Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Exactly How Helpless Is Europe?

| May 21, 2021

If the United States stops protecting its closest allies, it won't be a catastrophe. It'll be exactly what they needed.

One of the more durable beliefs in the foreign-policy communities on both sides of the Atlantic is that Europe cannot handle its own security problems and must therefore rely on the United States for protection. Although European leaders and defense experts have spoken of wanting greater strategic autonomy and occasionally suggested that it was time to take their fate into their own hands (as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it in 2017), the belief that security in Europe ultimately depends on the United States dies hard.

This conclusion is puzzling. Although the nations of Europe face several security problems, the only threat to the continent for which U.S. military power might be relevant is a direct military clash with Russia. Yet, on paper at least, Europe has more than enough latent power to deal with that problem. NATO's European members contain more than 500 million people; Russia's population is only 145 million. Europeans are also much healthier: Average life expectancy in Europe is roughly 82 years, whereas in Russia it is only 72 (and even lower for men). NATO Europe's combined GDP is more than $15 trillion; Russia’s GDP is only $1.7 trillion, which is smaller than Italy's alone. More remarkable still, NATO's European members spend three to four times what Russia does on defense every single year. Indeed, Germany and France together spend more than Russia does, and Russia must devote some of what it spends to the Far East, its large nuclear arsenal, and its engagements in places like Syria.

Even if one allows for the duplication of defense efforts and other inefficiencies (which could be reduced in various ways), Europe appears to have the underlying capacity to deter and eventually defeat a Russian offensive in Eastern Europe. Even today, Britain and France possess their own nuclear deterrents, and Europe's defense industries produce some of the world's best conventional arms, including first-class tanks and artillery, superb air-to-air missiles, advanced surface ships and submarines, and sophisticated fighter aircraft. Europe's defense preparations certainly have some deficiencies, but the idea that it lacks the raw potential to defend itself and thus requires the United States to do the job in perpetuity seems risible.

Not so, write Hugo Meijer and Stephen G. Brooks in a recent article in the academic journal International Security. Contrary to those of us who believe the United States should focus on other priorities and gradually let Europeans assume responsibility for their own defense, they argue that Europe is incapable of mounting a credible defense on its own. If the United States wants a stable Europe, therefore, it must continue its policy of "deep engagement" and remain Europe's primary security guarantor. For their part, Europeans should abandon the goal of strategic autonomy, adopt more modest defense ambitions, and continue to rely on Uncle Sam.

To be clear: Meijer and Brooks's article is a serious effort to analyze some of the potential obstacles to greater European strategic autonomy. But the bottom line—that autonomy is impossible and that stability in Europe requires a substantial U.S. commitment for decades to come—is wrong....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Walt, Stephen M. "Exactly How Helpless Is Europe?" Foreign Policy, May 21, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt