BRUSSELS — President Biden is in Europe, and talk of unity fills the air. At the Group of 7 meeting in Bavaria, Germany, leaders congratulated themselves for their decisions over the past few months and restated their support for Ukraine. They even took time for a “family picture,” the often awkward group shot of world leaders. At the NATO summit in Madrid, which begins on Tuesday, we can expect more of the same.
The self-congratulatory atmosphere is quite new. Just three years ago, NATO — frayed by failed interventions in Libya and Iraq, internally divided over its future and buffeted by Donald Trump’s derision — was declared “brain-dead” by President Emmanuel Macron of France. Now the picture is completely different. Four months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO stands as a re-energised bulwark against Russian aggression. European leaders across the continent, determined to come together, speak confidently of common purpose.
Yet for all the talk of European resolve, the past few months have in fact underlined something else: the continent’s dependence on the United States to resolve its security problems. That’s nothing new, of course. In many ways it’s the role America has played since the end of World War II, ensuring — even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — that Europe operated under America’s military umbrella.
But while this approach might save leaders from politically difficult choices in the short term, it’s ultimately a losing proposition. America, embroiled in domestic problems and ever more focused on the challenge from China, can’t oversee Europe forever. And Europe, facing a hostile and revisionist Russia, needs to look after itself.
These criticisms might sound counterintuitive. After all, Europe has made some major strides on defence in recent months. This is most visible in Germany, where the government has pledged to spend 100 billion euros, or US$106 billion, more on defence over the next few years — a change so profound that the German press has adopted Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s description of it as a “Zeitenwende,” or turning point. Other countries, including Italy, Romania and Norway, have also pledged to substantially increase spending. These shifts strike at the common complaint that European states, pusillanimous and miserly, are “free riders” relying on America’s military largess for protection.
Yet if European states are reducing their free-rider problem, they have something perhaps more intractable: a collective-action problem. Simply put, the individual interests and inclinations of the European Union’s 27 members, whose countries encompass several thousand miles of territory, make it difficult to forge a common course of action. That’s true for many issues, among them economic reform and the role of the judiciary, but it’s perhaps especially acute for military and defence policy.
That applies both to NATO, of which all but six E.U. countries are members, and the European Union’s own Common Security and Defence Policy. Indeed, one core disagreement revolves around whether a buildup in the E.U.’s defence capabilities will actually undermine, rather than strengthen, NATO. To head off such concerns, many favour a division of labour — either by geography or based on specific military capabilities. Yet the precise relationship between the two remains an open question.
More profoundly, there are major differences in the perception and prioritisation of threats. Central and Eastern European states closest to Russia logically view it as the biggest threat. From farther away, other problems loom larger. Germany and Northern European countries worry about terrorism, France focuses on extremism and unrest in former African colonies like Mali, while Greece and Italy are preoccupied by refugee policy and maritime security in the Mediterranean.
One might think that a major geopolitical shock like the war in Ukraine would have allowed for a Europe-wide “Zeitenwende”: a moment to reckon with these difficult questions and hammer out concessions that would allow progress to be made. And in the early weeks of the war in Ukraine, many of these divisions were indeed blotted out by shock and horror, with states largely united in their response to the war.
In the months since, however, these divisions have re-emerged, making themselves felt in new ways. Some countries — particularly France, Italy and Germany — are talking about ways to find a peace settlement in Ukraine, even as they continue to send weapons and funds. Yet polling in Poland suggests that it will not countenance peace until Russia is properly punished. The European Union, slowed by the need to reach a consensus, has struggled to keep up. Its much-anticipated Strategic Compass, a strategy paper released after the war started, is a buzzword-filled document that promises a “quantum leap forward” in defence — but does little to address these divisions in practice.
In the absence of continental consensus, the glue that continues to hold together European security is the United States. Since February, the trans-Atlantic relationship has slid back into a comfortable groove: The United States provides significant personnel and high-tech weaponry, forestalling the need for other NATO members to commit substantial resources or make tough choices about joint defence.
Politically, America’s presence reassures NATO members in Eastern Europe — who have become painfully aware since February that Western European states aren’t as willing to take a hard line on Russia — while allowing Germany to lead Europe without bearing too great a financial and military cost. The underlying disagreements haven’t gone away. But for as long as American troops and hardware are on the continent, European states can have their cake and eat it, too.
It’s understandable that European leaders don’t want to engage in punishing political fights at a difficult time. And it is perhaps easy to assume, with 100,000 American troops in Europe, that the U.S. commitment to European security is inviolable. Yet the Trump years should not be so easily forgotten. America’s commitment to Europe’s defence, overseen by Mr Biden, may seem secure today. But with growing threats in Asia and turmoil in America’s domestic politics, it is most likely a matter of time before that changes.
Should he return to the presidency, Mr Trump may well follow through on his threats to withdraw the United States from NATO. Even some of his less extreme compatriots are questioning America’s role in European defence; in May, 11 Republican senators voted against sending further military aid to Ukraine. There is also a growing consensus in Washington that the United States is urgently needed in the Indo-Pacific to handle the threat from China. Even the best-case scenario — an administration in Washington that remains committed to Europe — carries the risk that a crisis elsewhere could result in a hurried retreat, leaving European states high and dry.
American and European leaders may well spend the next days lauding the miraculous recovery of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Yet far from a panacea, America’s support amounts to a Band-Aid covering Europe’s biggest disagreements on defence. To be truly united, European leaders should start the hard work of resolving these differences and rip off the Band-Aid.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and the author of “Oil, the State, and War.”