On 11 December 2023, a Wall Street Journal team published an article entitled: “Alam Grows Over Weakened Militaries and Empty Arsenals in Europe.”
They argued: “In the decades since the end of the Cold War, weakened European armies were tolerated by governments across the West because an engaged America, with its vast military muscle, underpinned the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and defense policy in Europe. The U.S. accounted for nearly 70% of NATO’s defense spending last year…
“There is no immediate military danger to Europe from Russia, and Western military and political leaders think that Russia is for now contained by its war of attrition in Ukraine. But if Russia ultimately wins in Ukraine, few doubt Moscow’s capacity to rearm completely within three to four years and cause trouble elsewhere. Russian President Vladimir Putin has for years mourned the loss of a Russian empire that encompassed Ukraine and other Eastern European nations including the Baltics.”
The sentence in between the two sentences above was this one: “But alarm has grown as America has moved toward a more isolationist stance, and as the understanding of a potential threat to Europe from Russia re-emerges, after nearly two years of bloody fighting in Ukraine.”
This needs a serious correction. Perhaps America becomes isolationist but the more predictable outcome is America reducing its global engagements because it no longer has the capacity to do so in a world of multi-polar authoritarian powers and groups.
And as for the Russian challenge along with the Chinese, it is hardly the current war in Ukraine which has made the point.
That is why we wrote and published our book in 2021 on the return of direct defense in Europe.
As General (Rtd.) Jean-Paul PALOMÉROS wrote in the introduction to the book:
The future of international relationships and their consequences for peace and democracy may be unpredictable as many keep on saying. It’s true that since the end of the 20th century, while some theorists, such as Francis Fukuyama, were predicting “The End of History,” meaning the triumph of the Western democratic model, but on the contrary we have seen a succession of conflicts in the close proximity of Europe, in the Middle East, in Africa and rising tensions in the far East.
In addition, the last decade has been marked by a kind of time acceleration and a new geostrategic complexity entailing the connection, the interaction, the simultaneity of new forms of crises involving an increasing number of actors, states themselves, state-sponsored groups, ethnic or religious parties, organized criminal organizations.
The eruption of new digital technologies in conjunction with new societal behavior has supported as well this global world security transformation, giving a new life to espionage and disinformation, blurring offender identities and diluting any attribution process.
Main international actors, such as Russia or China have rapidly seized the opportunity allowed by this new geostrategic complexity to support their own geopolitical agenda by capitalizing on very destabilizing hybrid strategies enabling them to keep the level of pressure just below the threshold of armed conflict.
As part of their overall strategy, these great powers have been producing a huge effort to increase and modernize their arsenals both in the nuclear and conventional domains. Taking advantage of this geostrategic maelstrom is no longer only the feature of big powers.
Other countries have tried to capitalize on the “fog of complexity” to push their national ambitions, more and more openly, especially in the Middle East, with Turkey representing the best single example as a close and influencing neighbor of Europe and member of NATO as well.
This new complex geostrategic environment represents a crucial, and vital challenge for democracies and for the international organizations which have been in charge of promoting, protecting and sometimes enforcing peace since the end of the second world war some 75 years ago.
On the one hand, for the majority of citizens of the “Western democracies,” the risk of a major devastating conflict on their soil seems remote. On the other hand, for political and military leaders many warning signals are flashing, and so is the need to prepare for a new direct defense era.
As a striking example, the demise of INF treaty (e.g. the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty signed by USA and USSR on 1st June 1988) opens the door for a potential use of limited-power “tactical” nuclear weapons on European territory. In the same line, new hypersonic ballistic missiles able to defeat NATO air defenses represent a growing threat for the Alliance. Finally, to simply have a short list of key challenges, the risk of direct action against EU or NATO space assets has been considerably increased by the ability to access to some form of space power not only for big nations but for medium states as well.
At the same time, while direct risks for democracies are increasing, other existential threats have been growing for some time and represent today clear, present and direct dangers which cannot be ignored. After a dramatic first half of the 20th century, when two world wars decimated many generations, leaving behind wreckage and sorrow in particular in Europe, farseeing and responsible men imagined and framed a new future for mankind, a new hope for future generations, based upon freedom, rules of law, peace and prosperity.
They built a complete set of institutions, such as the UN, NATO and later the EU, alongside with international treaties and rules to shape a new way ahead.
They recognized as well that building a robust, coherent, cohesive, relevant and credible direct defense was indispensable to protect the fragile rebuilding of European countries and their democratic values.
The Atlantic Alliance Washington treaty established on the 4th April 1949 remains a vivid example of this individual and collective Allied commitment: “The Parties to this treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and
their desire to live in peace with all people and governments. They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage, and civilization of their peoples…. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area. They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defense and for the preservation of peace and security….”
Today, many of the golden principles written down in this superb piece of international diplomacy and wisdom are in great jeopardy and they must be protected from outside attack as well as internal threats.
This is one of the many great values of “the return of direct defense in Europe,” to face, to meet the challenge of XXIst century authoritarian powers. Because the great risks that lie in front of our democracies deserve to be named: national selfishness, divergence of strategic and economic interests, trampling on fundamental and commonly agreed values.
“The return of direct defense in Europe” is both a moving testimony to those who have built and defended our democracies for seven decades but as well a vibrant appeal to resurrect the spirit and the will of the democratic Alliance’s founding fathers. It’s true that the future is unpredictable, but nevertheless, it’s our permanent duty to prepare for it and to learn from our history: as the Spanish-born U.S. philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) put it: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In writing this outstanding tribute to democracies and the crucial need to keep on fighting for their values, Robbin Laird and Murielle Delaporte do not only draw a very well informed and instructive historical perspective on the defense of Europe since the Second World War. They enlighten as well with regard to the crucial challenges of the present and even more of the future, with regard to the key choices that leaders of our democracies must make, and with regard to the key question that lies in front of new generations: How best to defend together democracy as a unique heritage built upon the sacrifices of their fathers?