Skip to comments.The Turn Away From Europe
Posted on 11/04/2012 9:07:58 PM PST by neverdem
It almost goes unnoticed that the United States is closing a long chapter in its Atlantic history. For 70 years, since the landing in Normandy, America was literally a power-in-Europe, with a vast military presence stretching from Naples to Narvik and from Portugal to Germany. At its peak, the entire force, Navy and Air Force included, numbered 300,000. The Army topped out at 217,000. At the end of this year, the ground troops will have dwindled to 30,000. A massive support structure of American grand strategy is being dismantled. Why is no one weeping or gnashing teeth?
That would have been the response in decades past. From the Korean War onward, when the United States deployed hundreds of thousands to the peninsula, Europeans perpetually nourished a nightmare that the United States, abutting both the Atlantic and Pacific, would abandon them in favor of Asia. To reassure them, the Eisenhower administration dispatched six divisions to the Continent after 1950, promising to keep them there for as long as it took to build up NATO and win the Cold War. This permanent expeditionary force, fortified by thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, held steady for a half century, and even grew when the Soviets ratcheted up the pressure. Yet the angst was ever-simmering, stoked by perennial Senate resolutions demanding a drawdown. And it would roil whenever Americas attention shifted to other locales.
It threatened to bubble over during the Vietnam War, when the United States deployed a half-million men to Indochina. It frothed again as the Middle East became a focus, first during the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars, then after the triumph of Khomeinism in Iran. Almost from the start, the terrifying possibility of rebalancing, as the idea of redeploying American military assets is now called, was never far from the minds of European geopolitickers.
Still, throughout it all, Europe remained at the center of American foreign policy. The U.S. commitment, shrinking only slowly, survived the fall of the Berlin Wall and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now, the wolf is at the door. At the beginning of 2012, there were a mere 41,000 troops left; at the end of this year, two more armored brigades will have been pulled out.
Given that the American military presence will virtually be gone from Europe by the time the president-elect puts his hand on the Bible in January 2013, the silence on either side of the Atlantic is astounding. Rebalancing is an about-face of historic proportions. With its vast military presence, America had become a European power after World War II. Now, U.S. grand strategy has finally shifted to the Greater Middle East, to East Asia, and to the Western Pacific. Why is no one wringing his hands? For a number of reasonssome sensible, and some not.
Europe is no longer the strategic fulcrum of the world, as it was when Soviet troops were encamped at the gates of Hamburg before Moscows East European empire collapsed. There are no strategic threats as far as the eye can see. Europe now worries about invading refugees, who flooded in from the former Yugoslavia during the Balkan wars of the 90s. These have been followed most recently by Libyans escaping civil war in their country. More will come if the Maghreb implodes. Tanks cannot stop them.
The United States is no longer obsessed with Russia. The heirs of Stalin and Khrushchev will not soon recover the superpower status they lost on Christmas Day 1991, when the Soviet Union committed suicide. The action now begins at the Syrian border, moving east and south into the Levant, Arabia, and Egypt, thence to Iran and the new Great Game in Afghanistan. Another piece is in the former Soviet South, with its oil- and gas-rich -stan countries. But the main stage of the 21st century will be China and the Western Pacific.
Measuring 5,000 miles, the arc from the Eastern Mediterranean to the South China Sea will be what Europe was during the Cold War, nay, for centuries: the central arena of great power rivalry. The two key players will be the United States and China; one the reigning superpower, the other the would-be number one. In structural ways, the contest will resemble the AmericanSoviet one: sea power vs. land power, top dog vs. challenger, liberal democracy vs. one-party rule. And in other ways, it will not.
There will not be a million men on either side of the divide that was the Elbe River, as was the case for four decades in Europe, for no such line exists. Washington and Moscow shared virtually no ties, save mutual fear and loathing; the United States and China are linked by myriad dependencies, ranging from trade via investment to 50,000 Chinese students in American universities. Both have much more to lose from a conflict, hot or economic, than did the U.S. and the USSR. Mutual deterrence is strong, and it rests on more than the nuclear balance of terror.
Nonetheless, the new geopolitical game is on. The U.S. is playing by the rules of 19th-century Great Britain, harnessing allies from Canberra to Hanoi, projecting naval power, and weaving a far-flung net of containment. In fact, America is becoming a lot more British in its strategy than it was during the 20th century, when it frequently dispatched large land armies to the four corners of the earth.
In the 21st century, the tools of choice will be agile intervention forces, both conventional and special; blue-water navies; long-range bombers; unmanned aerial vehicles operated at a safe remove; and a globe-encircling network of moderately small bases. Like Britains coaling stations of yore, which supplied the navy worlds away from Newcastle, these bases will anchor the supply chains at sea and in the air. Meanwhile, China is increasing its military budget at double-digit speed, seeking an area denial capacity first and intercontinental reach next. So regional allies must be reassured and Chinese ambitions held in check. Clearly, a rebalancing makes sense for the U.S. because it now has different strategic fish to fry. And the shift does not make European leaders reach for Xanax; Europe needs its big brother much less now.
This is the upside of the new world. But what of the condition of the old world? To begin with, it all depends on what we call Europe. The chunk we used to worry over most is indeed more stable than it has been for centuries. This is Core Europe, stretching from Portugal to Poland. But extend this heavenly sphere, and trouble looms. The fringes are brittle: the Balkans; former Soviet possessions such as the Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan; the Levant with Iraq next door and the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Turkey, now ruled by Islamists, is the jokersometimes with, sometimes against the West.
EUCOM, the U.S. headquarters, is in charge in all of Europe, the former Soviet Union, and, not to forget, Israel. Its mission is to conduct military operations to enhance transatlantic security. Given the sheer size of the arena, this task is not going to be so easy for Americas dwindling forces. It will be even harder considering that the Europeans have virtually bowed out of the great power game. When Nicolas Sarkozys France leapt into Libya in 2011, dragging the rest minus no-more-war Germany along, Obama, leading-from-behind, had to fly to the rescue, supplying the high-precision ordnance as well as space-based and battlefield surveillance. A decade ago, the Europeans learned they could not bomb even Serbia into submission without the U.S. Air Force.
And when Syria went off the rails, it was off-limits from the start. For Europe, no more of what men once sang in Londons music halls during the RussoTurkish War of 187778: Weve got the ships, weve got the men, and got the money, too! The Europeans have none of the above, certainly not the long-range air and naval power. Never mind the distant halls of Montezuma; they cant even fight for six months on the shores of Tripoli right across from Sicily, let alone in Syria. Damascus is twice as far from the South of France as the Libyan desert is. While the U.S. still spends about 4 percent of gross domestic product on defense, the Europeans are down to 1. Nor do they have the mental software or the financial capacity to integrate force as an element of their grand strategy. Only France and Britain retain some of the reflexes and remnants of Europes ancient warrior culture. Once the master of the universe, Europe has become the Saint Bernard of world politics: toting lots of mass and economic muscle, but lacking the spunk of an attack dog.
The upshot is that Europe is neither equipped nor eager to police its increasingly turbulent (and truculent) neighborhood. If the next American president, Obama or Romney, also leads from behind, he may find a bunch of listless indigents milling around front. Leading from behind like a shepherd assumes that the flock is already on the move. Europes sheep only want to graze. Leading from behind is not how collective action works among people or among nations.
It is the oldest story in the world. When it comes to producing public goods such as international security, there always has to be somebody who organizes the posse and shoulders the largest burdenrecall Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon (though fail he did). President Obama is no such sheriff. And it is not clear whether Mitt Romney would restore the Marshal Kane ethos. He, too, would have to bring down the astronomically high federal deficit, and after the departure of Indianas Republican senator Richard Lugar and Joseph Liebermanan ex officio GOPnikthere wont be too many Europeanists left in the Republican establishment.
There are hawks like John McCain, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham, but they are globalist birds of prey. Behind them, Ron Paul isolationism is flapping its wings. The main enemy is big government at home, Paul has thundered. We cannot talk about fiscal responsibility while spending trillions on occupying and bullying the rest of the world. The GOP that once spearheaded Eisenhowers boots-on-the-ground commitment to Europe and later united behind Bush père et fils in the wars against Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, is threatening to divide along the classic axis of isolationism vs. interventionism. Romney doesnt seem to have a grand international vision, and no wonder. Americas agenda is to repair itself after four years of intractable unemployment in the 8 percent range, flanked by a trillion-dollar deficit and a federal debt heading for the record set in World War II, when it peaked at 120 percent of GDP.
But is America truly in declinethe same decline the doomsayers have been shouting about ever since the Soviets were first in space with Sputnik in 1957? Its economy is more than twice the size of Chinas, its per-capita income 10 times higher. Chinas fabulous growth rates have begun to shrink, as such rates always do once an economy leaves its lowly beginnings behind, whether they play catch-up or start-up. Consider the fate of the economic miracles in West Germany, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Add to this historical experience the prospect that China will be old before it will be rich. By 2050, America will be the youngest nation among all those slated to evict number one from the penthouse of global power, save India.
Americas military establishment dwarfs anything seen in history ever since Rome fell to the Germanic tribes. No other country has the same global reach: The U.S. can launch B-52 bombers in Missouri, drop their loads on Afghanistan and Iraq, and return home in one fell swoop. China, Russia, and India are regional powers; Europe is a Saint Bernard empire; and Japan, stagnant since the 90s, is an American security client.
The Pentagons budget for fiscal 2013 is set at a shade above $600 billion, down from $650 billion in 2012a hefty, but not a murderous, cut. The real mayhem lurks down the line. Obama and Congress agreed last summer to reduce spending by $450 billion in the coming decade. Another $600 billion will be cut automatically through a sequester unless Congress devises an alternative. This means there will be $100 billion less in the annual total as far as the budgetary eye can see, unless…
But the unless is hardly heartening. Even if Romney wins, it will be easier to rob the Pentagon than the modern American entitlement state, where government spending at all levels has breached 40 percent of GDPclose to the European average of 45 percent.
So the darkening defense future is the nub of the matter; the number of brigades in Europe is just one chapter of the story. It would have been nice to keep the men and materiel on the Continent, not for nostalgic but for sound, strategic reasons. Europe is simply closer to the theaters where the U.S. might need to fight tomorrowfrom the Maghreb to the Mashrek. Forces in situ are even better for not having to fight; they are there for deterrence. And deterrence will be needed. Russia will not let go of its designs on the Ukraine or pesky Georgia or oil-rich Azerbaijan. Iran will keep threatening its neighbors. The chance that the Arab Spring will bring democracy, jobs, and domestic peace to the Arab world is slim. Ready forces next door would sober those tempted to follow Henry IVs advice to his son and successor: Therefore, my Harry,/Be it thy course to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels. Exporting strife is a classic of beleaguered regimes.
But America-in-Europe is almost history. Its the Air-Sea Battle nowthe name of the new American strategy. Its off-shore balancing with an over-the-horizon presence. This is how Britain, the first liberal empire, did it, besting the Spaniards, Dutch, and French for three centuries, from the victory over the Armada in 1588 to Nelsons triumph at Trafalgar in 1805. The economy of power was a British specialty, Albions navies delivering a bigger bang for the quid than land armies did. Unfortunately, Air-Sea Battle wont be the steal that budget busters conjure up, especially in view of Russias and Chinas rapid rearmament.
And so back to the nub. If the defense-budget bloodletting initiated by Obama continues into the next decade, the United States, too, will no longer be able to sing Weve got the ships, weve got the men. Think of the challenges facing the country in the immediate and near-term futures.
First, think what it would take to disarm Iran before it gets the bomb. It would take weeks just for the preliminaries: Lay low the air defenses, unravel the command-and-control network, eliminate Irans air and naval assets that threaten tanker traffic in the Gulf. Then more weeks for destroying the primary targets, up to 50 of them and some, like Fordow, are protected by 200 feet of rock. Each site would require multiple bombing runs, again and again, to make sure they are down and out. All the while, the U.S. would have to demonstrate ample escalation dominance to dissuade the Khameinists from opening other fronts elsewhere, against Israel or Saudi Arabia.
Now shift to the Western Pacific. One scenario would be a melee in the South China Sea, where Beijing contests everybody elses claims. Another would be a pitched battle in the Taiwan Straits to nix a Chinese invasion. The speed at which China is adding to its coastal and naval potential suggests that the U.S. might soon be deterred from intervening on behalf of Taipeithus putting to an end the best-laid Air-Sea Battle plans to pin down China. If Washington can no longer reassure its allies, they will slip from its embrace.
What is the moral of this tale? You can save some money by pulling out of Europe. But that is not enough to remain Mr. Big if Obamas budgetary ax keeps chopping away at the Pentagon. It isnt cheap to be an XXL Britain, not in a world where the locals can fight back with state-of-the-art weapons and deter America from making good on its commitments. This election is like no other since Harry S. Trumans watershed victory in 1948. Having reversed post-VJ Day disarmament by 1947, Truman had a mandate of sorts to set the United States on the road to global leadership. The same mandate was assumed by the next batch of presidents, Republican and Democrat alike. The results of 2012 will shape the future of American power in the same way. The outcome will either speed up the slide or slow it (dont count on Romney to be another Reagan who went off to outarm the Soviet Union). But whoever wins, the U.S. would be ill advised to try and out-Brit the Brits with their over-the-horizon strategy. The UK didnt really care about Europe, except to make sure that it would never fall into the hands of a single potentate like Napoleon. Having done the work, Britain pulled out again.
America should care. After all, who else is there? The cowardly Saudis? The indifferent Indians? The faraway Australians? This is how the Economist put it earlier this year: While the feeble defense efforts of too many NATO members riles Americans, the organization remains the only vehicle that reliably provides partners when America wants to do something and does not want to do it on its own. But the Europeans wont do it unless led from the front. And leadership requires being there, as a power-in-Europe that keeps the NATO machinery humming. The 27 nations of the European Union, mired in crisis and economic stagnation, will not take care of the strategic business of a region that is still as important to the United States as is East Asia.
Also, more than purely strategic interests are at stake. America and Europe constitute the largest trade and investment relationship in the world; together they are good for more than half the global GDP. NATO is the chain that holds it all together. At age 63, NATO is the longest-lived alliance among independent nations, and its longevity certifies its worth. NATO has built a precious edifice of command and training, never mind all the family spats since 1949. It is the worlds anchor of liberal democracy, nothing to sneeze at on a planet where the real thing remains either shaky or remote. Yes, the 21st centurys central arenas will be the Middle East and the Western Pacific; so rebalancing it has to be. But the Atlantic is home. Home is boring and exasperating, yet, in the words of Robert Frost, it is also the place where they have to take you in.
Josef Joffe is editor of Die Zeit. He teaches international politics at Stanford, where he is a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and at the Hoover Institution. He is writing a book about the false prophecies of American decline to be published in 2013 by W.W. Norton.
When the Wall fell, NATO’s mission was over. Instead, like all good bureaucracies, it can’t put itself out of business, so it took on “security” for 35 or so European nations.
The USA should disband NATO and instead sign a few bilaterial treaties - perhaps only Germany and UK.
I also believe NATO is enabling the fantasy that is the EURO and the deformed European Union in Brussels.
Lots to chew on there, FRiend.
World’s a busy place, getting busier.
Evil is always on the march, finding cheaper ways to be evil, helped by Twitter, etc., and every other technological advancement we provide.
Reckoning is at hand, it appears.
Profoundly insightful essay, sweeping historical perspective, I will be reading in depth, archiving. Thanks very much for posting.
UK only, and only so long as they spend commensurate money in their own defense. Continental Europe needs to have to decide between comfortable, nay, lavish social programs and self-defense.
The cold war ended over 20 years ago. The soviets are long gone as with their occupation. Europe was a cushy place to get stationed but that was it. Our Troops there serves no purpose.
We can’t even secure our borders here and we have hundreds of thousand troops in Europe & Asia? Amazing!
I am for strong military always, but why spend money abroad when we are more broke than Germany and S. Korea and Japan?
Mark Steyn made a good point in his article this weekend.
The US has ringed the world with military bases, and spends huge amount of money on military preparedness. Obama and his people even watched the attack in Benghazi on live video feeds - yet they were either unable or unwilling to stop it.
So what is $600 billion in defense expenditures worth if you can’t save 4 Americans in some N. African sh**hole or, even worse, you don’t have the political will to do so?
I am in agreement!
Europe is cowardly and indifferent too and heading into its own Soviet System unless something happens. I don’t think we should spend a dime supporting that rot.
The author of this piece has, in other places, made a powerful case against the overestimation of American strategic decline, yet if history is any guide at all some decline is inevitable. The overall objective, in my view, is to place both the nation and those places in the world that are amenable to it in a position such that decline is manageable and not fraught with the chaos and instability that other such strategic declines have shown. Here Britain is a superb model and Rome is not. Whether it is a case of American senescence or simply world growth, the strategic balance must eventually change.
There are two basic poles to this strategic direction.
The GOP that once spearheaded Eisenhowers boots-on-the-ground commitment to Europe and later united behind Bush père et fils in the wars against Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, is threatening to divide along the classic axis of isolationism vs. interventionism.
It is a classic axis indeed. If we have learned nothing else from the 20th century it is that Fortress America is potentially disastrous; conversely, an attempt at unlimited internationalism is prone to over-extension in terms of men and material, "imperial overstretch". Doctrines of collective security were a theoretically sound compromise that functioned with varying degrees of efficiency for years so long as an external threat was present to cement the teams together. Hence NATO, SEATO, and a number of smaller such attempts.
Absent that external threat the whole thing can, and has, devolved into an odd globalist/internationalist stew where the resources of the dominant partner are directed by the representatives of others who (1) have other, even conflicting strategic interests - the "non-aligned" nation bloc in the UN, for example, and (2) have a disproportionately small amount of their own national resources committed, those that are being far less than the ambitions of the strategic aims require.
It is not a case of selfless idealism that has the U.S. contributing to international efforts that serve against U.S. interests, it is, despite copious propaganda to the contrary, a case of suicidal stupidity. It is also a massive waste of resources.
The decline of the second British Empire was superbly managed but it was also aided in a soft landing by the advent of the American counterpart. It is difficult to imagine a similar ending to any serious future American decline. It would be wonderful to accomplish the overall strategic aim I mentioned above, arranging such a soft landing through the establishment of a world order wherein the attractions of war are in similar decline. That end might justify the interventionism necessary to effect it, were it possible at all. Hence the attraction of interventionism. The trouble is that it isn't possible.
There is the additional complication of an ideological reality within American politics that a large number of its adherents do not themselves have American strategic interests uppermost in their list of priorities, and not simply, as the author cites, within the GOP. The staff of the existing administration contains individuals who have proudly proclaimed their open disdain for both country and interests, choosing instead a strategic vision that requires American decline at a brisk pace and with enough accompanying misfortune as to serve as a punishment for America's past sins both internally and internationally. Theirs is a larger vision, a "greater good", and the success, the dream, the very existence of their own country is in the way.
To a great degree the success of post-war American policy depended on its continuity - the doctrine of containment passed from Democrat administration to Republican and back again more or less intact. In this case a strategic doctrine worthy of the name, i.e. one spanning decades, is possible. Where one side regards the other as the true enemy and its country as a stain on the world, that sort of overall strategic doctrine may well be impossible to effect at all. An objective of liberty is incompatible with an aim of world socialism, or of a world Caliphate, for that matter.
And yet a strategy of liberty is necessarily messy, local, and short on grand structure. If the overall strategic direction of the United States is trending toward the smaller, the local, the more ad hoc engagements, it is not necessarily a sign of decline, but of economy.
Nevertheless, one cannot despair altogether. Expansionism, especially of the violent variety, can prove ruinously expensive, as Cuba and Vietnam learned, as the Soviet Union eventually learned, and as Iran is learning today. China is not exempt from that iron rule. "We've got the money, too," as the author quotes, cuts both ways.
If, however, the United States continues down its European road of increasingly unaffordable social spending, we won't any more than they do now.
...While the U.S. still spends about 4 percent of gross domestic product on defense, the Europeans are down to 1.
The social dislocation necessary to change that in short enough order to be effective is unlikely to be pretty; indeed, in history it has occurred nearly solely as a result of war. That appears to be an iron rule as well. Just some dark thoughts on a rainy Sunday evening.
Excellent essay, Bill.
I learned more from your comment than I did from the posted article.
An excellent and reasonably comprehensive article about the military situation of the US vis-a-vis the rest of the world. It is worth coming back to look at a few times.
You, Bill, have made some astute observations about it, also.
Good article, thanks for posting. Wanted to save the PDF, but your link leads to a subscription form...
With some really glaring false premises.
He doesn't even mention the demographic meltdown occurring in Europe with Islam moving to take the continent. That is idiotic.
He pretends that American deterrence is the reason the Russians don't move on the oil states? Really?
He fails to note that it is high oil and gas prices that fund the Russian military and that this is easily remediable by taking on our own regulatory morass just as Reagan did.
He fails to note that America is logistically VERY fragile. We are killing our rural survival base. We are extending our food supply lines abroad. We maintain at most two weeks of food within reach of any urban center. Much of that food requires electrified refrigeration. All fuel requires electricity to pump it without manual backup. Almost all of our water supplies and sewage systems require electric pumping. We are augmenting our carefully raised violent urban underclass with an even more violent urban underclass with motive for conquest having an established weapons supply system spanning the continent.
Look at what Sandy just did. This blind fool assumes this nation is ready to defend its own homeland in war when it can barely care for itself in a peacetime natural disaster!
You get the same result at the source. That makes sense. I just copied the source code.
You get the same result at the source. That makes sense. I just copied the source code.
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