The question has been slow to come, despite the much-ballyhooed new “strategic concept” unveiled in 2010 at the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon. That promised some changes, but certainly fell short of providing momentum for new deliverables of major importance at the NATO summit meeting in Chicago in mid-2012 – a rendez-vous that itself will be occurring in a significantly changed context from the expectations that prevailed only two years ago.
So far, Washington comments on European defense tend still to be framed, not with a view to any new threat assessment weighed against the alliance’s resources, but instead around the issue of “burden sharing” -- a U.S. complaint about European “free-riding” that has been a refrain for at least the past thirty years.
Robert Gates, in his last visit to Brussels in June on the eve of his retirement as defense secretary, agreed to give a speech only if he were allowed to say undiplomatic things. His speech --- delivered not to the NATO Council but, deliberately, to a think-tank where Gates felt he could be blunter --- was certainly forthright. He warned of “NATO’s serious capability gaps and other institutional shortcomings…the military and political necessity of fixing these shortcomings if the transatlantic security alliance is going to be viable going forward; and more broadly the growing difficulty for the U.S. to sustain current support for NATO if the American taxpayer continues to carry most of the burden in the Alliance.” Of course, the subsequent intervention in Libya (which Gates was reluctant to support) showed a more resilient alliance underpinned by the U.S. but solidified by French and British and other European forces flying warplanes at the sharp end of combat. Still, Gates’ words stand as a dire U.S. warning about the long run.
Even as his analysis pointed to the political requirements for an enduring transatlantic partnership going forward, Gates still ducked more fundamental questions. A security alliance, yes, but for what purpose? And burdens to be shared, but to what end?
The debate comes down to ground truth when people are reminded that the U.S. military presence in Europe is vastly greater than is generally recognized. In his most recent report to Congress, Admiral James Stavridis, the U.S. naval officer who is supreme allied commander in NATO, spelled out its size. The U.S. Army has 42,000 active duty and reserve troops deployed in six main locations, each the size of a small town; the U.S. Air Force has 26,000 service people (active duty, Air National Guard and reserves) at five main operating bases; the U.S. Navy has 8,000 active duty and reserve sailors at four main installations. These deployed military are accompanied by some 130,000 family members at bases across Europe.
It’s impossible to figure out from unclassified Department of Defense documents how much the U.S. presence in Europe costs the American taxpayer. (Even in its internal analyses, DOD tends to disaggregate costs by service or weapons system rather than by theater.) The best publicly available estimate, according to Congressional budget analysts, comes from a 2008 monograph by the RAND Corporation, the government-financed think tank with umbilical ties to the U.S. military. RAND’s study put some rough price tags on major U.S. combatant commands as part of a total DOD projected spending of $10 billion from 2009 through to 2028 (in 2009 dollars). Of that projected two-decade total, European Command was assessed as costing $311 billion – compared to an estimated Pacific Command cost of $603 billion and $1.8 trillion for Central Command, which has handled most of the U.S. warfare in the broader Middle East.
These figures excluded direct war-related costs, and the RAND analysts didn’t claim the figures were precise. They were meant to provide an “analytic baseline” against which to assess the costs of different deployment options -- for example, a shift in emphasis to the Pacific. In this picture, the U.S. military presence in Europe is small compared to the growing amounts in the Pacific and for Central Command. Yet, while U.S. forces are still the cornerstone of deployed (and deployable) allied military capability in Europe, the American footprint has shrunk to shadow of its cold war past. At its height, the U.S. defense posture saw 400,000 troops in Europe, with a ground combat-force comprising five Army divisions in theater backed by another four U.S.-based divisions that were ear-marked for Europe -- with combat airpower and airlift capacity to match. In those days, U.S. forces were deployed at 1,200 sites in western Europe, about half of them sizeable facilities. Now they occupy 350.
The draw-down began very shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and gathered momentum on the implosion of the Soviet Union. It was decisively accelerated in the administration of George W. Bush in 2004 (a year after the Iraq invasion) when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set in train a global pullback of U.S. forces aimed at bringing home 70,000 troops (and 100,000 dependants) in six to eight years. The biggest cuts were in Europe.
Rumsfeld’s plan amounted to “the most profound re-ordering of U.S. military troops overseas in 50 years,” according to a Congressional analysis. True, it was radical; but it was also true that this re-ordering did not result from any wider review of challenges around the world and accompanying U.S. choices for meeting them. Criticizing this short-sightedness, John Hamre, a Pentagon veteran who had been deputy secretary of defense under the previous Clinton administration, charged that the pull-back was “driven by operational expediency, rather than strategy.” A bipartisan Congressional commission, set up to review America’s overseas bases, echoed Hamre’s criticism, questioning both the pace and the rationale of Rumsfeld’s plan. “The Commission is skeptical about DOD’s ability to justify, accomplish or afford the planned timeframes,” its 2005 report said, adding that “in far too many instances we are putting the cart before the horse” by redesigning deployments before proceeding to a realistic threat assessment. The report suggested that Rumsfeld was relying on optimistic assumptions about peace and stability in Europe.
The commission’s fundamental concern was the poverty of strategic analysis underpinning the global pull-back. “The last great transformation of America’s security posture in the world,” it said -- this in 1947-1948, as the cold war began -- had been “a process that brought together the best minds in the country.” Nothing like that had been attempted by Rumsfeld or the Bush Administration of which he was a part. “We have concluded that we are doing too much too fast,” the commission said.
Those concerns are still being ignored. The U.S. pull-back from Europe has gone beyond even Rumsfeld’s goals: he foresaw a bare-bones U.S. deployment in Europe needing some 360 U.S. there. That number is now down to 350, and Stavridis has forecast that another 100 of these will go.
The Obama administration, preoccupied by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has not filled this strategy gap or even shown much sign of thinking about it. Last year’s Quadrennial Defense Review – the sixth such full-scale assessment of America’s global posture since the cold war -- offered little more than the boiler-plate rhetoric which too often conceals the absence of fresh analysis. On Russia, the review talked reassuringly of shared U.S. and Russian interests in countering proliferation and terrorism, mentioned arms control negotiations and promised continued discussions on missile defense and the Arctic (where Russia has recently staked some new territorial claims even as it negotiated an accord on one demarcation line there).
The U.S., the review confidently said, “will continue to engage with Russia’s neighbors as fully independent and sovereign states.” These days not every such “neighbor” seems to feel wholly reassured about what that U.S. commitment might now mean in practice in gray-area crises such as disabling cyber attack (of the sort which shut down Estonia in 2007) or even incidents at sea in the Arctic. Would a further drawdown of the U.S. military presence in Europe encourage “Russia’s neighbors” to continue to behave as “fully independent and sovereign states”?
The question is not just theoretical: all the signs suggest that a further U.S. drawdown is coming. Rumsfeld pulled the last two heavy divisions out of Europe in 2004. What remains for the moment are four combat brigades. These are the beefed-up brigades that emerged from the Army’s “modularisation” shift from divisions to smaller brigades as the basic fighting units – three stationed in Germany and one in Italy. (The “heaviest” brigade, based at Grafenwoehr in Bavaria, is equipped with Stryker infantry fighting-vehicles.) Rumsfeld contemplated bringing home two of these as well but, to compress a long story, objections from Europe forestalled the move. Actually, since 9/11 these four brigades have been an increasingly notional presence in Europe. At any one moment, at least two have been fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Gates, seeking in 2009 to cut $100 billion from defense spending over the next decade, considered pushing ahead with his predecessor’s idea of bringing home two of the brigades. The White House overruled him, decreeing that only one of the four would be withdrawn – and then only in 2015.
That was then. Now, facing far deeper cuts in the defense budget -- anywhere from $500 billion to double that figure over the next decade -- has been revisiting that last Quadrennial Defense Review and working on a cost/benefit analysis of U.S. commitments around the world. The “Bowles-Simpson” deficit-reduction commission set up by Obama, paved the way for further pull-backs, calling for U.S. military bases overseas to be cut by another third. U.S. deployments in Europe -- still the largest peacetime American military commitment worldwide in terms of troop numbers -- are the obvious target, especially in light of the administration’s policy shift to focus on the rise of China, according to Pentagon sources. At NATO headquarters, Stavridis has teams of military and civilian advisers working on what cuts could be made to U.S. deployments – at what costs to the outlook for European stability in the coming years. Stavridis’ goal at the start of this year was a 15 per cent cut in personnel strength, and now defense sources in Washington say that he is under pressure to find deeper reductions. There is talk that as many as three of the combat brigades may be pulled out, and participants in these internal discussions think all four may come home. (In that scenario, a substantial U.S. apparatus would remain in Europe, focused on training up NATO’s newest members situated close to Russia.)
The Bush and Obama administrations have pushed to increase NATO’s global role and the European allies have generally gone along with this. (The newer members have viewed these far-away deployments as the price of their entry into NATO.) So NATO has sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, dispatched warships to work in conjunction with EU and other countries’ maritime assets on anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean. NATO provided the command structure for the allied campaign in Libya: mobilizing military assets from the alliance and from other countries (with the glaring exception of Germany and most of the new democracies in eastern and central Europe), the operation was an example in practice of the application of “Berlin-plus” principle in NATO in which the U.S. backs up European allies in operations when Washington does not want to take the lead. (This principle only operated in practice, not in theory, because the formal doctrine was not invoked. Similarly, it is unclear whether Libya added any momentum to the doctrine about the “responsibility to protect” as a basis for military intervention.)
This recent record marks a starting change from the situation a generation ago at a time when NATO had to debate whether it could send warships south of the equator in the Atlantic without overstepping its mandate as the “North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” That debate has now been dramatically overtaken. “Today, five of NATO’s six current operations are outside of the alliance’s territory,” the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, wrote on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
The lesson of 9/11, Daalder said, was that “NATO had to stop thinking regionally and begin thinking globally” if it was to meet new challenges like terrorism. In Lisbon last year, NATO notionally reached consensus on a new “strategic concept” further committing the allies to action around the world – “notionally” because there was no real agreement either in assessing global challenges or identifying and committing the resources for a global role of the sort prescribed in the concept.
Underpinning all of this, however, was the presumption that Europe itself was tranquil and would remain so. Recent developments in Europe suggest less vaulting ambitions for NATO might be prudent. The threatened meltdown of the eurozone and the inevitability of years of financial stringency across Europe destroy any plausible hope that NATO’s European members will heed America’s long-repeated calls to increase their defense budgets. Further cuts in defense spending look far more likely. EU members of the alliance have a new mantra of “pooling and sharing” assets to produce “smart defense.” That approach may be helped by many European countries’ overall recognition of the need to work together more closely in economics and security. But there is an imponderable now in the wake of the split between London and most continental EU member states over EU financial supervision. How will a stand-off on that issue affect the outlook for Britain’s wider teamwork with its European partners, notably with France as the other military wheel-horse in Europe?
Some hard questions and thinking are in order now with the looming prospect of a return to power next March of Vladimir Putin as Russian president. It was Putin, after all, who famously declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He has never concealed his ambition to restore Russian sway -- political if not military -- over its lost possessions, as evidenced by Moscow’s incursion into Georgia in 2008, a little war that has left Russian troops in their new positions ever since. How does NATO propose to handle the challenges that a Putin-restored-to-power will certainly pose? The fact that Putin’s United Russia party did so poorly in the recent Duma elections makes it all the more certain that Putin, as president, will seek to bolster his personal standing by appeals to Russian nationalism.
Even before the parliamentary elections, the Kremlin was taking a tougher line on security issues. The threat to renounce the New Start strategic arms reduction treaty agreed with the U.S. in April last year -- unless the U.S. abandons plans for missile defenses in Europe -- might have been taken as a bluff. Russia’s unveiling of a new base in Kaliningrad deploying missiles explicitly aimed at Europe suggests it was not. Nor does it look sensible to expect a resumption of the stalled talks aimed at persuading Russia to observe all the provisions of the treaty covering Conventional Forces in Europe, limiting numbers and deployments of troops, tanks and aircraft across Europe up and down both sides of Russia’s western border as far east as the Urals. Echoing Obama’s determination to “re-set” relations with Russia, Ambassador Daalder talked as recently as September of “deepening NATO’s partnership with Russia.” But does Putin think there is a “partnership”? Or will he, returned to supreme power, seek to take advantage of American and European budgetary constraints to re-assert Russia’s influence in Central Europe? Confronting a reassertion of Russian ambitions, what signals would further U.S. troop withdrawals send?
NATO’s members have global interests, but NATO itself is first, foremost and crucially a regional alliance. Europe’s economic plight makes it as close to certain as anything in international politics that no European member of NATO will acquire new capabilities for significant out-of-area actions -- and almost as certain that Britain, which has had the strongest of Europe’s (modest) international capabilities, will see those wither. Meanwhile, the challenges facing NATO at home are likely to spiral. Europe is proud of its success in bringing the former members of the Warsaw Pact into its orbit. NATO’s first priority has to be to sustain and preserve that success. Are there ways at least to leverage further cutbacks to U.S. forces in Europe to help in that task? This seems to be the daunting context for any realistic debate on the future of European security.