President Donald Trump's abrupt decision to withdraw from Syria and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' subsequent resignation, compounded by Trump's earlier declarations that the European Union was a "foe" and NATO "obsolete," have added new urgency to an old debate: Should the European Union have its own army?
France and Germany seem to have determined that the Trump administration will continue to call US support for Europe into question. As a result, President Emmanuel Macron warned Europe could not be protected without a "true, European army," and Chancellor Angela Merkel supported the idea by declaring that "the times when we could rely on others are over."
To some, the concept of a European army—a single military force unified under the command of the European Union—contains an interesting Catch-22. A retreating American security umbrella might mean Europe needs to step up and do more to defend itself in case the United States ends its seven-decade commitment to Europe’s security and defense. But moving too quickly might cause a backlash and ultimately accelerate an American withdrawal from European defense. As Francois Heisbourg, former defense advisor for Macron's presidential campaign, put it, “We have to hedge. But it is a very tricky situation: When does the hedge become a wedge?”
While Europe needs to be careful in how it moves forward with defense cooperation, fears that improving European defense capabilities would cause a backlash from the United States are misplaced. Increased European defense spending has been a US goal for decades. In 2014, NATO members committed to bringing their defense spending to two percent of national GDP by 2024. Though it's a relatively modest goal, all European allies are increasing defense spending and most are slated to meet the commitment.
What’s important is for Europe to do more on defense—and if it does so within a European context, even as a hedge, then that is fine if it in fact leads to real, additional capabilities. Anything that gets the Europeans to take their defense seriously, in my book, is a good idea. And anything that strengthens Europe’s capacity to defend itself, in the end, will enhance the overall transatlantic alliance.
To be clear, I do not think we have to worry about Europe actually succeeding in building a European Army any time soon. None of the EU members, starting with France, is ready to give up the national autonomy over military decisions that a “true, European army” implies. But that does not exclude closer cooperation—on developing and buying weapons, training and deploying forces, and operating in actual combat situations—all of which would add real defense capabilities.
A stronger, more capable Europe will lead to a stronger, more capable NATO—so long as both sides of the Atlantic remain committed to their collective defense.
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Yaroslav Trofimov / The Wall Street Journal
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