With the U.S. economy growing at a snail’s pace and a sense that European nations aren’t taking their own security challenges seriously, it’s easy to see why Americans might question the utility of U.S. support to NATO and foreign military bases. However, instead of viewing the U.S. military as the world’s policeman or as protecting free riders around the globe, we should understand why it is in America’s interests to maintain forces in Europe and ensure that NATO remains strong.
The current sentiment of “noninterventionism” is partly rooted in the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union fell and the U.S. emerged as the sole global power by a wide margin. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, President Bill Clinton’s administration saw fit to embark in a “Peace Dividend,” drawing down the military as a tactic to cut the national deficit. This decision helped set the tone that the U.S. military could be less engaged in the world.
While that sentiment changed in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, the notion that U.S. forces abroad were relics of the Cold War persisted. Though the Department of Defense budget increased to fulfill the needs of engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, policymakers continued to draw down in Europe. During this time, the military considered closing some bases in Europe and one installation in Keflavik, Iceland, which the U.S. had operated for a half century, shut down in 2006 to transfer the assets stationed there to the Middle East. Justification for this closure was in part based on the limited resources of the military at the time.
Though Obama initially reversed course on closing these European installations, he eventually pushed forward with the plans, including the successful closure of two brigade combat teams in Germany in 2013. Just as in 2006 with the closure of the Icelandic base, these decisions were driven not by U.S. strategic considerations, but by budget debates that spanned the entire federal government.
The consequences of America’s drawdown across the Atlantic have been already startlingly clear. Russia’s air force has frequently flown near or even in NATO airspace, and has begun sailing submarine patrols in the North Atlantic at a rate not seen since the Cold War. As the Heritage Foundation’s Luke Coffey points out, “Russia has used military force to change its border in Europe—something that has not happened since World War II. Since 2008, it has invaded two of its neighbors, and it occupies thousands of square miles of territory in Ukraine and Georgia.” America’s withdrawal of significant European commitments has sent signals to NATO members and Russia that the U.S. is less interested and committed to the alliance.
Putin’s Russia seeks to erode European and U.S. unity while seeding doubt in the legitimacy of NATO through a combination of shows of force and propaganda. While it is unlikely that Russia would directly attack a NATO member, the alliance weakening would be a gain for Putin, who is particularly interested in exerting influence on his borders. Not surprisingly, it is these nations who are making the greatest investments in their militaries. While the U.S. benefits from this greater commitment to security, the fact is they are too small to face an overwhelming force alone, which is one reason why NATO remains crucial. It is not in America’s economic or ideological interests to refuse to act as Russia attempts to fray NATO and weaken the continent.
But why should the U.S. care about upheaval in Europe, as long as it doesn’t spill across the Atlantic? If, as some have suggested, the U.S. military is the only member of NATO providing it any legitimacy, why should we continue with the alliance? There are in fact many security, economic, and cultural reasons that Europe remains perhaps the most strategically significant partner for America. Economically, the European Union constitutes the biggest trading partner with the U.S. Europe also remains closely culturally tied to the U.S., through shared values of individual freedom, public discourse, and market economics. The crisis of a resurgent Russia in Europe is a crisis that America should take seriously.
Another advantage of U.S. military presence in Europe is its proximity to the Middle East, Western and South Asia, and Northern Africa. In fact, the U.S. military has subsequently planned to deploy a brigade-sized force across Eastern Europe to deter Russia and is attempting to revitalize the base in Iceland to enable more vigilance of Russia’s increased naval activity. All this illustrates the short sightedness that drove withdrawal and that the U.S. cannot turn away from its security role in Europe without consequences.
The long term costs of a weakened Europe far outweigh the investments of the military to defend its interests across the Atlantic. The U.S. government should continue to support NATO while also considering a return to the greater level of military presence in Europe, so that economic freedom, democratic values, and security for European and American citizens are not further jeopardized.
Brian Slattery is a Policy Analyst for National Security in the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation. He supports all research efforts on defense policy and specifically focuses on U.S. Coast Guard issues and Arctic security policy. He also manages the production of the annual Index of U.S. Military Strength. Prior to joining Heritage, Slattery served as a Defense Research Assistant for Congressman J. Randy Forbes of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he supported the Congressman’s military affairs portfolio. Brian earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Affairs with a business concentration from Xavier University, while also earning a minor in Classical Humanities. He earned a Master of Public Policy degree with a focus in national security from the George Mason University School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs. He and his wife Elizabeth live in Silver Spring, MD.
Photo Credit: A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a very low altitude pass by USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) on April 12, 2016. Donald Cook, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer forward deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting a routine patrol in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)