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Is Europe bold enough to counter US ambivalence?

Teri Schultz
February 16, 2018

The Munich Security Conference is expected to be dominated by US President Donald Trump's ambivalence toward traditional alliances, leaving Europe no choice but to step up its defense initiatives.

Donald Tusk and Donald Trump
Image: Getty Images/AFP/E. Dunand

So much for basing scholarly foreign-policy debate on the international order. "The world is becoming less international and less orderly," Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, posits in his "conversation starter" report, which puts much of the blame for the chaos on the United States under Donald Trump.

Eminent US political scientist G. John Ikenberry is quoted as explaining this is not just by neglect, but by ominous design, even "sabotage." "A hostile revisionist power has indeed arrived on the scene," Ikenberry wrote, "but it sits in the Oval Office, the beating heart of the free world."

Read more: As China takes 'center stage,' Europe stands at a crossroads

"The MSC report does feel like an anti-Trump report," observed Ulrike Franke, a fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, who was present at the report's Berlin launch. "There is an important emphasis on the liberal order, on the threats from climate change, on Brexit, on Russia — all topics on which President Trump has opinions that are very different from the writers of the report."

The divide exists in the rest of the world too. Franke pointed to a graph in the MSC report, taken from a Pew Research Center survey, which showed plummeting international confidence in Trump's ability to "do the right thing" in world affairs.

Trump ambivalence expedites European urgency

Weary proponents of a more self-sufficient Europe, however, say this has been a blessing in disguise. Trump's incessant bullying of European leaders over the transatlantic gap in military capabilities and freeloading on US security guarantees is not different from administrations past — it's just more extreme.

Read moreOpinion: EU foreign policy without Trump

But Trump's clear ambivalence, even occasional animosity, toward Europe may finally have instilled the necessary amount of nervousness, according to Sven Biscop of Belgium's Egmont Institute. "There is a strong sense, I think, among the [European Union] member states that somehow they need to pull together because nobody is going to come and save us," he told DW. "I don't think it has yet translated into sufficient will to really act in the world, but we're getting there. And the more directly opposed to European interests US initiatives are, the more European action you will see."

Biscop said that one of the most promising "European actions" is the creation of the defense initiative PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) —  a pact of 25 EU governmentsthat have pledged to design joint defense projects, pool money, assess resources and make collective decisions and deployments.  Biscop said that PESCO would not  compete with NATO, but complement it.

Promises, pledges with new EU pact

PESCO is coordinated by the European Defense Agency, whose chief executive, Jorge Domecq, told DW it would have to start producing results quickly. "Co-operation of all EU countries is essential now," Domecq said, "with the security environment, with the changing technologies, with the rise of new powers, the call of citizens to really take defense more seriously. I think heads of state and government now realize the importance of this."

Read morePESCO: EU paves way to defense union

At the same time, Domecq is concerned that Europe's modest increase in defense investment will quickly be outpaced by Washington's. He says that he has made it abundantly clear to the "America First" - oriented Trump administration that it needs to share its high-tech advances "technologically and industrially" so that allied armies can operate together. Otherwise, Domecq warned, new problems would compound existing ones. "You're not helping," he said, "you're creating a technological gap apart from a political gap."

PESCO no panacea

heads of state and government at the launch of PESCO
...but only if they can overcome internal riftsImage: Reuters/Y. Herman

Elisabeth Braw sees plenty of problems on the horizon. The Atlantic Council senior fellow says all the attention to contributing more and cooperating more is obscuring the real problem with European security. "Forget PESCO" as a silver bullet, Braw urged. "It's about readiness. It doesn't come down to money as much as political will to, for example, commit forces, to get them to the appropriate level of readiness which is the level of readiness that the Russians have."

She said Europe isn't there yet — and wouldn't be even if every nation suddenly did allocate 2 percent of its GDP to defense spending, as Trump has demanded, based on the NATO pledge. "If there is a threat or an invasion into one of our countries, can we respond quickly?" she asked. "And if we can't, then no money in the world will matter...whether we spend 2 percent, 1 percent or 10 percent."

And, says Braw, there's more to worry about for Europe. As the US and Russia continue to threaten each other over nuclear weapons, "who's going to put the brake on that escalation, who's going to show responsibility and not escalate further?"