You can’t help but feel that most European leaders are relieved. US President Donald Trump’s term of office is coming to an end. From trade to defense spending, Trump was a different kind of president – one who condemns NATO allies for pinching pennies on their military budgets rather than emphasizing the importance of the NATO alliance.
As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to enter the White House in two months’ time, European leaders are urged to set the clock to the status quo before 2016. As by far the most powerful country in NATO, the United States cannot allow this urge.
One certainly cannot agree with Trump’s methods, but he was right to reprimand Europe for not taking its defense responsibilities seriously enough. Trump may have used harsh words to make his point, but the point itself is legitimate: it is unacceptable for a wealthy continent with a gross domestic product of $ 15.5 trillion to deliberately sit back and rely on the US for its security needs leaves.
While Trump accurately diagnosed the problem, his prescriptions left much to be desired. The Trump administration’s rhetorical lashes in Europe have not been translated into politics. For the past four years, US foreign policy in Europe has been an expansion of the past three decades. As much as Trump beat European governments for being passive for their own security, he has increased US investment in the continent’s defense. The European Deterrent Initiative grew during Trump’s presidency from $ 3.4 billion in the last year of the Obama administration to $ 4.5 billion in this year’s Defense Department budget proposal. In fiscal 2019, the amount reached a staggering $ 6.5 billion.
Like the previous administration, Trump’s White House continued to push U.S. troops into the Baltic States for regular military exercises – training activities that antagonized Russia and undermined the very pragmatic working relationship with Moscow that Trump allegedly wanted. The Trump administration has just signed a treaty with Warsaw that aims to increase the presence of US forces on Polish soil to 5,500 and add new US military facilities – including a divisional headquarters and an unmanned aircraft squadron – to NATO’s eastern flank. Even the planned withdrawal of the White House troops from Germany is less than you might think. Of the 12,000 troops due to depart, almost half will be assigned to other bases in Europe (Biden will almost certainly lift this order).
Trump should have realized that if Washington pursues policies that undermine that goal, it is much more difficult to encourage Washington’s European allies to take responsibility for their own security.
If Trump’s presidency achieves anything, it will be a long overdue discussion among European policymakers about the future Europe should embrace for itself. French President Emmanuel Macron sensed growing opposition in the US to excessive defense burdens and advocated a stronger and more independent Europe last year.
“[T]The United States will only respect us as allies if we are serious and if we are sovereign over our defenses, ”Macron told a French publication last week. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, echoed Macron’s remarks to the Washington Post: “We have to take some of our problems into our own hands without expecting the Americans to come and solve them.”
The elected President Biden will take office, with this intra-European discussion in the background. Instead of simply calling European capitals and declaring that “the US is back”, he should take full advantage of the circumstances by promoting the strategic autonomy that Macron and Borrell have strongly supported. For many in Washington, this will be an uncomfortable exercise. Washington has generally been reluctant to support autonomy as it could undermine NATO as the primary security alliance. However, if burden sharing and shifting are a primary US goal in Europe, then defense autonomy is exactly what US policymakers should advocate.
However, Washington will not be able to turn US-European relations into a fairer one if it refuses to do less on the continent itself. That means getting rid of strategies and programs that increase the US defense burden. The European deterrent initiative should be eliminated. Joint defense research and development projects under the European Union’s Defense and Security Initiative for permanent structured cooperation should be supported by the US and not undermined. And the US armed forces structure in Europe as a whole should be reduced and consolidated.
The US can afford to do all of this for one very simple reason: Europe faces no major threat to external security remotely rivaling the former Soviet Union. Mendacious as Russia may be, Moscow has neither the wealth nor the interest to cause long-term damage to Europe – nor does it have the military ability to sustain a hypothetical military incursion on European soil.
In a joint comment on November 16, the French and German foreign ministers wrote: “We Europeans are no longer just wondering what America can do for us, but what we should do to defend our own security and build a more balanced transatlantic partnership . “
It will be the job of any future Joe Biden administration to make sure these words are put into action.
Daniel DePetris is a Fellow with Defense Priorities and a columnist for Newsweek.