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The Sustained Role Of The US In European Security

Does the United States still have an important role to play in the security of Europe or has the rationale of the transatlantic relationship changed in recent years?
{Department of War Studies, King’s College London}


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[dropcap]P[/dropcap]rior to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the relationship that Europe held with the United States was an essential component in the security of Europe. Yet, in the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact’s disintegration, some analysts had already written the obituary of the Atlantic alliance, prescribing a growing divergence in transatlantic relations and casting doubt upon the role of the United States in Europe’s security.[1] The neo-realist view is that the security collaboration across the Atlantic should have concluded with the end of the Cold War.[2]This argument has been made consistently throughout the years succeeding the fall of the Soviet bloc but the transatlantic relationship has maintained its position as the most important relationship in the world. However, the rationale of the relationship has changed in two fundamental ways: first, the removal of the Soviet threat altered NATO’s agenda and second, the United States’ challenge for its European allies to take more responsibility for their own defence has caused the latter to re-evaluate the balance of the alliance.

Despite the modified rationale of the relationship, this article will argue that the underlying principles of the partnership, the common threats that confront it and a conscious European effort to close the capability gap all indicate that the United States will continue to play a substantial role in the security of Europe for the foreseeable future. The first section will analyse how the shared values and economic interdependence of the transatlantic partnership remain central reasons that the United States will still contribute to the security of Europe. The second section will examine the changing focus of NATO and the common threats that the transatlantic partners face and will continue to counter. The third section will argue that the European members of NATO must increase their commitment to the partnership if America is to remain influential in European security.[3] The final section will summarise and conclude the key points that have been argued in this article.

Underlying Principles and the Transatlantic Economy

The association between the United States of America and Europe runs much deeper than a mere relationship of utility and convenience. Common values of freedom, justice and liberty have laid the foundations of the transatlantic partnership for over sixty years and institutions such as NATO form the glue that binds the Atlantic partnership together. An American dominated NATO remains the vehicle for transatlantic security and defence co-operation and a commitment to protect the values of the alliance was re-iterated in NATO’s most recent Strategic Concept document.[4] The rationale of the transatlantic relationship did indeed alter with the dissolution of the Soviet Union but the fundamental principles which formed the bedrock of the transatlantic link remain intact. Presently, Europe represents a zone of peace and democracy and, despite the lack of a common external enemy in the modern security environment, the same remains true today: the United States still has a substantial role to play in European security affairs since the values which underpin the relationship remain as established today as they ever have been. Hillary Clinton added strength to this claim in her recent speech in Paris, outlining that the United States will continue to ensure that peace and security is maintained in Europe for the foreseeable future as the transatlantic bond is an illustration of their shared values.[5]

Nevertheless, it has not been a smooth ride for the relationship since the fall of the Berlin Wall; the advent of the Iraq War in 2003 particularly raised divided opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. Commentators proclaimed that the division over the Iraq War was the biggest crisis in the relationship’s history [6] whilst George W. Bush’s public approval ratings in Europe plummeted to levels never seen before.[7] However, the crisis has been successfully surmounted and today, the transatlantic link remains unbroken, which begs the question: how has the relationship survived despite the worst crisis in its history? It is hard to disregard the fact that a change of leadership aided an improvement in relations after Bush’s tenure; the arrival of Barack Obama at the Oval Office evidently rejuvenated public opinion towards the United States on the European side of the Atlantic whilst Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise to office brought France back into NATO’s integrated military command in 2009.[8] Although did the relationship ever really look in danger of coming to an end? Stanley Sloan has deliberated with the notion that NATO and the transatlantic partnership may be a ‘permanent alliance’ based upon its shared values, history and respect for sovereignty and, even if the partnership may not be everlasting, it is hard to see it coming to an end anytime soon.[9] The alliance has weathered many storms such as the Suez crisis in 1956, Bosnia in the 1990s and the more recent war on terror and the fact that it has remained intact throughout is a testament to its resiliency. Therefore, it is logical to deduce that the United States will continue to hold an important role in the defence of Europe in the near future because of the bond that is shared across the Atlantic.

Additionally, the transatlantic economy is vastly interdependent as the financial crisis of 2008 evidently demonstrated. Through the deep economic integration between both sides of the Atlantic, it is estimated that approximately fifteen million jobs are created and five trillion dollars in commercial sales is generated annually[10]; the economic importance of the transatlantic relationship is obvious as it still accounts for over half of global GDP despite the global recession.[11] As the largest and most significant economic partnership in the world it would surely be too great a risk for the United States to not play a considerable role in European security; the transatlantic economy is so intertwined that it is not purely European interests that are at stake in the security of Europe but also American interests. In this light, the neo-liberalist viewpoint that the transatlantic nations will continue to co-operate on security issues as a result of parallel security aims, common economic interests and comparable ideals and political identities becomes a reasonable assumption.[12] This section has demonstrated how shared economic interests and the underlying principles of the transatlantic relationship will keep the United States significantly involved in European security, the next section will argue that common security interests will maintain America’s role in the security arena of Europe.

Common Security Interests

In modern times, European integration and the enlargement of NATO and the European Union has assembled a Europe that is as stable as it has ever been in its history; the notion of a war on the continent now borders on the absurd. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the main threat to Europe’s security since the signature of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, NATO’s raison d’être had vanished and the alliance had to establish a new justification for its existence. So, after the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the attacks of 9/11 and with a seemingly secure Europe, a NATO dominated by the United States consequently undertook a new global agenda to combat modern security threats that may endanger its member states.[13] This transformation process has been a success and a recent survey confirmed that a majority of respondents from the US (77%) and Europe (62%) agree that NATO must be equipped to operate in the global arena to facilitate the protection of its members.[14]

Yet, several analysts have questioned the commitment of the US to the security of Europe for the reason that they are currently focusing their attention upon defence issues that lay outside of European territory.[15] It is true that NATO is presently concentrating its efforts upon global issues such as Iran, terrorism, Afghanistan and anti-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa and there are certainly differing threat perceptions within NATO over where the alliance’s focus should be. For example, the Baltic States are more concerned with the threat of an aggressive Russia on their doorstep rather than global security issues. However, the view that these global issues are not of significant importance to the security of Europe is myopic as these issues unquestionably threaten the security of Europe, if albeit, indirectly. The fact that, internally, Europe is as safe as it has ever been means that the foremost threats to its security are now emanating from outside of its borders; this does not suggest that the United States will have an insignificant involvement in its defence.

Common threats that populate the modern security environment are diverse in the challenges that they present to the alliance and consist of concerns such as economic security (as mentioned above), the Middle East peace process, energy security, cyber warfare, violent extremism, rogue states and nuclear proliferation.[16] Moreover, in spite of Obama’s recent ‘reset’ policy, Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008 provided a stark reminder of the potential threat that the former Soviet Union poses to European security and that it cannot be taken for granted. Together with a volatile and nuclear armed North Korea now under the control of the youthful Kim Jong-un, an Iran intent on the development of nuclear arms and fertile terrorist hotbeds such as Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan still prevalent, it is clear that the world is not a safe place. For that reason, George Robertson, the former NATO-Secretary General, is realistic when adopting the view that the West ‘still has business in confronting the dark side of globalisation’.[17]

In light of these security threats, the US cannot afford to significantly reduce their involvement in the security of Europe and, regardless of the various criticisms thrown at them, the missions in Libya and Afghanistan illustrate what the alliance can achieve when the US and its European allies co-operate on security matters; this is precisely why NATO remains the most relevant and necessary military alliance today.[18] A strong and stable Europe is in America’s economic and security interests and the common threats that America and Europe both face reasonably suggest that, through NATO, the United States will indeed remain an important player in European security for a considerable time to come.  The next section will analyse how the European members of NATO rely on an alliance dominated by the US and how they must increase their contribution to the alliance if they wish to maintain American interest in the security of Europe.

Rebalancing The Alliance

The United States is the most powerful nation in the world and it is logical for European nations to have aligned themselves with such a force to ensure their security in a hostile and ever-changing security environment. Yet, European reliance upon US resources has become excessive; in 2010 the United States contributed an enormous 72.4% of the total NATO budget compared to 50% ten years prior.[19] The transatlantic alliance is undoubtedly top-heavy with Britain, France and Germany combined only contributing 14.52% of the total NATO budget in the same year whilst the other twenty three NATO members supplied a mere 13% of the budget.[20] Distinguished figures on both sides of the Atlantic have been critical of Europe’s dependence upon the United States’ resources and have warned of the possibility that the United States may reconsider its role in European security unless the European allies endeavour to visibly close this apparent capability and commitment gap.[21]

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has referred to NATO as a ‘timeless alliance’ yet if the European members of NATO are not assertive, American support in the security affairs of Europe may dwindle.[22] To lose the vital support of the most valuable member of the alliance would only be to the detriment of European security and for this reason, the majority of the European members of NATO desire to maintain America’s considerable involvement in their security affairs and view the alliance as a way of sustaining US focus upon their defence.[23] Subsequently, as a result of the United States’ intense participation in European security to date, there appears to be an embedded European complacency that their American partner will constantly support Europe in its security affairs. Thus, the burden-sharing debate, which has been prevalent throughout the alliance’s history, has been growing louder by the year.

In an age of austerity, where the impact of the global economic crisis is being felt around the world and the United States is winding down two expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American support is not guaranteed.[24] The United States cannot achieve its foreign policy goals unaided anymore and, with the rise of China in mind, Barack Obama has been increasingly multilateral in his search for partnerships in the world.[25] Nonetheless, American politicians have been quick to quell fears that the United States has become less committed to Europe and have provided assurances that Europe and its security does indeed remain a priority despite defence cuts.[26] Still, American policy towards Europe has certainly changed. On his first trip to Europe, President Obama asserted that the United States were no longer ‘looking to be patrons of Europe’, but to be ‘partners of Europe.’[27] Washington wishes that its European allies began to pull their weight in the relationship and shoulder their fair share of the burden if they are to keep playing such a pivotal role in Europe’s defence.

It is necessary that Europe becomes more self-sufficient if they are to deal with their own security problems. The recent Libya campaign, for example, confirmed the wide capability gap between the United States and the European participants.[28] Yet, the fact that America pulled back and left Britain and France to take the lead role in this successful mission marked the instigation of the change that Washington wishes to see in the relationship. As Lord Robertson affirmed, Obama has ‘forced the European nations to confront their own destiny’[29] and it is how the Europeans continue to react to this challenge that will somewhat determine how important a role the United States’ will play in its security. If the European allies make a conscious effort to rebalance the alliance and the Americans begin to see a return for their input then any possible friction within the alliance over the burden-sharing debate will surely evaporate and the United States will continue to contribute significantly to the security of Europe.


It is realistic to conclude that the United States does still have an important role to play in the security of Europe in spite of changes to the rationale of the relationship. The arguments put across in this article to support this claim are numerous. The underlying principles and history that have shaped the partnership represent a relationship not of mere pragmatism but of a much deeper value that will ensure the two sides of the Atlantic are forever associated. In addition, the transatlantic link is institutionally and economically entrenched meaning that it would be damaging to the American economy to diminish their part in the protection of Europe. The alliance has proven its resiliency and withstood numerous crises including its most notable crisis over the Iraq War and it will surely continue to survive these predicaments in the near future. Despite the defeat of the Soviet threat it was founded to offset, NATO has managed to successfully transform its agenda and adapt to the modern security environment and the second section demonstrated that there are a plethora of common security threats that the transatlantic partners will persistently counter together despite the diverse threat perceptions and strategic cultures within Europe. The fact that NATO provides America legality for its actions abroad, combined with these common security threats, point towards the United States remaining the key player within NATO and therefore maintaining an important role in European security.

The danger is that American support in European security affairs will decline if the European allies do not react to the burden-sharing dilemma assertively and with haste because the transatlantic alliance is undoubtedly top-heavy. If the European allies want to eradicate this friction within the relationship and preserve American influence in European security affairs then they have to address the current imbalance within the alliance; Libya was a positive start and if they continue in the same vein then the United States will undoubtedly continue to play a substantial role in European security. To summarise, the rationale of the relationship may have changed but the values and interdependent economies of the partnership, the institutional links, common security threats and NATO’s new global agenda all indicate that the United States is likely to retain an important role in the security of Europe.

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[1] Robert Kagan famously asserted that ‘Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus’. Kagan (2004), p.3; Kissinger, ‘The End of NATO’, The Washington Post, (1990), p. 23; Krauthammer (2002), ‘Re-Imagining NATO’, Washington Post, p. A35.

[2] Simoni (2011), p. 27; Mearsheimer (1990).

[3] The case for greater US-EU cooperation will not be developed here.

[4] NATO Strategic Concept 2010.

[5] Clinton Speech, Paris, (2010).

[6] Allin (2004), p. 663; Sloan (2010), p. 253.

[7] ‘Global Public Opinion in the Bush Years (2001-2008)’, Pew Research Centre (2008).

[8] ‘Obama More Popular Abroad’, Pew Research Center (2010); Kaufman (2011), p. 77; Transatlantic Trends (2010), p.5.

[9] Sloan (2010), p. 281.

[10] Hamilton & Quinlan (2011), p. 13; Shapiro and Witney (2009), p. 24.

[11] Hamilton & Quinlan (2011), p. 20.

[12] Mix (2011), p.6; Simoni (2011), pp. 24-7.

[13] See Aybet and Moore (2010).

[14] Transatlantic Trends 2010, p. 6.

[15] Guérot (2011), pp. 55-6; Kuykendall (2010), p.111.

[16] NATO Strategic Concept 2010.

[17] Robertson speech, Chatham House (2011).

[18] Transatlantic Trends 2011 survey showed that NATO is still seen as essential by 62% of both EU and U.S. respondents.

[19] NATO Defence Expenditures (1990-2010).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Gates speech, London (2011); Major speech, Chatham House (2011); Rasmussen speech, Warsaw (2011).

[22] Scheffer speech, Chatham House (2009).

[23] Alcaro (2011), p. 20.

[24] Jones (2011), p. 152.

[25] Kuykendall (2009), p. 110.

[26] Clinton, Foreign Policy (2011); ‘Obama to recall US troops from Europe’, Financial Times, 9 April 2011; Panetta speech, Carnegie Europe (2011); Lindley-French (2010), p. 50.

[27] Obama speech, Strasbourg (2009).

[28] Panetta speech, Warsaw (2011).

[29] Robertson speech, Chatham House (2011).


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