If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the threat of former President Trump to withdraw from NATO did not spur America’s European allies to fix the structural imbalance in transatlantic defense, what could put that security partnership on a sustainable path? During an era of U.S. global security dominance and quiescent rivals, Washington could manage to bear disproportionate burdens in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Today, military conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, aggressive Russian revisionism and growing Chinese ambitions and capacity for coercion and power projection create a real crunch for the United States that requires a more serious long-term European response.

Europeans have executed a major shift in recent years, to be sure, with Europeans plus Canada spending 62 percent more on defense now compared to 2014. But this improvement does not compensate for the deteriorating global security environment – most particularly, the U.S. need to strengthen its posture in the Indo-Pacific and prepare for the potential for conflict. With their focus on achieving a two-percent-of-GDP spending target for defense that was set in 2014, NATO is, in defense budget terms, fighting the last war.

Transatlantic leaders must address this risky situation and put their burden-sharing bargain on a new footing. NATO’s political objective should shift from an abstract spending target to tangible, purpose-driven, and growing commitments from European allies that give U.S. decision makers the flexibility they need to meet their global security obligations – especially in the Indo-Pacific – in the late 2020s and through the 2030s without compromising transatlantic security. The alliance now is on the verge of making crucial defense planning decisions, which presents a unique moment to reconceptualize roles and future-proof transatlantic defense.

Tradeoffs and fears

American strategic thinkers are concerned that U.S. conventional forces, with a “one major war” sizing, would be unable to sustain the U.S. deterrence strategy in both Europe and Asia beyond 2026, as reflected in the recent report of the bipartisan U.S. Strategic Posture Commission. This is not a partisan issue. Some draw from it the conclusion that the United States should reduce its commitments to Europe in order to be prepared for a potential, era-defining challenge to U.S. defense strategy in Asia. The potential for unanticipated regional conflicts to further stretch U.S. capacities is demonstrated by the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the need identified by the Biden administration to channel U.S. military assistance to its most important Middle Eastern partner.

Viewed from Europe, the current U.S. impasse over providing support for Ukraine and the real possibility of a victory by Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential election demonstrate the unpredictability of U.S. politics and the risks to Europe. Trump has been making no secret about his willingness to consider a U.S. withdrawal from NATO if re-elected. Whether he would attempt it or not, it is virtually guaranteed that he would use such a threat as leverage to obtain concessions, military, political, or economic, from European allies. The mere existence of the threat would serve to embolden the West’s adversaries, first and foremost Russia. It also would rattle European belief in the reliability of the United States’ most solemn promise to its allies – decisive solidarity in a military crisis – which would stoke centrifugal political forces and weaken European cohesion. Former President Trump is a catalyzing factor, but the fundamentals show a persistent and growing gap between Republican and Democratic voters’ views toward NATO: the gap in favorability reached 27 points (76 percent Democratic supporters to 49 percent of Republican supporters) in a recent poll.

The United States’ interest in a free, stable, and prosperous transatlantic community is undeniable. It is a cornerstone of the international order it wants to sustain. Insecurity in Europe cannot be the solution. Considering the clear signs that the center of U.S. strategic gravity is shifting and public opinion is polarizing, the United States and Europe need a dramatic change to avoid a confidence death-spiral and shore up their greatest strategic asset—the transatlantic security bond.

Right-sizing Europe’s share

A deteriorating international security dynamic requires a new transatlantic security understanding within NATO, which since 2014 has centered around exhorting European allies to raise their defense spending from paltry post-Cold War levels to the mark of two percent of GDP. That may have been appropriate from 2014 to 2022, before Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine, but Moscow’s recent decision on a massive, long-term reinvestment in its military should leave no doubt about the enduring threat to Europe. Germany, which has often been at the center of criticism due to its decades-long underinvestment in its armed forces, is an example of a country that is now doggedly focused on reaching the 2 percent threshold. Berlin expects to reach that target next year for the first time since 1991, its current budget crisis notwithstanding. The critical task for Germany and its European neighbors, however, is not only to spend more but to spend that additional money in ways that address the ongoing shifts in international security. A higher level of spending by Europe alone does not guarantee that America’s most critically stretched capabilities will in the future be available for another theater.

Over-dependence backfires

The challenge is to define targeted commitments that strengthen Europe’s deterrence and defense posture towards Russia while also resolving the fundamental concerns of U.S. strategists who see a looming strategic choice between Europe and Asia. European leaders can alleviate U.S. concerns about overstretch by finally making a credible political commitment to erasing as a matter of urgency NATO’s over-dependence on those scarce U.S. military capabilities that the Pentagon would need in an Asian security contingency, and for which NATO’s European members rely too heavily on the United States. Among these high-demand, low-density capabilities that are required in both theaters are air and missile defense, suppression of enemy air defense, air-to-air refueling as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

It is a principle of NATO defense planning that no single ally should be responsible for providing more than 50 percent of a given capability – but in practice, the United States all too frequently must bear that burden. The good news is that Europe has the technological and industrial capacity to provide many of these capabilities. A good example is the supply of missile defense systems to Ukraine by several European manufacturers, such as the German IRIS-T and the Franco-Italian SAMP/T. Precision deep strike Storm Shadow/SCALP cruise missiles provided by the United Kingdom and France have proven to be highly effective. While there are growing gaps between U.S. and European defense technology in certain capabilities, Europe’s defense industry remains able to produce many high-demand assets.

The time for European leaders to act is now. Over the next three months, NATO will determine its Minimum Capability Requirements, a key stage in its defense planning that must be approved by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and their NATO colleagues when alliance defense ministers meet in February 2024. These requirements will determine the capabilities the alliance must have in order to ensure that NATO can prevail against a near-peer, nuclear armed competitor, and they should be constructed so that the United States’ ability to engage in another major conflict is not impinged.

Europeans must bear the majority of this burden and should make this political and defense-planning commitment now in order to yield results within a few years. Agreeing on an ambitious program will build multiyear, multilateral European commitments and raise the pressure for European NATO to implement these obligations, driving future procurement and budgeting decisions. Germany in particular needs this framework to keep its national policymaking on task. The German Ministry of Defense, for example, which has underscored its commitment to swiftly meeting NATO’s capability targets in its recently released Defense Policy Guidelines, should immediately incorporate them into the national capability priorities that are expected to be finalized in the first half of 2024.

Getting ahead of election season

There are compelling diplomatic reasons for the United States and its European allies to future-proof their security balance. From the perspective of U.S. politics, a new headline commitment from America’s partners would demonstrate success in the Biden administration’s bet on revitalizing alliances. Though no one would argue that foreign affairs will decide the U.S. election, it would help neutralize a predictable line of attack from the president’s campaign opponent. The impending election campaign also increases U.S. leverage to press now for reforms within the alliance. For Europeans, a U.S. overstretch risk is clear and ominous, and stepped-up European efforts will be inevitable, regardless of the political direction in Washington and who wins in November. The prospect of shaping the transatlantic bargain in advance is preferable to being driven potentially by the 2024 presidential election result.

A strengthened European solidarity on defense would also serve urgent political needs. Germany has neglected its European policy, and as a result centrifugal forces are pulling the continent apart. German relations with Poland are at a post-Cold War low point (driven largely by the Polish far right, now on its way out of office), the strategic disconnect with France is deepening, and the concerns of eastern and northern European countries threatened by Russia get short shrift. It is an opportune moment for Berlin to play once again its traditional integrative role and give new life to Europe-wide security efforts. A strengthened European pillar within NATO can reassure central Europe while involving France and Italy on a major initiative that can equally serve EU defense ambitions in the worst-case scenario of a U.S. disengagement.

How to bring about this realignment? The simple reality is that nothing important happens in NATO without U.S. leadership and the agreement of the leading allies: the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, and given their military and economic potential, Italy and Poland should be part of the inner circle on this issue. Consultations now should lay the groundwork for a rollout in the spring. Alliance politics and diplomacy normally are shrouded from public view, but the challenges are too great to consign to technocratic management. NATO should aim for this recalibration of the transatlantic security arrangement to be a public centerpiece at NATO’s 75th anniversary summit in Washington in July next year.

Showing that burden-sharing is living up to a generational challenge in the era that is unfolding would send three clear messages to America’s political leadership, European partners, and adversaries alike. First, it would send an unmistakable political signal to Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. that European allies will free up critical U.S. defense capabilities, explicitly stating that the United States will not have to make a strategic choice between Europe and Asia. Second, it would map a concrete path for Europe to shoulder that greater share of responsibility within NATO, which will also provide Europe an insurance policy should the United States ever diminish its transatlantic security commitments. Finally, it will demonstrate to the skeptics in the United States as well as potential adversaries anywhere that the institutions Washington created 75 years ago to deal with the aftermath of global conflagration can adapt to and effectively address current and future challenges.

Jeff Rathke is the President of the American-German Institute at Johns Hopkins University and formerly U.S. diplomat and NATO official.

Theresa Lütkefend is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute.

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