The West Keeps Drifting Further Apart. Can the American-European Alliance Survive? | Opinion

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of participating in the U.S.-German Strategic Dialogue, conducted in conjunction with the Munich Security Conference, the largest annual conclave of foreign policy practitioners and experts in the world. The topic this year was "Westlessness", and key speeches at the Conference, unfortunately, amplified the deepening differences between the U.S. and our European allies.

Putting the U.S. at the same level as Russia and China, and blaming it for rejecting the very notion of international community, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier articulated what many Germans feel: that President Donald J. Trump is more dangerous to the world than Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jingping.

French President Emmanuel Macron raised the now-familiar theme of European security being somehow independent of the United States, but not damaging NATO. However, this is putting lipstick on the pig: with Britain gone post Brexit, the EU will be down to just one nuclear power—France. And Macron's neo-Gaullist visions of grandeur of an EU led by France and paid for by Germany is not easily accepted by other European leaders. Many times in the past the Europeans have talked about creating their own military structure, and many times they have failed to implement.

Europe's deep divide

The dividing lines are deepening between Western and Central and Eastern Europe, and between international liberal leaders like Macron and the weakened German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who is on her way out) and populist nationalist leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Polish PiS party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and the Italian Lega leader Matteo Salvini.

Central and Eastern Europeans are worried about Russia, while southern Europeans along the Mediterranean, from Spain to France to Greece, are more concerned about the tidal wave of migrants from the Global South, the floodgates of which were opened by Frau Merkel in 2015.

Today, Russo-Turkish tensions in Syria, and the joint Russian-Syrian assault on Idlib have turned 900,000 internally displaced people into potential refugees. Europe stood by passively while Russian warplanes bombed indiscriminately.

Further West, in Libya, the civil war in the aftermath of the European-American intervention in 2011 has become internationalized. Russia and Turkey find each other on opposing sides of the battlefield: Russia, Egypt, and the UAE support the Bengazi-based strongman General Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey and Qatar—both sugar daddies of the Muslim Brotherhood movement—back the internationally recognized, but weak, government in Tripoli headed by Fayez al-Sarraj.

In Libya, Europe again demonstrated its irrelevance and toothlessness, neither willing nor able to hermetically seal the Libyan coast from refugee flows, or even significantly contributing to conflict resolution beyond hosting the Berlin conference earlier this year.

The resulting flood of refugees has exacerbated the political shift in Europe, strengthening anti-migrant newcomers such as Alternativa fur Deutschland (AfD), and the Italian Lega. Some nationalists are pro-American, like in Poland, while others are anti-Atlanticists.

Moreover, Greece and others in the Eastern Med are worried about Turkish truculence in Syria, Libya, Cyprus, and beyond.

America's key European allies continue to put their national interests above their trans-Atlantic obligations. Germany is Exhibit One: it prefers to buy Russian natural gas from Gazprom's Nordstream 2 pipeline, which would bypass and strangle Ukraine, while empowering the Kremlin.

While Berlin is talking the good talk about NATO and European security, the German armed forces and the country's military infrastructure, including transportation networks—ports, railroads, and highways—are woefully inadequate to deter potential Russian mischief in Belarus, Ukraine, and even the Baltic states. Despite solemn promises, German military allocations will not meet the NATO goals accepted in Wales in 2014 by 2031, if ever. Germany does not intend to stand up and deploy three ready divisions until 2034, as if we were still living in the previous decade.

Both Germany and France have refused to buy America's state-of-the-art F-35 stealth multi-role fighter, opting for their own plane, codenamed Future Combat Air System (FCAS). Unfortunately, it will not see mass production until 2040, when it will most likely be obsolescent.

And many European capitals, including London, are ignoring America's concerns about China's Huawei 5G hardware, which may become the backbone of yet another tech revolution. China today is an important factor in European security and a dominant one in the continent's economic and cyber safety. Moreover, increasingly self-assured, China is exporting its high-tech surveillance population control model around the world, challenging the Western democratic paradigm—with zero counter-action from Europe.

Can the alliance survive?

In the meantime, the U.S. military is engaging in an unprecedented exercise, Defender Europe 20, which involves rushing a fully mechanized division across the Atlantic, landing it in German ports, and transporting it to the East, with elements arriving to Lithuania via sea. While Eastern Europeans are delighted with this demonstration of support by the U.S., Germans are complaining that they will see US battle tanks on their streets.

Despite the whining, Washington is committed to Europe's security—for now. However, in the years and decades to come, the United States will emphasize its defense priorities in Asia. This is where the real effort is going to go.

The Indo-Pacific is a much bigger area than the Atlantic theater we've become so familiar with since the Cold War. Due to China's industrial and economic might, and the much longer flight times and sailing distances involved, any future conflict will require more materiel and personnel, and will be more costly than any conflict in the Euro-Atlantic theater.

Let us hope that Europe's and the U.S.' values and defense goals remain in sync. This is the time for our European allies to transition from sloganeering and wishful thinking, and work closely with the U.S. to protect the continent and its borders, committing its will, human resources, finances, R&D, and industrial potential to joint defense.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow (non-resident) at The Atlantic Council and Director, Program on Energy, Growth and Security at International Tax and Investment Center. He is the Founding Principal of International Market Analysis Ltd.

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