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The Need for an European Army in Today’s World

The Need for an European Army in Today's World

As NATO approaches its 75th anniversary, the transatlantic community stands at an inflection point. The Pax Americana is over, democracy is in retreat, and the rules-based order hangs by a thread. Meanwhile, the U.S. is more riven with acrimony and disagreement than at any point since the Civil War. Further American security assistance to Ukraine remains uncertain as Russia continues to make incremental gains across the 600-mile front. On the other hand, Europe has no more aid to give. If one can draw a positive from the past two years, it’s the reinvigoration of NATO. However, many are rightfully wondering whether unity will be enough. Without American aid, Ukraine would have fallen, and Europe is more reliant on Washington for security than ever before. It’s time to reassess the transatlantic security architecture. NATO must remain the cornerstone, but the alliance needs a robust European pillar. America can no longer single-handedly confront every global crisis. Perhaps controversially, the circumstances mandate a pan-European army under the auspices of the EU.

The fact that Britain, France, and Germany cannot support Ukraine without American aid should be a wake-up call in every Western capital. The Russian invasion revealed shocking decay within even Europe’s most capable militaries. Their tanks did not work, ammunition was scarce, and their defense industrial bases proved incapable of keeping up. This readiness level is deplorable, but so is Washington’s response. President Biden is repeating a strategic mistake that has plagued every administration since the Cold War. This error is the failure to realize the advantages of a militarily self-sufficient EU. The U.S. needs a capable ally that shares its values to safeguard mutual interests and check autocratic aggression. Moreover, the EU needs a credible tool to back its words if it desires a prominent role in the evolving multipolar order.

Unfortunately, the EU cannot support a war effort in its own backyard against an adversary whose economy is ten times smaller. No European country can perform autonomous operations across the full spectrum of conflict without American intervention. Moreover, Europe lacks the capabilities expected of modern militaries, notably aerial refueling, command and control, and transport. For example, the French required American aerial transport to conduct its counterterrorist operations in the Sahel. Considering France is one of Europe’s predominant military powers, this instance is particularly illustrative but surely not the only example.

Given these stark realities, Western policymakers should push for a European military anchored in the Atlantic framework. The EU should aim for an army numbering at least 100,000 troops from various member states. Participation would be optional for each state, and Brussels would need to hammer out the minutiae, like command structure and ensuring civilian control. Such a prospect seems fantastical from an American perspective, but Europe has made similar efforts in the past.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has stymied previous European attempts to enhance self-sufficiency. As the continent’s security guarantor, Washington historically wielded a de facto veto over European security policy. Consequently, American skepticism has fostered a view within Europe that establishing an independent military force would strain relations with their main security provider. Indeed, Germany, Poland, and the Baltics have publicly rebuffed France’s push for a European army based on this principle.

Since the USSR’s dissolution, each president has voiced a common concern: No EU military can duplicate NATO’s capabilities. Madeleine Albright expressed this reservation after the Saint-Malo declaration, where historically dubious Britain finally endorsed an autonomous European military force. The second Bush administration even countered an EU proposal for a rapid reaction force with a NATO equivalent. During the Trump years, the administration threatened retribution against any plans that came at the expense of American defense contractors or duplicated NATO. Meanwhile, Biden resorted to the same narrative about preserving the alliance’s integrity and avoiding replication. Instead of discouraging European ambitions, the U.S. should empower its allies across the Atlantic.

The U.S. should enthusiastically endorse the concept of a European army or, at a minimum, a form of strategic autonomy. Doing so would legitimize the idea, especially among countries hesitant for fear of upsetting the U.S. Moreover,  American backing would enable Washington to shape the process and ensure its alignment with NATO. If done correctly, a pan-European army would complement the alliance, not replicate it. NATO-EU collaboration could identify weak points where Brussels could fill the gap. The EU could then make these additional assets available within NATO.

The EU would need to establish a mechanism for joint procurement. Each country currently develops its militaries individually, so there is no coordination to ensure efficient allocation of capabilities. This fragmentation results in too many weapons systems, redundancies, and wasteful spending. By pooling resources, the EU could prioritize capabilities that are impractical for individual nations to pursue, such as aircraft carriers and aerial refueling. The ultimate objective should include a Europe that can independently conduct operations across the full spectrum of conflict. NATO would still serve its core function of collective security but with a strengthened European pillar.

Like any course of action, this endeavor comes with pitfalls. As a supranational organization, many may question, “Who would die for the EU?”. However, decades of integration have fostered a generation loyal to both their nation-state and the EU. Politicians and citizens alike see themselves as embodying and serving the interests of the European project. And with a population of 450 million, a force of 100,000 soldiers willing to defend Europe is not an unreasonable goal. Additionally, this force would complement national militaries, not supplant them. Certain countries like France take immense pride in their armed forces and would understandably never relinquish their military tradition.

Another concern is the suggestion that European countries should simply increase their defense spending. However, this is not a matter of spending, which Europe has substantially increased over the last decade. In aggregate, EU countries allocate more funds to their militaries than China and Russia. Despite this investment, they still lack critical capabilities.

Such an endeavor would span decades, but the key is to set the process in motion. Had Washington recognized the benefits of this plan decades ago, the situation in Ukraine would be much different today. Furthermore, a strategically autonomous Europe would allow the U.S. to divert more resources and, most crucially, its attention to the Asia-Pacific. The U.S., Europe, and a select number of partner countries represent the last bastions against a system where might makes right. Unfortunately, current politicians are governed by the same outmoded post-Cold War thinking. Once American policymakers realize they cannot do everything at once, the free world will be in a much better position.