Matt Kroenig: Hi Emma! I hope you are enjoying this lovely spring weather. I just returned from Stockholm where I had some fascinating discussions with officials in the foreign ministry and the new national security council.
I also had some downtime to visit museums, and, among other things, got to see King Gustavus Adolphus the Great’s skinned, stuffed, and mounted horse!
Emma Ashford: Fun fact: That horse has participated in more military actions against Russia than some of our free riding European allies.
So are the Swedes going to join NATO? Now that we’ve had a Turkish election, I hear Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might cave and let them join.
MK: Well, in their view, Erdogan would be not caving but living up to his end of the agreement. Sweden and Turkey cut a deal at the NATO summit in Madrid last year, and Sweden has followed through on its part, passing new legislation to criminalize membership in a terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
So, now it is up to Erdogan. Stockholm’s hope is that the new legislation allows him to say that he is satisfied and that he will approve Sweden’s entrance into the alliance before the July summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Erdogan could also say, however, that he needs more time to see how the new Swedish law works in practice. Will Sweden actually prosecute PKK members under this law, for example? So, he could postpone the decision.
Stockholm is mostly planning, however, as if this is a matter of when, not if, it joins NATO.
EA: To be honest, it’s hardly the most important question for those concerned about European security. Sweden is not all that significant in defense terms—Gustavus Adolphus and his stuffed horse aside. Perhaps that’s why conversations in Washington over the last few months have mostly focused on bigger questions: Who should provide European security? Should the United States prioritize Asia over Europe? And, as French President Emmanuel Macron rather bluntly put it at this week’s GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava, Slovakia: Can Europeans afford to leave their security in the hands of American voters?
MK: Macron is just being French. Other European leaders have been clear that he speaks for France, but not for Europe. After Macron’s visit to China, for example, a group of European lawmakers felt compelled to release a statement saying, “It should be emphasised that [Macron’s] words are severely out of step with the feeling across Europe’s legislatures and beyond.”
There is a model for transatlantic security that has worked for three-quarters of a century, with the United States leading and European powers contributing. European allies (such as Germany) need to do more, but there is no reason to fundamentally rethink this successful model.
EA: I completely disagree. As I wrote with some colleagues last week, Macron may be overly blunt, but he’s asking the right questions. Does Europe want to be a vassal to the United States, or a partner capable of standing on its own two feet? And why—almost 80 years after the U.S. decision to help Europe get back on its feet after World War II—is Washington still providing the lion’s share of funding, arms, and troops for European security?
It’s true that this model has worked for a long time. But global circumstances are changing, and there are costs to continuing to do so! The United States is in relative decline, China is rising, and there are urgent threats elsewhere that need U.S. attention too. Continuing to focus on Europe has opportunity costs for the United States’ defense industrial base, and for military posture. The U.S. postwar policy toward Europe was wildly successful! Why are Americans so scared of embracing our success and taking a more hands-off approach to European security?
MK: I have so much to say, I don’t know where to begin. First, the United States is rising. Its share of global GDP has increased in recent years, whereas China’s growth is leveling off. Washington and its allies can handle Moscow and Beijing simultaneously.
EA: It all depends what measure you use. The United States’ share of global GDP has increased. But China has surpassed it by some measures of gross national income and is closing the gap in terms of total national wealth. In historical context, the United States is relatively weaker than it was during the Cold War; and in a regional context, the picture is also poorer. The Lowy Asia Power Index—which attempts to build a complete picture of military, economic, and political assets in a region—suggests that the United States and China are increasingly evenly matched in Asia. So you can cherry-pick some data to show that there is no problem, but I think a broader look suggests that things aren’t quite that rosy.
Never mind that we’ve just had a showdown over the debt ceiling and government spending in Washington! You say “Washington and its allies can handle Moscow and Beijing”—I agree. But with the growing constraints on the United States, those allies need to do more. This shouldn’t be controversial.
MK: China has only surpassed the United States economically if you adjust for purchasing power parity. That might make sense for haircuts but not for geopolitics.
EA: Sorry, but I don’t see why that would be the case. Chinese weapons are cheaper; the Chinese get more bang for their buck. Literally, in the case of military spending! That’s a point that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has made to Congress.
MK: That is true. Chinese military officers also cost less. But you get what you pay for. U.S. military officers are better trained, educated, and cared for.
Also, for international influence, trade, aid, etc., the numbers are absolute. China does not get a bonus because noodles are cheap in Nanjing. International relations scholars typically use nominal GDP to measure power for this reason.
It would be interesting, however, for someone to do a more fine-grained study of where purchasing power parity adjustments matter for international power and influence, and where they do not. If such a study exists, I haven’t seen it.
But we are getting a bit off track.
I think we agree that the United States and its allies need to do more for their collective defense in both Europe and Asia. The question is how to do it. I argue that the traditional model, where the United States leads and the allies contribute, is the only workable solution.
My biggest criticism of the thought-provoking article by you and your colleagues, and others like it, is that the alternative you propose is not sketched out in any detail. You say that the United States should focus on Asia and “Europe” should “step up” to provide for Europe’s defense. I don’t know what that means.
If you want your plan to be adopted, I think you should provide a little bit more detail about how that would work.
EA: Well, I’m pretty sure I could say the same about your contention that “the current model works.” That needs a bit more detail, to be sure. Inertia is hardly a strategy.
There are plenty of excellent articles and books out there that detail in depth what a more hands-off U.S. approach to European security would look like. Barry Posen, for example, has several good pieces that explore the defense ramifications, costs, and risks of transferring more responsibility to European states. Or here’s a great forum from the Center on Security Studies in Zurich, featuring a variety of authors. There are plenty of details out there if you look, and lots of smart folks on both sides of the Atlantic are thinking through this problem.
But in general, I’d make a couple of key points: 1) The shift will need to be gradual, perhaps as long as a decade, in order to give European states time to spin up the necessary defense industrial production and build the required forces, and 2) it’s important to note that a more hands-off approach to European security doesn’t mean that the United States will exit NATO, nor that it will disengage from Europe. It simply places primary responsibility for defense on European states, making the United States more of a backup and less of a first resort.
MK: But the United States will need to continue to lead or it won’t work. What is this “Europe” you speak of? Are Germany or France (the two economic heavyweights in Europe) suddenly going to step up and lead in European defense and security matters? In recent years, their instinct has been more to placate Russia than stand up to it. Will Eastern European countries trust Berlin and Paris to lead on European security? I don’t think so. Can Washington trust Paris and Berlin to secure U.S. interests in Europe? The answer is no. What about nuclear deterrence? Is Germany going to go nuclear in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty? Will France build to 1,500 nuclear weapons (a seven-fold increase) as a counterweight to Russia’s massive arsenal?
These are big questions, and the answers almost always mean that Washington and the American people would be in a much worse place if they try to outsource their important interests in Europe to Macron!
EA: Matt, I’m British. You don’t have to tell me that the concept of “European” as an identity is hotly contested.
But the fact is that Europe has come together in plenty of other areas—even where there are divergent interests. The European Community (and later Union) built a free-trade area despite domestic opposition from powerful groups such as farmers. The euro managed to survive the financial crises of the last two decades with all its members intact. European states tend to be relatively good at overcoming collective action problems when they want to.
In many ways, it’s highly notable that the one area where Europe continues to struggle to come together is defense—the area where the United States has always solved that collective action problem for it, removing the need for compromise.
You’re right that European states don’t necessarily all have the same views on defense and foreign policy. Perhaps the end result will be some kind of minilateral defense arrangements, where states such as Poland focus on Russia, and states such as Italy and Greece focus on the Mediterranean. But simply saying “it can’t happen” is not a satisfying answer. European states will stand up on defense if they have to, which means that the U.S. government needs to be clear and consistent about its intentions, and help with an orderly transition in European security.
MK: I am not saying “it can’t happen” because I don’t even know what the “it” is yet. Saying that Poland will take care of Russia does not make sense. Is Poland going to build nukes?
EA: If the United States doesn’t leave NATO, then its nuclear umbrella continues to apply. And both the French and British are nuclear powers too.
MK: OK. So, if the alliance will continue to rely on the United States for strategic deterrence, then Washington will need to continue to play an important leadership role. To be credible, the United States will also need to keep forces in Europe, ideally on the front lines, to link U.S. strategic forces to a major conventional war in Europe. Is that what you and your colleagues have in mind as well?
If so, what is the new model? Germany provides more men, tanks, and artillery? That sounds great to me, but I am not sure that is the radical shift you seem to be calling for.
EA: No. NATO’s Article 5 should be perfectly sufficient for credibility without U.S. troops on the front lines. And it doesn’t honestly matter the exact makeup of the force in Eastern Europe so long as it is European rather than American. There are a variety of options that could work: Germany and France stepping up, Eastern European states pooling their resources and deepening defense cooperation with the United Kingdom, etc. That will be for Europeans to decide.
There are some excellent pieces from the Center for Strategic and International Studies right here in Washington exploring how some of these shifts might look in practice for air defense, logistics, and naval forces.
MK: Those articles look at pieces where European states can contribute more. That would be welcome.
I am getting a little frustrated. I know what the current transatlantic security architecture looks like. I still don’t understand the alternative you are proposing.
EA: I don’t understand what’s so difficult to grasp. A division of labor within NATO in which European states carry most of the burden—and do most of the work in practical terms—of deterring Russia, defending themselves, and securing Europe’s frontiers, while the United States takes a more hands-off approach to focus on Asia, but is available to provide resources and aid if a major crisis requires it. That’s a true partnership, and it’s where I believe the United States and Europe have to go if the transatlantic relationship is to continue to thrive.
It’s good for the United States, it’s good for U.S. allies in Asia, and it’s good for European states. After all, as Macron pointed out, what state would be comfortable putting its defense at the whims of voters in another country? With the U.S. Republican primary heating up, you can bet you’ll be hearing more about European free riders in the coming months.
MK: I think that only the United States has the power and the widespread feeling of goodwill from within Europe to lead the transatlantic alliance. It should continue to provide overall vision and coordination. Only Washington can provide strategic deterrence against Russia. And I also think that European states should provide more of the nuts and bolts of the conventional defense, from aircraft to tanks to personnel, etc.
So, do we agree or not? I think we are running out of space, so we might need to return to this in a future column.
EA: We disagree. But we can agree on this: It won’t be long before Macron makes another headline-grabbing statement that riles up Washington’s transatlanticists!
MK: C’est la vie.