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It’s time for the EU to become a global military power — and for the U.S. to stop thwarting Europe’s ambitions on defense.
That’s according to a new report by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Biden administration.
The report, obtained by POLITICO in advance of its release on Wednesday, urges President Joe Biden to encourage the EU to develop hard-power military capabilities and calls on him to abandon decades of opposition to EU defense integration by previous U.S. leaders, under the guise of preventing wasteful duplication with NATO — which remains orthodox thinking for most American military commanders, and even for many EU governments.
The report, published just 10 days before Biden makes his first trip abroad as president for G7 and NATO summits, calls out Washington for hounding European allies to spend more on their militaries to reach NATO’s 2 percent of GDP spending target, while preventing the EU from pursuing initiatives that would save money and improve fighting readiness. Instead, it says NATO is left to coordinate a “hodgepodge” of national forces.
“Europe’s dependence on the United States for its security means that the U.S. possesses a de facto veto on the direction of European defense,” according to the report, written by Max Bergmann, James Lamond and Siena Cicarelli. “Since the 1990s, the United States has typically used its effective veto power to block the defense ambitions of the European Union.
“This has frequently resulted in an absurd situation where Washington loudly insists Europe do more on defense but then strongly objects when Europe’s political union — the European Union — tries to answer the call,” they continued, adding: “This policy approach has been a grand strategic error — one that has weakened NATO militarily, strained the transatlantic alliance, and contributed to the relative decline in Europe’s global clout.”
The report’s conclusions are certain to draw fierce opposition from some political leaders, NATO diplomats and uniformed military commanders, who believe EU countries fundamentally lack the ability to defend themselves, and that Brussels, already struggling to develop a common foreign policy, could never act as a cohesive military power.
Opponents of EU military integration have long warned that any duplication of NATO’s capabilities, particularly in the area of “command and control,” would sap vitally needed resources from the alliance, and only serve to benefit adversaries, including Russia.
Nonetheless, EU leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have long endorsed the idea of creating an EU army — at least as an aspirational goal, to improve military coordination and cooperation in Brussels.
Not ready to fight
There is general agreement among critics and proponents of EU military integration that national armed forces in Europe are not up to scratch — especially in Germany, the EU’s richest and politically most powerful member.
On this point, the authors of the new report readily agree. “Today, much of Europe’s military hardware is in a shocking state of disrepair,” they wrote. “European forces aren’t ready to fight with the equipment they have, and the equipment they have isn’t good enough.”
But the authors also insist the U.S. should accept its part of the blame. “This is a European failure,” they wrote. “But Washington has played a critical, if underappreciated, role in precipitating this failure.” And they pointed to the unsparing push for increased NATO spending — something Donald Trump did louder and more aggressively than his predecessors — as central to the flawed outcome.
“For more than two decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations have vigorously pressed European capitals to bolster their national forces in support of NATO,” they wrote. “But this focus on national defense spending levels, embodied by the 2014 commitment by NATO members to spend two percent of their GDP on defense, simply hasn’t worked. European defense today remains anemic, despite noticeable increases in spending.”
The report is likely to generate attention in part because the Center for American Progress has become known as a training ground for Biden administration officials, with dozens of the think tank’s alumni now in positions at the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and other government agencies.
The think tank’s former president and chief executive, Neera Tanden, recently joined the White House as a senior adviser to Biden, a role that might make her even more powerful than budget director, the post for which she was initially nominated but withdrew when it became clear she could not win Senate confirmation.
Whether the report will persuade Biden, an avowed supporter of NATO, to shift his thinking remains to be seen.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has insisted that allies have made good progress toward the 2 percent goal and this has strengthened NATO in the process.
Asked at a news conference on Tuesday about complaints, including from France, that increased NATO spending is sapping resources from EU defense programs, Stoltenberg said NATO was the right place for common spending on military initiatives.
“NATO is the cornerstone for security and defense for all NATO allies, and spending together is a force multiplier, it’s an efficient way of spending, and it also sends a very clear message to our own populations, and to any potential adversaries,” he said. “And then, of course, spending together is a way to invest in the bond between Europe and North America.”
Retired General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s former supreme allied commander for Europe, said he remained certain that any duplication of EU and NATO capabilities would be a grave mistake.
“If these nations that are also in NATO want to spend on their defense, I see that as a good thing, because anything that will benefit the EU will also benefit NATO,” Breedlove said in an interview Tuesday. “But there is a huge caveat and that is something that we have been saying for a long time, everyone from the secretary-general to everyone else: We should not be investing in duplicative capabilities.”
Breedlove said NATO operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in the Horn of Africa, had long proven that the alliance can operate effectively without the EU replicating existing functions. And he said NATO had too many urgent needs — including additional helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, sensors to help detect and counter ballistic missiles, and especially improving troop readiness — that should be the focus of new spending.
“There are far too many readiness needs, capability needs and capacity needs that should be met first,” Breedlove said. “What we don’t need to do is invest money in redundant duplicative capabilities.”
While the report calls on the U.S. to drop its mantra about duplication, it also urges the EU to avoid overlap and argues Brussels should chart its own best path toward becoming a military power, including potentially standing up its own armed forces, which the report says could take decades.
“It will be up to the EU to determine a structure that suits it best,” the report says. “But the US should make clear its support for the EU to focus on developing and acquiring new capabilities that can enable Europe to act without the involvement of the US military. Europe should not simply duplicate capabilities that exist within NATO already, but establish its own core capabilities that complement the US, empowering Europe to serve as a coequal partner in the alliance.”
Bergmann, the lead author of the report, said in an interview that U.S. politicians and commanders should be open to adopting a new approach.
“We need to get out of the mindset that the EU will be a complication for us,” Bergmann said. “There is a sort of kneejerk negativity about the EU’s potential involvement, instead of viewing it in a potentially positive way.” He said the current approach encouraged unnecessary redundancies among EU countries.
“The waste and duplication is in the current system, where everyone is having to have their own full spectrum militaries. That’s probably not the best use of militaries for the EU or NATO,” he said. “Too often the opposition to EU defense is very theoretical and not based on the practicalities of the EU getting involved in defense in a realistic way.
“It would be one thing if you could make the case that NATO as currently structured is totally working and European defense is taken care of, but it’s not,” Bergmann added. “Just pushing and yelling at member states to spend more on defense … that’s just not a recipe for a strong Europe or a successful transatlantic alliance.”