'European Solutions' to European Problems Would Benefit the U.S. Too | Opinion

President Donald Trump's "America first" rhetoric won't change U.S.-Europe relations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday at the Munich Security Conference. "I'm happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly exaggerated," Pompeo announced. "The West is winning, and we're winning together."

French President Emmanuel Macron, also present in Munich, was unconvinced. "There's an American policy that started several years ago—and not just under this administration—that includes a certain kind of withdrawal, of a rethink of its relationship with Europe," he said. "We cannot be the United States' junior partner. I'm impatient for European solutions."

Chief among those solutions, Macron argued, is proactive diplomacy between Western European powers and Russia, choosing to "restart a strategic dialogue, because today we talk less and less, conflicts multiply, and we aren't able to resolve them."

The French president framed his remarks for his European audience, but notice the opportunity Macron's push for "European solutions" provides to the United States. Washington should be rethinking its relationship with Europe and our NATO alliance. European self-reliance should be encouraged and embraced—for the sake of Europe and the United States alike.

In contrast to Pompeo's insistence in Munich on the status quo, Trump has made a point of complaining about many NATO Europe nations' failure to meet their promised benchmark of 2 percent of gross domestic product going to defense spending. These are wealthy countries, he has rightly noted, long past the post-war fragility during which NATO was created, and U.S. subsidy of their security functionally has American taxpayers propping up European domestic spending.

But throughout his three years in office, Trump has failed to match words with deeds: He has increased U.S. military commitments overseas instead of reducing them, and what shifts toward more equitable NATO burden-sharing have happened during his tenure were underway before he took office, so they cannot be fairly credited to this administration's policies.

Still, the truth that U.S. involvement in NATO needs a rethink is impossible to deny, for the alliance was founded in a markedly different security climate than the one in which we find ourselves today. By both military and economic measures, Europe is far stronger now than it was in the postwar years. Meanwhile, modern-day Russia is a declining, regional power, markedly weaker and more modest in its aims than the Soviet Union, which NATO was designed to rebuff.

"[P]resent-day Europe is more than capable of addressing today's threat, without American assistance or supervision," military historian and retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich has argued. "Collectively, the Europeans don't need U.S. troops or dollars."

What the Europeans do need is a freer hand to conduct their own defense, which—as Macron's comments indicate—is likely to be more peaceful and less confrontational without U.S. involvement.

Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron is welcomed by German Secretary of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer during the 2020 Munich Security Conference on February 15 in Munich. Johannes Simon/Getty

Indeed, the counterproductive effect of U.S. troops and dollars in Europe runs to the detriment of all involved: It gives our NATO allies a false sense of security, incentivizing reckless behavior and a neglect of practical diplomacy borne out of the expectation that Washington will always be on hand to help. For the United States, having boots on the ground in Europe raises the risk of escalation with Russia by putting our military in a confrontational position in Moscow's near abroad. This stance does nothing to enhance our vital security interests and much to place them in harm's way.

Applying American solutions to European problems is thus damaging across the board. It makes conflict—in the worst-case scenario, a NATO-Russia shooting war—more likely while disincentivizing productive diplomatic engagement. U.S. taxpayers are tasked with paying for European defense, yet this spending makes no one safer. Europe doesn't benefit by being our "junior partner," but, as the Trump administration should recognize if there is anything of value in its "America first" approach, neither does the United States.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.