US / EU Defence Policy
© 2017 FrontLine Defence (Vol 14, No 1)

Following the scaling down of its European military footprint after the end of the Cold War, the arrival of 4,000 U.S. soldiers in western Poland in January 2017 is illustrative of the pronounced change that has taken place in the U.S. security strategy since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in spring 2014.

For an institution frequently dismissed as a geopolitical relic, the 28-member NATO alliance has also enjoyed a new lease on life on the back of Russia’s increasingly revanchist foreign policy, which alongside the Crimean debacle have included snap military exercises near European borders, frequent incursions into EU airspace, and military support for East Ukrainian separatist rebels.

In response, NATO has moved to bolster its East European flank, with the arrival more than 7,000 new troops and hardware, including the recent U.S. deployment, significant escalation in military drills throughout the region, and new commitments from non-US alliance members to augment flagging defense budgets. A reappraisal of NATO’s capacity to counter unconventional, hybrid warfare employed by Russia-backed militias in Ukraine has also seen the formation of a new mobile spearhead unit designed for rapid deployment in advance of larger combat forces.

Notwithstanding heightened military preparedness, the arrival of U.S. boots on the ground in Poland has also come at a highly uncertain juncture for NATO, with U.S. President Donald Trump displaying, at best, lukewarm support for the alliance that has formed the cornerstone of American foreign policy and European security since its establishment in 1949.

While criticism of inadequate military expenditure by NATO’s membership has long been a hallmark of US-EU relations, President Trump’s description of NATO as ‘obsolete’ is without precedent, and has called into question the reliability of longstanding American security guarantees.

In addition to the President’s apparent insouciance, foreign policy fissures within his administration between traditional Republican Party security hawks, highly supportive of the transatlantic alliance, and an inner cadre of White House advisors seeking a new nationalistic course in U.S. foreign strategy, has further heightened European angst.

“The Europeans are confused with the mixed messages coming from the Trump administration, with uncertainty over what future policy towards NATO and European security will look like,” says Marcin Terlik­owski, Head of European Security and Defence, at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), a Warsaw-based think tank.

Marcin Terlik­owski is the Head of European Security and Defence at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). (Photo: Paulina Raduchowska)

While heightened intra-governmental confusion, even chaos, suggests the trajectory of Trump’s foreign policy has yet to be determined, even a partial pivot towards a transactional ‘America First’ approach could have profound implications for U.S.-led multilateral institutions, such as NATO, that have characterized more than half a century of Western geopolitical strategy.

“Trump could become a truly revolutionary foreign policy president if he proceeds with a general lack of regard for rules and institutions, and with more of an interest in bilateral deal making,” notes  Senior Researcher Daniel Keohane of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. “This would represent the most fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy since World War Two.”

Daniel Keohane examines national defense policies in Europe, EU military cooperation, and NATO at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich.

Trump’s apparent position as the first President in more than 50 years not to favour closer European integration, combined with far-right, populist, political groups in Europe (some of which have advocated breakup of the EU), have also elevated the prevailing sense of unease.

“For the first time since the Second World War, the idea of the Americans not defending Europe is on the table, and this has been quite shocking for European governments,” says Keohane.

Prospects of a possible détente between Washington and Moscow, clearly favoured by some elements in the new U.S. government, despite Russia’s continued interference in Ukraine, have also caused consternation in the central and east European states that may be most vulnerable to future Russian adventurism.

The winds of geopolitical change and their consequences for European defense have already been openly acknowledged by some European leaders, such as when German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on EU countries to accept more responsibility on the international arena.

“From the point of view of some of our traditional partners, and I am thinking here as well about the transatlantic relations, there is no eternal guarantee for a close cooperation with us Europeans,” commented Merkel in a January 2017 speech that was widely quoted by German media.

Concerns over the future of European security and the region’s capacity to defend itself absent U.S. support, has raised the question as to whether the time has now finally come for the creation of a supra-national EU army, a long held dream of European federalists. It has also been suggested that the UK’s June 2016 referendum vote in favor of leaving the EU could pave the way for the type of increased regional military and external policy integration that had been persistently and viscerally opposed by British policymakers in recent decades.

Analysts, however, remain skeptical over the prospects for establishing a credible, supra-national EU military capability over the short or medium term – with particularly remote prospects that such a force could act independently from NATO or the transatlantic alliance.

Arguably the greatest stumbling block to any EU hard-power aspirations remains a straightforward lack of existing military capabilities and hardware, with post Cold War notions of perpetual peace and the more recent protracted economic crisis since 2008 resulting in slashed defense budgets over the last 25 years.

“Currently there are insufficient resources to support the EU’s ambition to become a strategic actor capable of stabilizing conflicts in its own neighborhood, and it would require at least 20 years of sustained investment if Europe is realistically aiming to create an autonomous defense organization,” PISM’s Terlikowski points out. “The big problem for Europe is that is doesn’t have any toys to play with. There is a big difference between the political language and the military reality.”

While potentially removing a major obstacle to future security policy integration, the forthcoming UK-EU split will nevertheless also present a major hurdle for the establishment of a supra-national military capacity capable of independently of NATO, due to Britain’s status as arguably the most significant regional military power.

“Without the UK, the EU cannot have a credible defense policy, because Britain is currently one of the bloc’s two nuclear states, and France alone is not enough,” according to Daniel Keohane.

The UK’s exit from the EU also highlights the lack of unity that has increasingly come to characterize intra-EU relations during the last decade, with a protracted economic crisis and the rise of populist political movements throughout Europe undermining support for further supra-national power sharing.

With little progress beyond establishing regional peacekeeping missions since renewed efforts at developing a common EU security policy began in 1999, it is highly improbable that any wholesale pooling of military competencies, let alone the creation of a new EU army, is likely to find support amongst electorate within the current factious environment.

“Defense and military integration be­tween European states is a very sensitive area, and has little chance of success if the EU cannot even work together to agree on common policies towards other relatively more straightforward issues such as the refugee or economic crises,” says Terlikowski.

Despite no likely dramatic shifts in EU grand strategy, shockwaves associated with Trump’s election, in conjunction with existing security concerns in Russia and the Middle East, still seems set to impact European security policy in less dramatic, but nevertheless significant ways, with increased integration between national armies essential for regional defense should future U.S. support waiver.

In the immediate term, the EU’s NATO members seem set to accelerate already planned increases to national defence budgets, with the 2% of GDP spending target for alliance members having become a point of obsession for the U.S. administration. “Trump’s election has definitely given a greater incentive to Europeans to visibly increase their defence budgets, although NATO’s 2% of GDP minimum target is still a long way off for many countries,” says Sophia Besch, Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

Sophia Besch’s areas of expertise include NATO, European defence, and German ­foreign policy. (Photo: Centre for European Reform)

“While this has partly to do with Trump’s election and the weakening of U.S. security guarantees, the security situation in Europe’s neighbourhood to the South and the East, and the increased risk of terrorism are also intrinsic motivations for Europeans to do more on defence and security,” she adds.

In the drive to increase effectiveness and make limited resources go further, EU policymakers also seem likely to focus on alternative means of boosting military capabilities through developing sub-regional and bilateral agreements, with close integration of the Dutch and German forces developed over the last 20 years offering a possible blueprint for future intergovernmental defense cooperation. Analysts have also mooted the possibility of a greater role for EU countries within a ‘European pillar’ inside NATO.

According to Besch, “multilateral defence initiatives, such as a joint military headquarters, are currently being worked out, and we are already seeing more bilateral and multilateral cooperation, most effectively on a regional basis between neighbouring countries, as well as a greater focus on a European NATO pillar.”

Even with enhanced military expenditure and cooperation, however, most analysts expect that European security policy will remain dependent on the NATO framework for the foreseeable future – with existing political architecture also likely to see the alliance remain a crucial feature of U.S. defense strategy, despite the current administration’s seeming ambivalence.

“In the long-term, it is unlikely that the U.S. European security guarantees, which are embodied in NATO, will be changed, because it is in their strategic, military and economic interests to keep close relations with Europe,” notes Terlikowski.

The most adverse impact on EU security associated with President Trump however may ultimately remain his extreme unpredictability.

As highlighted by the opaque relationship between the new administration and Russia, there is a strong suspicion that the President is either unaware or unconcerned by the ramifications of his actions for longstanding U.S. allies in Europe. Central and East European NATO members in particular are concerned of the implications for regional security that could follow the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Moscow in 2014 or recognition of Crimea as legally Russian.

“Should the U.S. signal by any means that it de-facto was to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia, it would be a serious blow to European security and legal architecture that would be very hard to repair over time,” says Terlikowski. “If you want to dismantle Europe, start a discussion about the change of borders.”

Mark Willis is a FrontLine journalist based in Dublin, Ireland.