Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday, 12 June 2021


Joe Biden Should Support a European Army

A European defense union would strengthen rather than undermine NATO and the West.

NATO or EU? Photographer: Raigo Pajula/AFP via Getty Images

I see symbolism in Joe Biden’s calendar over the coming days — and an opportunity for a new U.S. approach to the European Union. With luck, it’ll culminate in American support for European military integration.

Here’s the U.S. president’s line-up: This weekend, he’s in the U.K., America’s main ally in World War II. On Monday, he’ll be in Brussels for a summit of NATO, the military alliance America built after the war. He stays in town on Tuesday for a powwow with the EU, the progeny of a historic post-war peace project. And on Wednesday he’s off to neutral Switzerland to stare down Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia and foil to all of the above.

Pay particular attention to those two days in Brussels, and the signals Biden sends there. All American administrations since the Cold War have viewed the two institutions headquartered in the Belgian capital — NATO and the EU — as an awkward fit in the overall geopolitical architecture of the West.

In the American perception, the EU is a respectable partner in commerce and other “soft” (civilian) domains, but useless when it comes to wielding hard power. NATO, by contrast, is the American-led bulwark of the West. In the cliche, Europeans are from Venus, Americans from Mars. So far, all true.

It’s the next step in their logic where the Americans are out of date. Any attempt by the EU to integrate its national armies, they’ve concluded, would pose problems for NATO. As then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in 1998, a European army would duplicate NATO structures and cause nightmares of bureaucracy, discriminate against NATO members that aren’t in the EU, and de-link the two command structures — the curse of the “three Ds.”

That American stance reversed U.S. strategy in the immediate post-war years. Back then, the U.S. supported both the transatlantic alliance and a European military union. The motivation was twofold: to deter a Soviet attack and to prevent a new German militarism by submerging the defeated country into a new European identity — in a famous phrase, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

So, with U.S. support, a plan for a European Defense Community was drawn up in 1950. It would have integrated the armies of France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. But the French parliament voted against ratification in 1954. By necessity, West Germany instead formed a new national army and entered NATO the following year.

Ever since, the dream of a European army has remained just that: a figment that pro-European politicians muse about rhetorically in the safe knowledge that it’ll never happen, aside from a few pilot projects that combine units from different member states. The EU is nowadays trying to integrate only the commercial part of warfare — the procurement of tanks, helicopters and so forth. The hope is that the EU’s soldiers can at least get compatible kit. Viewed from Washington, ho hum.

The reality is that the EU still has 27 separate and largely uncoordinated armies, of which 21 are also in NATO, which in turn also has nine other members. Since Brexit, the only EU nation that could hold its own in a hot war with a major power is France. The other armies are either too small to matter or too underfunded and ill-equipped. The military of the largest member state, Germany, is in a particularly sorry state. If U.S. presidents used to worry about Germany’s remilitarization, these days they’re frustrated by its demilitarization.

The American policy response so far has been to nag its allies to rearm, but nationally. At a NATO summit in 2014, the U.S. twisted their arms into pledging to gradually increase their military budgets to 2% of GDP. Only 10 allies of the 30 are in compliance so far; Germany is nowhere near.

But even if all NATO countries did ramp up their military spending, the bigger problem would remain: The allied forces would still be fragmented rather than coherent. In the event of a Russian attack on the Baltic countries, say, both the EU and NATO would still depend entirely on the U.S. 

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What’s needed is another attempt at a European defense union. The goal could be an “Army of Europeans” — picture George Washington’s Continental Army formed from the contingents of the 13 colonies — or a more ambitious “European Army” like the U.S. Army after 1796. Either way, this integrated force must become a coherent pillar within NATO that could be of genuine use to the U.S. in a shooting war.

That idea has begun germinating. A new paper by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, urges the Biden administration to reorient U.S. policy toward supporting rather than impeding a European defense union.

Yes, the fractious Europeans would finally have to get their act together, and even then a defense union would take a long time. But if America, which has long used its clout to block any progress, instead nudges the Europeans in the right direction, the dream could finally come true.

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