Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


APRIL 2016

In August 1941 President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill met for two days on the U.S.S. Augusta off Argentia, Newfoundland. It was the first of their frequent World War II meetings and marked the beginning of America's defense alliance with Europe that has lasted more than half a century.

Now a leading Republican presidential candidate proposes scrapping NATO, the alliance with Europe that grew out of the war and eventually won the Cold War. The charge is that Europe is now rich enough to pay for its own defense, that stationing of thousands of American forces there is unnecessary and a drain on the U. S. economy.

This argument is not new: after the Cold War ended in 1990, critics claimed that NATO was not needed to defend Europe.

How important is European security to the United States in 2016? The answer is contingent on two key factors: 1) Europe's willingness to continue progress toward unity within the European Union (EU); 2) The EU's ability to forge a unified foreign policy, and defense policies that are consistent with U.S. strategic objectives in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

European unity

By any measure, Western Europe made remarkable strides toward economic integration during the forty years, 1950-1990, that encompassed the Cold War years. This was a period when NATO was locked in armed confrontation with Moscow over supremacy in Europe.

After Germany was reunited in 1990 and the Warsaw Pact collapsed, NATO offered membership to Poland, Hungary, and other former Soviet satellites.

Post-Cold War years also saw progress toward European political union. German and French leaders initiated the process in 1992, and it quickly gained support from other West European countries. Although Britain was skeptical of stronger political ties with the continent, it too joined. Poland, Hungary, Greece, and others were admitted later to EU membership.

Finally, after fifty years, the ideal of an integrated Europe, supported by the United States, became reality. In 1999, the process was significantly enhanced by introduction of the euro as Europe's common currency. Britain, however, decided to keep its own pound sterling. Now Europe needs to decide whether to hold together in the EU, or return to competing national states.

US strategic interests

For fifty years, from 1947 when the Marshall Plan was proposed by President Truman, America's top security interest was protecting Western Europe against the military and ideological threat of the Soviet Union. Large U.S. forces were deployed in West Germany and other states. The North Atlantic Pact, founded in 1949 by twelve members that included Canada and the United States, formed NATO in the 1950s. It built an integrated defense organization that now comprises 28 members from eastern and western Europe, including Turkey a non-European country.

Even though the Soviet threat to Europe ended in 1990, it was replaced by a diminished Russia whose current leader, Vladimir Putin, hopes to restore Russia's influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Now a new security threat of ISIS terrorism haunts Europe's capitals.

Still, critics have a point when they say Europeans aren't pulling their weight in providing security against both the Russians and terrorists.

Even though Germany and most NATO members increased defense budgets for the coming years, only four currently meet the 2 percent of GDP target set by NATO: U.S., Britain, France, and Poland. For the U.S., defense spending exceeds 3 percent of GDP, but this country has world-wide commitments that other NATO states do not.

From a strategic standpoint, Europe remains a vital national interest of the United States. But its future value is contingent on its willingness, and ability, to support U.S. strategic objectives. A crucial test will come June 23 when British voters decide whether Britain should withdraw from the EU. If their answer is no, we can hope that Europe will stay together and meet the threats posed by Russia and ISIS.

But if Britain decides to withdraw from the EU, the U.S. will need to reevaluate its options and perhaps downgrade Europe as a vital national interest. The reality is that without Britain's participation, the EU will become a more insular Europe and be a less cooperative partner of the United States.

File last modified on Monday, 10-MAR-2015 10:04 AM EST

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