A shift in focus by the US toward the Asia-Pacific region should not be automatically construed as indicative of a weakened transatlantic partnership. In fact, much of the attention that the US lavished on its European allies (and adversaries) in the twentieth century was because Europe was a problem to be solved. As the Cannes Summit highlighted, Europe’s present sovereign debt crisis represents a global risk – but Europe is no longer perceived globally as a significant potential source of violent conflict. In this sense, a shift in US foreign policy focus away from Europe is emblematic of the many successes of the European project and the transatlantic partnership that has helped sustain it.
America’s “Pacific Century” represents an opportunity for Europe to become a more effective actor on the global stage, a long-proclaimed goal of the European project. Rather than seeking to become a pole globally, European leadership should seek to cement Europe’s role as a strong, stable pillar in a reinvigorated transatlantic security architecture. At a time when US and European leaders are focused on persistent financial crises, and as austerity measures begin to constrain defense expenditures on both sides of the Atlantic, it is time to make good on the old promises of resource pooling in the realm of defense procurement. A shift in US focus to the Pacific implies the potential for NATO to become a more equal alliance.
In spite of numerous challenges and divisions, NATO’s operations in Libya also represented an opportunity for NATO’s European pillar to take a leadership role in crisis management, albeit with indispensable aid from the US. In the case of Libya, rather than Europe being a problem for NATO to address, European NATO members were a crucial part of an imperfect solution. In order to turn this occurrence into a trend toward a more equal alliance, NATO’s European members must make their defense expenditures go further by increasing efficiencies and economies of scale through increased joint training, procurement, and operational execution – especially in the field of expeditionary operations.
During the Libya crisis, NATO served as a platform for dialogue and collective security action – for member and non-member states alike. As Secretary Clinton put it, Europe remains America’s “partner of first resort.” The US could not hope to effectively shift its focus to the Pacific absent a high degree of confidence in its European partners. In the most basic of senses, a strong European pillar in the transatlantic partnership provides the US with “strategic depth” to back its initiatives in Asia. More ambitiously, transatlantic institutions can serve both as models and as vehicles for transpacific cooperation. While the military nature of NATO may make it a less than ideal platform for institutional cooperation across the Pacific, it, and the other institutions developed in Europe in the wake of the Second World War, can serve as powerful examples of effective multilateral and regional organizations in the realms of security and economic development.
Europe’s strength as a “normative power,” if used appropriately, could serve to ease tensions surrounding the deployment of US hard power in the region, which clearly concerns China. European engagement that is complementary to US engagement could allay Chinese fears of a US-driven Southeast Asian security and economic architecture that aims to keep the US in, and the Chinese down or out. As a global economic power of the first order, and as (still) the US’s leading economic and security partner, Europe has much to offer both China and the US in America’s “Pacific Century.”
Maj. Jordan Becker is an instructor of International Relations at the United States Military Academy in West Point. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the United States Army, or the Department of Defense.