Article by Stephen Wertheim

The Real Zeitenwende: A Europe That Defends Itself

Wertmeier 2022 European Defense

(European Parliament /​Flickr)

Posted in Big Picture: Key Priorities for Germany's National Security Strategy
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With growing tensions between the US, China and Russia, it is not a smart bet for Europe to rely on Washington to provide security. The good news: it is also no longer necessary.

When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed the war in Ukraine to be a Zeitenwende, or turning point, in the history of Europe, he expressed a noble aspiration. But although it is fairly clear in which direction Germany and Europe is turning – toward strengthening the security of the continent and separating itself from the Russian economy – the final destination has yet to be determined. And without an end goal in sight, good intentions will remain just that. Future historians will judge 24 February 2022 be a turning point that failed to turn.

The destination should be this: Europe must become responsible for and capable of defending itself. Anything less would constitute a failure. True, it would be quite a change if Germany led the way in increasing military spending and the European continent weaned itself off of Russian oil and gas. But as long as Europe depends on the United States for its security, the continent will remain insecure. Today’s Washington has other priorities, strained resources and tempestuous politics. None of these problems will go away anytime soon. Of course, Europe should welcome the United States to play a supporting role within NATO, but it would be a mistake to rely on American protection. Germany’s national security strategy should state that within this decade, Europe should take the lead in its own defense.

Washington Is No Substitute for Berlin

To Europeans now awake to the danger of Russian aggression, it may seem tempting to double-down on American leadership. The transatlantic alliance has been around as long as most people alive today can remember and is revitalizing itself in its support for Ukraine. Beneath the appearance of continuity, however, lie secular trends pushing the United States to reduce its commitment to European security just as Europe’s security needs are on the rise. These factors are as numerous as they are robust – and they do not depend on the possible return of former US President Donald Trump to the White House.

First, as strategic competition with China and Russia intensifies, the United States faces resource constraints that could make it impossible to preserve US military preeminence in Asia and Europe simultaneously. Although the US Department of Defense previously prepared to fight two wars at once, that was during America’s unipolar moment, when the Soviet Union had collapsed and no country could challenge US dominance. Back then, policymakers envisioned the United States fighting small states like Iraq, which the US military nevertheless struggled to stabilize in practice, rather than near-peer competitors. 

Key Points:

  1. The United States is reducing its commitment to European security at the same time that Europe’s security needs are growing.
  2. To avoid a situation where Europe is left hanging, European leaders need to take the lead on their own defense strategies.
  3. To lead the way in establishing a European-led defense of Europe, Germany should embrace its strategic autonomy and build up military capacities within the continent. 

Against China and Russia, a two-war standard is untenable. For that reason, the Pentagon abandoned the concept in its 2018 defense strategy, which enshrined great-power competition” as a primary focus. In theory, the United States could spend far more of its taxpayer dollars on defense. But even Cold War levels of spending may be inadequate against a rising China, whose economy is already more comparable to that of the United States than the Soviet economy ever was. Moreover, the return of high levels of inflation, if sustained, will impose a tradeoff between so-called guns and butter, or international and domestic spending. The effects on US politics will be difficult to predict, because the United States has been privileged enough to avoid the tradeoff for the past three decades.

In the coming years, US leaders may be forced to choose between orchestrating the defense of Asia and continuing to lead in Europe. If so, it is already clear which theater they will choose. On a bipartisan basis, China is now accepted as the most serious long-term challenge” for the United States, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it in May. Strikingly, despite the outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Washington has never wavered in recognizing that China poses a greater threat to US interests than Russia. If US forces are needed for a major operation in Asia, Europe should expect to be left in the lurch – opening the door for Russian adventurism.

Not only are US officials correct to prioritize China, but the specific scope of Russia’s conventional threat is ill-suited for US management. Russia is intimidating enough, in both capability and intent, to pose a serious risk of aggression close to its borders. However, Moscow lacks the military power and economic base to overrun the continent, and thereby jeopardize America’s vital interests in the basic stability and prosperity of Europe. From Washington’s point of view, Russia is the anti-Goldilocks challenge – large enough to cause significant problems, but too small to warrant the costs and risks of leading a direct military campaign to solve them.

» If US forces are needed for a major operation in Asia, Europe should expect to be left in the lurch – opening the door for Russian adventurism. «

— Stephen Wertheim

In this sense, the European security environment fundamentally differs from those that elicited US commitments in the past. From 1941 to 1991, the United States decided to abandon its traditional aversion to European entanglements in order to stop totalitarian rivals from dominating the region through armed conquest and political subversion. After the Cold War, the United States recommitted to European defense on almost the opposite grounds: threats were so minor that a benign US hegemony could keep the peace with little effort. Today, by contrast, the burdens of European defense have substantially grown, yet Russia hardly poses the same threat that fascist and communist powers once did. Europeans should not assume the United States will continue a costly European defense policy whose reasons for being no longer exist.

To top it all off, there is Trump, who could return to the US presidency in two years and force a chaotic transatlantic divorce or act erratically in a crisis. Before that can happen, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic should do their utmost to Trump-proof the transatlantic alliance. To stake the defense of Europe on the judgment of Mr. Trump – or any president who must set priorities for an overstretched superpower – is an increasingly risky gamble. Fortunately, it is also increasingly unnecessary.

Europe Can and Should Defend Itself

Europe has long possessed formidable military advantages over Russia, at least on paper. Before the invasion of Ukraine, the European members of NATO already spent more on their militaries than Russia put toward its own. The EU economy dwarfed Russia’s by a factor of five to ten, depending on the measurement. Since 24 February, Ukraine’s stout defense and Western sanctions against Russia have put Europe in an even more enviable position. Most importantly, the continent’s geopolitical awakening shows that Europe can put collective will behind its material strength when incentivized to do so. To put European leadership behind Europe’s defense is no longer theoretical, but within reach.

What is most needed, more than any military platform or plan, is the full embrace of strategic autonomy by Europe’s most populous and prosperous country, Germany. Berlin should work closely with Paris and London to establish an effective division of labor and show understandably skeptical states to the East that the European project offers their surest path to security – that it is not just the transatlantic alliance, but the major powers of Europe who stand ready to defend every square meter of NATO territory,” in Scholz’s words. A first step will be to increase European manpower on the eastern front sufficient to replace – rather than merely supplement – the approximately 40,000 US troops added this year.

» What is most needed, more than any military platform or plan, is the full embrace of strategic autonomy by Europe’s most populous and prosperous country, Germany. «

— Stephen Wertheim

From there, Europe will need to act swiftly to improve the combat-readiness of its many armored and mechanized brigades. Upgrading the Bundeswehr will make an enormous difference given the importance of Germany’s armed forces and its infrastructure to any operation in eastern Europe. Germany will also need to help other European states to acquire capabilities for high-end operations, including surface-to-air missile batteries, combat-support assets and air-refueling systems. Since such upgrades take time, the United States would need to continue supplying these critical capabilities during the transition period.

Although time is of the essence, Europe should lay solid foundations for its own autonomy rather than make quick acquisitions that keep it dependent on the United States for production, technology and maintenance. Facing the depletion of weapons and ammunition stockpiles sent to Ukraine, the European Commission has proposed 500 million euros to coordinate procurement over the next several years. With Germany’s commitment, however, the EU can do far more to build the European defense-industrial base and thus the political support for long-term spending. Having raised 750 billion euros on capital markets to recover from the pandemic, the EU could borrow smaller sums to provide for the common defense.

In June, NATO adopted a new strategic concept that rightly states: We cannot discount the possibility of an attack against Allies’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.” On both sides of the Atlantic, leaders and citizens must make a candid assessment of what could happen if such an attack occurred. Perhaps the United States that devised the Marshall Plan and launched the Berlin airlift would have cut a reassuring figure – though fine minds wondered even then just how far Washington was actually willing to go. But what matters now is the United States of today and tomorrow. To depend on this United States for basic security is unwise, unnecessary and unbecoming of the European political project.

Stephen Wertheim

Senior Fellow, American Statecraft Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace