For leaders of European nations, it’s impossible to know which of President Donald Trump’s remarks about Europe and the Atlantic alliance—the bellicose or the conciliatory—to take to heart. Is he agitating for the EU’s demise when he extols Brexit? Is NATO “obsolete,” or a cornerstone of transatlantic security? Is Moscow now Washington’s ally of choice? Is the transatlantic partnership truly defunct? If so, is Europe on its own?
A Europe on its own could prove easy pickings for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who seems only to respect the language of brawn; borders pose no barrier to his volition. There’s zero indication that Moscow will divest itself of Crimea, regardless of sanctions. No one believes that the deployment of a few thousand troops from 11 NATO countries, including the United States, can defend the Baltics from a Russian attack, should it come to that.
The EU’s current defense deficit dates back to the end of the Cold War in 1990. European countries did not beef up their own militaries, nor did they create a security architecture to replace NATO that included, rather than excluded, post-Soviet Russia. Today, the Europeans still don’t possess the necessary conventional forces—tanks, war planes, helicopters, deployable ground forces—to intervene with purpose in crises in their own backyard, as evidenced by the 1990s wars in the Balkans; little has changed since then in terms of Europe’s military capabilities, a profusion of plans and policy papers notwithstanding. Europe has continued to piggyback on the United States. In Brussels this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis explicitly called upon Europeans to bump up their military expenditures. “If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense,” Mattis said, standing next to NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.