June 14, 2024

NATO’s Missing Pillar

The Alliance Needs a More Powerful Europe

As war rages in Ukraine and the U.S. presidential campaign heats up, NATO leaders are grappling with how to prepare the alliance for all possible outcomes. The German and Danish defense ministers have warned that Russia could attack NATO allies “within five years.” Conflict could come sooner if Russia achieves a breakthrough on the battlefield in Ukraine. And by the end of the year, former U.S. President Donald Trump, who has urged Russian leaders to “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO members who “don’t pay up,” referring to the alliance’s spending target, could be the president-elect. Meanwhile, whoever occupies the White House will continue to shift U.S. resources to the Indo-Pacific. The United States’ force posture in Europe will recede. The only question is whether that happens gradually or suddenly.

Transatlantic security is built on two pillars: U.S. power and European power. Should the United States falter in its commitment to NATO or be stretched too thinly between theaters, Europe would bear the burden of protecting the continent. As of now, however, Europe is not prepared for that responsibility. Although European governments have been increasing their investments in defense and assistance to Ukraine, some European members of NATO still fall short of the alliance’s defense spending targets. The impressive amount of equipment and ammunition that European countries have given to Ukraine has also depleted some of their own weapons stocks.

It is commonly assumed that NATO was built on U.S. power, but in fact the commitment to collective security emerged in Europe first.

Strengthening the European pillar of NATO is the clear answer to the continent’s security problem. Yet for 25 years, the United States has been reluctant to support a larger European role within the alliance. Even as Washington urged its European allies to spend more on defense, U.S. leaders were loath to surrender the reins of transatlantic security. It is now time for that mindset to change. When allied leaders meet in Washington for NATO’s 75th anniversary summit in July, they should commit to fortifying European defense. Europe needs to invest more money to improve its military capabilities and combat power, and to get better at coordinating the efforts of individual countries. The United States must encourage such a transformation, not get in its way—and the European Union should help, too. Without a stronger European pillar of NATO, Russia will continue to threaten transatlantic security and the United States will be unable to focus its resources on China.

Read the full article from Foreign Affairs.

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