Western Europe got a free ticket on defence for fifty years. That ticket is no longer redeemable.
In an uncharacteristic bit of savvy foresight and planning, the United States is pivoting itself away from Europe and towards the Pacific. This makes an awful lot of sense, given that that’s where its security challenges and trade opportunities will be coming from over the next century.
Unfortunately for Europe, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
For half a millennia Europe straddled the world like a colossus. It was the fulcrum of the world’s economic, diplomatic, cultural, industrial and technological exchanges. Continents fell before its armies, the oceans were its private pond.
Then Europe tore itself apart, twice. But as Europe lay prostate before the Soviet menace, the United States resisted the isolationist urge and managed to at least spare Western Europe the nightmare of becoming Stalin’s western most provinces.
The US spent the next fifty years guaranteeing Western European independence, in part through the Marshall Plan, in part through maintaining a sizable armed presence in the region, but primarily through the implicit doctrine that to attack Western Europe was to attack the United States.
To be sure, the US nudged Europe to take a bit more responsibility for its own defence, even going so far as to pay West Germany’s entire defence budget until 1964. But still, Europe got complacent. Its resources were allocated to building the most comprehensive welfare states humanity had ever known. It was a luxury affordable only because Western European leaders knew they had a free ticket on defence.
Even the end of the Cold War didn’t shake us out of our haze. We went from relying on the US for security to allowing ourselves to think that militaries themselves are passé. We let Francis Fukuyama convince us that history and inter-power rivalry had ended the moment the Hammer & Sickle came down from the Kremlin for the last time.
As a continent we let our militaries become armed pension funds, an extension of the civil service with occasional ceremonial duties or jaunts to hand mugs of tea out to refugees.
Now the US is leaving just as the world is looking less and less placid. Russia steamrolled into Georgia, carving out two chunks of territory from a future EU member. Western Europe sat helpless. Iran threatens to close the Straits of Hormuz if Israel attacks its nuclear plants. Europe can barley hold off Somalian pirates in rubber dingies. France puffed its chest over Syria, only to cravenly slink back once it realised it wouldn’t have the US to do the hard parts of intervention.
A large part of the problem is costs and doctrine. Put simply, Europe doesn’t like to spend on defence, and balks at even using what it has. France and the UK are the most willing to put troops in harms way, but the UK is exhausted by Iraq and Afghanistan, while France gets short of breath taking on bandits in Mali.
And the Euro Crisis has dampened leader’s appetites for rapid integration of traditional sovereign fiefdoms. Even if the language barrier could be overcome, there are almost insurmountable challenges on harmonizing doctrine, training, transport, ammunition, communications and command-and-control. Efforts to pool resources on buying even modest amounts of defence related equipment have stalled as national governments find themselves pressured to protect vested interests and cosy relationships with indigenous suppliers.
Europe is more connected to, and thus more exposed to the outside world than ever before, with energy being the obvious vulnerability. Yet it has never been less able to project influence or defend its interests. Its reliance on the US was akin to laying on an airbed with a slow puncture; you don’t realise its gone till you suddenly feel the cold hard floor.