You can’t help but feel that most of Europe’s leaders are relieved U.S. President Donald Trump’s term in office is coming to an end. From trade to defense spending, Trump was a different kind of president — one more likely to excoriate NATO allies for pinching pennies on their military budgets than extol the importance of the NATO alliance.
With President-elect Joe Biden preparing to enter the White House in two months, there will be an urge for European leaders to turn the clock to the pre-2016 status quo. As the most powerful country in NATO by far, the United States can’t allow that urge to set in.
While one can certainly disagree with Trump’s methods, he was right to reprimand Europe for not taking its defense responsibilities seriously enough. Trump may have used harsh words in making his point, but the point itself is legitimate: It is unacceptable for a wealthy continent with a $15.5 trillion gross domestic product to purposely sit back and rely on the U.S. for its security needs.
While Trump accurately diagnosed the problem, his prescriptions left much to be desired. The Trump administration’s rhetorical lashings of Europe didn’t translate into policy. Over the last four years, U.S. foreign policy in Europe has been an extension of the previous three decades. As much as Trump knocked European governments for being passive on their own security, he increased U.S. investment in the continent’s defense. The European Deterrence 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 request. In fiscal 2019, the amount reached an astounding $6.5 billion.
Like the previous administration, the Trump White House continued to surge U.S. troops into the Baltics for periodic military exercises — training activities that antagonized Russia and undermined the very pragmatic working relationship with Moscow that Trump claimed to want. The Trump administration just signed a deal with Warsaw that would increase the U.S. troop presence on Polish soil to 5,500 and add new U.S. military facilities — including a division headquarters and an unmanned aircraft squadron — to NATO’s eastern flank. Even the White House’s planned troop withdrawal from Germany is less than meets the eye; of the 12,000 troops scheduled to depart, nearly half will be reassigned to other bases in Europe (Biden will almost certainly overturn this order).
Trump should have realized that encouraging Washington’s European allies to take ownership of its own security is a lot harder if Washington pursues policies that undermine this objective.
If Trump’s presidency has achieved anything, it is a long overdue discussion among European policymakers about the future Europe should embrace for itself. Sensing growing resistance in the U.S. to shouldering excessive defense burdens, French President Emmanuel Macron has spent the last year advocating for a stronger and more independent Europe.
“[T]he United States will only respect us as allies if we are earnest, and if we are sovereign with respect to our defense,” Macron told a French publication last week. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, echoed Macron’s remarks to The Washington Post: “We have to take some of our problems in our own hands without expecting the Americans to come and solve them.”
President-elect Biden will come into office with this intra-European discussion hovering in the background. Instead of simply phoning European capitals and declaring that “the U.S. is back,” he should take full advantage of the circumstances by encouraging the strategic autonomy Macron and Borrell have strongly supported. For many in Washington, this will be an uncomfortable exercise. Washington has typically been hesitant to support autonomy because it could undermine NATO as the primary security alliance. But if burden-sharing and burden-shifting is a top U.S. objective in Europe, autonomy in the realm of defense is precisely what U.S. policymakers should be advocating for.
Washington, however, won’t be able to transform U.S.-European ties into a more equitable relationship if it refuses to do less on the continent itself. That means getting rid of strategies and programs that add to the U.S. defense burden. The European Deterrence Initiative should be eliminated. Joint defense research and development projects through the European Union’s Permanent Structured Cooperation defense and security initiative should be supported by the U.S. rather than undermined. And the U.S. force structure in Europe as a whole should be pared down and consolidated.
The U.S. can afford to do all of this for a very simple reason: Europe doesn’t face any major external security threat remotely on par with the former Soviet Union. As mendacious as Russia can be, Moscow has neither the wealth nor interest to inflict long-term damage on Europe — nor does it possess the military capacity to sustain a hypothetical military incursion on European soil.
In a joint Nov. 16 op-ed, the French and German foreign ministers wrote: “We Europeans are no longer only asking ourselves 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 a future Joe Biden administration to make sure those words are met with action.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist for Newsweek.