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Will COVID-19 shift America away from Europe, toward Asia?

If President Donald Trump is re-elected in November, his administration should examine America’s commitment to NATO and consider re-balancing U.S. forces to meet other security threats.

The Trump administration will have to determine if NATO is still the most important U.S. security commitment or just a habit.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO advocates have urged continuous enlargement of the alliance and assumption of out-of-area missions like Afghanistan. However, many of these advocates have professional interests in, or emotional attachments to, a Cold War-style face-off with Russia, which is not the Soviet Union of yore.

Trump’s National Security Policy announced the resumption of competition with “the revisionist powers of China and Russia” and that Russia “seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders” which is certainly a concern for countries near Russia’s borders.

NATO is part of the post-World War II security architecture that, along with the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods Agreement, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, was created to help Europe rebuild and prepare for the looming contest with the Soviet Union. But today Europe has almost 450 million citizens and is the world’s largest economic bloc with a GDP of over $20 trillion dollars (25% of world GDP). No one thinks the Marshall Plan has any relevance to European governance or economic management today, so does NATO – founded in 1949 – still have relevance for the U.S.?

NATO ended the Cold War with 16 members but, starting in 1999, added fourteen new members, running the alliance up to Russia’s borders. Russia pushed back in Ukraine, annexing Crimea and supporting separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk, and in Georgia, it supported separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also engages in activities below NATO’s Article 5 threshold, such as information warfare and targeted killings.

George Marshall, in a June 1947 speech at Harvard University said, about what became known as the Marshall Plan, “The initiative, I think, must come from Europe.” But can today’s Europe take the initiative to do more to defend itself against possible Russian aggression if the U.S. reassess its role? Does it want to?

Europe can defend against Russia. It did before NATO – the Central Powers defeated Russia in 1918 – and has a larger economy and population today, though Russian leader Vladimir Putin has a higher risk tolerance and a keener appreciation of geography.

Russia seeks regional influence not because Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the KGB, but because when its leaders look at a map, they’re reminded Russia was invaded by the Poles, the Swedes, the French, the Mongols, and the Germans (twice).

The West couldn’t impose Carthaginian terms on the Soviet Union, so it was only a matter of time before Moscow would address its eternal concerns about traditional invasion routes from the west, via the European Plain, and from the south, via the steppes and the land between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, used by the Mongols in the 13th century. Therefore, Russia must have a naval presence in the Black Sea (and it does at Crimea) and wield influence in the Caucasus.

A U.S. Army infantryman waits atop an M2 Bradley fighting vehicle for the start of a live fire training exercise at Presidenski Range in Trzebian, Poland, March 26, 2018. (Dustin Biven/U.S. Army)

NATO’s continued utility for America will be affected by the coronavirus pandemic. In a worrying sign, Europe’s reaction to the virus put the lie to its much-heralded “solidarity,” which is European for “this will be expensive.”

Italy, worst hit by COVID-19, was ignored by the rest of Europe, but China, Russia, and Cuba promptly sent aid, and though the supplies were found to be defective it was a public relations win for the authoritarians. Every state in Europe closed its borders and focused on national concerns, including banning the export of medical supplies to neighboring countries.

In France, one of the poles of the European Union (EU), the finance minister exhorted his countrymen to “Buy French” and favor locally-sourced food. French President Emmanuel Macron channeled Brexiter Nigel Farage when he said: “We have to take back control.”

Germany supports an EU emergency bailout loan (an “enhanced credit line”) to Italy. The Italians, with over 18,000 dead, argue that as they aren’t responsible for the outbreak. European solidarity dictates there should be no strings. Berlin says any conditions will be merely symbolic, but keenly wants to avoid issuing jointly-backed bonds to deal with the crisis. European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde initially dismissed calls for financial aid to Italy before backtracking in the face of criticism. Forcing Italy to accept a bailout with onerous conditions will boost populist politicians, just when the COVID-19 response could have increased public confidence in established government structures responsible for relief and service delivery.

And Christmas is coming early for populist parties as Germany announced that, while its doors are closed to other Europeans, refugees are still allowed in. This from the Chancellor who said “Wir schaffen das” (We can do this) in 2015 as she opened the door to a million refugees and changed the politics of the continent.

Russia is ready to exploit Italian populist suspicion of Brussels and establishment politicians. Moscow’s relations with Rome go back to the 1960s when Italy had the largest communist party in Europe. Today, Putin pals around with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, at one point the pair visited Crimea, to the fury of the government of Ukraine.

And it may work. A recent nationwide poll found that 88% of Italians feel the EU is not helping Italy and that 67% think EU membership disadvantages the country.

The EU also seems determined to alienate Greece by demanding it allow the refugees forced across its border by Turkey to apply for asylum. However, Greece is the centerpiece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Italy was the first EU country to join the BRI which caused protests in Brussels.

European indifference, or animosity, to “the South,” is giving Russia and China a foothold on the continent with the potential to split the EU, and quickening the rise of populist politicians, who exist to hit the brakes when the establishment forgets who it works for.

NATO’s supporters see the alliance as a binding commitment, but it’s a political arrangement, not a Catholic marriage. Most members aren’t close to the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense and, coupled with the obvious lack of solidarity demonstrated so far, leads to the conclusion that this contract may need to be renegotiated as the European pillar is cracking under pressure.

U.S. Marines conducting exercises in South Korea. (Sara A. Medina/USMC)

And Trump may see America’s 71-year commitment to NATO as ripe for renegotiation. In the face of the urgency of America’s concerns in the Indo-Pacific region, and the bills that will come due in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, why invest limited resources in a market that’s more important to someone else? Or, conversely, why not let someone else take the market and all the trouble that comes with it?

A 2015 poll found “Europe is the continent with the fewest people willing to fight a war for their country.” The front-line states like Poland (47%), Romania (38%), Finland (74%), and Latvia (41%) are game, but in the heart of “old Europe,” France (29%) and Germany (18%) are unenthusiastic. Europeans also have a strong preference for neutrality in a conflict between the U.S. and Russia, reaching 70% in Germany.

The alliance reacted in a muted manner to Turkey’s flirtation with Russia, though the U.S. kicked Turkey out of the F-35 combat aircraft program after Ankara bought the Russian S-400 air defense system. On the other hand, the alliance hasn’t done anything about Turkey’s disruption of energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean which will diminish Europe’s energy security.

In 2018, Trump suggested the U.S. should leave NATO. Congress immediately pushed back and Trump later said leaving would be unnecessary as the allies had started to increase their defense spending commitments to the 2% goal.

The U.S. has continued to deploy troops to Europe in support of NATO obligations, most recently in the now-curtailed DEFENDER-Europe 20 exercise, “the largest deployment of U.S.-based forces to Europe for an exercise in the more than 25 years.”

The U.S. has over 60,000 troops in Europe, but do they need to be there? Deployments to other theatres such as Africa, which consumes 0.3 (one-third of one percent) of the defense budget, may promise a high payoff through training of local forces and joint counter-terror operations. And a U.S. military presence, backing up trade and diplomacy, will bolster African governments as they face Russian and Chinese attempts to build influence in the resource-rich continent.

A changed U.S. commitment, possibly including troop cuts, may mean a bigger role for front-line states such as Poland, but that may not be acceptable to some in Western Europe as long as Poland is ruled by the uncomfortably (to Paris and Berlin) nationalistic and patriotic Law and Justice Party. Europe will have to deal with it. It’s not America’s concern.

The U.S. is a co-founder of the Atlantic alliance but it is also a Pacific country by nature of geography, trading links, diplomatic and military connections, and cultural and family ties. China’s negligent behavior which loosed coronavirus on the world has highlighted the Chinese Communist Party’s role as a global menace, as opposed to Russia which seeks to be a spoiler in order to secure a compliant perimeter, quell foreign interventions in its institutions and society, and get contracts for its energy firms and defense contractors run by Putin’s collaborators.

The U.S. military is preparing for conflict in the Pacific.

The Marine Corps has unveiled a 10-year plan to retool for increased mobility to support naval expeditionary warfare and an island-hopping campaign against China’s missile and naval forces. The Air Force is studying ways to operate away from its main airfields in the geographically-dispersed Indo-Pacific region. The Navy is already forward-deployed but needs more combatant ships to regain its edge against China’s growing blue-water fleet. And though the Pacific theatre is typically considered the domain of the sea services and the Air Force, the Army has a role defending South Korea and possibly occupying the “first island chain” to blunt Chinese naval and air forces trying to break out into the Pacific.

There is plenty for the U.S. to do in the Pacific, from countering China, to reducing the threats still emanating from North Korea, and working with India so it cooperates with the U.S. in ensuring freedom of navigation in the theatre.

There is no “Asian NATO.” The leading multilateral political structure in the region, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a group of ten countries that exists to promote cooperation and facilitate economic, political, security, military, educational, and sociocultural integration among its members. ASEAN isn’t as wealthy as, and lacks the command-and-control impulses, of the EU. It has less military potential than NATO, but it best suits local sensibilities.

One way for the U.S. to focus its efforts in Asia is via the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal group of the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia. The four members – all democracies – have long worked together, have advanced economies, and cover the globe, stretching from the west coast of the U.S. to the Indian subcontinent, from the South Pacific to Northeast Asia. The group was moribund until 2017 when the heads of the four states agreed to revive the pact. China’s recent behavior is a reminder why that was a good idea.

The U.S. needs to not retreat from Europe but to let the Europeans work though the internal contradictions of the EU project, which will give the U.S. a clear picture of the European readiness to confront aggression. If Europe goes wobbly in the face of COVID-19, will it do the same if Russia decides to use its army to protect the rights of Russian speakers in NATO member Latvia?

And speaking of Russia, does every Russian move require a U.S. counter-move? No. That allows Russia to set the pace of events. For example, the U.S. shouldn’t waste time trying to quash every Russian economic project with a third party; action is warranted only if Russia is acting to deny market entry to others.

The U.S. can offer a diplomatic convening space in disputes between NATO members, such as between Greece and Turkey over migrants, but Washington shouldn’t intervene (or “show leadership” as the intervenors put it) in the organization of Europe’s affairs. That’s not just philosophical – there’s just too much else to do.

What should be on America’s to-do list?

First, work with friends and allies in the Pacific to blunt the expansionist plans of the Chinese Communist Party, try to bring North Korea in from the cold, and uphold freedom of navigation everywhere.

Next, continue the modest investment in African security through defense training and counter-terrorism missions. This effort should back up increased trade links and diplomatic engagement.

In the Middle East, work with local stakeholders to discipline Turkey’s bullying claims for energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rationalizing who owns what will encourage investment and contribute to Europe’s energy security. Continue to support freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf.

Last, don’t neglect your own neighborhood. Russia is seeking a foothold in Venezuela in reaction to NATO expansion, though that sorry country will soon become a humanitarian emergency and destabilize the region. So, keep a weather eye on Caracas, continue counter-narcotics cooperation with Latin American governments, and don’t ignore the Tri-Border Area, the lawless space between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, which has attracted Iran’s terror proxy Hezbollah.

The world after COVID-19 will force the U.S. to sharpen its focus.

There will be increased spending on public health measures to ensure a faster response to the next pandemic. The cost of the government’s emergency legislation against COVID-19 (and reduced business receipts from the economic slowdown) will divert resources and leaders’ time away from the less consequential.

If the U.S. reorients from Europe to the Indo-Pacific region that will change the mix of equipment the Defense Department orders, which will cause Beltway battles for money that will be as ferocious as anything we could get into with China.

We will also see regionalization of supply chains, or rebalancing U.S. imports away from China to other low-cost producers in order to reduce risk and increase resilience. The investment in the rebalancing will have political effects which may also shape the contours of U.S. force deployments and diplomatic engagements.

Then there will be the political reckoning with China’s apologists and the boosters of unrestrained globalization – who are busy deleting tweets as you read this.

It’s going to be great!