Slimming Down: The Pivot, Austerity, and the Path Ahead for Transatlantic Security

“If Article 5 beckons, the United States should and will be there.” Barry Pavel and Jeff Lightfoot of the Atlantic Council

It goes beyond saying that this statement is one of the few that all Americans agree on. But that is exactly the unsettling aspect of this reassurance. What necessitated this sentence? What placed this commitment fundamental to the transatlantic partnership in question even for the most fleeting moment? Drawn from their March issue brief and repeated countless times by experts at a recent conference on the Future of U.S. European Command (EUCOM), this statement responds to the growing unrest surrounding the January Defense Strategic Guidelines, which underpin the American pivot to the Pacific. Nevertheless, coupled with the Pentagon’s declining funding and more drastic spending reductions across Europe, this draw down of EUCOM forces reflects how austerity and geopolitical developments are driving a greater demilitarization of Europe.

Meanwhile, Europe’s periphery continues to demand attention and maintenance. Syria has threatened to use chemical and biological weapons on any “foreign aggressors” attempting to intervene in its growing rebellion and (as the presumed target of that statement,) Israel has publicly assured Assad, the rebels, and other regional actors that it will take action to prevent terrorist groups from acquiring these weapons. The recent rebellion in Libya, Syria’s immediate threat, Iran’s simmering potential for missile or maritime aggression, and indeterminate future hazards represent challenges for European and transatlantic security. Implicit to the trending demilitarization juxtaposed by this characterization of the regional security environment, however, lies both good and bad news. Europe’s unparalleled, lasting peace represents resoundingly good news, but Europe’s periphery tells a very different story.

In other words, the United States still has a large responsibility in Europe’s security.  But, because we live in a world of limited resources (as we all painfully understand during this economic climate) the clear, undisputed need for increased U.S. military presence in Asia takes precedence. Next, politicians protect their district’s bases and the civilian and military jobs they provide. Thus, in a shrinking defense budget the pivot demands resources and although EUCOM is already lean, it will have to do more with less. This trending approach, however, poses multiple problems. Among them, two stand out in their challenges to Europe and the transatlantic partnership, respectively.

First, the United States will have markedly fewer capabilities in major and minor contingency operations in the region. That means Europe will have to increase its level of responsibility for the continent’s security and its periphery’s stability. Argued often both currently and in the past by politicians and experts, this imperative, which has now been forced on Europeans by the Obama administration’s near unilateral decision to pivot, encounters one significant obstacle. Europe has been taking less responsibility, not more. As previously noted, defense budgets across Europe have been repeatedly slashed since 1990 as governments drew down force levels after the Cold War and more recently, favored sheltering social programs from austerity. Furthermore, these cuts have continued even after knowledge of the pivot. This trend indicates that Europeans are reticent to adopt more security independence, and this possibility bodes poorly for prospects of containing simmering threats and unknowns beyond the horizon.

Second, EUCOM has been the source of major strides in interoperability and a platform far beyond the borders of Europe, both of which provide immeasurable benefits to all stakeholders in the transatlantic partnership. For example, Dr. Charles Barry notes that generations of officers became highly experienced in interoperability as a result of their interaction during the various operations in the Balkan region. This opportunity, however, will likely cease in 2014.  And, it is unlikely that enough training will replace this skills gap (though, there is some effort to fill this gap).  This is because, as he most eloquently stated, “training isn’t sexy.”

It seems that very little is sexy, at least in comparison to Asia’s burgeoning allure. The United States is even walking back its commitment of one brigade to the NATO Response Force. This decreased participation links to a lost opportunity for the United States. Dr. Barry argues that, through NATO’s twenty-eight member states and over forty other partners, Europe could serve as the United States’ “springboard” to the world.

It is, however, in this latter challenge of a looming decrease in capabilities and missed opportunity that one path forward and out of the part pivot, part austerity recipe for the demilitarization. The future of EUCOM, NATO, and thereby transatlantic security lies in an alternative raison d’être for American forces in Europe. Rather than a force for the security of Europe and its immediate neighbors, EUCOM, NATO, and European forces can serve as multilateral “springboard” to spread peace across a vast reason. Accordingly, a significant focus on interoperability will guarantee forces’ capabilities. Interestingly with Afghanistan and even more so Libya, we have already seen operations trend toward this security exporting-driven mission. In this sense, the remaining obstacle is convincing politicians and policymakers to support this mission with sufficient funds, particularly for joint officer training and exercises at multiple levels. Or, as Dr. Barry puts it, “for every ally, that is one less of [Congress’] constituents sons or daughters out there.”

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Nicholas Iaquinto

Nicholas Iaquinto was previously the Communications Coordinator / Web Developer at AICGS.