• Login

Divergence of Allies

Is the US backing away from its commitments to Europe's security?

15 March 2024

Former US President Donald Trump sparked a wave of concerns about the extent of the United States' commitment to European security in controversial remarks he made on February 10, 2024, in which he encouraged Russia to attack NATO member states that had not raised their defense spending to 2% of their GDP. This was further exacerbated by the failure of the US House of Representatives to pass a nearly USD 60 billion aid package earmarked for Ukraine, which had been approved by the Senate, leading some to speculate about a potential shift in US attitude towards its security commitments to Europe within the NATO framework.

This trend coincides with various European estimates suggesting that Russia might test NATO's effectiveness in the coming years by attacking the territory of one of its member states, as Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen clearly stated on February 9, 2024. This raises questions about the trajectory of European security, how European countries will deal with it, and the extent to which the US-European transatlantic alliance will be affected.

Indicators of Retreat 

Indicators reflecting a decline in US commitment to European security in general, and support for Ukraine in particular, include the following:

1. Trump's statements: 

The remarks made by the former US president, the leading contender for the Republican Party nomination in the current elections, were significant indicators of the future US commitment to European security if he were to win the next elections. Trump encouraged Russia to "do whatever the hell they want" to any NATO country that does not pay 2% of their GDP for defense. He also said "one of the presidents of a big country" at one point asked him whether the US would still defend the country if they were invaded by Russia even if they "do not pay" the 2% share. Trump responded that he would not intervene militarily in such a scenario.

2. Failure to pass US aid package to Ukraine: 

The US House of Representatives has not yet approved a USD 60 billion foreign aid package to Ukraine, although the Senate passed it. The House Republican members blocked the funding for several reasons, including that they would only advance the aid if funds were allocated to heightened border security measures aimed at curbing migrant flows across the border. Additionally, some GOP members have reservations regarding the size of aid given the current US economic status.

3. Decline in US public support: 

Opinion polls conducted in November 2023 indicate that 41% of Americans believe the United States provides excessive support to Ukraine, compared to only 24% in August 2022. This percentage ascends to 62% within the Republican Party, according to polls from October 2023. Furthermore, the percentage of those who believe the United States should support Ukraine until it regains all its occupied territories, regardless of the length of the conflict, decreased from 66% in August 2022 to 54% in October 2023. Meanwhile, 43% believe that Washington should work towards ending the war quickly, even if it means Ukraine would give up some of its territories. These percentages reflect a general American sentiment that does not favor continued security support for Europe, which may be perceived as burdensome and costly, especially given the economic hardships American citizens are facing.

US Motivations 

Among the several reasons that may lead the United States to reduce its security commitments towards Europe, the following stand out:

1. Fears of US fatigue: 

Some voices in the US argue that it is illogical to continue supporting an endless war -referring to the Ukrainian war, which could compromise American defense requirements given that there are other regions that also require US support. This view was well expressed by Senator James David Vance, an Ohio Republican, in remarks he made at the Munich Security Conference on February 18, 2024, saying the challenge in Ukraine is that the US does not make enough weapons to support wars in eastern Europe, the Middle East and potentially a contingency in East Asia.

2. Cost-benefit estimations: 

Such estimates may lead the United States to distance itself from European wars while simultaneously seeking to achieve maximum economic benefits from these wars. This strategy is not new; Washington partially applied it during World War II, benefiting from the European industrial base shifting towards serving war goals in its early years. Subsequently, the US industrial sector witnessed a significant boom driven by the reliance of the European markets on the US to import various consumer goods. Additionally, the Ukrainian war led to a shift in the global liquefied natural gas exporters, with the United States taking the top spot in 2023, benefiting from Western sanctions against Russia. Similarly, the US arms industry witnessed a similar boom; as the US Department of State stated on January 29, 2024, Sales of US military equipment to foreign governments in 2023 rose 16% to a record USD 238 billion, meaning significant returns for Washington and revitalization of the American job market.

3. Mood of isolation: 

A mood of isolation prevails in the United States, with a focus on domestic issues, a prioritization of the country's direct interests, and a call for alleviating the burdens of leading the world and maintaining the security of allies. This trend is strongly represented in the US decision-making circles, especially with populist figures like Donald Trump, who tend to deal with this trend to gain or retain power.

European Tactics

Given the declining US commitments towards them, European countries are projected to move on several paths to achieve their security. Among these paths are the following:

1. Increasing defense spending: 

Europeans are projected to increase their share of defense spending in their gross domestic product (GPD), which will directly enhance their self-reliance through increased production and development of their defense industries. On the other hand, this will alleviate American criticism of European countries that have not yet reached the 2% defense spending target, thereby negating the pretext adopted by some Republican figures and Trump in particular.

2. Attempt to change methods of funding European armament programs: 

Several ideas have emerged from European official circles regarding ensuring funds for European armament spending. One idea touted by Estonia and later adopted by France proposes the issuance of "European defense bonds," where member states provide a credit umbrella amounting to 600 billion euros over ten years to provide the European defense companies with the necessary financial resources to fund development and launch new production lines. However, this idea has not yet been accepted by Germany, as Berlin is still considering the idea of​​financing the defense industry through private sector institutions rather than government debt.

3. More responsibilities on the shoulders of major European countries:

The biggest financial and military burden is likely to fall on the major European countries, especially Germany and France, the main drivers of the European Union and the most capable of bearing responsibility. This has become apparent, for example, through a significant increase in Germany's support for Ukraine to compensate for the decline in US support. On February 16, 2024, Germany approved a new aid package of 1.2 billion euros for Kyiv, including ammunition and air defense systems.

4. Emergence of smaller security blocs in Europe: 

Some European countries may resort to forming smaller military blocs within the continent, given the difficulty of reaching an agreement between all European countries on a unified security policy. In this context, two examples stand out:

A. Polar region countries: With increasing European concerns and the possibility of the United States backing down from its security commitments, Europeans are expected to seek to bolster their military presence in fragile- security areas, especially those that could be a potential theatre of conflict over their resources. In the polar region, despite agreements between the eight polar countries, including Russia, there are indications of upcoming tensions. In October 2023, the chairman of NATO's Military Committee, Admiral Rob Bauer, said the alliance must be prepared for military conflicts arising in the Arctic. The fears are further supported by reports of Russian actions in the region. In September 2023, Moscow withdrew from the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, the official body for intergovernmental co-operation in the Barents Region, which includes Norway, Finland, and Sweden, accusing the three countries of obstructing the council's work. Russia also changed its "Arctic foreign policy and strategy," adding paragraphs indicating further cooperation with BRICS countries. Additionally, the base located on the Kola Peninsula, adjacent to Norway and Finland, became one of Russia's largest military bases.

These indicators prompted European reactions, as negotiations recently began between Norway, Finland, and Sweden to unify their air force. Additionally, Norway is set to lead the Nordic Response military exercises scheduled for March 2024. The exercises aim to test the three countries' capabilities to coordinate defense plans. Back in 2022, the three countries announced an agreement to strengthen their alliance as part of the Nordic Defence Cooperation (Nordefco), a collaboration among the Nordic countries in the area of defence launched in 2009.

B. Baltic countries: The three Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, are increasing their military spending and altering their military plans; building a series of defense lines and facilities along their borders with Russia and Belarus, known as the "Baltic Defense Line". An Estonian military official indicated that the defense line being built is based on the experience gained from the Ukrainian war and aims primarily to stop Russian armoured units in the event of an attack on the three Baltic countries.

In the Estonian part alone, this line includes establishing 600 installations and bunkers, each accommodating ten soldiers and designed to withstand heavy artillery shelling. Some experts suggest that Latvia may build 1116 such bunkers, while Lithuania needs more than 2700. These installations aim to slow down the progress of Russian forces in the event of an invasion of the Baltic countries, giving reinforcements enough time to arrive to the battlefield, a strategy aligning with the principle of defending every inch of NATO's territory.

At the same time, the Baltic countries, along with the Scandinavian countries, have intensified their support for Ukraine, considering Kyiv their first line of defense. Estimates indicate that Estonia tops the list of countries providing assistance to Ukraine totalling 4.1% of its GDP from January 24, 2022, to January 15, 2024, followed by Denmark with 3%, Lithuania with 2%, and Norway and Latvia with 1.7% each.

5. Gradual change in armament systems of Eastern European countries:

The Ukraine war has shown the risks of Eastern European countries' reliance on outdated armament systems from the Soviet era. Many Western countries were unable to provide Ukraine with their Western-made weapons because different armament systems meant it was challenging to train Ukrainian fighters on Western systems during the war. Therefore, as part of Europeans' attempt to rely on themselves, Eastern and Central European countries are likely to move to update their current armament systems and link them up with Western military manufacturing, including intensive training programs, enabling the European group to provide mutual support easily during battles.

6. Preparation of the home front in frontline countries: 

Some countries bordering Russia are preparing their internal front to face a potential Russian attack. For example, Sweden has issued guidance booklets for its citizens on how to deal in the event of war. Additionally, some research centers have called on European governments to prepare and rehabilitate roads and to withstand possible tank and military vehicle traffic.

7. Reforming the EU's common security policy: 

These changes are expected to exert direct pressure on European Union member states to modify the decision-making mechanism related to security, defense, and European foreign policy. The bloc is likely to reconsider ​​eliminating the consensus requirement for the Union to adopt any positions related to security and foreign policy, moving towards an agreed-upon qualified majority voting or an agreed-upon special majority.

Various Implications

If it continues, the US retreat from security commitments towards Europe will have several potential implications beyond just security relations between the two sides. Among the most important of these implications are the following:

1. Divergence in foreign policies: 

Security concerns constitute one of the most significant drivers of alignment between the United States and Europe about their foreign policies. Therefore, any disruption in the security alliance between the two sides will necessarily lead to a divergence in their foreign policies. This would be clearly reflected in their stance towards China. If the United States abandons its commitments to Europe's security, Europe will be less inclined to pursue an adversarial path towards Beijing, prioritizing the Russian threat for Europe. China's reluctance to provide direct and tangible military support to Russia perhaps primarily aims to separate Europe's position towards China from that of the United States.

2. Growing doubts about Washington's credibility: 

Europe is the United States' most important ally for several reasons, including historical ties dating back to their joint involvement in World War II, shared values ​​such as democracy and human rights, and pragmatic considerations related to their common economic and political interests. Therefore, the US abandonment of its key allies will cast doubt on its credibility among the remaining allies, opening the door for them to hedge against the US position and a quest for establishing good relations with China in particular, which may currently be the most available alternative, and to a lesser extent with Russia.

3. Growing importance of regional security arrangements: 

The United States' retreat from its security commitments towards Europe, coupled with China's reluctance, so far, to play a similar role due to associated costs, will elevate the importance of regional security arrangements and coordination, especially in the Middle East. Security issues will once again become fundamentally regional matters, prompting renewed discussions about establishing regional alliances or initiating security arrangements among major regional powers.

In conclusion, if the United States moves towards reducing its security commitments to the security of Europe, which may be justified at home, it will have implications not only for Europe but also for Washington itself. This could lead to apparent disagreements in the foreign policy of both sides, as well as push some of the United States' allies, even those outside Europe, to reconsider their reliance on it when it is no longer seen as a reliable partner and shift their focus towards other international powers, most likely China, which may consequently impact Washington's role on the international stage.