While traveling this week to Europe, President Barack Obama has an opportunity to begin a bold initiative to realign the transatlantic relationship and advance America's interests in further European integration. The G8 summit began Monday morning with the announcement of a new U.S.-European economic initiative -- the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership -- which could open up a U.S.-EU free trade zone. That is an excellent start. But, as the United States continues to pressure its NATO allies to increase their domestic military capabilities and lessen their reliance on the United States, European allied defense spending remains a serious irritant in transatlantic relations -- and it's the wrong priority.
Impressions of European "free-riding" on the United States for military operations have been deepening in Congress and among the American public for years now. This resentment was foreseen long ago by George Kennan, who warned in 1948 that NATO incentivized European dependence on the United States, writing, "Instead of the ability to divest ourselves gradually from the basic responsibility for the security of Western Europe, we will get a legal perpetuation of that responsibility." Kennan believed, rightly, that "the political will of the U.S. people is not sufficient to enable us to support Western Europe indefinitely as a military appendage." Yet, even since the Cold War ended, the United States has sought an expansive role for NATO while criticizing allies for not spending more on defense -- without realizing its own role in perpetuating European dependency.
NATO has become politically unmanageable, militarily dysfunctional, and now risks strategic irrelevance. Operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya demonstrated serious difficulties in decision-making by consensus and dangerous operational inefficiencies. When America sought to "lead from behind" in Libya, it was, months into the war, still providing the primary enabling forces. In the recent French intervention in Mali, the United States was called on to supply similar, and expensive, capacities to sustain military operations. America's European allies have no incentive to change this burden-sharing problem knowing the United States will fill operational gaps, freeing them to make massive cuts in the name of austerity.
The primary and enduring security problem in Europe is the ongoing Eurozone crisis, which has forced sharp budget cuts across Europe and strained relations in the European Union. Thus, the last thing that Washington should do is ask allies to increase defense spending. America's European allies, collectively, have substantial capabilities; the problem is not how much they spend, but rather how they coordinate. President Obama should change the incentives for America's NATO allies to produce mutual gains across the Atlantic and strengthen the ties that bind America and Europe.
First, he should limit America's NATO role to Article V collective defense, which, in the current environment, means its main contribution to NATO would be ballistic missile defense. Second, given the current threat environment, he should announce further reductions in America's troop presence in Europe, especially U.S. Army forces. By 2015, land forces will be about 30,000 troops -- but these should drop close to zero. Third, the United States should state clearly it will help the allies build and sustain the capacity to fight a Libya-style war and a Balkans-style peace operation without American involvement. Fourth, he should relocate U.S. European Command, Eucom, to the United States -- modeling it after Central Command, which is based in Tampa, Florida.
Eucom has become largely a supporting command; it once had a major role in Persian Gulf security and broader contingencies like Afghanistan, but Centcom now has the lead for operations in the Gulf and South Asia. It has pre-deployed assets in the Gulf that no longer make European deployments essential. The United States could retain its presence in Europe by keeping air command facilities at Ramstein, special forces and partner training centers in Stuttgart, and the U.S. naval command at Naples, while sharing the supreme allied commander position with a European or Canadian based on mission needs. The bulk of U.S. land forces in Europe would be decommissioned, brought home, or allocated to other theaters. Meanwhile, the United States should rotationally exercise with its European allies, but primarily on its own territory.
At its core, the military imbalance in NATO is an economic problem for the United States because it ties up resources and encourages allies to avoid sharing in essential military equipment and major defense reform. It is also a problem for Europe because the existing incentives move individual European nations away from deepening their integration on defense cooperation -- and thus, over time, saving money. A shift in the security burden would create a better foundation on which to advance the broader trade agenda by fast-tracking the U.S.-EU trade agreement now being negotiated. As this negotiation moves forward, however, the temptation to advance "buy American" in defense capabilities could become an obstacle -- as Americans have often viewed interoperability as meaning "based on American platforms." If Congress sees real action being taken to balance the security burden-sharing arrangement across the Atlantic, this could be an essential step towards removing potential obstacles in the broader trade deal.
Advancing this important trade agreement will show American confidence in the transatlantic relationship, which is vital to the global economy at a key moment, given the continuing threat of the Eurozone crisis. This week and in the weeks to come, the president should engage America's closest allies and friends -- particularly Britain, France, and Germany -- on this matter. Presidential leadership can also help to break the legacy of decades of bureaucratic resistance in Washington to rebalancing the transatlantic relationship. It is time for the United States to make clear to its European friends that it is their moment to assume lead responsibility for their security -- and that the United States will help them. If there is any place in the world where the United States can hand over lead responsibility for security matters, it is in Europe -- and the time is now.