international analysis and commentary

Washington shifts its priorities closer to home


US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates surprised and disturbed European officials during his speech at a NATO meeting in Brussels on June 10. He sharply criticized European spending priorities, which have led to deep cuts in military outlays and the shifting of financial resources to domestic programs. If that trend does not change, Gates warned, NATO’s future will be “dim, if not dismal.” 

He did not mince words. “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

The Secretary’s candid comments have reactivated European anxieties that the United States is beginning to turn away from Europe and focus on economic and strategic priorities elsewhere. That concern is not entirely new. America’s growing trade and investment links to East Asia, especially Japan and China, during the 1980s and 1990s sparked such speculation on both sides of the Atlantic. Washington’s preoccupation with the so-called war on terror following the 9-11 attacks, and the inevitable focus on the Middle East and Central/Southwest Asia that such a mission entailed, added to European uneasiness and speculation.

Europe’s anxiety is warranted, but there is another cause that has not received nearly as much attention as the perceived shift of Washington’s priorities toward Asia. Yet it could ultimately be even more important than the elevation of Asia as a strategic and economic concern for American policy makers. In recent years, the political and security environment in America’s own region has taken a turn for the worse. That development may soon impel US leaders to focus on major problems much closer to home. And given Europe’s relative quiescence in the security arena, the continent is likely to see the greatest decrease in Washington’s attention.

The most alarming development is on America’s southern border with Mexico. When Mexican president Felipe CalderĂłn took office in December 2006, he launched a military-led offensive against the country’s powerful drug traffickers. Previous governments had generally avoided directly confronting the cartels, and CalderĂłn soon discovered why. His strategy has unleashed a bloodbath that has consumed nearly 40,000 lives. 

Washington now has a low-intensity war on its southern frontier. There are portions of Mexico, especially in the northern states along the border with the United States, where the Mexican government’s writ is shaky at best. Tourism in such border cities as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez has plunged, and the US State Department has issued numerous travel warnings alerting Americans about the dangers of travel in portions of northern Mexico.  Even worse from the standpoint of US officials, the corruption and violence in Mexico is beginning to seep over the border into the United States.

And the problem of drug violence is also spreading to Central America. The Mexican drug cartels are increasingly prominent in several Central American countries, especially Guatemala and Honduras. Those cartels pose an even greater threat to the security and stability of Central American countries than they do to Mexico, since the former have far weaker political, economic and social institutions.

As if the threat from the drug gangs wasn’t enough to create worries in America’s own backyard, US leaders also face the disconcerting political problem of the rise of extreme left-wing populism in portions of the hemisphere. Venezuela’s autocratic leader Hugo Chávez has been a thorn in Washington’s side for over a decade, but similar leaders have gained power more recently in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and just this month, Peru.

All of those developments create pressure for a shift in US strategic and political priorities. One of the reasons that the United States has been able to devote so much attention to Europe since the end of World War II was that Washington faced few major challenges in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba under Fidel Castro was a partial exception to that happy situation, but given that country’s small size and general weakness, it was little more than an irritating gnat. Even with the emergence of Marxist insurgencies in Central America during the 1980s, Washington had the luxury of a relatively secure strategic neighborhood. There were no hostile peer competitors in the hemisphere that required the allocation of substantial US attention and resources.

At the same time, Europe was a crucial strategic and economic prize. Moreover, for more than four decades after the end of World War II, it was a prize that was menaced by an expansionist great power, the Soviet Union. Given that combination of factors, it was not surprising that US officials regarded relations with Europe as the highest foreign policy priority.

But the situation has now changed dramatically. While still important, Europe must now compete with Asia in terms of America’s economic priorities. And, fortunately, Europe is no longer the cockpit for great power competition. Russia is an anemic shadow of the Soviet Union in terms of both economic and military capabilities, and Moscow recognizes that any ambition to dominate Europe is futile. The remaining security problems (e.g., continued ethnic animosity in portions of the former Yugoslavia) are quite modest in nature, and the nations of the European Union should be capable of handling them on their own. 

The free fall in European defense spending levels, which was the cause of the verbal lashing that Secretary Gates delivered in Brussels, suggests that European governments and populations are not terribly worried about significant security threats developing.  That lack of any sense of urgency gives Washington an additional justification – or excuse – for de-emphasizing ties to Europe.

Europe’s relatively quiet environment – for which everyone on both sides of the Atlantic should be grateful – would likely have led to a decrease in Washington’s attention, even if adverse developments elsewhere in the world had not intruded. But the US decision to confront radical Islamic terrorism meant that such a shift in priorities was inevitable.  And now America’s deepening problems in its own neighborhood will both hasten and intensify that shift.

Europeans must adjust to a US foreign policy in which the continent no longer occupies the place of primacy. Economically, the top US priority in the coming decades will be East and South Asia. Strategically, Washington’s attention will likewise shift away from Europe toward both Asia and America’s own troubled neighborhood in the Western Hemisphere.