American Military Presence in Europe Unlikely to “Evolve”

Europe won’t fend for itself as long as the Americans remain militarily present there.

A C-130 Hercules transport aircraft lands at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, July 7, 2011
A C-130 Hercules transport aircraft lands at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, July 7, 2011 (Timm Ziegenthaler)

The new defense strategy that was unveiled by President Barack Obama last week emphasizes a strong American military presence in the Pacific at the expense of the Atlantic realm. Although the document underscores the United States’ “enduring interests” in Europe, it also suggests that the force posture there must “evolve” in recognition of a strategic shift to East Asia.

“Most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it,” the new strategy says. With military budgets under pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, that’s a doubtful assertion at best.

Besides the United States, only four NATO members spend more than 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense as is required by treaty — Albania, France, Greece and the United Kingdom. America’s share of total NATO spending has only risen since the end of the Cold War, from roughly 50 percent before the Soviet Union collapsed to more than 75 percent today.

In fairness, the United States are largely to blame for the growing divergence. Whereas European countries have modestly reduced their defense outlays relative to GDP in the last twenty years, America’s military budget exploded after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, from $291 billion ten years ago to roughly $700 billion today, in order to fight the War on Terror.

As American troops have pulled out of Iraq and prepare to draw down in Afghanistan, defense spending will be subject to austerity, increasing by nearly $500 billion less than was previously planned for over the next ten years.

Army and Marine Corps will be cut and lose forces while procurement projects, possibly including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, could be subject to reductions. That, in turn, could prompt other participating nations, including Italy and the Netherlands, to reduce their own F-35 orders. In both countries, political opposition to buying the fighter plane is substantial.

An army brigade will likely be withdrawn from Europe. Defense secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday wouldn’t give further details. Rather, he seemed to suggest that nothing actually will change. “Not only are we going to continue our commitments there,” he pledged, “but we are going to maintain the kind of innovative presence there that we think will make clear to Europe, and those to those who have been our strong allies in the past, that we remain committed.”

His predecessor, Robert Gates, was more critical. In the wake of the Libyan intervention, he warned European allies that, “The kind of emotional and historical attachment” to NATO that survived the end of the Cold War “is aging out.”

Gates said last year that future American leaders, “those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me — may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”

As long as the United States far outspend European nations in defense and maintain an extended and permanent military presence on the continent, there is little incentive for NATO partners there to enhance their own defenses. There may be a “dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress,” as Gates put it, to continue to make up for Europe’s lack of an independent defense capacity; if Panetta believes that he has to “make clear” to Europe that he is “committed” to its security nonetheless, there won’t be any change.

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