US disengagement from Europe 'will weaken NATO'

US disengagement from Europe 'will weaken NATO'

Opinion piece (Jane's Defence Weekly)
Peter Felstead
09 March 2012

The US disengagement from Europe is permanent, according to a new CER report

The US step-back from Europe, combined with the harsh current economic climate, will force NATO to rein in its ambitions, the report argues

The United States' strategic step-back from bearing the burden of NATO's power projection is permanent and Washington's decision to play only a supporting role in 2011's international intervention in Libya was a clear manifestation of that fact. This is the conclusion of the publication 'All Alone? What US retrenchment means for Europe and NATO', which was authored by a team of foreign policy specialists and launched in London on 6 March under the auspices of the Centre for European Reform (CER).

The report, in effect, predicts an inevitable weakening of NATO, stating that "it is hard to imagine how, given the twin challenges of US retrenchment in Europe and the economic crisis, NATO can maintain its ambition to fight two large conflicts and six small ones simultaneously". It concludes that the "alliance's credibility may be better served by discussing frankly its currently financial and military difficulties and adjusting NATO's ambitions accordingly".

Kori Schake, a fellow at the Hoover Institution in the US and one of the report's authors, asserted that there has been a profound change in the US stance for two main reasons: US threat perceptions and budget.

"The world looks quite threatening to most US policy makers," she told the audience during the report's launch on 6 March, "but Europe doesn't look like the prime cause - or the solution." It was for this reason, she argued, combined with a US weariness over its European NATO partners not pulling their weight within the alliance, that has led Washington to focus instead on the Asia-Pacific region and the rise of China as a potential military adversary. Schake added that, regardless of whether or not its so-called 'sequestration' measures will come into force, the US "will be consumed with the retrenchment in its defence spending" and will therefore, "get stingier . . . expecting the Europeans to do a lot more in line with their capacity", which she claimed was actually much higher than European nations generally perceived it to be.

François Heisbourg, senior adviser at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris and a co-author of the report, agreed that a "paradigm shift" regarding the US stance had occurred and that "Libya was the turning point". He noted, however, that "some good things came out of Libya", specifically the fact that, "France finally did take the lead" and that the coalition that mounted combat actions against the Ghadaffi regime "didn't fight the war the American way", meaning that Libya's infrastructure was not subject to 'shock-and-awe'-type destruction and was thus largely intact after the fighting was over.

A third lesson from Libya that Heisbourg noted as less helpful was the realisation that, "the old days are over" and that NATO's European powers can no longer rely on US armed forces providing such necessary military capabilities as the suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) and close air support (CAS). Heisbourg noted that, whereas in the past the US had chided its NATO allies in Europe for wasting defence funding on 'useless duplication' of capabilities the US already had covered, it was those very capabilities that the alliance's European allies would now have to struggle to generate in austere times to cover for the absence of US forces.

Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, a former German ambassador to both the US and the UK and another of the report's co-authors, noted the "systemic risk" evident in the alliance in that Europe will never reach a position where it can close the capability/spending gap with the US. He called for greater pooling and sharing (P&S), however, to allocate what funding does become available more intelligently. "It's true it's not the panacea," he said, "but it's the only way, given current budgetary constraints, that could create synergic effects." He admitted, however, that P&S would never happen "unless directed from the very top - from the Sakozys, the David Camerons, the Angela Merkels" - because national imperatives are otherwise too strong.

Regarding Germany's lack of participation in Libyan operations, Ischinger pointed to a "confluence of issues at unfortunate moments" rather than any deep-seated reluctance to commit forces. "No-one should believe this is the beginning of a new German posture," he said, noting that "over the last 15 to 20 years Germany has come a long way" and "today has the strongest contingent in Kosovo and a strong contingent in Afghanistan".

Invited as a guest to the launch of the CER report, Norwegian Defence Minister Espen Barth Eide offered an alternative perspective on the Libyan intervention. "Libya was an interesting laboratory, but for what? How NATO works?" he asked rhetorically. "This discussion didn't happen in NATO. We joined [Operation] 'Odyssey Dawn' because we agreed to as part of the UN, not NATO."

More generally on the geopolitical landscape in which NATO must now operate, Eide offered a blunt assessment. "The West is not on top anymore," he said. "It's still important, but we are not where we were and will not get back [to where we were].

"It's not a return [of power] to Asia, but a return of symmetry. We're getting back to real states again. We have assumed a move to new threats - and these will always remain - but now we are looking at dealing with symmetric threats."

Eide also sounded a note of caution regarding NATO's Article V, which commits each member state to consider an armed attack against one state to be an armed attack against all states (originally created with an armed attack by the Soviet Union against Western Europe in mind). This commitment, Eide argued, has been largely "out of sight, out of mind" and has suffered as a consequence.

"How capable are we regarding Article V? We are less capable," he said. "The reason countries like the Czech Republic go to Afghanistan is because they have been told: 'If you go to Afghanistan, then we will help you if you are attacked'. So these countries will no longer go if we cannot do Article V."