.S. participation in NATO exercises—for example, training in Arctic areas with Finnish and Norwegian troops or practicing amphibious operations with Sweden—improves U.S. forces’ skills. NATO’s vigorous response to other kinds of threats, including disinformation campaigns, has generated insights that inform U.S. and partner responses elsewhere through intelligence sharing, joint planning and exercises, and combined analysis. NATO allies are also developing capabilities for joint intelligence and targeting in a shared battle space, an effort that is likely to offer critical lessons for similar initiatives in the Indo-Pacific. Finally, NATO has begun work on combating cyberwarfare, announcing a Comprehensive Cyber Defense Policy, forming Cyber Rapid Reaction teams, and building a Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Estonia, to share intelligence, develop common plans and norms for cyberdefense, and engage in shared training and exercises.
The advantages that NATO offers Washington, then, are not confined to Europe. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that, in the event of a clash in the Indo-Pacific, the United States would call on NATO for assistance. Although it has often been assumed that the alliance would be a bystander to wars elsewhere, a major conflict with China will challenge those assumptions. As described by defense experts including Jeffrey Engstrom, Mark Cozad, and Tim Heath, Chinese military doctrine calls for paralyzing blows against an enemy’s military, social, and political systems at the outset of war. Such attacks could well reach into the continental United States, which would at least in theory provide grounds for NATO’s leaders to invoke Article 5, requiring the alliance’s other members to come to Washington’s assistance. Indeed, there is a precedent for such a request: NATO invoked Article 5 after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
The general belief has been—and rightly remains—that European governments will be eager to steer clear of a U.S.-China conflict. This desire was made plain by French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement in early April that Europe should not get “caught up in crises that are not ours.” But a massive strike on U.S. forces or on the United States itself may leave European leaders with little choice but to help in some way. And over the last few years, America’s European allies have edged closer to open support for U.S. commitments in the Indo-Pacific. Several NATO members, including Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, have sent ships to the Indo-Pacific. In 2021 alone, there were 21 such deployments. NATO has also been deepening its institutional partnerships with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea in recognition of the Chinese threat. Not all of these deployments are surprising. France has long had a presence in the Indo-Pacific and still has over 7,000 troops there. The United Kingdom also has historic ties to the region, and its membership, with Australia and the United States, in the trilateral security pact AUKUS has bound it directly to Indo-Pacific security. Formal NATO strategy documents have been increasingly explicit in identifying China as a threat.
These commitments remain highly conditional, and NATO members, with smaller navies and air forces and persistent European and Mediterranean responsibilities, could only send modest forces to the Indo-Pacific. Even in the event of an invasion of Taiwan, many European allies may well choose to restrict their help to noncombat roles. But such support can be critical in numerous ways: sharing intelligence; cooperating in cyberdefense; ramping up production of munitions; providing logistical, medical, and other support functions; and potentially deploying symbolic units to other Indo-Pacific countries. Such assistance could relieve the United States of other responsibilities, fill gaps, and send powerful signals about a unified response to any further aggression.
Close coordination with Europe is also critical to the United States’ efforts to oppose China’s campaign to dominate the norms, rules, and institutions of the international system. The United States cannot do this alone. European support on many emerging issues—from climate and cyber threats to artificial intelligence—will be essential to ensure that these norms are not set in ways that undermine shared interests. True some level of cooperation would continue were the United States to leave the alliance. But the injured prestige, feelings of abandonment, and political blowback that would erupt if Washington were perceived to be cutting Europe loose would make disenchanted European governments more determined to carve out a course independent of U.S. goals. Finally others will be watching any U.S. uncoupling from Europe, and drawing their own conclusions. Washington could hardly expect Indo-Pacific governments to place their trust in a nation that had breached its commitments to its staunchest allies. Beijing would doubt whether a United States that had deserted Europe would really make good on its pledge to defend Taiwan.
ME TOO, NOT ME FIRST
The proposal to disengage the United States from Europe misreads the current strategic moment. Since World War II, the United States has made the case for its international role as the sponsor of a shared order of mutual benefit. After two decades of threats to U.S. standing—from Iraq to the financial crisis, “America first” to Afghanistan—coordinating responses to Russian aggression in Ukraine has reaffirmed the value of American leadership.
Stripping, or even significantly downgrading, the United States’ European commitments would demolish much of this accumulated legitimacy. It would validate the grim picture that China and Russia now paint of a United States that is pitilessly self-interested and transactional, and would severely undermine the United States’ painstaking attempts to build a reputation as that rare great power that offers something to the world other than naked ambition. The country’s chief competitive advantage in the contest with China is its dominant global network of friends and allies. Now is the time to strengthen those coveted ties—in Europe and elsewhere.
Source : Foreign Affairs