A Stronger Europe for a Stronger West

By Mitchell Belcher

Romanian, Bulgarian and American marines during a 2015 joint training exercise
Image Credit: Sarah Mobilio/DVIDS

Europe needs to increase its defense spending and capabilities, allowing it to act united and independent of U.S. security interests. 

For over a decade, Americans and Europeans alike have heard that NATO states of Europe have failed to ‘pay their fair share’ under former U.S. Presidents Trump and Obama. As of 2020, only 9 of NATO’s 28 European members met the 2% of GDP defense spending commitment made at the 2014 Wales Summit. America accounts for more than two-thirds of the alliance’s total defense spending.

While Americans often see their European allies as little more than free riders, the state of European defense has drawn criticism from the other side of the Atlantic as well. 

From former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s call for European sovereignty – followed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s support – to French President Emmanuel Macron’s repeated calls for an EU joint army, stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic can agree that Europe must improve its defense capabilities.

Recent events have only confirmed Europe’s defense dilemma. The humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan left Josep Borrell, a top EU foreign and security policy official, critiquing Europe’s reliance on Washington.

“We Europeans found ourselves depending on American decisions,” Borrell wrote to the New York Times. “To become a more capable ally,” Borrell added, “Europe must invest more in its security capabilities and develop the ability to think and act in strategic terms.”

Afghanistan is not the only place Europe failed to act strategically on the international stage.

Last year, the EU botched its attempts to stabilize neighboring Libya, enmeshed in a civil war that was prolonged by foreign intervention. Despite Europe’s historic influence and significant interest in Libya as a source of oil and a primary hub for migrants on the EU’s southern border, disagreements among member states resulted in Libya falling under the influence of Russia and Turkey instead.

Fortunately, Europe has begun to act. In November 2021, a draft for a ‘Strategic Compass’ was presented to the EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense. 

The Strategic Compass is expected to be refined and implemented by March 2022. It will provide a shared assessment of threats, bring greater coherence, establish new methods for collective defense improvement and set clear targets to measure progress.

According to European media outlet Euractiv who received a leaked copy of the draft, the Strategic Compass includes the creation of the EU Rapid Deployment Capacity, a joint military force that will “allow [the EU] to swiftly deploy a modular force of up to 5,000 troops, including land, air and maritime components.”

The proposed joint force is expected to begin conducting live exercises by 2023 and will “respond to imminent threats or quickly react to a crisis situation, for example, a rescue and evacuation mission or a stabilization operation in a hostile environment,” Euractiv reported.

While the new joint military is a step in the right direction, the draft acknowledges the need for a multifaceted approach. As Borrell wrote on the proposal, “the tools of power are not only soldiers, tanks and planes but also disinformation, cyber-attacks, the instrumentalization of migrants, the privatization of armies and the political control of sensitive technologies or rare earths.”

Indeed, the nature of warfare has changed over the years. War and peace in Europe are no longer black and white concepts.

The flood of migrants used by Belarus to assault the EU’s eastern borders to the plague of disinformation campaigns, election meddling, and cyberattacks seen in recent years are all good examples. Russia’s weaponization of energy, its use of ‘unaffiliated’ separatist forces in Ukraine and the recent buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border are also stark reminders of this reality.

The Strategic Compass will allow Europe to respond to unconventional threats not covered by NATO or its own Collective Defense and Security Policy with a united front – all backed by the newfound threat of military force – without the complications of relying on or involving the U.S.

While opponents of developing EU defense capabilities argue that it would come at the expense of weakened trans-Atlantic relations, this is simply not the case.

Europeans and Americans alike have reaped the benefits of the security that NATO has provided for over 70 years, and bolstering EU defense capabilities and spending would only serve to supplement the alliance with stronger members that are more efficient in combating the challenges of the future. 

Furthermore, NATO is not the only thing that bonds Europe to the U.S. – shared values of democracy, freedom, equality, and human rights make the U.S. and Europe natural partners on the international stage.

Although a sovereign and more independent Europe may mean less U.S. influence in the region, Americans should not view it as a bad thing. Over the past several decades, America has been stretched thin through prolonged conflicts and its role as the global police force and defender of democracy. 

As tensions with hostile powers like Russia and China increase, the U.S. will need independent and experienced allies by its side to counter the threats of the future. By enabling Europe to develop its own strategy, solve its own problems, and become self-sufficient, it will grow stronger.

A stronger Europe will lead to a stronger West.

Mitchell Belcher is an undergraduate student at George Mason University with a major in global affairs, a regional concentration in Europe, and a minor in intelligence analysis. He is also a US Army veteran with six years of service. 

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