French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo Credit: The Independent
By: Austin Parenteau, Columnist
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent calls for a “true European Army,” the likes of which could grant Europe defense autonomy from the United States, have quickly attracted both scorn and euphoria.[i] [ii] Many see such a step as a natural continuation of efforts already underway to further integrate European defense forces.[iii] Others, particularly in the United States, see the proposal as a direct conflict with existing bilateral and multilateral defense agreements, and a threat to American power and influence on the European continent.[iv] However, the U.S. also has great interest in supporting an integrated European defense force. Such a unification would not only strengthen NATO and its capabilities, but permit the U.S. to invest less in European defense and focus its attention on the strategic threat of a rising China.
Although European forces have been moving toward the goal of ‘ever closer union’ since 1983, the project has recently come under pressure to accelerate. The Trump administration has diminished Europe’s trust in US-European alliances, causing many of the region’s leaders to push forward with building a self-reliant defense strategy. Prior to his election, President Trump’s stance on NATO was made clear, referring to the institution as “obsolete” and an unfair cost to the United States.[v] Once elected Trump’s criticisms continued to gain momentum, climaxing in refusals to acknowledge and commit to Article V of NATO, which ensures mutual defense. The Administration’s derisive posture towards NATO has created an environment of insecurity across Europe. Macron and Merkel are not alone in their calls for a European defense force to wean the continent off of its dependence on the U.S., upon which many Europeans no longer feel confident.
To determine where the United States should stand on the creation of such a force, one must first consider whether Europe has the capability to provide for their own defense and what sort of increased capabilities an integrated force might offer. The proposal does not entail building a united military from a standing start. Instead, numerous initiatives that have already gained momentum could combine to facilitate a smooth transition. In terms of operability, the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), led by France with members including Germany and the UK, has for several years sought to increase the interoperability of European forces. EI2 aims to foster a more autonomous Europe both in terms of its defense of the continent and its strategic vision abroad.[vi] Financially, the European Commission has set aside 1.5 billion euros per year to bolster European defense capabilities, a number which will likely grow in the future.[vii] Efforts to integrate individual militaries have been underway for some time. The German Bundeswehr has already had much success in merging its forces with those of the Netherlands, Czechia, and Romania.[viii] Most importantly, the EU as a whole clearly has the capacity to fund its own defense, at least to a much higher degree than it currently does. As the world’s highest GDP single market, possessing a population of over 500 million and multiple militaries ranked within the top ten most powerful, including nuclear-armed countries such as France, a united Europe could certainly deter adversaries if pressed to do so.[ix]
Historically, the most potent force preventing further European integration had been the United Kingdom. In addition to the myriad EU exemptions the nation enjoyed (such as its continued use of the Pound instead of the Euro), the U.K. prevented European defense integration efforts in favor of exclusive NATO cooperation.[x] When the UK exits the EU in March of 2019, this roadblock will be lifted. Additional US isolationist measures, or a continued shift towards the East Asian theatre, might also push Europe to accelerate its plans. Contrarily, European populist movements, which are opposed to such integration, might slam the brakes if they achieve success in the most developed EU states.
The question remains then, whether the United States should see a “true European Army” as anathema to its own security interests in the region, or whether it should lean into such endeavors and spur them along. The United States’ interest in European defense is to ensure no hostile power comes to dominate the region and enervates the world’s most powerful alliance. To this end, NATO has served as the core pillar of the United States’ European strategy throughout and since the Cold War. Given the significant operability benefits of a united European force and its resulting increase in European contributions to NATO operations, the United States should see the advent of a European military in lockstep with its interests in the region and the world. A European force, properly funded, would mesh neatly into NATO and improve the institution’s efficacy rather than serve as a counterweight to it. Unlike recent NATO operations that were primarily lead by the United States and United Kingdom, a joint European force could add substantially to NATO’s capabilities and secure broader engagement from an array of European nations. Ultimately, a stronger NATO and united European army would permit the U.S. to withdraw some of its forces from the European sphere, either to refocus its economic energy on domestic affairs or to shift those capabilities eastward, towards the more pressing issue of a rising China.
[ii] Jennifer Rankin, “Merkel joins Macron in calling for a ‘real, true European army,’” The Guardian Online, Nov 13, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/13/merkel-joins-macron-in-calling-for-a-real-true-european-army
[iii] Elisabeth Braw. “Germany Is Quietly Building a European Army Under Its Command,” Foreign Policy (online), May 22, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/22/germany-is-quietly-building-a-european-army-under-its-command/
[iv] Steven Holland and Luke Baker, “Trump, Macron Agree on Defense after ‘Insulting’ European Army Spat,” Reuters, November 10, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ww1-century-trump-macron-idUSKCN1NE2MA
[v] Ashley Parker, “Donald Trump Says NATO is ‘Obsolete,’ UN is ‘Political Game,’” New York Times Online, Apr 2, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2016/04/02/donald-trump-tells-crowd-hed-be-fine-if-nato-broke-up/
[vi] Stratfor, “Europe: France’s Plans For a Military Intervention Initiative Outside the Confines of the EU,” Stratfor Worldview, Nov 8, 2018, https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/europe-frances-plans-military-intervention-initiative-outside-confines-eu
[ix] “2018 Military Strength Ranking,” accessed November 10, 2018, https://www.globalfirepower.com/countries-listing.asp.
[x] Tom McTague and David M. Herszenhorn, “Britain pulls out of EU defense force,” politico.eu, Mar 20 2018, https://www.politico.eu/article/theresa-may-uk-military-britain-pulls-out-of-eu-defense-force/