As Ukrainian cities and towns continue to be leveled by Russian airpower and artillery fire, it seems a strange time to cast doubt on the value of American hegemony that has kept Europe at peace for so long. It is not, after all, a coincidence that at the precise moment American preeminence is beginning to fade, vast menaces are surging to fill the void. What’s more, the American military-industrial complex decried for so long has been a decisive force in this conflict, providing the principal hardware for Ukraine to hold out against the Russian onslaught, and even allowing it to inflict staggering losses on Russia’s armed forces.
And yet, since Vladimir Putin launched his war of conquest in Ukraine this past winter, a growing number of Americans have begun to question the value of their country’s global primacy. As this terrible conflict has raged, opponents of American power have identified an opportunity to curtail the superpower’s international responsibilities and retrench while self-proclaimed realists have begun calling on America to refocus its gaze on the deteriorating strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific. In short, the desire to shed American responsibility for Europe even at the risk of enfeebling NATO is no longer confined to the university campus or the feverish imagination of Donald Trump.
The latest example of this mindset has appeared in the New York Times. Writing from Brussels, Emma Ashford of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council expresses the palpable American dissatisfaction with Europe’s abiding military weakness and its strategic dependency on the United States. In “Europe Has an America Problem,” Ashford argues that the United States “can’t oversee Europe forever.” According to this view, its own domestic problems and the threat of a rising China are nearly insuperable challenges that demand all of the nation’s attention and resources. America is therefore no longer suited to the role it has played since the end of World War Two as the guarantor of European security. The continued assertion of American power on the continent is, Ashford writes, “ultimately a losing proposition.”
What makes this argument so strange is that America’s forward deployment in Europe has traditionally been a winning proposition. For nearly eight decades, the United States has extended a credible security guarantee to Europe, not out of misplaced altruism but out of enlightened self-interest. After failing to prevent the rise of aggressive dictatorships on two separate occasions in the 20th century, Washington resolved not to make the same mistake again.
After World War Two, the United States resisted domestic pressures to stand down its armed forces and instead kept them stationed on European soil to deter a hostile power from attempting to dominate the continent by force. The first great power to meet this description was the Soviet Union. In the resulting twilight struggle, America practiced a patient strategy of containment—incurring the risk of a nuclear attack on its own homeland in the process—that not only defended Europe but also laid the foundations for an unprecedented degree of peace and integration that defines the continent today. Postwar US foreign policy was not fated to succeed, but it has done so. The nearly continuous violent rivalry and conflict that wracked Europe for centuries yielded to an environment of growing economic exchange and political cohesion.
This hard-won historical progress is now imperiled by Russia’s naked aggression in its near abroad. Although Russia’s apologists refuse to acknowledge it, Ukraine marks the front lines of world freedom. Those lines, however, can only be maintained with military strength and political will. Putin’s attempted annexation of Ukraine threatens the European order that arose from the ashes of World War Two. Even beyond Europe, Putin’s undisguised ambition to cobble together a new Russian empire by force constitutes a direct challenge to the US-led global order and the liberal principles on which it is based.
America’s capacious military umbrella has been a boon to free nations on both sides of the Atlantic. Europe and the United States have prospered more from this arrangement than any other that would have obtained in a world deprived of American strength and leadership. By means of its postwar military strength and global activism, the United States has averted the kind of cataclysmic conflict that tends to flare up in international politics. (The fact that the term “postwar” refers to such a long-ago war is itself proof of concept.)
Setting this remarkable achievement to one side, Ashford and her fellow realists would have America rest on its laurels. They cheer the re-invigoration of the NATO alliance occasioned by Russia’s invasion and believe it can now thrive bereft of robust American leadership. I struggle to see what could justify such optimism. Only three years ago, with fresh memories of the difficult and aborted intervention in Libya, few quarreled with President Emmanuel Macron’s declaration that NATO was “brain-dead.” But in addition to strategic incoherence at the top, feeble defense capabilities across Europe hobble the military alliance. Today, prompted by Putin’s vicious war, some European states have begun, tentatively, to invest more in their own defense. This is most visible in Germany, which has pledged to spend 100 billion euros ($106 billion) more on defense over the next few years.
But separately and together, European states remain ill-suited to discharge this heavy responsibility. Ashford seems to recognize this dismal fact. Acknowledging (though perhaps overstating) Europe’s diminishing “free-rider problem,” she points out that it still has a “collective-action problem.” Notwithstanding marginal changes in its defense posture, Europe will remain dependent on American security guarantees for the foreseeable future. Ashford rightly observes that “the individual interests of the European Union’s 27 members make it difficult to forge a common course of action.” This painful deficiency extends across multiple realms, but it is especially acute in military and defense policy, where European states remain split over their threat assessments and the legitimacy of using armed force to defend the peace.
“One might think that a major geopolitical shock like the war in Ukraine would have allowed for a Europe-wide reckoning,” Ashford writes, before referencing the deep divisions that continue to plague the continent and undermine its self-defense. But who really expected that Europeans would be shaken loose from their postmodern view that force is unnecessary and counterproductive in international relations? Who expects that anything short of an existential menace—and perhaps not even that—would bring European publics or even heads of state to accept the harsh reality of international life and begin to rearm, spiritually and materially?
Ashford seeks to scare the Europeans out of their complacency by pointing them to the non-trivial possibility that Trump returns to the White House and makes good on his threat of withdrawing the United States from NATO. She points Americans to the “growing consensus” among experts on the need to focus America’s comprehensive power on the People’s Republic of China. The conclusion is plain: the trans-Atlantic alliance has outlived its purpose and must be left to die on the vine.
Many realists agree with Ashford that the United States “can’t oversee Europe forever.” But forever is a long time. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Whatever challenges it faces, the United States is not a superpower in the throes of irrevocable decline. It retains the capacity to defend the liberal order on both sides of Eurasia. At this hour, Ukraine is being subjected to a war of aggression that threatens the European order root and branch. The friends of freedom should not countenance peace until Putin’s Russia is taught a lesson that neither it nor Xi’s China will soon forget. Left to its own devices, the largest powers in Europe show every sign of being prepared to sacrifice Ukraine on the altar of a new Russian empire. Americans must resist that surrender.