At the Washington Post, Judy Dempsey looks deeply into one of the running themes of the Trump campaign, specifically the call for our European allies to put a bit more skin in the game when it comes to their military defense and stop relying so heavily on the United States to foot the bill. In a time of tight budgets and spiraling deficits, our own massive expenditures on the military will clearly be under fire as the years go on, so this is an unfortunate but necessary conversation for us to have. Apparently aware of these realities, there are some folks in the EU who have begun asking similar questions. But what would that look like if it happened? One idea is for the various European countries – particularly in the eastern region closest to Russia – to being building up their own military forces, perhaps with some aid from their allies. But others are suggesting a much broader step. Should the EU have a standing army of their own? Dempsey rightly looks down on such a suggestion.

[T]he Republican presidential nominee’s idea that the United States should wash its hands of NATO horrifies the Pentagon, the State Department and America’s European allies. Without America, NATO would become toothless. The United States would lose valuable allies, and Europe would become highly vulnerable. The transatlantic alliance would be dealt a nail in the coffin.

However, instead of focusing on strengthening NATO, several European leaders now say it’s time for the European Union to have its own army. But with Europe weakened and divided over a debt crisis, a  refugee crisis and the rise of populist movements across the bloc, the last thing Europe needs is its own army.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, supports the idea of a European force. Juncker’s hope is that such a stronger defense component for Europe would give the Commission – not the member states – more power over defense issues. Europe can no longer afford to piggy-back on the military might of others,” Juncker said in his recent annual State of the Union address. “We have to take responsibility for protecting our interests and the European way of life. … Without a permanent structure, we cannot act effectively.”

I suppose it’s important to first point out that the United States isn’t a member of the European Union and what they do is really their own business, so arguments from people like me or Judy Dempsey are purely hypothetical. But with that said, I have to agree with her, though for perhaps different reasons on a few points.

Having an alliance or a standing treaty with a group of allies is all well and good. It could, in a worst case scenario, provide for a potent military option against a common enemy. That’s why there’s absolutely nothing wrong with keeping NATO around, provided the costs are shared in a reasonable fashion. It’s certainly a better option than doing nothing at all. But it’s also important to remember that such an alliance still relies on the existence of standing armies for each nation and a willingness by those countries’ leaders to send their troops in harm’s way. Organizing such a multinational effort is one of the more challenging elements of international relations and it’s never done without significant complications. Eisenhower often spoke of the challenges involved in being the Supreme Commander of such an allied force, particularly when American generals needed to be under the direction of or subordinate to foreign commanders. (See the complicated relationship between Patton and Montgomery for one example.)

Those issues still don’t address the fundamental problem with the idea of a unified EU military force, though. And army is, by definition, the muscular arm of a nation and a physical expression of the strength of the people and their government. The European Union is not a nation, nor do I imagine it ever will be. It’s a fairly loose coalition of member states, each with their own unique identity, culture and history. They don’t all get along famously all the time either. An army is fairly worthless if it can’t summon up its forces to charge into battle on a moment’s notice. Will the soldiers of each of those nations willingly charge off to put their lives on the line at the command of a foreign leader? There’s no assurance that all the members of that gang of nations will ever agree to the drastic step of going to war against anyone. And none of this addresses the fact that the EU is currently straining at the seams with members either leaving (Great Britain) or threatening to do so, as is the case with Hungary and several others.

In the end, if Europe is to beef up its forces it seems to me that each nation needs to increase their spending on building a solid, reliable military they can depend on. Then they can use the EU as a different and perhaps better tool than NATO to agree to defend each other in unison if a member state is attacked. It’s a system that’s worked for millennia (better in some cases than in others, of course) and there’s no reason it can’t serve them well in the 21st century.

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