by Stephen Bryen
America was dragged into two world wars –the first because the Germans stupidly torpedoed American ships and tried to form a hostile alliance with Mexico; the second because Japan gambled on preemptively destroying the U.S. Pacific fleet mainly based at Pearl Harbor. Obliged by their treaty agreement with Japan, Germany declared war on the United States. America’s entrance into the fight, in both cases helped assure victory and convinced American policy makers on the need to maintain a general defensive alliance in Europe –hence the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. That Treaty served everyone’s interest in Europe: it provided a solid defensive framework sufficient to allow Europe to recover and prosper; it put a halt to any further Soviet expansion; and despite repeated attempts to develop something akin to a first strike capability, Soviet efforts failed and the Soviet Union collapsed.
There were other lessons too. While capable of a very high civilizational standard, reflected in art, music and architecture, Europe also was a butchery where not only Germany but other “civilized” countries perpetrated unspeakable crimes against humanity. The world will never recover from the extreme brutality that pulsed through Europe, set loose primarily by the Germany, but with plenty of others contributing their share, including the Russians who kept a veneer of civilization over a vicious, paranoid murderous communist regime.
Of course it is very much in America’s self interest to support a stable and prosperous Europe free of its former murderous ways. This has been accomplished in no small measure because the United States provided most of the effective defense of Western Europe, now extended to the formerly Soviet-dominated states of Eastern Europe.
And therein, curiously, lies the rub. The Russians have figured out that an expanded NATO is a lot harder to defend that a narrow Western European alliance. And the Russians also have noticed that America is running out of military gas: U.S. engagement in non-strategic wars has taken resources away from NATO just at the moment they were most needed under the shadow of NATO expansion.
In the most simple terms, wherever there is a vacuum it will get filled. Right now there is almost no solution to the problem. Why? To begin with, Europe is not in a position to strengthen NATO for the foreseeable future. It lacks budgets to do so and Europeans, who are taxed out and VAT-ed out are not likely to vote to foot the bill, so much so their leaders don’t ask. To make matters even worse, some European politicians on the left, who dominate the EU, want to dilute NATO even more by creating an alternative European army. Such an army, if it is ever realized, will drain whatever military resources there are, create political confusion so much so that responding to a real threat will prove impossible, and assure that Europe will be defensively paralyzed.
The United States is also in bad military shape. America’s tactical aircraft, and some of its strategic platforms too (such as B-1 and B-52 bombers) are worn out, and once airframes reach a certain point they become unsalvageable. American Abrams tanks, once the pride of the Army, are woefully dated and some of them have been destoryed by anti-tank weapons in Iraq. Big potential adversaries, like Russia, have been figuring out countermeasures and significantly improving their own equipment, tactics and systems. In addition U.S. forces are heavily dispersed, in the Middle East, Afghanistan and in the Pacific, and continually depleted by wanton overuse. If Kremlin planners were really smart, they would do their best to get the United States to keep investing in peripheral wars and conflicts. The recent report that Russia may be arming the Taliban, which is surely cynical if it is true, could be explained as an attempt to draw the U.S. back into Afghanistan where it will burn more equipment, lives and treasure. Such cynicism –the death toll on Russian airmen and soldiers is what drove them out of Afghanistan and solidified Nomenklatura support for overthrowing Communism– has a big payoff because it makes it harder and harder for the U.S. to credibly defend Europe.
One would think that this state of affairs would cause panic, or at least urgent concern in Europe. One would anticipate that serious leaders in key allied countries –Germany, UK, France and Italy would be organizing urgent political conferences with the theme of how to offset U.S. weaknesses and preoccupations and how to fill the gap until measures can be implemented to fix the shortcomings. To be fair, with the Russian feints toward Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and with Russian intimidation of U.S. warships and channels of communication in the North Sea, English Channel, Atlantic and Mediterranean, the alliance has moved some soldiers and heavy equipment to face Russia. But not very much, partly because there is not much in the first place: when the Soviet Union fell Europe nearly disarmed. German, for example, decimated its armored forces; as others such as the Netherlands, did too. Once scrapped or sold off, it would take decades to restore those forces and create the kind of armies that can use them. Indeed, even though Russia is not in great shape either, it does have the advantage of not having to navigate multiple political systems, supply sources, and variances in training doctrine and tactics. And Russia has a vacuum in front of its eyes.
It has not helped, of course, that absent leadership the European also are balking at President Trump’s suggestion they need to shoulder a greater part of the defense burden, mainly by spending more and meeting NATO-approved spending goals. But not really, if at all.
And the military vacuum is an increasingly treacherous problem. Indeed, the vacuum is exceedingly dangerous. A Russian leader will be under very heavy pressure to use its forces now rather than later when the West and NATO is recovered. While Putin may look like the aggressor, and no doubt he is, lurking behind him are much more aggressive nationalistic forces that could seize power in Russia in the blink of an eye. Thus it is something of a wonder, strange to behold, that Europe and the United States are now in an orgy of anti-Putin excess, accusing Putin and the Russians of so many sins it is hard to say what are real and what are imagined, but in any case pulling the rug out when under Putin there may be a vast black hole, a very dangerous one. Just to give one example: President Trump made claims, before the roof started to fall in on him, that he might be able to work a deal with Putin. Now he cannot even consider a conversation: he will be branded a traitor.
Not only. European politics are in such a bizarre state of affairs that the President of the European commission –and he is not alone– is threatening President Trump by saying the EU will encourage U.S. states (Texas is prominently mentioned) to revolt and declare independence. The last European to try something like this was the Kaiser, and thanks to the Zimmerman telegram, it got him a war with the United States. One would have thought European leaders would be more intelligent. Do they seriously think the United States will continue to pour scarce resources into a region that threatens to damage the United States?
America still has an interest in Europe’s future. It would be strengthened if leaders such as Jean Claude Juncker were sacked and if the EU aborted its reckless attempt to form a European army. Europe cannot have it both ways. You don’t threaten your savior.