“The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships.” With those words, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo killed the special relationship and put NATO on life support.
Pompeo’s language crystallizes the most radical change in U.S. policy in relation to Europe since the Suez Crisis of 1956. Then, Washington showed France and, above all, Britain who was boss, and it wasn’t the old colonial empires. Yet the Cold War alliance, though unequal because of the vast size of the United States, was still an alliance.
The United States needed Western Europe in its camp and understood the value of technologically advanced, democratic allies with which it could share the burden of fighting communism and defending what has come to be known as the liberal world order. This burden was shared outside Europe, including in the Persian Gulf, where in the 1980s European minesweepers kept the sea lanes safe for oil supplies at the height of the Iran-Iraq War.
European forces made major contributions to the 1991 war to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and Britain, Spain, and Poland supported the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003. While the United States was the dominant partner, it understood that it shared interests as well as values with Europe, and it still made sense for Washington to undertake a disproportionate share of the effort at the cost of grumbling about European free-riding.
Notwithstanding institutional trans-Atlantic ties that still bind the continents together on paper, the Trump administration behaves like an entirely self-absorbed power and at times is actually hostile toward Europe. Its trade war with Beijing is hurting European economies, including those of countries like Poland with which it is friendly (because it’s intimately involved in the German manufacturing supply chains that export to China).
Pompeo’s remarks arose from a second strategic disagreement, over Iran. The European powers, including Britain, want, somehow, to prevent the Iran nuclear deal from collapsing entirely. The Trump administration has pulled out and wants to see it destroyed. Yet Washington has refused to contemplate seriously the consequences of ending a negotiated freeze to Iran’s nuclear program—military action. Trump is against both diplomacy and war, and Tehran is now testing how far it can push a president whose principle is to shout loudly and carry a tiny stick.
Beneath the bluster, however, Washington’s aim is not unreasonable. The development of shale gas means the United States is no longer dependent on Middle East oil. Europe, which still is dependent on that oil—and is in any case vulnerable to instability in the region that causes people to flee it—should develop the capacity to pick up the slack.
But the way the message was delivered—as undiplomatic in public as the former British ambassador to Washington’s cables were in private—puts U.S. credibility in doubt. The Trump administration appears to have moved form a position of leadership to one of extortion: Do everything our way, or we won’t help you at all. It’s unclear whether it was the diplomatic cables, disagreement over the Iran deal, or some remark on a Fox News talk show that provoked Pompeo’s statement—but it indicates a profound shift in U.S. policy.
Washington has a long-standing if not entirely successful policy of seeking regional stability, preserving the flow of oil, and containing Iranian ambitions. The traditional U.S. role has been to guarantee freedom of navigation and limit Iranian attacks on shipping. Its abandonment gravely weakens the United States’ ability to deter Iranian piracy. Because Britain’s navy is heavy on carriers and light on everything else, recently ousted British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was put in the invidious position of seeking European help in safeguarding British shipping in the Persian Gulf while at the same time promising that he would leave the EU without a deal if necessary. (France and Germany have, however, cooled on Britain’s request since Boris Johnson became prime minister.)
In this case, European navies have the capacity to step in, against an adversary that isn’t terribly technologically advanced, but the need for them to act raises more pressing questions about the other major U.S. commitment to Western security: the defense of the European continent against Russian aggression. In the event of a Russian intervention against a NATO member, will Washington respond quickly enough to prevent Russia establishing facts on the ground, or will it tell its ostensible allies to protect themselves?
If it does not, it is far less clear that European militaries currently have the capacity to fill the gap. This is not a matter of overall levels of defense spending (though they should be increased). The defense budget of just NATO’s European members far exceeds Russia’s and does so even further if non-NATO Sweden and Finland are included. Front-line states such as Poland have made important progress over the last decade in modernizing their equipment and training. And Russia’s operations in Ukraine and the conduct of proxies in Syria have exposed major gaps in Moscow’s military capability.
But if Russia’s operations are rusty, Europe’s are more so. Despite the strenuous efforts of European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen when she was Germany’s defense minister, the Bundeswehr is still underequipped. Other land forces haven’t fought at scale in decades. There are many gaps in support capacity: tankers for refueling; supplies of guided bombs and missiles necessary to avoid civilian casualties; information and reconnaissance equipment; and not to mention drones. All were exposed by the French-British intervention in Libya.
Though PESCO (an EU legal structure that allows EU members to increase defense cooperation if they wish to) is allowing the EU to make some progress in procurement, and an EU defense fund to promote common procurement and research and development has been set up, Europe still lacks a serious common defense policy. While it has a “Common Foreign and Security Policy,” this consists principally of individual military missions and nonmilitary capabilities. The bloc lacks a central policy planning process for identifying threats to the EU; working out what means are required to fulfill the mutual defense clause of the European treaties; and a binding mechanism in EU law responsible for ensuring that member states provide at least the capabilities the policy planning process determines.
Because the EU’s rules on security and defense require such decisions to be taken by unanimity, this makes it hard to prevent certain member states from free-riding under the guise of nonparticipation. (Ireland, which spends only 0.33 percent of its considerable national income on defense, is a case in point, though Irish premier Leo Varadkar has been pushing hard against the country’s pacifist traditions.)
Until treaties are changed (a lengthy process), PESCO itself could provide the legal basis for some progress here. Though participation in its projects is voluntary, participating countries then operate within them on the basis of qualified majority voting. Countries that wished to have a common European defense policy therefore have a mechanism available to create it.
This would have to be supplemented by specific military policy measures to coordinate military doctrine and to develop a common operational culture created by training according to that doctrine. In practice, much could be adapted from NATO practice, but it’s crucial for European forces to be able to fight independently, even if U.S. help were not forthcoming.
It is not hard to imagine Pompeo or his boss crudely saying something like, “Why doesn’t Germany send its own tanks in? I heard it was good at making them once.” And future U.S. administrations may well have to devote their resources to an intensifying contest with China in the Pacific theater, pulling resources and attention away from Europe.
Some Americans still mistakenly see European strategic autonomy as a threat to the United States. It isn’t. Rather, it would relieve Washington of the burden of securing Western Europe and allow it to concentrate its resources in the Pacific, where they are more urgently needed. It’s a task for which von der Leyen, as a former defense chief, is well prepared. Pompeo’s remarks give it greater urgency.