The Pentagon has increasingly advocated for a scaled back US presence in Europe to better position key force multiplying units and capabilities in close proximity to global flashpoints, namely in the Indo-Pacific. However, both sides of America’s increasingly divided Congress have come together to question the validity of such an approach.
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 some measure of isolationism from Europe's security environment amid 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.
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 '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 Kramp-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."
What's the plan?
In spite of these challenges, a bipartisan group of Congressional representatives has sought to challenge the Pentagon's plans to withdraw 12,000 US troops out of Germany, in contrast to a growing policy shift by the US going back to former president Barrack Obama and has been intensified by current President Donald Trump, which has seen increasing pressure on the Europeans to take a greater hand in their own security.
As part of the proposal of the US draw down from Europe, Meghann Myers, Joe Gould and Aaron Mehta writing for Defense News explain, "Under the plan, 11,900 troops would be pulled out of Germany, with 2,500 of those relocating to countries like Belgium and Italy, while the other 6,400 would return stateside. But without a cost analysis, no timeline and, according to lawmakers, scant reasoning for the move at all, the plan has gotten a resoundingly poor grade from a committee with the power to approve or deny it."
This apparent lack of planning has drawn the attention of both sides of the aisle, with Democrat Representative Adam Smith, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, raising concerns about the lack of long-term forward planning relating to the proposed draw down of US forces based in Europe and Germany in particular.
"I don’t think this plan was particularly well thought out and I worry about a number of aspects of its implementation," Congressman Smith said. This was reinforced by the ranking Republican Representative, Mac Thornberry, who expanded on the comments made by his Democrat colleague, saying, "there needs to be an overall strategic plan that is coordinated with allies, rather than have a bunch of rationalisations after the fact."
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.