Europeanize NATO to save it

Europeanize NATO to save it

When NATO members gather next month to celebrate the alliance’s 75th anniversary, they must seize the opportunity to inoculate the vital collective-defense organization against shifts in U.S. geopolitical priorities.

The argument that the United States has for too long borne the burden of perceived European complacency continues to hold sway with many Americans. The bitter fight over Ukraine funding is only the latest sign of the entrenched skepticism toward Europe that has become a feature of American politics. It is unlikely to be a fleeting trend.

If NATO is to reach its century mark, the transatlantic partners must substantially shift the responsibility of continental European security to Europeans themselves.

A new NATO for a new century

European security no longer holds the pride of place in Washington policymakers’ thinking that it had during the Cold War. Biden’s recommitment to Europe—“The transatlantic alliance is back”—has materialized at a time when U.S. strategic interests are being pulled in other directions. For many prominent policymakers, China is the pre-eminent national security challenge of the coming generation. They believe that the U.S. should focus on the Indo-Pacific region and not spread itself too thinly across multiple theaters. Both U.S. political parties are united on the need to fend off competition from China, and most of the Pentagon’s long-term focus will remain on building industrial capacity to fight in the Indo-Pacific. “China is seeking to modernize [the PLA] across all domains of warfare in pursuit of its aims of reshaping the global power balance,” said the Defense Department’s 2023 China Military Power report, adding that “compared to the PLA’s nuclear modernization efforts a decade ago, current efforts dwarf previous attempts in both scale and complexity.”

So the Pentagon is responding in kind, requesting $9.9 billion for the Department’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative in fiscal 2025. “The Department’s major investments and efforts focus on strengthening Indo-Pacific deterrence and building a resilient security architecture as part of a modernized Joint Force,” the comptroller said in budget documents.

But in Europe, where Russia—the successor to NATO’s founding foe—has mounted a war of conquest, U.S. force posture hasn’t grown by much. And although Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Christopher Cavoli has revamped the alliance’s defense plans since Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, the United States has added only about 20,000 troops to its pre-invasion force, bringing the total today to around 100,000. Further, the Pentagon’s FY 2025 budget includes only $3.9 billion for “European deterrence and countering Russian aggression including the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), NATO support, and NATO Security Investment Program.”

The hard numbers speak for themselves.

Europe will remain a vital interest of the United States, not only because of the size of its economy, but also because of its like-mindedness in terms of democratic values, and its role in defending and upholding the interests of the transatlantic partners. As a result, NATO will persist. But it’s time to stop pretending that the old relationship can ever be fully restored and recognize that geopolitical events have reshaped national priorities. Europe must be prepared for a range of futures for U.S. engagement—most notably, one where the U.S. prioritizes Asia. NATO, therefore, must adapt, and the upcoming summit is a unique opportunity to signal that NATO’s European allies are willing and prepared to shoulder responsibility for collective defense in Europe, rather than continuing to build around the strength of American defense capabilities.

A 25-year plan

So what might a 25-year plan to Europeanize NATO look like?

First, the European Union should play a greater role in procuring and mobilizing European defense resources to support NATO activities. The EU has funding capabilities that NATO lacks, like taking on debt to fund defense projects. As Max Bergmann from CSIS writes, “The EU…should act as NATO’s investment and procurement arm, using its ability to mobilize resources on behalf of Europe. Where NATO sets standards and procurement targets, the EU would provide the resources.”

The EU has already made major strides in these efforts since February 2022. The 2023 European Defense Industrial Strategy, for example, aims to increase defense readiness and strengthen the EU’s defense technological and industrial base, with a goal to get “member states to procure at least 40% of defense equipment collaboratively and 50% from within the EU by 2030, rising to 60% by 2035.” Today, 78% of Europe’s defense acquisitions come from outside Europe. Success will require working in lockstep with NATO, especially through the NATO defense planning process. This also means that the EU and NATO will have to find ways, however difficult, to overcome issues that have impeded deeper cooperation, such as the disputes  between Cyprus and Turkey.

It also means the EU will have to get comfortable with directly supporting NATO activities. Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has suggested a European Commissioner for Defense. That person, while not part of NATO’s direct decision-making process, should have a permanent invite to high-level NATO defense-planning meetings.

This also means, however often it might be said, that European countries will have to increase defense spending over the next two decades. The new target—two percent of GDP being a floor, not a ceiling—is a good start, but it won’t be enough to build Europe into a legitimate fighting force. Certain capabilities may always be out of reach; for instance, it likely won’t make sense for smaller European countries to pool their money for a huge aircraft carrier.

Instead, Europe must focus on the basics. Its members must ask themselves: What capabilities do we lack? What capabilities are needed for us to absorb a security shock—perhaps a Russian move into the Baltics, or a new version of the Islamic State—so that the U.S. has the political and tactical space to support our efforts if necessary? What must we do now to arrive at our desired 25-year goals? It is in the United States’ long-term interests to support such ownership. Until now, European defense dynamics have been met with criticisms from Washington, ranging from worries of “protectionist” measures to “undermining NATO.” These criticisms should’ve stopped years ago.

Second, once Europe bolsters its defense capabilities and creates greater unity of vision and trust among member states, the post of SACEUR—historically held by an American general—must eventually also be held by European military leaders. Regional commands could also be led by Europeans: NATO’s Mediterranean command in Naples, for instance, could be managed by Greek, Italian, Spanish and French admirals on rotations, replacing the American four star.  What about nuclear weapons? Until a deeper discussion about Europe’s nuclear umbrella can be had, a European SACEUR would likely be required to have an American—say, U.S. Army Commander Europe— to serve as a nuclear deputy.

Finally, Europe must accept that the U.S. force posture on the continent is likely to wane in coming decades. This means developing plans to increase their own force numbers continuously over a number of years, and bolstering their forward presence on NATO’s vulnerable eastern front—a la the German brigade’s deployment to Lithuania, and France’s increased presence in Romania. This gives long-term credibility to Europe’s commitment and is much better than having to quickly respond to unforeseen changes in American posture.

Clearly, as Ukraine faces down Russia, now is not the time to start realizing plans to decrease U.S. forces in Europe. But ultimately, this is the likely direction for the U.S., either by plan or surprise, so it’s better for Europe to start planning. To be clear, this reformed NATO alliance would still be backed by America’s logistical and intelligence power, and intervening if another ally is attacked through its Article Five commitments would still be guaranteed in this new vision.

What is the upside of all this for Europeans? Preparing now avoids the possibility of rushed realignment which would reveal dangerous battlefield gaps, ensures that Europe remains a credible long-term ally of the U.S., and that the Continent begins prioritizing the production of weapons with its own factories that abide by European defense models and doctrines. At the same time, these plans can help distribute tasks among European nations according to actual means. They can also raise the credibility of Europe’s deterrence posture—whether against Russia or threats emanating from other theaters.

Plans to Europeanize NATO have been derided for decades, and some still argue that NATO would wither and die without the United States. That might be true today, but the Europeanization of NATO would lead to a stronger deterrence posture in the long run, especially if backed by bipartisan support in Washington. Gathering U.S. and European leaders to draft a reformist “25-year plan”—providing citizens and industries clarity—is the only way to save and ultimately strengthen NATO.

Transatlantic unity can be preserved and re-imagined to face the shared challenges of the future, but it needs a policy revolution to do that. 

Rachel Rizzo is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Michael Benhamou is the founder of OPEWI—Europe’s War Institute, and a former NATO political adviser.

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