As the U.S. presidential election campaign gears up and conflicts on the other side of the Atlantic multiply, two opposing views on what to do about European security compete for airspace in U.S. public debate. The first is essentially “let’s get out of there” —America no longer has any business being engaged in Europe’s security. The opposing view is that Europe will collapse, implode, or be invaded (whether by the Islamic State or migrants) unless the U.S. steps in. 

Both of these prescriptions are off base. They don’t even accurately describe the state of the current transatlantic division of labor. 

Love me again

In reality, the U.S. and European governments have not worked so closely together on key security issues, nor so successfully, in quite a while. Washington, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw and other European capitals hammered out a consensus on sanctions against Russia, and those sanctions remain in place. NATO is ramping up its capabilities, and several European governments (including Germany) are increasing their defense budgets. And achieving the Iran deal required considerable cooperation among American, British, French, German, and Russian negotiators. They managed to bridge very different interests and ended up playing as a tightly coordinated diplomatic tag team—a fact that did not fail to impress the government in Tehran.

While the outcomes of these efforts have been imperfect, it’s safe to say that these concerted efforts at transatlantic diplomacy averted war. European governments—contrary to popular misconception, at least in the United States—often played leadership roles. Cooperation around Ukraine and Iran are excellent examples of what close transatlantic security cooperation can achieve. But they also show that it took the very real risk of a major conflagration—involving states with nuclear weapons, no less—to force the allies to focus and work together. 

On the level of policy implementation and transactional diplomacy, the state of transatlantic cooperation is actually pretty good. It is mostly pragmatic, constructive, and based on a broad set of shared interests and values. In fact, the United States and the European Union have been developing a new appreciation for each other. Europeans have been watching with some admiration as President Obama ticks off his foreign policy legacy list (Iran: done; Cuba: done; Guantanamo: um, still working on it). 

Feelings in the United States about Europe are perhaps a bit more mixed; criticism of Europe’s handling of the Greek crisis has been mostly scathing. But European governments’ unexpected readiness to stand up to Russia has left a favorable impression in Washington. As for the Iran deal, it took the United States to get it clinched—but Europeans (and a German initiative) brought it to the table in the first place.

Absent imminent disaster, however, the transatlantic record of cooperation on security threats is a lot less impressive. We are flailing in the fight against ISIS, and seem powerless to stop the disastrous civil war in Syria or sectarian conflict in Iraq. We are rooted to the ground watching a multi-tentacled Chinese foreign policy that ranges from island-building in the South China Sea to laying transport lines across Eurasia to hoovering up textile factories in Italy and the American South. A Russia crumbling under its own inability to modernize and adapt to globalization is a daunting prospect and one for which we appear unprepared.

Our track record in shoring up states against the risk of disintegration and helping them to transform (such as Tunisia and Ukraine) is dismal. As for the West’s most noble achievement after World War II,—building and maintaining the norms and institutions that supported a liberal international order for seventy years—today we seem to be doing almost no building and little maintenance.

While the United States has urgent concerns around the world, none of them currently threaten America’s primacy in the international order, much less its existence. Europeans, in contrast, are facing the worst array of domestic and external security threats since the Cold War order collapsed a generation ago. The sovereign debt crisis (and the festering North-South divide it has produces), slow growth, high levels of youth unemployment, and badly managed immigration have combined to fuel anti-globalization, anti-EU, and anti-foreigner populist sentiment. Externally, Russia is stoking war in Ukraine and intimidating its neighbors, and the post-war regional order in North Africa and the Middle East is crumbling, producing a mass outpouring of refugees. To quote Sweden’s former Prime Minister Carl Bildt, Europe appears to be surrounded by a ring of fire. And it’s not just the neighborhood: the European project itself is under threat.

The case for cooperation

Under the circumstances, it’s hard to fault the Americans in the camp that wants to extricate itself from European problems. The U.S. has legitimate security concerns elsewhere on the globe; the largest but by no means the only one being the rise of China. Ordinary Americans are understandably tired of war, and wary of new entanglements. 

Still, there are potent reasons for America to stay engaged in and with Europe. Most of Europe’s concerns are American concerns, too. Here are some examples:

• Shale gas exploitation has made the U.S. far less dependent on the Middle East’s oil. But Israel’s security remains a paramount interest, as does containing Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. America needs a stable Egypt and Saudi Arabia as allies. For all this, Europe’s diplomatic heft, its trade power, and, yes, the weapons it supplies to allies, are key.

• Russia’s cooperation remains important for dealing with Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, counterterrorism, and other issues. American “realists“ like John Mearsheimer or Stephen Walt treat Ukraine as a second-order problem. But Moscow has violated principles—territorial sovereignty, the right to choose alliances—that go to the heart of what the West stands for. Sacrificing these on the altar of expediency is unlikely to gain President Putin’s respect or make him a more amenable partner. Sanctions, on the other hand, have (together with falling oil prices and a declining Russian economy) sent an unambiguous message of condemnation and increased the cost of Russia’s aggression. They would be meaningless without European support, which comes at a much higher price

• America’s and Europe’s economies have become deeply integrated through mutual trade and investment. Europe’s inability to resolve its sovereign debt crisis would be highly damaging for American business interests and the U.S. economy. It would also undercut any effort by Europe to carry a greater share of the transatlantic security burden.

• Last but not least, Europe shares many American values and its fundamental preference for a liberal international order. Its support provides legitimacy and leverage to what otherwise would often be American unilateralism.

• America is strong enough, of course, to deal with Russia and the Middle East on its own. But that would be lonely, costly, and wearying. Sharing the burden is cheaper.

Don’t overstep

But the we-have-to-get-back-in-there faction hasn’t got it right either—notwithstanding the clamoring in Eastern Europe for the United States to bring back Cold-War levels of troops and armaments to Europe. America should stick with Europe, but not stampede it. 

• If war broke out in Europe, massive American help would be needed, and it’s hard to imagine that the U.S would not come. But—like a deliberate Article V-type attack against a NATO member state—it is the least likely thing to happen. Fixating on this scenario prevents preparation and cooperation for much more likely risks, such as the accidental escalation of a minor conflict.

• Short of major war, we have to assume the U.S. will not bring tank divisions back to Europe. Europeans should not presume that the U.S. will continue to supply the backbone of Europe’s defense in all contingencies.

• There can be no question that Europe’s states need to improve their defense and deterrence—particularly if they can no longer free-ride on American capabilities. This requires, among other things, increased defense budgets and a renewed focus on hard power. Leaders in Washington should stop harping on the 2 percent (defense expenditures relative to gross domestic product) benchmark; simply spending more doesn’t solve our problems. 

• Instead, the United States should help Europe figure out how to develop its capabilities, use its budgets more intelligently, and create more common European assets and forces (rather than use bilateral relationships to foster divisions). It should also help Europe improve the software for its hard power: intelligence, analysis, foresight, doctrines, planning, and coordination. All this will allow Europe to deter threats and defend itself. It will also make it a better ally.

One thing is certain: Only if Europe resolves its own security dilemmas will it ever be able to join the United States in providing stability and security on a more global level.

This post is adapted from a German Marshall Fund policy brief written for its Transatlantic Security and Future of NATO series.