While the American news media were preoccupied with Donald Trump’s latest tweet or Hillary’s Clinton’s latest explanation for a scandal that barely passed the straight face test, a more important development took place in Europe that received scant attention. The prime ministers of both Hungary and the Czech Republic urged the European Union to build its own army. That is a very significant shift in attitude. Until now, the European countries had been content to channel security matters through NATO and to focus the EU’s attention on economic issues.
The insistence on NATO’s primacy also reflected Washington’s wishes, since it guaranteed U.S. control of transatlantic security decisions. That control came at a high cost, however, since it enabled the European allies to free ride on Washington’s security exertions.
U.S. leaders have repeatedly discouraged independent security initiatives on the part of the European nations. There was a tremendous opportunity to change policy and off load security burdens with the end of the Cold War. Perhaps the clearest opportunity was when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the early 1990s. When the initial European diplomatic and peacekeeping efforts faltered and, predictably, the allies then sought U.S. “leadership,” the Clinton administration’s response should have been a firm rejection.
U.S. officials should have told their European counterparts that the turmoil in the Balkans was a regional matter that had little impact on the United States. And just as we would have no right to expect them to take a leading role in resolving a similar parochial bout of disorder in Central America or the Caribbean, they had no right to expect U.S. military involvement in the Balkans. Such a stance would have pressured the Europeans to address security issues in their region as competent adults instead of hapless dependents.
Instead, Washington continued to play a dominant role in the Balkans through NATO, first with the Bosnia intervention in 1995 and then with the Kosovo intervention in 1999. Democratic Europe’s security dependence continued unabated. Indeed, NATO’s prominence and Washington’s risk exposure increased steadily as the alliance expanded first into Central Europe and then into Eastern Europe. As defense analyst Nikolas K. Gvosdev laments, the U.S. Senate, in a monumental dereliction of its constitutional duty, failed to ask the hard questions that needed to be asked as Washington undertook increasingly far-flung, questionable security obligations. With a few exceptions, that was also true of the broader foreign policy community.
American policymakers have learned nothing from that experience. They still go out of their way to reassure NATO’s European members as though they are helpless protectorates who are (somehow) doing America a great favor by a willingness to be allies. But the European Union should be far from helpless. It has both a population and an economy greater than that of the United States. The EU has failed to develop a defense arm because the United States enabled such irresponsible behavior.
As I discuss in an article in this very publication, the assurances members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment are giving to the Europeans are becoming dangerously unhinged from reality. A prime example were the comments that Vice President Joe Biden made during a recent trip to the Baltic republics. He assured his hosts that America’s commitment to the defense of NATO members remained rock solid. And “the fact that you hear something” contrary to that treaty obligation “from a presidential candidate in the other party, it’s … nothing that should be taken seriously.” There was, Biden told his hosts, “continued overwhelming bipartisan commitment in the United States of America in both political parties to maintain our commitment to NATO.” Given that GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly termed NATO obsolete and indicated in interviews that the defense commitment to the Baltic republics in particular was highly conditional, Biden’s statement was dangerously misleading. The man whose views he so cavalierly dismissed could be president of the United States on January 20, 2017.
A significant change in views about defense arrangements appears to be taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. Instead of reacting with hysteria, or as Biden did with denial that borders on a catatonic response, we should recognize and encourage constructive change. It is a healthy development if Hungary and the Czech Republic want the European Union to create its own military force. This time, Washington should not squash such initiative. It makes sense for the European nations to handle security problems in their region instead of expecting the United States to do so from 5,000 miles away.