Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Why Europe Can't Get Its Military Act Together

| Feb. 21, 2024

The continent faces multiple obstacles on the way to military autonomy.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump set off alarm bells in Europe when he told a campaign rally that he would encourage Russia to "do whatever the hell they want" to any countries he judged to be delinquent on their defense obligations. European countries were already fretting about the possibility of a second Trump term, and these latest remarks sent these concerns into high orbit. European Commission President Ursula Van der Leyen told the Financial Times a few days later that Europe was facing a world "that has got rougher" and that "we have to spend more, we have to spend better, and we have to spend European."

But the question remains: Will Europe do enough to be able to defend itself? Complaints that European states are overly dependent on U.S. protection and unwilling to maintain adequate defense capabilities have a long history, and the wake-up call provided by Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has yet to produce a dramatic increase in Europe’s usable military power. Yes, NATO members are now spending more money and the EU recently authorized an additional 50 billion euros in financial support to Ukraine. But Europe's ability to maintain substantial forces in the field for more than a few weeks remains paltry: It still relies on the United States for some critical capabilities, and some NATO members have reason to wonder if their partners could do much to help if they were attacked, even if those partners tried.

To be sure, rhetoric from European officials is becoming more strident. Danish defense minister Troels Lund Poulsen recently warned that Russia might test the NATO mutual defense clause "within three to five years" and another senior NATO diplomat believes "we no longer have the luxury to think that Russia would stop with Ukraine." According to another senior diplomat, "Russia's intent and capability" to attack a NATO country by 2030 was "pretty much consensus" within the alliance at this point. Because it might take Europe 10 years or more to develop sufficient capabilities of its own, diehard Atlanticists want to keep Uncle Sam firmly committed to Europe despite all the competing demands on U.S. time, attention, and resources.

Can Europe get its act together? Two well-established bodies of theory are relevant here. The first, to which I have tried to contribute, is balance of power (or if you prefer, balance of threat) theory. It predicts that a serious external threat to European security—such as a nearby great power with a strong military and highly revisionist ambitions—would cause most of these states to join forces to deter the threat (or if necessary, to defeat it). That impulse would grow stronger if these states understood that they could not rely on anyone else for protection. Recent increases in European defense spending and Sweden and Finland's decisions to join NATO illustrate the tendency for threatened states to balance perfectly, and this well-established tendency should make us more optimistic about Europe's ability and willingness to take greater responsibility for its own defense.

Unfortunately, a second body of theory makes that upbeat outcome less certain. Because security is a "collective good," states in an alliance will be tempted to "buck-pass" or free-ride on the efforts of others, in the hope that their partners will do enough to keep them safe and secure, even if they do less. This tendency helps explain why the strongest members of an alliance tend to contribute a disproportionate amount to the collective effort. If an alliance's leading members do enough to deter or defeat an attack, the contributions of the smallest members may be superfluous. After all, the alliance wouldn't be that much stronger even if they doubled their efforts. Hence the temptation to do less, confident that the larger actors will do enough out of their own self-interest. If enough members succumb to the temptation to let others bear the greater burden, however, or if other selfish interests overcome the need to work together, then the alliance may not produce the combined capabilities and coordinated strategy it needs to be secure....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Why Europe Can't Get Its Military Act Together.” Foreign Policy, February 21, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt