Calibrated Threats: Europe


The United States is, unfortunately, in Cold War 2.0 with the Russian Federation. As Peter Conradi documents in his magnum opus, Who Lost Russia? this is almost entirely the result of American statecraft malfeasance. As I noted in my recent column at American Greatness, at the same time that Washington was pushing Moscow into being an intractable foe, it did little to reinforce its defensive perimeter against Russia in Eastern Europe. More importantly, few in the West understood just how broken and strained the existing multilateral institutions that would be needed to defend the West against this reputed Russian threat had become.

The European Union, once believed to be the institutional framework of the future; an economic juggernaut that would surpass all other global competitors-even the United States, has teetered on the brink of collapse since the 2008 Great Recession. Nationalism and parochialism have arisen to replace the post-modern, democratic globalism that once dominated the EU. Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, supposedly the greatest defensive military alliance in history, has operated on cruise control since the 1990s.

Until 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, NATO funding was a disaster with the United States providing upwards of 75 percent of all NATO funding and support. The minimum financial support required for NATO members to remain in good-standing, as every U.S. secretary of defense from Donald H. Rumsfeld to Robert Gates to James Mattis has chided their European counterparts, is two percent GDP. Few countries in NATO has even brushed that percentage point since the end of the Cold War. This, despite the fact that all NATO members are considered First World, developed economies. And, NATO’s European members are also part of the EU, which boasts a massive GDP of around $18.8 trillion!

Who Pays?

A handful of countries started taking its commitments to NATO more seriously following the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Even still, however, Europe had not fully committed itself to a reinvigorated NATO. When Donald J. Trump became president of the United States, that started to change. A man who had campaigned as both a Euroskeptic generally and, more specifically, as someone who was skeptical of NATO and the Russian threat, the Europeans appear to have started to invest more seriously in NATO.

Of course, it has only been a handful of countries that have expanded their investment into NATO (aside from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, only Estonia, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania all pay more than the minimum two percent GDP required for NATO membership). Seven countries out of 28 members of NATO. Traditionally, the core of NATO (and the EU) on the European continent has been shared between France and Germany. Yet, Germany spends 1.23 percent of its GDP on defense while France, the only country in Europe with an independent, indigenous nuclear force (around 300 nuclear weapons) spends about 1.89 percent of its GDP on defense.

As I noted in my aforementioned op-ed, this is a strange trend, since so many European elites clearly identify neighboring Russia as their most serious geostrategic threat. Why are they funding the bare minimum of their defense? Why are they reliant on the distant United States to do the heavy-lifting? Washington should absolutely honor its commitments…but why should it do this if its “partners” consistently undercut an alliance they proclaim as the most important in history? Is Russia genuinely a threat to them or is this merely about the mindless perpetuation of multinational bureaucracy as represented by NATO?

Objectively speaking, yes, the Russian Federation is a rival to the United States. Although, it is not as clear as to how much of a rival it is–or even how willing to resist said rival the Europeans are. Even Poland, a country that we must absolutely support in order to craft an effective defensive perimeter around Eastern Europe, has been barely funding their defense at two percent GDP. The Eastern European countries are the most threatened by Russia, if only because of their proximity to Russia’s borders.

So, why aren’t the Eastern Europeans spending double-digit GDP levels on their defense? Why rely on distant Washington or chaotic London? And, please, spare me the size argumentation. These countries have massive economic resources at their disposal. It is simply that their governments are choosing not to invest considerable sums of their money into defense (because they know full well that Washington will backstop them).

Working Toward Diplomacy By Strengthening Our Hand

As the Russian threat intensifies (and it is), the Americans will have to become more involved. But, there is no reason why Washington should not pursue a dual-track program of intensified defensive measures coupled with meaningful diplomacy. And, as this occurs, Washington should indicate to its NATO “partners” that it will no longer do the heavy-lifting. NATO is primarily a European alliance predicated on the concept of a combined European defense. Let’s make it more European, please.

The goal for the U.S. and NATO should be capacity building. This is something that has obviously been lacking. So, U.S. forces moving into bases, for example, in Poland is a good way to help generate the requisite military capacity (as well as handing off as much military equipment as possible over to our allies). But, a) the U.S. forces will not be on the hook for fighting for the Europeans and b) there needs to be a time limit to the U.S. capacity-building operations. What’s more, the frontline states of Eastern Europe (along with the Nordic countries) will have to expand their commitment to NATO in terms of financial support. It is clear that the Western and Southern Europeans simply do not view the Russians in the same way that the Eastern Europeans do.

Speaking of the Southern Europeans, there is now a massive, Turkey-sized strategic gap in the NATO defensive perimeter that will need to be plugged. Since the rise of Recep Erdogan and his AKP coalition, an Islamist political party that has striven to reclaim Turkey’s mantle as the head of a pan-Islamic empire (historically, Turkey was the seat of the Ottoman Empire). Turkey was once a critical member of NATO during the Cold War. It formed the crux of the southern defense against Soviet revanchism. Today, Turkey has become a conduit for both Russian revanchism into Europe and has become close with Iran.

So, if Russia is this grand strategic threat that France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel believe, then defending the southern passes into Europe would be essential. Good luck with that, given Turkey is working against this effort. We will have to shift the defensive perimeter to Turkey’s great rival of Greece.

But, then if Greece is to be the new pivot of the southern defensive we must keep in mind that their forces are in need of refurbishment; they have a severe crisis with the migration issues flooding upward from North Africa and the Middle East; their economy, while better than it was eight years ago, is still in disrepair; they’re moving closer to China; and they share a cultural affinity with Russia, because both countries share the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith.

Essentially, NATO is broken and will not be relied upon in its current configuration to wage this ridiculous Cold War 2.0. Instead, the U.S. should pressure those states who are most directly threatened by Russian aggression to invest even more in their defense than they have already done. Meanwhile, the U.S. must capacity-build with those states while at the same time engaging in a aggressive diplomacy program aimed at Russia. Ultimately, the goal must be to avoid and mitigate war with nuclear-armed Russia while crafting the mother-of-all geopolitical deals with Russia that would ameliorate the long-standing conflicts in the region.


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