America’s declining presence in Europe marks the end of an era, as the continent’s major powers, namely Germany, seek to consolidate and co-ordinate Europe’s defence in the face of growing regional and global tensions.
Much like the rest of the world, Europe’s post-war security has been disproportionately guaranteed by the US – as the US continues to embrace isolationism and buckle under the weight of COVID, great power competition and domestic social issues, many US allies will be following the European experience more closely.
Across the globe the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order appears to be in tatters, rising great power competition, economic decline and the impact of COVID-19, combined with domestic social and political unrest is serving to impact the security and sovereignty of many nations.
- The dominance, benevolence and continuing stability of its primary strategic partner;
- The geographic isolation of the continent, highlighted by the ‘tyranny of distance’;
- A relatively small population in comparison with its neighbours; and
- Increasingly, the geo-political, economic and strategic ambition and capabilities of Russia and to a lesser degree Turkey and Iran.
However, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War cementing America's position as the pre-eminent world power – this period was relatively short lived as costly engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, peace-keeping interventions in southern Europe and enduring global security responsibilities have drained American 'blood' and 'treasure'.
Further compounding matters is the renewed assertiveness and ambitions of the 'traditional' European enemy, Russia as President Vladimir Putin seeks to maximise the economic, political and strategic malaise in the western European powers and more broadly the Western world to re-establish its position on the global stage.
As the threads of the post-Second World War economic, political and geo-strategic order continue to unravel, many emerging and re-emerging peer competitors are leveraging 'whole-of-government' approaches to maximise their influence, prosperity and security in an increasingly troubling period of time.
Adding further fuel to the fire is the increasing unpredictability and 'isolationism' of Europe's security benefactor: the US, which under both former president Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump has pressured the Europeans to take a greater hand in their own security.
Recognising this, continental Europe's industrial and economic powerhouse, Germany is seeking to push ahead with developing and implementing policy and doctrine rationalisation as the US seeks to draw down its presence on the continent, shifting its focus at least in part towards the Indo-Pacific.
German Defence Minister Annegret Kram-Karrenbauer, speaking to the European Parliament, explained growing rationale behind consolidating and collaborating on collective defence post-US draw down in the region, stating, "If that is the case, it means we Europeans must become able to act more so than is the case today."
A 'strategic compass', 'operational understanding' and greater co-ordination
While it could be argued that many of the problems faced by the US on the world stage, particularly those of a security nature, are as a result of its own interventionist nature, the US involvement in Europe served as an important guarantor for continued European stability post-Second World War.
A core component of this guarantee is the NATO alliance, which mandates that at a minimum, members must meet the target spending of 2 per cent of GDP on defence — a figure Australia's own political leaders frequently cite as the ideal of the nation's own defence spending — this figure has emerged as a major battleground for US and European leaders.
Explaining this, former British diplomat and director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform think tank, Ian Bond, said, "Trump may not understand how NATO works or the value to the US of having troops in Germany, but it is true that the US carries a disproportionately large share of the financial burden of defending Europe.
"During his presidency, Barack Obama also accused Europe of being 'complacent' about its own defence — though he was rather more diplomatic."
Bond explains, saying, "In recent weeks Trump announced without warning that the US will withdraw 9,500 — more than one quarter — of the 34,500 troops it has stationed in Germany because the German government is not spending enough on defence.
"Then at a Washington press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump said a large number of NATO countries were 'delinquent' and declared that Europe was taking 'tremendous advantage of the United States on trade'."
Expanding on this, Bond states, "Only a handful of European NATO members have met the alliance’s target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence over the past 20 years, while the US has consistently exceeded it, spending 3.1-4.9 per cent.
"But Europe’s problem is not just the amount it spends on defence, but the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of its spending: Europeans get far too many systems and far too little military capability for their money."
Based on these factors, it is clear that much of the US criticism of the European powers, particularly the likes of Germany, France and Italy, all members of the G8 industrialised economies, is warranted at the financial level.
Shifting the focus to 'actual' capability, the US has been frequently frustrated by the range of platforms operated by the various European nations, resulting in a lack of interoperability and, concerningly, a lack of deployability by the various European militaries.
Bond explains, "The European Commission’s 2017 fact sheet on European defence reported that European Union member states operated 178 different major weapons systems; the US had only 30. EU member states have 17 different types of main battle tank; the US has one.
"This proliferation of weapons systems leads to high unit costs for short production runs, and a lack of interoperability. And European spending is not directed to ensuring that troops can fight when needed.
"The European members of NATO have almost 1.9 million active-duty troops, while the US has 1.3 million and Russia about 900,000. But very few of the European forces can be deployed in a crisis."
This is expanded upon further by Minister Kram-Karrenbauer, who explained the growing need for a consolidated and co-ordinated European response to these challenges, saying, "You could approach it with the idea that this would fall to the same few countries in Europe, or you could develop a method as part of the strategic compass that this would become a matter for all members."
These factors are particularly important as Europe seeks to offset the declining presence of the United States and policy inconsistency currently characterising the US administration, particularly as the NATO members face down fears of an increasingly belligerent Russia, unpredictable Turkey and ever-present threat of violent extremism.
While Australia enjoys a robust and largely cordial relationship with the US, particularly at a military-to-military level, the increasing reluctance of the US to engage on the behalf of 'allies' particularly at the expense of US 'blood' and 'treasure' is a concerning development.
Lessons to be learned
Australia has taken proactive steps, particularly following the announcement of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and supporting Force Structure Plan backed by a record $270 billion worth of funding over the next decade, the limitations of US power and resolve are increasingly being revealed and clearly cannot be taken for granted.
However, these capabilities are still framed within the lens of a largely defensive conflict scenario, whereby Australia's critical economic, political and strategic interests in the region, namely the critical sea lines of communication, are still at the mercy of regional partners and a limited level of Australian area-denial, while Australia's major military platforms remain committed to the defence of the continent.
This approach fails to acknowledge that Australia's limited military capabilities, largely limited as a result of the budgetary and doctrinal constraints established by dogmatic adherence to the now clearly outdated 'Defence of Australia' doctrine and the arbitrary 2 per cent of GDP defence expenditure rate and relegates Australia to a protracted period of isolation, until larger allies either in the region or beyond come to our aid.
In doing so, this not only leaves Australia at the mercy of these 'great and powerful friends', who may have conflicting tactical and strategic interests thus stretching their capabilities and means, Australia's 'commitment' to the Indo-Pacific once again defers all the heavy lifting in the region to other nations, while we continue to believe that we can dictate the balance of power, economic relationships and security partnerships for our own interest and benefit without any real skin in the game.
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever-present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.