Europe, America and the free ride

Who should pay for Europe’s defence? For Defence Secretary Robert Gates, this is a simple matter. Europe should pay, or at least pay more.

This looks less attractive from the vantage point of European nations. One reason they have been able to invest in their welfare states is that they haven’t had to pay more than a relatively modest amount of their national wealth on defence.

But there’s short-sightedness on both sides.

Part of America’s grand strategy since it become a superpower at the end of World War Two has not only been to contain its enemies, but to limit the ambitions of its friends. By assuming the burden of defending large parts of the globe with its extended deterrence and forward-leaning presence, including European soil and the oil supply from the Middle East, the US could hold on to its primacy and prevent European lands from investing in defence and becoming independent powers, or even rivals.

This was clear in the leaked Pentagon Defence Planning Guidance paper of 1992, which overtly stated this agenda. More recently it was clear when the Bush Administration was very discouraging about moves to create a European defence autonomy that was not bound by NATO.

So America can now insist that Europe takes more reponsibility for its own defence and security policies. But this burden shift will mean that America must accept a degree of multipolarity, even balance, in the world. They cannot have a militarily renationalised Europe without a growth in European military power.

Over in Europe, Europeans might complain that an American shield and an American-dominated defence alliance robs them of autonomy. This is understandable, provided they are willing to acknowledge what greater European defence will mean. If Europe wants more autonomy via independent military power, they will have to pay for it and assume a greater burden. This will mean less money for other things, or higher taxes, or higher deficits. Or it will mean a skeleton defence with all the vulnerability that this could bring.

Until America accepts the political price of burden shifting, and until Europe accepts the financial price of greater autonomy, we will continue with the current eccentric relationship. As things stand, Europeans accept the American shield while complaining about it, and Americans insist on a dominant role that they also resent. Both sides, in their own way, want a free ride, and they can’t have it.

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