French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for the creation of a “real European army” is a product of a perfect storm in which Paris’ long effort to break the European continent free of leadership from Washington has been boosted by President Donald Trump’s disdain for NATO and America’s European allies.
One can well imagine the U.S. president’s response to Macron’s initiative as: “Go for it Europe; about time you got serious about defending yourselves and stopped free-riding off the U.S.”
But neither Macron’s proposal to establish a European army autonomous from American participation, nor Trump’s seeming reluctance to stand firmly behind our long-standing treaty to defend alliance members from attack, are what thoughtful statesmen should be doing at this moment.
Until the EU is truly a sovereign, unified state, there can be no politically viable “supreme command” over such a force. Even if it were possible to get an agreement to create a European army, its utility would be minimal since employing it would require a consensus about when to do so.
And since it’s a rare thing when leaders from Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, The Hague, Stockholm and elsewhere agree about what constitutes a threat, how to prioritize the threats they face and, even more fundamentally, whether using the armed forces is the appropriate response to any given threat, a European army would likely be a costly and largely symbolic conceit of European strategic autonomy.
And it would be costly. The idea that Europe could pool its military resources to create a viable force assumes that there already exists the kind and quantity of capabilities necessary to do so. But, as one recently retired German general noted, true strategic autonomy would require the EU to acquire “an independent European nuclear deterrent, the ability to ensure the collective defense of Europe, and the ability to carry out military-crisis interventions anywhere in the world.”
For a continent whose major powers are struggling to increase military spending and still haven’t met the NATO-agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on the military, it seems a stretch to suggest there exists the fiscal or political wherewithal to adequately resource a European army that could truly replace NATO’s capabilities.
But it’s no less a conceit to believe the United States is better off jettisoning its European allies. America’s leaders once understood that peace and stability on the Eurasian continent were essential not only for the welfare of the peoples there but also to the United States. Without strong alliances, the power vacuum would almost certainly lead authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to take advantage of a divided array of lesser powers and, in turn, lessen the political, diplomatic and economic sway of the United States.
The great power peace the West has enjoyed since the end of World War II is not a natural state of affairs if history is a guide: It rests on a security order established by Washington with democratic allies in Asia and Europe. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact as we assume the order’s benefits and focus only on the costs of maintaining it.
It’s true, of course, that the allies can and should do more to increase their military capabilities. But Washington shouldn’t forget that those same allies have been with us in the Balkans, Afghanistan and various conflicts in the Middle East.
The fact is, as a congressionally mandated report by the National Defense Strategy Commission concluded recently, the U.S. military is not adequately sized to carry out the administration’s own security strategy. Indeed, according to the bipartisan panel of national security experts, “The security and well-being of the United States are at greater risk than at any time in decades.”
In short, the United States needs allied support and will continue to as our own defense resources are squeezed by entitlement spending and national debt interest payments.
Americans are reluctant to play the world’s policeman, understandably so. But ask any cop and he’ll tell you, it’s always better to have partners you’ve trained with for backup when things turn rough.
Gary Schmitt is resident scholar in strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.