international analysis and commentary

The next US president and Europe’s defense

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Recently, America’s disengagement from Europe has been a focus of debate in more and more quarters. Indeed, a number of indicators point out a strategic re-orientation of American defense and foreign policy away from the European theater – and even from NATO – and this trend can only partly be influenced by the next US president.

With regard to the US strategic military posture, the reduction of American conventional forces based in Europe has followed a steady trend over the last two decades. Moreover, Libya served as a first example whereby, despite the indispensable enablers provided by the United States to initiate and conduct an air campaign, military operations were largely managed by Europeans. One of the lessons learned from Libya is that US involvement in crises in the European neighborhood can no longer be taken for granted, regardless of the wishes of NATO governments in Europe. Finally, a debate has been launched about the presence of American tactical nuclear weapons on European soil.

Not only have some political parties and European governments – notably in Germany – questioned the utility of such a limited nuclear arsenal in Europe, but also the American position on this point is evolving. The US ambassador to NATO recently made the point that the current status quo may not be the best solution with regard to the way extended American nuclear deterrence works. A cautious statement which nevertheless opens up the debate and leaves all options on the table – including the withdrawal of American tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. If such an option should be taken up in the next few years – regardless of political declarations, which will inevitably be made, about enduring transatlantic solidarity and collective defense – this will represent a radical change in relations between the US and Europe. And this change implies, among other things, weaker links between the US and Europe on security, as well as between the regions’ respective policy-makers and defense establishments. Finally, the shift of Obama’s administration’s focus from Europe to Asia has become more and more clear.

The key question now is whether and how this trend will continue in the future. Some European experts foresee a continuation and acceleration of the ongoing US disengagement from Europe. A new scenario has now become possible in which European allies will in some ways “inherit” the NATO integrated military command, as American officials and troops go on to represent a minority in an organization predominantly composed by Europeans. A more radical view, put forward even by British scholars who are traditionally keen to have the American commitment in Europe, does not exclude a substantial US withdrawal from NATO. Other experts throughout Europe still hold with the idea that the US will continue to rely on European allies, particularly in a world where rising powers (such as China) do not share many Western values. Moreover, in regional theaters such as North Africa and the Middle East, Europe can still exert a certain role – also for geographical proximity.

For sure, in both scenarios the US will demand that Europeans do more. The warning given by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at NATO in the midst of the Libyan campaign represented the apex of an American shift away from the concerns expressed in the early 1990s about an autonomous European defense capability. Today, the predominant view in the US is, to a certain extent, similar to the one expressed in the 1950s when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles threatened an “agonizing reappraisal” if Europeans should fail to create the European Defense Community. Americans are no longer threatening such a reappraisal: indeed, it is already under way. It is now up to the Europeans to prepare themselves to mobilize their armed forces in their neighborhood through NATO and with limited support from the US – or even without any American support at all.

Within this context, the role that can be exerted by the next American president is quite limited. US presidents, first of all, are not totally in charge of America’s foreign and defense policy. Naturally, a number of relevant actors play a role in shaping such policy, including the one toward NATO and Europe. The military establishment, for example, retains its own goals and strategies, which evolve at quite a slow pace: the US military still attaches importance to NATO, but is increasingly concerned with China and dissatisfied with the European military contribution to collective security. The American defense industry maintains interests and links in Europe, too, but the decline of European defense budgets renders the Old World ever less important in their eyes. Congress does hold some red lines for US defense and foreign policy, for example with regards to Israel, but it too feels less and less sympathetic towards Europeans – also because of a generational change. Finally, the think tanks in Washington contribute to shaping perceptions and options in the White House, as demonstrated by the influence of neoconservative circles during the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11.

Although there is a convergence of all these actors’ preferences towards a certain reappraisal of US strategy, inherited commitments remain difficult to avoid. It has taken three years to withdraw American troops from Iraq – a disengagement that Obama promised to complete in 18 months – while there is no sign that the Guantanamo Bay detention center will close, despite Obama’s promises. US commitment in Europe and NATO will not fade quickly, but it does seem to be set to take place in the medium term. 

All told, the re-election of Obama or the election of a Republican president will have a limited impact on the ongoing evolution of US defense and foreign policy. Should Democrats maintain control of the White House, current trends are bound to continue – including a high reluctance to send infantry into any Mediterranean arena and a reliance on the ability of drones to kill suspected terrorists in the Middle East and Central Asia. With regards to Europe, the rhetoric on multilateralism will be maintained to please Europeans and to downplay their fears of a reduced American commitment to NATO and to global security. However, American burden-sharing for European security will continue to diminish. In this respect, the cuts planned by the Obama administration to the US military budget, although substantial, are not as big as they seem: savings of 487 billion dollars over the next decade will nevertheless allow the defense budget to increase by 1.6% over the next five years, if figures are adjusted for inflation. Moreover, the reduction of costs related to a withdrawal from the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan will enable the US military to recover from the overstretch experienced in the last decade. In other words, even with the implementation of planned cuts there is no risk of a “demilitarization” of America. This risk, however, is very real for Europe, given its declining defense budgets.

Should Mitt Romney become America’s next president, he would not make such cuts in defense spending. In addition, a different rhetoric might be expected by the Republican leader, who will be more keen to reaffirm “American exceptionalism” and the country’s right to act unilaterally. While Obama has never denied this right, he has downplayed it in his narrative. Such an attitude might imply more difficult relations with Europe, but it would neither accelerate nor reverse the trend of US disengagement there. In any case, US strategy – whether under Obama or Romney – will depend on a number of elements not totally under American control: an Israeli attack on Iran, for example, before or after presidential elections, would certainly change the strategic context influencing US policy.