For years, Central Europeans have fretted that the United States might withdraw from the European security arena in order to focus on more pressing issues in other parts of the world. Over the last 12 months, these concerns have been exacerbated. Last spring, for the first time in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) history, Washington refused to maintain a leading role in a major operation of the alliance. When Britain and France convinced their allies to deploy to Libya, the Obama Administration — which did not perceive Libya as a strategic priority — insisted on scaling back its military contribution after the initial phase of the operation. Then in January 2012, the United States — facing significant budgetary strains — announced that it will make large cuts to its armed forces over the next decade, as it shifts its attention from Europe to the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. Since, Washington has also declared that it will remove approximately 7,000 combat troops from Europe.
America’s withdrawal from Europe is relative. The new defense guidance stresses that the United States is still wedded to its NATO Article 5 obligations. America’s military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region of the world. The Obama Administration is pressing ahead with missile defense on the continent. It is committed to a variety of measures designed to demonstrate to European allies — in particular those in Central Europe — that the United States still cares for their security, such as the deployment of U.S. patriot missiles and a U.S. air force detachment to Poland. And in a further attempt to stress Washington’s continued commitment to Europe, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced in February that the United States will contribute troops to the NATO Response Force.
Nevertheless, over the next few years, as America cuts back its armed forces, there might well be other occasions when Washington decides not to provide full military support to address conflicts that are of primary interest to Europeans, but which do not fall under Article 5.
America’s rebalanced military priorities would not pose a problem for Europeans if the latter delivered on their long-held promises to take on more responsibility for transatlantic security. Within NATO, European governments have repeatedly committed to spend two percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense. They have also promised to acquire the military capabilities that would allow them to participate in operations abroad. Since the late 1990s, in light of the wars in the Balkans, European countries have been making similar pledges within the European Union (EU) as well — specifically in order to have the means to address conflicts in which the United States might not want to be involved.
But even when faced with Washington’s military cutbacks, most European governments continue to flout their NATO and EU commitments. By 2008 only five European countries spent two percent or more of their GDP on defense. And in response to the subsequent economic crisis, many have been introducing new — often significant — military spending cuts. Even several of the European countries which frequently express concerns about their own security have been dramatically cutting back spending. According to NATO figures, in 2010 Slovakia reduced its defense budget to 1.3 percent, Hungary to 1.1 percent and Lithuania — which has not expended more than1.2 percent since it joined the Alliance — spent just 0.9 percent. Many of the military equipment shortfalls identified within NATO and the EU remain, among others, the surveillance assets, which were notably lacking in the recent deployment in Libya.
There has been much talk both in NATO and the EU of increasing the level of cooperation between European armed forces in order to offset the impact of military spending cuts. And with strong backing from Washington, both organizations have managed to get Europeans to agree to some cost-saving joint efforts. NATO’s air-policing mission over the Baltic States has notably been extended, and several countries have agreed to develop Allied Ground Surveillance — a drone that will increase NATO’s intelligence capabilities. But the current initiatives are modest given the size of the spending cuts. And according to officials, many countries — including those of Central Europe — remain reluctant to implement more ambitious forms of “pooling and sharing.” Governments are wary of sharing military capabilities with their neighbors, and they are keen on protecting their domestic defense industries.
Poland is the only European country which has responded constructively to Washington’s relative withdrawal from Europe’s security arena. As part of the overhaul in the country’s approach to the EU instigated by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Warsaw has developed a new interest for EU defense cooperation. The Tusk government remains committed to NATO but, as Foreign Affairs Minister Radosław Sikorski has stated, Poland acknowledges that there will be times when the United States “might want to take a backseat,” and in those cases, “Europe should be able to act in its immediate vicinity.” Warsaw proposed a variety of ways to reinvigorate the EU’s defense and security policy during its 2011 EU Presidency, but these efforts were met with limited interest by its EU partners, including fellow Central Europeans.
Under current trends, Europeans risk finding themselves in a position where they cannot respond to a crisis within their Southern or Eastern neighborhood because they lack the military capabilities necessary to do so. They also risk straining European cohesion. The countries of Central Europe and the Baltics have never had much faith in the ability — or willingness — of their neighbors to guarantee their safety. As they watch Europe’s armed forces shrink in the backdrop of Washington’s shifting security priorities, they risk feeling increasingly vulnerable — even though several of them are allowing their own militaries to dwindle. A heightened sense of vulnerability could reduce the willingness of Central European states to contribute to international military operations far away. Indeed Central Europeans, already weary of expeditionary operations, might become tempted to keep their armed forces close to home to counter potential instability in their own neighborhood. Growing insecurity could also adversely affect the modernization of their militaries. Central European governments risk spending more money on equipment designed to tackle conventional threats, instead of the tools needed for NATO and EU expeditionary operations. Finally, heightened Central European insecurities could even strain relations with Russia, as Moscow could be tempted to exploit this sense of vulnerability to create tensions within NATO and the EU.
In order to avoid this scenario, Europeans need to stem the deterioration of their armed forces. Once the economic crisis is over, they should increase their defense budgets. In the meantime, however, they should commit to more joint military efforts within NATO, the EU and the variety of regional groupings across Europe, such as the Visegrád group, the Weimar Triangle and the Nordic defense cooperation framework. Governments must also strengthen their efforts to develop common security priorities, which is indispensable if they are to ever overcome their wariness to share military equipment with their neighbors. Given the diversity of threat perceptions across Europe — even among the countries of Central Europe — it will be hard for Europeans to develop a common strategic culture. But the overhaul in Poland’s foreign policy in recent years shows that countries can change. America’s withdrawal from the European security arena does not need to undermine transatlantic security.