Do the US still feel committed to security in Europe? What would be the consequences of the planned withdrawal of almost a third of the US troops stationed in Germany this autumn? What does Trump’s foray mean for the development of a European security and nuclear strategy, which France’s President Macron wants to push ahead with? Can Europe continue to rely exclusively on NATO and the American nuclear umbrella in the future? How much would European strategy overlap with the NATO alliance and what would be the consequences? And what role would Europe’s nuclear power Great Britain play after Brexit?
These and many other questions were discussed by the high-ranking security experts Lieutenant General (ret.) Ben Hodges, former commander of all US forces in Europe, and Anna Wieslander, Director of the Atlantic Council for Northern Europe, on 18th June under the topic “Sacred Cows and taboos: A common European Security strategy”. Once more the discussion was hosted by the renowned TV presenter and journalist Ali Aslan.
The withdrawal of the US troops is devastating for security, not least for security in northern Europe around the Baltic Sea. Every troop that the US has is not that many compared to the Cold War when they used to have over 300,000 troops. Now 30,000 and its decreasing, even though there have been reinforcements, this is a really bad signal. And it increases the divide and the split between the U.S. and Europe that we have been noticed in these past years. This is a gift only for the Kremlin and possibly for Beijing, but not for anyone else.
You need to have troops available. Russia could easily move in if they wanted to. We would need to fight back in contested space. We already have a problem with the US in the sense that more and more focus is going to Asia and conflict levels are tensions arising there as well.
Can Europe be more of a first responder in the years to come? We are not ready for that yet. All the plans that we have is a very quick and strong reaction from the US to bring in troops, to bring in enablers and there are not huge resources in Germany. This is decreasing levels at a time when we really need to step-up on defense and security in Europe.
We have had this political turmoil of the Trump administration with its unpredictability and marking against Europe in various ways. But that has been cushioned by an increased military engagement and presence through special initiatives and troops, fixation on materiel, exercises. All of that time, the military side has kind of compensated for the political turmoil so far. The withdrawal of US troops is a shift in this regard. the U.S. commitment on Europe, that really is more of a question now than it has been.
It’s clear that the transatlantic bargain, as it has been for 70 years, needs to change in order to stay the same. In order to stay strong, you need to change in certain points.
The signals from the US has always been for Europe to stay together, stay united. That’s good for America, too. We now lack that push factor for Europe. Someone else telling us, pull yourself together and get united. We have to do that ourselves. We are on our own. The Trump administration clearly does not like the EU. It’s a competitor, a rival. And they prefer European states, national level, but not the EU, not further integration. This is also a bit complicated if you look at the transatlantic relation ahead.
Defense is about using hard power when a threat arises, not when the budget allows it. The EU really has to learn a lot on this and it’s on its way now with what it calls a new concept, a strategic compass, which the council just decided upon and which will focus on threat analysis. I think that’s a good step, but it is a slow process, aiming at 2022.
Meanwhile the timetable for the withdrawal of US troops is fall 2020. And we have a situation where Europe cannot defend itself if a major crisis of war occurs, even if it were only a limited regional war, Europe would not prevail with support from the US. In that sense, we have not stepped up.
I think there is a preference to stay with the US if we can find a new way of working together. And that works for both, the US and Europe. We would need to find more of a European pillar within NATO, where you can also have a strong united voice from the EU members, for instance on the political dimension.
If you look at the world as it is, you have the rivals rising. You have China, as we all have woken up to during this pandemic, you still have Russia with its nuclear weapons. It’s still a major player, of course. And now we have an India-China conflict. If you have a great power game in the world in which the US and Europe are not working together and you ask for freedom, who else would defend it?
Germany really needs to lead on this in the way that Germany leads the best, and that is by uniting smaller countries around it and finding a common way forward.
France is having a very clear voice, but hardly any followers in the EU on security and defence. This is the mismatching in Europe at the moment.
Smaller nations have leaned very comfortably behind the back of the United Kingdom. But now the UK is not in the EU anymore. I think Germany needs to realize that it has to step up also on defense. It cannot look at the defense issues purely from a national perspective anymore and needs to realize that smaller nations also expect Germany to be among the big players in the world and to check with the smaller countries, where we can find a good middle ground for this.
This is clearly a very bad time for defense budget cuts. It is also very short-sighted way because what we need now are investments in capability developments that will kick-out in 10 or 15 years ahead. But we refrain from investing in those during the good years when we thought there was eternal peace and that we went beyond the state of military force. I’ve been warning about it in Sweden and I would encourage all politicians to look at this very carefully because it’s a short-term reaction to a long-term need. And there are no signs that we are moving into more peaceful, stable world where we could afford to decrease defense spending.
We need to have a much higher level of strategic response within the field of disinformation, cybersecurity and all of this. What we could see is that we now, as compared to 2014, 2015, both the EU, NATO, various countries have some analysis capacity to recognize that this is going on. But the response is still, to a large extent, uncoordinated and the level of coordination is pretty weak. We need to put it out for everyone to see, this is the level of manipulation towards Western public.
It is a colossal mistake to reduce 28% of US capability which is based in Germany, a purely political calculation. It’s not connected to any strategic analysis because no strategic analysis would say: Let’s get rid of one third of essential military capability in Germany. It is also not the result of the traditional interagency process. Congress was not informed. Germany was not informed as the host nation. NATO was not informed. The US headquarters in Wiesbaden, Stuttgart and Brussels were not informed either. Everybody was caught flat-footed by the decision. It hurts the United States because it reduces very important capability for us. It also raises the danger for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, because they depend on rapid reinforcement by the U.S. through Germany. It is a gift to the Kremlin and poses a particular threat to the Baltic States.
The relationship between the United States and Germany in particular is so old, so long that it has survived two world wars and for sure it will survive any presidential Administration. Even before President Trump took office, it was already beginning to erode despite a personal connection between President Obama and Chancellor Merkel because of not enough defense investment. But just because the two at the top don’t get along doesn’t mean that the nations don’t get along.
What’s important for the United States is that the European Union is the top trading partner for the U.S. A stable and secure Europe benefits American workers, the American economy. All of us need to think strategically, take a longer-term view. And I think the German government, thankfully, has not overreacted to this, even though I’m very unhappy with how the Administration has treated our most important ally. At the same time, Germany needs to step up. Germany has to be a leader, accept responsibility.
I don’t see much impetus or appetite for making hard decisions by European leader that have to be made about improving the defence integration in the EU and doing what is necessary to make sure that our European allies can be protected.
Even before Covid hits, the EU budget for military mobility went to zero. And if you can’t come up with a single euro to improve military infrastructure before the virus hits, tells me that there’s no appetite yet. There is a lot of scepticism about what the threat is. Why do we need to do this? There are other things that require investment. So political leaders need to have the courage to acknowledge the threats that exist and explain them to their citizens.
We need a much more sophisticated approach to what 2% actually means; even former Foreign Minister Gabriel made a joke one time about it: “If Germany spent 2%, what would we do with all the aircraft carriers?” Most people think the 2% is just about hardware.
Germany is no longer the front-line state it was in the cold war … that “front line” is now hundreds of kilometres to the east. So I now see Germany taking on the lead role for logistics, for command and control, for transit and for missile defence to protect European citizens and protect European infrastructure. But we still need capable ready air, land, and naval forced in the Bundeswehr.
We don’t need more German tanks. We need more German trains. And so I think that investment in DB Cargo, for example, investment in cyber protection for the port of Bremerhaven or Munich Airport, all of those dual use investments should count towards the 2%. The first priority has to be improving the readiness and to make sure that what you have works.
Macron deserves credit for speaking clearly. It just takes political courage. And this is not always a huge vote getter to address and the things he’s addressing.
The initial response to Covid-19 was to merely close our doors and focus inward. We realized that in most places we didn’t have the capacity to deal with such a catastrophe.
At a time when we should be depending on each other, strengthening the bonds of the relationships, we did the opposite!
It’s not about spending. It’s about capability. That’s why it is so important that we have allies – not to go with us to the Pacific but to make sure that this strong European pillar is able to continue deterring the Kremlin as the USA must shift more capability to the indo-pacific theatre.
We need a strong European pillar to continue to maintain security in Europe while we get distracted. Unfortunately, it feels like it’s almost a European pillow instead of a European pillar.
Lithuania is the model for investment where cyber protection counts to the 2% because the deputy minister of defence of Lithuania has the responsibility for all cyber protection for the whole country, not just for the Ministry of Defence, but across the country… and whatever is invested in cyber defence therefore counts towards the 2%.
I am sure that a Biden administration will be more strategic in terms of the importance of the alliance and international relations. I think a Biden administration would put more emphasis on NATO and work closely with the European Union. The United States motto needs to be: lead, don’t leave. And right now, we leave everything that we don’t like. Certainly, many of the international organisations are very inefficient or have corruption, such as the WHO and some of the UN agencies. And certainly Russia has been violating treaties such as the INF and the Open Skies Treaty. Still I believe that we need to work within those international organizations to fix them. Germany could do much more to bring pressure on all of the above… it is the moral authority and the economic clout to be a much stronger leader within them. Germany is the only nation that can influence Kremlin behaviour or the behaviour of the Chinese communist party.
The threats that exist before the (Corona) virus are still there and are gonna be there six months after the end of the pandemic, whenever that is. And to take our eye off of the importance of modernization would be exactly the wrong time to do it. You can be sure they have not slowed down ship building in China or development of their missiles and other capabilities. They certainly are not slowing down.