Divergent global priorities and domestic politics could test the closeness on security between the U.S. and its European allies
By Stephen Fidler and Marcus Walker
Feb. 18, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
One unexpected outcome of Russia’s war in Ukraine has been the resurgence of the West as a strong security alliance. For how long is still in doubt.
The skepticism common in Western capitals in recent years about the unity of the trans-Atlantic alliance may have encouraged Moscow’s decision to challenge Europe’s post-Cold War order. If so, that Russian calculation backfired. The invasion of Ukraine rapidly welded the U.S. and its European allies back together, with Washington resuming its old leadership role in the continent.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, dismissed three years ago by French President Emmanuel Macron as experiencing “brain death,” has rediscovered its reason for existence. Moscow’s actions have led Finland and Sweden to seek to join NATO after decades of staying outside alliances. “That’s certainly something I didn’t foresee. And I certainly don’t think the Russians foresaw it either,” said John Bolton, national security adviser to former President Donald Trump, calling it a major Western strategic success.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s attempt to split European governments from each other and from Washington by choking off Europe’s natural-gas supplies over the winter failed. A broader alliance of rich democracies has also solidified, encompassing Japan, South Korea and Australia. “The biggest takeaway is stronger coherence and alignment of the trans-Atlantic relationship and NATO; of the European Union; and of the [Group of Seven], all a direct consequence of the end of the peace dividend and the threat from Russia having become, essentially, a rogue state,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the political-risk consulting firm Eurasia Group.
The reanimated Western alliance has its limits. The common cause of containing Russian expansionism hasn’t prevented the Biden administration from pursuing an approach to subsidizing green tech that the European Union decries as protectionist.
But Washington’s dominance of the Western effort to support Ukraine’s defense has left European governments both relieved and worried about how long the U.S. will stay engaged. “We should be grateful every day that the last Atlanticist is in the Oval Office right now, but we shouldn’t take it for granted,” said Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. “The outsized investment in European security right now by the U.S. administration will be an exception.”
The durability of Western cohesion could depend on three main questions.
If the war in Ukraine drags on into next year and beyond, as Western officials increasingly see as likely, will European governments continue to back Kyiv and boost their share of the trans-Atlantic defense burden enough to convince Washington that they are no longer free-riding on American security guarantees?
Will the Republican Party continue to back the U.S. engagement with Europe and support for Ukraine?
And will differences in approach between the U.S. and Europe toward the strategic competition posed by China revive trans-Atlantic tensions?
The West emerged as a geopolitical entity after World War II, crystallizing in reaction to an expansionist Soviet Union. Its renewed relevance has been driven by Moscow’s aggressive designs on its neighbors.
It has been made possible only by another little-expected development: Ukrainian military success. Most military analysts expected Russia to overrun Ukraine quickly, but the defenders’ accomplishment in resisting and partially repelling the invasion has forced a Western reassessment of their stake in Ukraine, now seen as a bulwark against Russian revanchism.
The scale of U.S. military aid for Kyiv and the relatively small contributions by many European NATO countries are leading to criticism on both sides of the Atlantic that the alliance remains lopsided. Early in the war, Germany and other European countries that have scaled back military spending in recent decades vowed to rebuild their military capabilities and belatedly fulfill promises to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense.
Action has followed only slowly, however. The sense of urgency has slipped somewhat as Russia’s invasion has struggled. The costly energy war with Moscow forced European governments to spend heavily to shelter households and industries from soaring gas prices. The pan-European economic slowdown has added to budgetary pressures in a continent where public debts are already high after the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. And higher military spending remains unpopular with voters in many European countries. “There’s still underinvestment in defense throughout Europe,” said John Chipman, director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “The sense that European security can be maintained by Europe alone is something for the still very distant future,” he said.
Many European officials and analysts fear that, if the region can’t show it is taking more responsibility for its own security, U.S. politicians such as Donald Trump will fan discontent at the perception that America is providing security for a continent that refuses to pull its own weight.
Europeans worry that the sands of U.S. domestic politics are shifting whatever they do. Governments are concerned that Republican control of the House of Representatives will complicate large-scale U.S. aid for Ukraine beyond the current budgetary year, while a Republican win in next year’s presidential election could lead a renewed focus on China and a downgrading of European security. “I think the isolationist problem in the Republican Party is certainly back,” said Mr. Bolton, who served as an official in several Republican administrations. “It’s out there, but I think it remains a very small part, certainly of the congressional party and the public at large. There’s an isolationist problem in the Democratic Party, too.”
However, American policy and public opinion are likely to stay supportive of Ukraine in the next two years, Mr. Bolton said. “Then looking at the Republican 2024 contestants other than Trump himself, everybody else to me looks either pro-assistance to Ukraine or, at this point, unknown. I don’t know anybody else in the field other than Trump who questions it.”
Whoever is in the White House, the U.S. is likely to continue to see the Asia-Pacific and China’s rising power as its top geopolitical priority, despite the current focus on the war in Ukraine.
Europe’s economic dependence on China and reluctance to take sides in the U.S.-China strategic rivalry could lead to renewed fissures within the West. Germany, still dealing with a costly divorce from Russian energy, is particularly reluctant to reduce its lucrative trade with China at present. “Europeans are hardening their views on China, but there are still differences with the U.S. approach,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome.
Germany and others are unlikely to go as far as the U.S. in trying to cut Beijing off from sensitive technology such as advanced microchips, but the EU is looking to reduce risky economic dependencies on China, learning lessons from its ill-fated bet on Russian gas.
Even if Europe aligned fully with the U.S. on China, “it’s an illusion that we can lock the U.S. into Europe,” said Mr. Benner. “We need to plan for a future U.S. that is much less engaged in Europe.”