Sunday, July 21, 2024

Asia Sees European Confusion

Must read

Europe faces no greater strategic challenge than dealing with Russian aggression but remains incapable of dealing with it without the United States at its back. NATO without Washington is hollow—a prospect relished by countries around the world that wish to see a weaker West.

Europe faces no greater strategic challenge than dealing with Russian aggression but remains incapable of dealing with it without the United States at its back. NATO without Washington is hollow—a prospect relished by countries around the world that wish to see a weaker West.

The problem for all U.S. allies—not only in Europe—is that the United States does not face an existential threat anywhere in the world. China has become a peer competitor, post-Cold War Russia is dangerous, and the ability of North Korea and Iran to disrupt should not be underestimated. But none of them is an existential threat.

That means there is no longer any vital reason for Americans to “pay any price, bear any burden,” as former U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, to uphold the international order. Consequently, every U.S. administration since the end of the Cold War has focused on domestic priorities, with the George W. Bush administration an exception forced by 9/11.

This is not the retreat from the world that some have claimed. But Washington has certainly become more discriminating about whether and how it will intervene abroad. It demands more of its allies, partners, and friends. U.S. President Joe Biden may be more consultative than his predecessor—he is, however, not consulting you to inquire after your health but to see what you are prepared to do to help further the United States’ strategic goals. And those priorities are now in the Indo-Pacific, where only a handful of European countries are marginal strategic players. When U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States would aid Ukraine to weaken Russia so that it could never invade another country, the message was directed as much at Beijing as at Moscow.

This misalignment of strategic priorities confronts Europe with a dilemma. French President Emmanuel Macron put his finger on a very fundamental issue when he pressed Europe to consider an independent nuclear deterrent. But will Paris—the only European Union member with such weapons—risk annihilation to save Berlin? Is Europe ready to consider a nuclear-armed Poland or Germany?

Despite what its boosters say, the EU is not a security actor. The bloc’s so-called common foreign and security policy is hardly taken seriously in Asian capitals—or, for that matter, in European ones. A European defense force is only talk, with no prospect of materializing for the foreseeable future.

Europe is now paying the price of decades of post-Cold War neglect of defense. Ukraine was a wake-up call, but has it really brought about the Zeitenwende, or change of eras, that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz claimed? The nuclear question aside, building the capacity to conventionally deter Russia will require much higher defense spending by all EU members sustained not just for a few years but for a decade or longer.

When considering whether Europe can provide its own security without the United States at its back, the continent’s core issue is that its social model is unsustainable—a simple matter of demographic certainty. For three decades, most EU members preferred to shrink defense spending rather than make politically risky cuts in social spending. This soft option is no longer possible: It is now unavoidable that some butter be relinquished for guns. For all the claims by European leaders of having heard the wake-up call, they have not even begun to seriously confront this decision, which cannot be postponed indefinitely.

The EU is in for a period of additional political turmoil as it collectively and nationally debates what and how much social spending needs to be sacrificed for defense and how the burdens are to be distributed between Northern and Central Europe—which feels the Russia threat most keenly—and Southern Europe. In theory, Europe could grow its way to affording both guns and butter. But given Europe’s aging population, growth will require immigration on a scale that will only add to political stresses.

Will European unity and resolve hold, particularly if right-wing movements use the coming turmoil to make further political gains? Russian President Vladimir Putin probably does not think so, as he prepares to fight a long war of attrition in Ukraine. It is difficult to dismiss his calculation.

The fallout for Asia is that Europe’s strategic dependence on the United States will limit its ability to chart an independent course on China. With the partial exception of Britain and France, Europe’s ability to contribute in any way but ad hoc and symbolically to the Indo-Pacific strategic balance will remain similarly constrained. For Europe to contribute meaningfully to Indo-Pacific security, to which its economic security is intimately tied, it needs to pull its own weight defending itself and free U.S. military assets for redeployment. But even this modest contribution will take many more years to materialize—if it ever does.

Latest article