Europe and the ‘Asia Pivot’

The third U.S. presidential debate did not shed much more light on future relations with Europe than the first two. One popular misconception in parts of Europe is that President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia is a temporary aberration: that it springs from the president’s dislike for the freedom and democratization agenda, and his absence of European roots.

By extension, this theory holds that, as president, Mitt Romney would “set things right” by putting Europe back near the center of U.S. attention, halt the decline in U.S. troops on the Continent, renew a push to enlarge NATO eastward, and take keener interest in potential trouble emanating from Russia, the Balkans and North Africa.

This is not to be: The change in America’s priorities will last. Europe will sympathize with U.S. goals in Asia but it will have little to offer in assistance. NATO will either adjust to this new state of affairs or its credibility will shrink further.

Barack Obama has solid reasons to worry about Asia, and those reasons will not go away, even if he does. While Russia remains mercurial and a potential source of trouble, the rise of China presents a far more immediate prospect of conflict, one that would be no less destructive than any in Europe.

The reasonable policy, then, is for the United States to keep just enough troops in Europe to deter Russia from mischief while focusing its spare resources on Asia. A President Romney might have been kinder to Europe than Obama when announcing the policy change, but he would have pivoted all the same.

America’s focus on Asia puts NATO in unchartered waters. For most of its existence, the allies had a reasonably clear agreement on who the enemy was and each country fielded enough troops to make itself useful if war came. NATO maintained this outward unity during the wars in Afghanistan and Libya, even though many allies sent only symbolic contributions, or none at all. This was partly because some countries were not convinced of the chosen strategy, and because many had little to contribute.

The U.S. pivot now further widens the gap between America’s defense priorities and European capabilities: If war between China and Taiwan or Japan were to break out, the Europeans would make sympathetic noises but leave the United States to do the fighting. This is not for lack of courage, but mainly for lack of weapons — the right kinds and the right quantities. Never before in NATO’s history were America’s allies of so little use for the kinds of scenarios that most occupy America’s defense analysts.

What is NATO to do? One school of thought in Europe holds that an alliance with such widely different capabilities will not survive. The Europeans must therefore build forces to complement America’s, which mostly means expanding their navies. Moreover, the argument goes, Asian security is in European interests, too — so the allies should be ready to fight in the Pacific regardless of whether the Americans expect their help or not.

But this is pure fantasy: European forces were built for conflicts closer to home. They are wholly unprepared to play a meaningful role in the Pacific, and are not going to acquire the necessary skills and hardware anytime soon — certainly not in the middle of the worst economic crisis in decades. The only two naval powers that come anywhere near being useful in Asia are France and Britain. And even France, in its present strategic review, is leaning toward keeping only a symbolic presence in the Pacific.

Rather than fake unity of mind and might — and inevitably disappoint everyone in the event of war in Asia — the allies should acknowledge their differences and build a new NATO strategy around them.

In Asia, Europe must demonstrate that it shares America’s security concerns and will do what it reasonably can. This means assisting partners in the region in strengthening their militaries, supporting U.S. diplomatic efforts, and applying E.U. expertise, where applicable, toward building a regional security architecture that includes China. If those efforts fail, the Europeans will not endeavor to fight in Asia (which few informed American observers expect them to do anyway).

In return, the Europeans will take a greater responsibility for “discretionary” missions in and around Europe: those conducted in the name of human rights (such as the one in Libya), or to rebuild war-torn societies (such as those in the Balkans). An expanded European military role on the Continent would free the United States to shift more of its troops and money to the Pacific.

Preparation for wars of self-defense, such as a possible conflict with Russia, would remain a responsibility of all allies alike, including the United States. Without it, NATO’s vow to defend its members is simply not credible.

This is the new bargain that the European allies should put to the U.S. president. Whether it be Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, the gaze of the U.S. military will remain on Asia. Europe may never become a real military actor in the region, but it can be useful to the United States in other ways. Given the right policies, NATO can remain strong even if America never thinks of itself as a European power again.

Tomas Valasek is president of the Central European Policy Institute.

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