As leaders of the 30 allied nations gather for a summit at headquarters in Brussels on Monday, the new U.S. president among them, one big topic will be a push by Washington to focus more on threats posed by China. But European allies have long been ill-prepared to protect themselves closer to home — from Russia, NATO’s historic rival. Against China, defense experts say, many European militaries would be utterly useless.
“European forces aren’t ready to fight with the equipment they have,” analysts from the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank close to the White House, wrote in a recent report. “And the equipment they have isn’t good enough.”
The report said that after decades of decline, “much of Europe’s military hardware is in a shocking state of disrepair. Too many of Europe’s forces aren’t ready to fight. Its fighter jets and helicopters aren’t ready to fly, its ships and submarines aren’t ready to sail, and its vehicles and tanks aren’t ready to roll.” And more crucially, for operations far away, Europe lacks capabilities like air-refueling for fighter jets, transport aircraft for troops, and high-end reconnaissance and surveillance drones.
Even with Biden robustly proclaiming his commitment to NATO, the harsh reality of Europe’s unreadiness could create tensions within the alliance that are even more difficult to smooth over than Trump’s badgering of allies to increase their military spending — something they had all pledged to do at a leaders’ summit in Wales in 2014. But if the threat is in Asia, a real question may emerge about the relevance of allies that can barely act on their own home turf.
While the test of NATO loyalty often focuses on Article 5, the collective defense provision in the NATO treaty, which proclaims that an attack on one is an attack on all, uniformed U.S. military commanders have long insisted that European allies should be focused on meeting their obligations under Article 3, which demands they “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”
“I think it’s very, very clear that we are living in a much more dynamic world,” said Retired General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s former supreme allied commander for Europe. “We still have large formations of Russian capability parked along the edges of Ukraine and Crimea, there is plenty to be concerned about in a security context. These nations know what they need to do. They know what their shortcomings are and I think we need to use every tool they have to begin to live up to Article 3 requirements.”
Breedlove, who is now a professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Studies at Georgia Tech university, said European allies provided serious value, despite their spotty capabilities, simply by providing crucial military installations — army bases in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe, for example, or air bases in Italy.
“How would we ever protect American interests in Europe if we didn’t have a NATO and NATO allies that allowed us to come there on their soil and prepare for conflict if it happens?” Breedlove asked. “An even better example — northern Africa. How would we ever do what we do in northern Africa, without the NATO bases on the northern side of the Mediterranean? We learned in Benghazi we were not positioned currently to respond to those types of incidents.”
In recent days, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has sought to assure the Biden administration that he shares the priority being placed on China, just as he repeatedly sought to assure Trump he was pressing for more spending.
“The good thing is that, it is a bipartisan understanding in the United States, of the importance of having 29 friends and allies in NATO as they have, not least, when they address the security consequences of the rise of China,” Stoltenberg said at a pre-summit news conference on Friday. Stoltenberg has also stressed that China should be brought into discussions on nuclear arms control, echoing a view widely held among Biden’s security team.
For Stoltenberg, insisting that he shares Washington’s priorities carries risks because some allies, notably France, don’t believe NATO should expand its purview beyond the transatlantic sphere mandated in its founding treaty, and others, especially in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, want the focus to remain on Russia.
But some experts are warning that a major breach could soon emerge.
“The absolute crux in all of this is China — how do the European allies position themselves vis-à-vis China in light of America’s absolutely clear determination to see China as the biggest strategic challenger or threat?” said Maximilian Terhalle, an expert in security policy and visiting professor in strategic studies at King’s College London. “As long as these perceptions of China do not converge, NATO will have a big problem.”
Terhalle said that with Washington focused on China, Europe would need to step up to defend itself. “This disagreement will come out,” he said. “Biden has been much more eloquent, much more diplomatic than Trump has, but the threat perception is so vastly different that I see a huge problem for NATO’s cohesion to be emerging. If America gets absorbed in a war with China, NATO’s eastern flank is wide open because the Americans cannot defend both.”
But even if all allies came around to the U.S. point of view on China, claiming consensus with Biden is cheap and easy compared to preparing European militaries for faraway missions.
In a new book, “The Responsibility to Defend,” Terhalle and a co-author, Bastian Giegerich, call on Germany to vastly strengthen its military, saying its current weaknesses endanger all of Europe.
European allies, with the exception perhaps of France and the U.K., don’t deny their limitations. Eastern European countries and the Baltics speak openly about relying on Washington for security guarantees against Russia. And many European allies admit they do not have sufficient equipment, including helicopters and other basic materiel, to manage on their own, let alone the sophisticated command and control capabilities that only the U.S. can provide.
European nations currently provide the majority of the allied presence in Afghanistan. But the Europeans have long said they could not protect their own forces there. Instead, they rely on the U.S. for security and are now preparing to exit Afghanistan by September 11, a deadline set by Biden, even as some allies fear what will happen in the country when they leave.
Different hymn sheet
Some allies don’t share Biden’s perception of China as a military threat.
At a news conference on Sunday following the G7 leaders’ summit, French President Emmanuel Macron made clear that he was focused more on threats closer to the European homeland, and said it was crucial for the alliance to recognize its true adversaries, including Islamist terrorism. France has no soldiers left in Afghanistan and its operations abroad are largely focused on the Sahel region of North Africa.
“Who is the enemy?” Macron asked. “Every power, every actor that wants to harm the territorial integrity of the members of the alliance, that threatens the security of members of the alliance. For me, that’s the enemy. And so, today, if any regional power wants to threaten the territorial integrity of one of the members of the alliance, it would be the enemy. So we must prepare, in our plans, ways and means to protect ourselves in the face of that. And of course, Islamist terrorism is the enemy of NATO since it is clearly, it threatened our societies in their intimacy. That’s also what justifies the presence of NATO within the international coalition in the Iraqi-Syrian zone. On this we very clearly are aligned.”
In the context of military threats, Macron did not mention China.
Biden, at his own news conference, emphasized his support for NATO. “Now I am going to be heading off to Brussels, to NATO,” he said, “and to make the case we are back, as well. We do not view NATO as a sort of a protection racket. We believe that NATO is vital to our ability to maintain American security for … the remainder of the century. And there’s a real enthusiasm.”
Biden noted that the only time Article 5 had been invoked was after the September 11 terror attacks on the U.S. — a point Stoltenberg and European allies often reiterate.
“Remember what happened on 9/11. We were attacked. Immediately, NATO supported us. NATO supported us. NATO went until we got [al-Qaeda founder Osama] bin Laden. NATO was part of the process.” He called the commitment to the alliance “a sacred obligation.”
But some seem to worry that Biden will be too soft on the alliance — including Macron, who has pushed for better political cohesion among allies, and also demanded recognition of Europe’s broader efforts to develop so-called strategic autonomy, the push to build up capabilities on the Continent.
The authors of the Center for American Progress report said Washington was responsible for many of Europe’s military shortfalls, by historically resisting military cooperation among EU allies in the name of avoiding redundancies at NATO. The report said Biden should instead encourage European military integration, pushing allies to cooperate so they can do more to protect themselves, rather than just pressing them to spend more on their individual national forces, which creates waste and inefficiencies.
“The EU could help strengthen the alliance by building a stronger European pillar, creating a more unified, efficient, and capable partner for the USA through NATO,” the report said, adding: “European defense today remains anemic, despite noticeable increases in spending.”