by GIL BARNDOLLAR
Foreign policy was a distinctly secondary issue at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, as both parties believe COVID and culture war will remain the ground on which the 2020 election will be fought and won. When foreign policy does make an appearance, Democrats and Republicans alike strive to highlight the unique approach (or dysfunction) of Donald Trump’s administration. Yet recent events in Europe demonstrate that despite the rhetoric, both parties remain committed to the flawed foreign policy conceptions and institutions of the past.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak signed a defense cooperation agreement that will send at least 1,000 more U.S. troops to Poland. This new pact will receive little scrutiny from American politicians or voters. It should. This latest agreement is emblematic of America’s zombie defense of Europe, a policy trapped in amber a full three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
President Trump created a storm on both sides of the Atlantic when he announced a substantial drawdown in American troops in Germany. But as so often with Trump’s foreign policy, there is less than meets the eye. The Department of Defense stated that 12,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Germany – but nearly half of them are going to be stationed in other European countries, including Poland. This shell game gives the lie to any talk of burden-sharing in European defense.
Despite nearly four years of Trump’s browbeating and Europe’s pledges, the fundamental realities of NATO have not changed. The United States still accounts for almost 70 percent of all NATO defense spending. Europe is a rich continent, but just seven of the alliance’s 30 member states are above the suggested 2 percent of GDP defense spending line (Poland is one of them, barely). This state of affairs predates Trump; indeed, it predates Nixon. American presidents have been begging European allies to defend themselves since the early Cold War. In 1951, upon assuming command of all NATO forces in Europe, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower warned bluntly: “If in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed.” Yet here we are.
The alliance’s supposed heavyweights are now some of the worst offenders, regardless of their ostensible spending levels. Britain will soon be down to a scant 148 main battle tanks, having sacrificed real defense capability for the hollow prestige of a pair of aircraft carriers. France has maintained real capability but is increasingly focused on Africa and the Mediterranean, where it finds itself aligned with Russia in Libya. Germany, which could singlehandedly match Russia’s defense budget if it chose to, is a military laughingstock: its planes grounded, its deployed troops lacking even basic radios, and its special forces infiltrated by potential domestic terrorists.
When it comes to defending Europe from the supposed Russian threat, most NATO members, to quote Dick Cheney on serving in the Vietnam War, have “other priorities.” Migrants and the Mediterranean, to say nothing of pandemic preparedness, economic stimulus, and a host of other domestic concerns, a rate far higher than T-80s in the minds of European leaders. But then, they needn’t worry about Russia: the United States is willing to handle their defense for them.
Poland is at least not the Baltics, a geographically undefendable salient that NATO is inexplicably determined to reinforce. But increasing U.S. forces in Poland is only marginally more sensible. If we want a tripwire, a hundred bored infantrymen will do: adding a thousand troops would make little difference in a fight against the full weight of the Russian armed forces. A serious U.S. troop buildup in Poland, of multiple brigades, would risk a classic security dilemma, with Russia reinforcing its units on Poland’s border in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad in response.
If we want to help NATO nations both deter Russia and defend themselves if deterrence fails, the answer is advice and arms, not American troops. Potential frontline NATO states that genuinely fear Russia must become “porcupine nations,” making themselves both resilient and undigestible through a total defense concept like that of Finland. Estonia has gone the furthest in this direction, returning to universal male conscription and augmenting its forces with militias.
Luckily, Russian military analysts believe there is scant evidence that Russia wants a war with NATO. Russia has neither the appetite nor the troops to try to occupy Ukraine, never mind pick a fight with Poland or even the Baltics.
French President Emmanuel Macron drew widespread condemnation last fall when he said NATO was experiencing “brain death.” As France confronts NATO ally Turkey in the Mediterranean while America mindlessly stacks troops in the east, Macron’s prescience is underscored. NATO is an alliance on autopilot: at best, a distraction and drain, at worst, a potential cause of future conflict. America, beset by internal problems, skyrocketing debt, and a real competitor if not enemy in China should leave defending Europe to the Europeans.
Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and Senior Research Fellow the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.