American Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher recently tweeted, “Poland meets its 2% of GDP spending obligation towards NATO. Germany does not. We would welcome American troops in Germany to come to Poland.” In a time of increasing American disillusionment with Germany, this seemed to be a rapid escalation. US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell—a combative diplomat often categorized as an imperial viceroy by the German lefttold the German press, “It is actually offensive to assume that the US taxpayer must continue to pay to have 50,000-plus Americans in Germany, but the Germans get to spend their surplus on domestic programs.”

And with that returned the German question, and the greatest foreign policy issue facing Americans regarding the European balance of power. Germany has all but refused to increase its share of defense spending, which remains far less than the requisite 2 percent GDP. Germany also refused to side with the UK and US in regard to patrolling the Persian Gulf. Berlin sided with Moscow on the Nord Stream gas pipeline to Europe, to the detriment of East Europeans, and has even sided with Beijing on Huawei, to the detriment of Americans. These are differences of interest with Germany alone. If one takes into account a German-led EU trying to replicate NATO with an EU army, and initiating withering trade wars with American companies, the dimension of the US-Germany relationship changes even further.

American policymakers do not like talking in imperial, or balance of power, terms. One recalls John Kerry reprimanding Russia for practicing nineteenth-century politics. After all, history was over in 1989. But American foreign policy, just like every other hegemonic great power in history, aims at power maximizing, which follows the old-fashioned balance of power rules whether one desires it or not. Since the collapse of the British Empire, the American burden of maintaining open sea routes and balancing Euro-Atlantic relations mirrors the role Great Britain used to play for centuries. With rapid decolonization, the third pole of an intended tripolar world collapsed, and with a Soviet hegemony threatening Europe, there was no choice but to stop Moscow from dominating the European continent.

But American policymakers were never happy with Europe because of a simple dilemma. On the one hand, European muscle atrophied due to its dependence on American hard power. Institutionalizing NATO was a design, not a flaw, to ensure that there were no great power challengers in Europe, and that Germany stayed down. On the other hand, continued military presence in Europe was considered a constant burden by every post-war American president, at odds with pre-war American character and small-government republicanism. While average Americans were never isolationist in the true sense of the term, they were never imperial either, or interested in global policing.

It is the interplay of these two opposing instincts, with the changing geopolitical scenario of Europe, which needs to be discussed. As Reinhold Niebuhr noted, “the more complex the world situation becomes, the more scientific and rational analysis you have to have, the less you can do with simple good will and sentiment.”

A History of the Problem

To understand the European dilemma one needs to retrace the British view of Germany, which wasn’t always negative, starting especially from the alliance of Wellington and the Prussian Blücher at Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna officiated by Metternich. As P.M. Kennedy has written, Protestantism acted as a unifying force against any perceived Catholic super empire in continental Europe, and the British shared a cultural and intellectual affinity with German reactionary and romantic literature, philosophy, and music. But that changed with time, due to simple geopolitics.

The aims of British foreign policy throughout history were fairly simple: one, to preserve trade and sea routes, which led to London being the imperial hegemon and balancer of power in the world; two, to maintain the Royal Navy as the strongest force in the planet, which helped London keep the global balancer role; and three, to ensure there was no single hegemon in control of the entire European landmass. It is ostensibly the third aim that was most important. If the entire continent of Europe was dominated by one great power, the overwhelming aggregate power, demographic, economic, and military, would be too much for any maritime great power to balance. This became more difficult with German unification, the geopolitical question that changed the balance of Europe in a way still shaping global geopolitics.

Lord Palmerston, the great liberal interventionist, was decidedly realist in interpreting that third aim when German armies began massing on the Danish border in 1864. Britain was treaty-bound to defend Denmark, far more than it was to defend Belgium half a century later. Yet Palmerston, busy sending troops to square off the Russian Empire in Crimea, chose to ignore Danish humiliation.

“I am sure every Englishman who has a heart in his breast and a feeling of justice in his mind sympathizes with those unfortunate Danes,” Lord Palmerston quipped. But he ended by saying, “We did not think that the Danish cause would be considered as sufficiently British, and as sufficiently bearing on the interests and the security and the honour of England, as to make it justifiable to ask the country to make those exertions which such a war would render necessary.”

All the poetic phrasing hid very cold realpolitik for someone regularly vilified as a bleeding-heart liberal Whig. Any British expeditionary force would be inferior in numbers in a continental war where Germans could escalate at ease, and would result in a humiliating defeat, or worse, a bleeding stalemate. One minor German border change and the annexation of a province was no alteration of the overall European balance, and in turn, needed not necessitate conflict. Britain continued to divide and rule, hedging between Russia and Germany and France while maintaining a navy capable of choking-off and starving Europe at a moment’s notice without resorting to a land war, a navy that dwarfed all the other great powers combined, and ensured global preponderance and empire.

That all changed. After the heavy security burden of the empire and the sea routes, the Anglo-German naval race, two attempts by Germany to dominate Europe by force, German breakup, German unification, and the formation of the European Union, Germany has reemerged as a prospective hegemon in Europe. For all her free-trade arguments, Margaret Thatcher was far-sighted enough to see this coming, that German unification would bring back the age-old question of the biggest power on the continent and that the European Union could transform from a free-trade zone of different nation-states to a quasi-imperial entity, with an overarching ideological edifice and regime that would not diminish realpolitik but exacerbate it.

The American Situation Today

American foreign policy faces the exact same challenges in Europe that Britain did. Washington, DC, doubled down on “institutionalizing” European peace after the Cold War, disregarding culture, heritage, conservative realism, and common Christendom, to focus on the spread of an arbitrary human-rights regime. It has failed to solve the fundamental foreign policy dilemma faced by any maritime great power with global interests and a tired populace.

Consider an unlikely but plausible scenario where the United States moved out of the European continent, leading to a fiscal, trade, and military union, with a joint foreign policy, that then threw its weight behind Moscow and Beijing. It need not be as powerful as the United States to lead to disaster. After all, a fragile Austro-Hungarian Empire was not comparable to the military might of Britain, yet it threw its weight behind Germany, enough to threaten British trade and power to catastrophic results. A completely independent Europe, or a European Union untethered from the United States, would be the fundamental collapse of more than five hundred years of Anglo-American grand-strategy and balancing.

On the other hand, American taxpayers are legitimately opposed to continuously funding European security. This is not a new phenomenon under President Donald Trump. Both Dwight  D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy wanted to pull troops out of Europe, frustrated with European free-riding. As recently as 2011, Robert Gates, whose bipartisan credentials are not to be questioned, lambasted a NATO gathering, saying, “if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders—those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.” It might even seem that European free-riding has consistently instigated American isolationism, and to some extent, might have been the causal force behind the reemergence of populism in the US. After all, what people in what great power would like being regularly lectured by sanctimonious Europeans dependent on American-taxpayer funded security?

But the emotional politics of populism, for lack of a better word, is incompatible with grand strategy, which requires careful cost-benefit analysis, and is by definition the domain of expertise. Hans Morgenthau, just like Reinhold Niebuhr, was gloomy about populist forces deciding foreign policy. Morgenthau, in particular, warned against a “democratically conducted foreign policy…a compromise between the rational requirements of a good foreign policy, and the emotional preferences of public opinion” because “a foreign policy carried on under democratic control must fall short of the rational requirements of good foreign policy.” Likewise, Niebuhr said, “Our dreams of bringing the whole of human history under the control of the human will are ironically refuted by the fact that no group of idealists can easily move the pattern of history toward the desired goal of peace and justice. The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have power and persistence beyond our reckoning.”

The Beginnings of a Solution

So, what would a genuine American grand strategy in Europe entail? If one studies the arguments coming out of Washington, two separate strands are observable. The more mainstream, primacist strand refuses to acknowledge there has been a significant shift in geopolitics in the last few years and that the post-Cold war balance is, for better or for worse, dead. This strand argues for continued primacy and alliances, offers almost zero pushback against German or Western European free-riding or EU-attempted hegemony and peer-competition in trade, and readily suggests an expansion of NATO. That is doomed. The single most important variable, often unquantifiable, is time. And time has changed the geopolitical scenario. With an increasingly radical Germany, Western Europe looking to pass the security burden even more onto the UK and the US, and the return of nationalist sentiments in major swathes of Europe against the EU imperium, continuing the same strategy is not simply disastrous, but impossible. If Washington, DC, cannot find a balance, domestic populist forces from the left and right will lead to further erosion of American power in Europe. Robert Gates’ warning will sound prophetic.

The other strand is the restrainers. Retrenchment is often a valid strategy to recuperate and restructure. In a recent study, Joseph Parent and Paul MacDonald studied instances when great powers retrenched or doubled down, and found that momentary fallback leads to conservation of resources that are useful for future great power confrontations. “The underlying logic of retrenchment, therefore, is solvency. States, like firms, tend to go bankrupt when they budget blithely and live beyond their means, but states, unlike firms, can be subject to lethal reprisals,” Parent and MacDonald write. They highlight that of the 16 great powers studied, “only two declining powers stuck to the status quo, while only one followed expansionist policies,” while all the others retrenched. While retrenchment from Europe is a valid argument, American restrainers are not sure how that retrenchment will work out and what an intelligent retrenchment strategy would look like. Whatever the long-term benefits of retrenchment may be, it is practically impossible to have a full retrenchment from Europe, or to sell that to American policymakers and the general public.

The key therefore lies in the middle ground. A new grand strategy for Europe is necessary, based on a few distinct principles. First, America should ensure a favorable balance of power by propping up nation-states favorable to American foreign policy and grand strategy. For too long the US wanted to institutionalize peace, but that has resulted in a lopsided balance. A bunch of Western European countries are sanctimonious free-riders, and a bunch of Eastern and Central European countries, along with the UK, are pro-NATO equal contributors in European defense. American policymakers should identify four or five powers capable of taking on the European security burden, and elevate them. The powers should be chosen not just based on trade, but also cultural affinity, religious ties, and overall similar political values. Policy-wise, that would mean privileged weapons and platforms sales, special status with regards to NGOs and cultural exchange, special training and joint operational platforms and doctrines, and financial and material aids. Poland, the United Kingdom, the Baltic countries, etc., fall in that category.

Second, this new grand strategy would redress the great power atrophy that has all but ensured continuous American forward presence, and would result in a more relaxed force posture and lower expenditure, allowing the US to focus on other domains of great power competition. If the UK, Poland, and the Baltic nations have special defense treaties and arrangements under the American security umbrella and within the security architecture of NATO, it would relieve the US from a disproportionate burden. Policy-wise, for example, the US should encourage Poland and the Baltic states to form brigade and division-size patrolling battalions, with operational training under the US or UK forces or commanders. Washington should welcome facilitating bilateral defense ties between two or more allied states under its auspices.

Third, and most importantly, a new grand strategy would break the duopoly of the two power centers, Brussels/Berlin and Moscow. Empowering rival power centers within the European continent is not “divide and rule,” given that America does not intend to go on imperial missions. But if the US intends to maintain a preponderance in the European balance, finding allied powers to share even a portion of the security burden, without giving up and quitting altogether, is the only way forward, at a minimal cost, to American taxpayers.

None of this would be easy. As Morgenthau writes:

Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place. The individual may say for himself: “Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish),” but the state has no right to say so… There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action.

Conserving resources, prudential balance of power, and strategic restraint are therefore key to a realist American grand strategy. But changing a grand strategy of a great power depends on two things, external shock and internal debate. The external shock is palpable. The world has changed since 2016, whether one admits it or not, and a realist would rather see the world as it is and adapt accordingly. The internal debate awaits.