The US declares peace in Europe, prematurely

Bulletin article
Tomas Valasek
26 January 2012

The Pentagon's 'strategic guidance', released on January 5th, makes three key changes: it establishes Asia as the focus of US military efforts, with the Middle East a close second. It foresees fewer 'nation-building'
missions such as the one in Afghanistan, and more strikes from afar and from the air, sometimes in cyberspace. And the guidance strongly implies that the US military will have to prioritise: regions such as Europe, which the US regards as peaceful, will see fewer American troops. The Pentagon is under orders from the White House to save at least $450 billion over the next ten years.

There will be three different sorts of reaction in Europe. First, some NATO governments will be privately relieved. Whenever the US commits to a nation-building mission it expects its allies to participate. But the most recent such war, in Afghanistan, has proved expensive and more dangerous than initially thought; it also failed to establish order in the country. The allies are exhausted. The fewer such missions the US conducts, the better, many will quietly conclude. European contributions to the sort of wars on which America expects to focus – especially the high-tech, clandestine and remote struggles fought in Iran or Pakistan's frontier provinces – will be symbolic at best: they are beyond the technical abilities of all but a very few European militaries.

However, without common missions, the transatlantic alliance may wither. If the Americans cannot count on Europe to come to its aid, they may be less inclined to intervene when their European allies need help.

Second, the UK and France, Europe's leading military powers, will interpret the new guidance to mean that the US – now busier in Asia than elsewhere – will expect them to lead future missions on Europe's periphery. They will want the US to at least support such missions, as it did in the Libya operation, with the kinds of capabilities that they are short of – such as those required to suppress air defences. In theory, the new guidance makes the Pentagon better able to provide such support – the emphasis on striking enemies from afar and from the air will require more drones and anti-air defence weapons of the sort that Europeans will occasionally want to 'borrow'. But the US may be less willing to lend such weapons than it has been.

Third, the Central Europeans who fear a possible conflict with Russia will wonder if the new US focus on Asia, combined with the expected large-scale cuts in US forces in Europe, will leave them vulnerable. The strategic guidance merely states that the US plans to retain sufficient forces to deter enemies from attacking America's friends, without explaining how many forces or of what sort. Moreover, in a barb at the European allies (who spend far too little on defence, the Americans believe), the guidance states that the primary mission of the remaining US troops in Europe will be to help to improve allies' militaries; in effect to 'help the Europeans help themselves'. But it is unlikely that the allies, in the midst of the worst economic crisis in living memory, will spend more on defence. More plausibly, the Central Europeans will continue to press the US to keep its tactical nuclear weapons on the continent, and to shift the shrinking US conventional presence from Western to Central Europe.

Whatever the Europeans say, the US will persist with troop cuts in Europe. It believes that it can handle the remaining problems in Europe through diplomacy. And that may be the greatest flaw of the new US defence strategy. The assumption that Europe is free from violence seems unduly optimistic. While the Pentagon may be right that 'old' dangers such as instability in Ukraine or the unpredictable strategies of Russia's rulers require talks, not force, a new danger is emerging. The increasingly severe economic crisis may have strategic consequences.

As voters lose faith in their governments' capacity to halt the decline in living standards, xenophobia and nationalism may become widespread in some countries. A 'Balkanisation' of parts of Europe, with a government becoming a threat to its citizens and possibly neighbours, cannot be excluded. Nor can the collapse of a democratic government and the restoration of authoritarian rule. If any of these scenarios came to pass, and if lives were in danger, the US would be under tremendous pressure to intervene, as it did in the Balkans in the 1990s. In complete contradiction to its new strategic guidance, the Pentagon's attention could once again shift to Europe, though for all the wrong reasons.


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