Commentary Magazine

America’s Obligation to Europe

To the Editor:

Josef Joffe’s call to the American public [“The Turn Away from Europe,” November 2012] is intended to strengthen America’s military commitment to Europe. Given that Joffe is aware of Europe’s failure to put skin in the game—its inability to deal with Bosnia, Kosovo, and most recently Libya—one wonders how he can justify asking Americans to stay involved.

If Europe won’t defend itself, why should America’s armed forces do it for them? Indeed, our continued participation in NATO has added to the moral hazard. European governments feel free to slash military budgets because they assume America will always have their back in the event of dangerous geopolitical eruptions on their eastern and southern flanks.

I served with the U.S. Army in Frankfurt in the late 1950s, when the GIs were referred to universally as the “Ami’s” and we were feted. We were viewed as partners in the defense of Western European civilization. I struck up a friendship with a young German who later served as an officer in the Bundeswehr before resuming his career as a tax attorney. When, years later, I visited my friend at his Bad Vilbel home in 1990, just before the first Gulf War, he was still America’s good friend.

But we are friends no more. Our bruederschaft ended after he wrote me a letter seven years ago denouncing George W. Bush as a “war criminal” (kriegsverbrecher). Many Europeans think just like my former friend. They want America to be as pacifistic and weak-willed as they have become. As they transfer their limited economic resources from defense to the pursuit of material bliss, they close their eyes to new dangers. My friend’s denunciation of Bush, much like Europe’s adulation of Obama—the other side of the coin—is part of this “see no evil, hear no evil” mentality.

Edwin Harwood
Needham, Massachusetts


To the Editor:

Josef Joffe has written an excellent article, but I cannot endorse his conclusion. Having lived for more than 30 years in Germany, I, an American, have tired of the game the Europeans play. The United States can neither lead from behind nor up front if those to be lead are not inclined to fight the battles that must be fought. 

I believe that the United States foots some 75 percent of NATO. Why? There are more Europeans, and they have more money. Here is the European con game. The Europeans build up their welfare state (at the moment too hardily, as Greece indicates) and we pay for defense, both in money and military structure. This allows Europe a luxury America does not have. I am tired of supporting a Germany where the worst put-down among politicians is to say one’s opponent wants “American conditions here.” If they will not cooperate and participate, they should be left to sink or swim.

NATO should be abolished over a proper time frame. The Europeans should form a continent-wide organization charged with collective defense. After they have their organization, whatever shape and strength it may have, it should negotiate with the United States for mutually beneficial policies leading to an agreed-upon treaty, one in which the Europeans would pay their fare share. If Europe is not prepared to defend itself, it is not an American duty to do so.

Leonard P. Wessell Jr.
Bonn, Germany 


Josef Joffe writes:

Europe’s “free riding” is as old as NATO itself, but this is in the very nature of an alliance where one very big power leads a coalition of many small to middling nations. During the Cold War, however, the Europeans weren’t as lackadaisical as many Americans believe. They provided three quarters of the 1 million men deployed this side of the Iron Curtain. Britain, France, and Germany spent 3 to 5 percent of GDP on defense; with the exception of the Vietnam years, the United States spent 5 to 6 percent, a fraction that is declining to 4, now that the Soviet Union is no more. (I don’t know how Mr. Wessell arrives at an American share of 75 percent of the NATO bill.)

More recently, most NATO states fought alongside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. This said, it remains true that Europe—with a combined population and GDP larger than America’s—is not putting up the commensurate firepower. On the other hand, Mr. Big always carries a larger burden, especially since the United States is a global power with global interests and responsibilities. Ditching the alliance would not serve the American interest. Though the “action” is now in the Middle East and East Asia, Europe remains as important a strategic stake as these two more urgent arenas. Keeping 30,000 troops on the Old Continent (down from 300,000 at the height of the Cold War) is a steal as far as insurance premiums go. To remain a power in Europe is not an American “duty,” as Mr. Wessell thinks, but an American interest.

Mr. Harwood is right in noting that the warmth has gone out of the relationship. Whence the anti-Americanism of Europe’s elites (leave out countries like Italy and Poland) is a complicated story, which is all the more puzzling in view of Europe’s attraction to all things American—from pop to high culture, from McDonald’s to MoMA, from Hollywood to Harvard, not to speak of Halloween. But true enough: It is appropriation without affection.

Yet Europe is still “family,” as exasperating as relatives can be. It is the place to go in good and bad times, for trade and travel, for commerce and coalitions. What’s a better address—Russia, China, Japan, India? Or let’s put it in coldly historical terms: The United States has not done well for itself and the West when it has abandoned Europe, as it did after World War I.

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