With US Opting for Asia, Are Days of the World’s No. 1 Military Alliance Numbered?
When US President Barack Obama spent 10 days in Asia last November to publicize the new US pivot to that region, the move was met with concern, not just in Beijing, but in Brussels as well. NATO members have reason to worry about the new Asian focus of their principal North Atlantic partner. With the developed world drowning in debt and shrinking budgets, the American shift could mean trouble for the Western alliance unless properly managed.
NATO leaders will grapple with this question when they meet in Chicago in May. For years, policy makers have said that NATO, perhaps the most successful standing military alliance in history, must operate “out of area” or it would be “out of business.”
But its European members have evinced little interest in allying with the United States against a rising China, which in several respects is becoming their most important economic partner. The EU is China’s largest export market, and European governments are courting Beijing to provide more investment and use its massive foreign reserves to help stabilize the euro on global markets.
The US Defense Department announced at the beginning of this year that the United States would make major cuts in US forces deployed in Europe over the next two years to save money and permit the Pentagon to concentrate US military power in the higher priority region of Asia. Altogether, about 15,000 US troops will leave, leaving 65,000 after 2013, of which some 30,000 will be Army soldiers based in the heart of Europe — or almost one-tenth of the peak total during the cold war.
In rolling out the Pentagon’s new Defense Strategic Guidance, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta explicitly stated that Europe had become a lower defense priority compared with Asia. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained during the briefing that “all of the trends, demographic trends, geopolitical trends, economic trends and military trends are shifting toward the Pacific.”
US exports to the Asia-Pacific region exceeded $600 billion in 2009, or some 58 percent of the value of all US exports. The continued growth of the economies of China, India and other Asian states relative to Europe and North America is likely increasing these shares.
The US decision to withdraw two of the four US Army brigades from Europe and the other forces follows last year’s constrained US participation in the military campaign in Libya and new indications that the Obama administration is eager to reduce its combat commitments to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.
Even before these developments, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had recommended that the EU end its arms embargo on China and take other urgent measures to strengthen its strategic ties with Beijing in order to remain relevant in both Asia and Washington.
“The US has recognized the need for an increased engagement with Asia and there is a risk it will see the EU as a less relevant partner given our relative strategic weakness there,” she said.
Since taking office in August 2009, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has tried to induce alliance leaders to expand their security horizons beyond NATO’s traditional focus on the North Atlantic area.
Rasmussen has tirelessly argued that NATO’s main security threats now emanate from global challenges — failed states in developing regions, threats to international cyber networks, terrorists with global reach, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and adverse worldwide trends that could affect Allied security ranging from global climate change to maritime piracy and energy supply disruptions.
The updated NATO’s Strategic Concept adopted at the November 2011 Lisbon alliance summit calls on the alliance to become more versatile to counter novel dangers from sources that are geographically and technologically diverse. Yet, while NATO has adopted a global perspective, its main activities beyond Europe and Afghanistan consist primarily of dialogue or, as in the special case of the Gulf of Aden, joint defensive measures with other security institutions under a UN mandate.
Two decades ago one might have heard boasting about “the hour of Europe,” in which Europeans could finally assume the lead role for their continent’s security and dispense with their American pacifier. But such boasting faded after Europeans made a mess of Bosnia and had to call on the Americans to once again save them from their divisions.
There is a risk that Europe will become increasingly irrelevant and unable to promote stability even in nearby regions. Like the wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan, Operation Unified Protector over Libya again demonstrated NATO’s continued reliance on the United States for essential capabilities such as logistics, drones and intelligence analysis, despite the effort to place European countries in the lead of the operation.
Of course, if ever there was a NATO operation that should be European-led, Libya was it. The campaign encountered little domestic political opposition, did not involve NATO ground forces on Libyan territory and occurred in Europe’s backyard.
Some in Europe see this as an opportunity to finally rectify some longstanding problems Europeans have had in managing their military forces in a postwar world. European Defense Agency chief executive Claude-France Arnould said the US shift away from Europe was telling us that “we have to do our job.”
But Europeans have failed to rise to the challenge in the past and one can doubt that they will do so now. Though an international alliance, NATO is funded from national government s, and so domestic politics play a crucial role in defense spending.
Europe’s NATO members have passed austerity measures and are cutting the size and budget of their armed forces, decreasing future capabilities. These cuts follow almost 2 percent annual drops in defense spending during the past decade, even in the face of continuing NATO operations in Afghanistan. European governments acknowledge that they will be lucky to maintain let alone increase their defense spending in coming years.
Furthermore, European defense spending is misallocated for meeting governments’ self-described global security requirements. European militaries remain based around territorial defense and protecting domestic employment, leaving relatively little to meet global challenges through expeditionary forces.
European and US leaders recognize that they need to cooperate more effectively on global economic issues to deal with China’s rise and promote fair competition and market access.
Western companies often encounter unfair practices in Asian countries, such as favoritism toward state-owned enterprises, covert barriers to trade, restrictions on investment and violations of their intellectual property. The leaders must now extend this partnership on economics to the international security domain as well.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.