Munich: the E.U.-U.S. Military Argument Revisited

by Aube Rey Lescure

Free riders beware, the deadly Clinton-Panetta State-Defense duo has landed in Germany this week for the 2012 Munich Security Conference—an arrival that was expected to leave European defense ministers in disarray as they dodged the pair’s verbal bullets targeted at increasing low European defense spending and changing the continent’s dependence on U.S. military support—but wait. Put away the popcorn, nothing remotely close even happened. Clinton and Panetta indulged, instead, in heart-warming sisterly talks of reassurance with their European counterparts, pledging that Europe was still their number one strategic military ally and that they were deeply, soulfully apologetic for the U.S. withdrawal of approximately 6,000 troops from Europe—which, of course, meant no loss at all in terms of how dear Europe was to America’s heart.

What is it with the all of the sudden niceties? Americans have been annoyed and distraught by European unwillingness to invest in its own defense ever since the end of the Cold War. The conflicts in the Balkans and Kosovo in the early to mid-1990s exposed the full extent of European military weakness—the E.U. could, at best, provide peacekeeping, but struggled with effectively deploying actual combat forces. The U.S. had to return time and again to bail Europe out militarily. Even today, the U.S. has a surprising number of troops stationed in Europe, with 54,000 in Germany alone.

Clinton and Panetta’s attitude, it turned out, was serving as a counterbalance to bitter remarks by senior U.S. officials whose irritation with the current European defense situation was reignited by the Munich Security Conference.  They are not alone in their ire.

Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta at the 2012 Munich Security Conference. (Flickr Creative Commons)

Back in 2002, Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, won many hearts with his essay “Power and Weakness”, which drew national attention to the fact that Europe, according to Kagan, was happy with adopting strategies of weakness and bandwagonning behind the U.S. militarily. Kagan argued that with America’s help and at America’s expense, Europe had resolved the Kantian dilemma—that is, it succeeded in building up a supergovernment without having to worry about the security resources needed to maintain such a government. While Europeans loosened their belts and enjoyed their utopia in the snuggly western parts of the Eurasian continent, America was left to police the rest of the world.

If we follow the Kaganian argument, we arrive at the conclusion that the U.S. provides security for Europe in two ways: one visible, one invisible. The hardware, intelligence and manpower that the U.S. contributes both bilaterally to the E.U. and through NATO are the quantifiable factors; and the oft-neglected unquantifiable factor is that America’s possession of the hardware itself makes it a more likely target for those against whom it sought defense in the first place. The terrorist threat to Europe, for example is negligible compared to that of the U.S.

It’s a classic security dilemma—the more arms build-up, the more feared and resented the country. What many argue, though, is that the U.S. security dilemma is amplified by an idle Europe that is enjoying its position of weakness and the relative security that comes with it. Many U.S. hardliners thus clamor for more European military spending—the basic implication being that it will come as a relief to the United States. France currently spends around 2.4% of its GDP on military expenditures, Britain 2.7% and the U.S. 4.7%.

Now comes the time to be skeptical. The U.S. is already swallowing defense budget cuts—Panetta agreed for $487 billion to be cut over the next ten years. That, however, is already a compromise from the original goal of $500 billion. Panetta was clear on the matter: the U.S. simply cannot cut any more. America wants to maintain its current high military expenditure level. Even if the E.U. changes its mind overnight and decides to devote 5% of its GDP on defense, the U.S. probably would not make any responsive change to its own budget! Of course, it could be argued that an increase in European military expenditure would still make the U.S. relatively weaker and thus a relatively smaller target. And yet, to be realistic, those who already pose a real security threat to the U.S. are not likely to shift targets over minor, relative changes. As long as the U.S. keeps being a hegemon, it will continue to be the primary target of security threats. If, hypothetically, the E.U. started militarizing so much that it started getting all the heat—then clearly U.S. hegemony would have been significantly disturbed, which the U.S. would not allow to happen.

To be objective, then, the U.S. shouldn’t complain too much or push Europe too hard about raising military expenditures. A reasonable demand would be for Europe to at least be able to take care of its own backyard—but in terms of intervening internationally and diffusing the “target burden”, no matter how loudly the U.S. whines, it is clearly not going to take real advantage of any “relief” Europe provides.

Aube Rey Lescure ’15 is in Davenport College.  She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on E.U. affairs.  Contact her at