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Engagement Reframed

February 14, 2022

Engagement Reframed #3: Appoint a European SACEUR

By Kelly A. Grieco

Key points

  • NATO’s European members will need to do more to safeguard European security as US resources and attention shift to the Indo-Pacific in response to the rise of China.
  • The Biden administration should embrace a new transatlantic bargain, in which European allies assume greater responsibility for their own security and defense and the United States becomes more willing to share leadership, starting with the appointment of a European Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).
  • NATO’s new Strategic Concept, to be released at the June 2022 NATO Madrid Summit, as well as the US-EU security and defense dialogue, creates an ideal opportunity for the Biden administration to advance the structural reforms needed to rebalance the alliance.

What is the opportunity?

President Joe Biden vowed to make revitalizing America’s alliances, especially NATO, a cornerstone of his foreign policy. “America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back,” he told the Munich Security Conference in February 2021, just one month after taking office. Seeking to undo the damage from four years of his predecessor’s railing against the alliance, Biden pledged that the United States is “fully committed” to NATO and stressed that Article V—the assurance that an attack on one is an attack on all—is an “unshakable vow.” These are not empty platitudes. In April, the Biden administration increased the US military presence in Europe, sending 500 additional troops to Germany, in a reversal of former President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw troops from the country. Calling the defense of Europe a “sacred obligation,” President Biden subsequently ordered several thousand US forces to Germany, Poland, and Romania as a reassurance of American commitments amid the standoff over Ukraine.

Although the alliance seems to be back to the “old normal” in both rhetoric and action, the world is radically different from that of the Cold War era: Russia remains a security challenge, while a more assertive and powerful China continues to create a need for Washington to apply more resources and attention to the Indo-Pacific. The transatlantic alliance should be “built back better” to be prepared for future threats to NATO’s security. In a new transatlantic bargain, European states should assume greater responsibility for their own security and defense, but the United States must also become more willing to share leadership, starting with the appointment of a European Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).

For more than seventy years, the United States has underwritten (Western) European security. Large numbers of American troops stationed in Europe, and backed by the US nuclear arsenal, have safeguarded the territory of European allies from armed aggression. Washington made the Article V commitment to its NATO allies because it had a vital interest in preventing Soviet hegemony over Western Europe. After the devastation wrought by the Second World War, even the largest European countries lacked sufficient military and economic might to counter the Soviet threat. American power was thus indispensable as a means of balancing Soviet power and influence in Europe.

The balance of power has shifted dramatically since 1949. Today, the instruments of Russia’s power pale in comparison to those of the former Soviet Union. The Russian state has three quarters of the territory and half the population of the former empire. Whereas the Soviet Union once boasted the world’s second largest economy—granted its actual economic performance likely fell short of that mark—Russia suffers from a stagnant economy that cannot even crack into the world’s top ten. The Russian armed forces are far smaller and less well funded than those of the Soviet era, and a looming demographic crisis bodes ill for the future.

All these factors impose significant constraints on Russia’s great-power ambitions. That said, a decade of extensive reforms has improved Russian military capabilities and readiness. Russia remains a serious military threat—a “persistent power,” as the respected analyst of Russian foreign policy Michael Kofman has put it, with the ability to endanger European stability and security. From threatening its immediate neighbors, particularly Ukraine, and exploiting the gray zone to sow dissent in the West to playing the role of spoiler in other regions, Russia remains a disruptive actor. Even then, it is still nowhere near the threat to Europe that the Soviet Union once was.

At the same time, China has grown more powerful and more assertive. Indeed, a rare bipartisan consensus has emerged in Washington that China—not Russia—constitutes the main threat to US national security. China is a formidable strategic challenger, one that will require the United States to dedicate more resources to the Indo-Pacific. Given that resources are finite, Washington might be willing but less able to contribute to European security in the future. The Russia-Ukraine crisis underscores this new strategic reality.

In a new transatlantic bargain, European states should assume greater responsibility for their own security and defense, but the United States must also become more willing to share leadership, starting with the appointment of a European Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).

Fortunately, European security challenges are not only more manageable now than during the Cold War, but America’s European allies are also in a much better position to share the defense burden. Europe has significantly more latent power than Russia. NATO Europe’s combined economies are more than eight times larger, and its population is three times that of Russia. Moreover, the Europeans are not military lightweights. NATO’s European members collectively outspend Russia’s military budget and are roughly equal in total personnel with the Russian armed forces. European allies have nearly 1.4 million military personnel compared with Russia’s nine-hundred thousand active-duty military and five-hundred thousand paramilitary personnel. The Europeans also spend more on their armed forces, about $280 billion annually, which is somewhere between one and half to four times as much as Russian expenditures. European countries have some capacity shortfalls, and pooling their militaries together leads to inevitable redundancies and other inefficiencies. Yet European allies still have considerable military power—not to mention the nuclear arsenals of France and United Kingdom—to counter Russian threats.

These structural shifts—Russia’s enduring weakness, China’s rising power, and Europe’s considerable advantages—call for a reassessment of the division of labor within the alliance. At its inception, NATO was not and could not be an alliance of equals. The transatlantic bargain reflected these realities: the United States provided a security guarantee and the bulk of the military capabilities for NATO in exchange for Europe’s deference, geopolitical access, and an affirmation of the legitimacy of American power. From time to time, American leaders aired grievances about the Europeans not spending enough on defense, but Washington was largely content to tolerate this arrangement. Indeed, it was often quick to throw cold water on EU defense efforts, arguing that such efforts would undermine NATO. In 1998, Secretary of State Madeline Albright warned against “the 3Ds”—the decoupling of transatlantic security, the duplication of NATO, and the discrimination of non-EU NATO allies. Since then, Washington has viewed EU defense initiatives with much skepticism and occasional hostility. Nevertheless, European dependence on American military capabilities is no longer sustainable, given Washington’s shifting security priorities to the Indo-Pacific.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to strike a new transatlantic bargain. As part of a rebalanced alliance, European members should gradually assume greater responsibility in guaranteeing their own security, with the United States positioned as the security guarantor of last resort. At the same time, Washington must relinquish its top military leadership role in the alliance and accept a stronger European voice in NATO’s decision-making processes and command structure.

The NATO command structure is a microcosm of the imbalanced transatlantic security relationship, one in which the United States shoulders the main burden of guaranteeing European security and Europe is reduced to being a follower of US military leadership. To build a European pillar, NATO should reorder command responsibilities, starting with the SACEUR, who, until now, has always been an American officer. A European SACEUR would help move the alliance away from American dominance and European dependence toward a more equal partnership. A European officer sitting atop NATO’s command structure would transfer primary responsibility for alliance defense planning to NATO’s European members, at the same time as NATO’s deterrence and defense posture shifts to depend primarily on European military capabilities and readiness.

Washington’s goal should be to remake—not abandon—the transatlantic alliance. Some analysts and academic realists have called for the dissolution of NATO, but such proposals are ill-advised. NATO’s political-military institutions, particularly its integrated command structure, provide a significant geopolitical and battlefield advantage. These institutions—costly to build but less costly to maintain—give NATO the ability to wage war quickly and effectively. No other alliance or coalition has come close to NATO in its ability to conduct combined operations. That said, NATO needs reform. It is now time for Europe to become a copartner, if not the de facto leader of the alliance.

Why now?

The Biden administration needs to act—and fast. In January, France assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU). For the next six months, Paris will define the priorities of the twenty-seven–member bloc. For Washington, French President Emmanuel Macron is the ideal European leader with whom to build a stronger European pillar in NATO. Macron has placed European defense at the top of his EU presidency agenda, with plans to convene a major summit on EU defense. Speaking at the Atlantic Council last year, he called on Europe to commit to “fair burden sharing” and play a larger role in the “protection of its own neighborhood.” Macron has long criticized the imbalance of power within the alliance, going so far as to declare the “brain death of the NATO.” He aims to build a stronger and more capable European defense within NATO to remedy that problem.

Macron’s vision for improving European defense capabilities aims to complement, rather than replace NATO. On this point, he has been unequivocal, arguing that European strategic autonomy “is not just compatible but totally consistent with NATO.” In Macron, Biden will find a European ally with a similar strategic outline, one that fully understands the global power shifts under way and recognizes that Europe will need to step up on defense, so the United States can devote more resources to the Indo-Pacific region. With the French presidential election to be held in April, Macron will also be eager for his EU presidency to be a success—but the window for serious reform is closing fast. To seize the moment, President Biden should work hand-in-hand with President Macron to reinvent the transatlantic partnership, using his well-earned reputation as a staunch Atlanticist to allay fears that EU defense efforts would undermine the strength of American security guarantees. The Russia-Ukraine crisis has heightened old anxieties and fears among NATO countries in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the crisis has also led the alliance to refocus on its core purpose and gives Washington an opening to recast European defense cooperation and reforms to the alliance as imperative to enhance NATO’s deterrence and defense posture on its eastern flank.  

How to make it happen

The transatlantic alliance needs to implement serious structural reforms. Rebalancing transatlantic security and defense responsibilities should begin with the appointment of a European SACEUR. A stronger European pillar within NATO extends to NATO’s planning for territorial defense. For European allies to assume primary responsibility for their defense, NATO’s defense planning and command arrangements must become more explicitly European as well. In this new arrangement, a European officer should assume high command of the alliance, with the Commander of US European Command serving as a deputy with nuclear responsibilities. The NATO secretary-general, who is responsible for political management of the alliance, has always been a European. Rotating the position between European and American officials might be a good idea. Such a move would signal that the United States remains firmly committed to and continues to participate fully in the alliance, even as it occupies a less dominant position within it.

Meeting the challenge of reform will not be easy. Europe will need to step up its defense efforts and assume greater responsibility, and the United States will need to make an equally challenging philosophical shift. Old habits die hard. For the United States to share power and responsibilities with Europe, Washington would have to adjust to an alliance based on an equal partnership rather than simple dominance.

In a hopeful sign, Washington has recently undertaken a set of similar reforms to its long-standing treaty alliance with the Republic of South Korea (ROK). The US-ROK alliance is in the process of transitioning wartime operational control to South Korea, after which the commander of the Combined Forces Command (CFC)—a position equivalent to SACEUR—will transfer from an American to a South Korean four-star general, with the top American commander in the ROK serving as deputy. Washington’s willingness to place US forces under South Korean command sets an important precedent that the Biden administration can use to overcome any reluctance to place US forces under European command within NATO. The challenge for the United States and Europe in the years ahead will be managing the transition period, giving both sides enough time—probably a decade—to prepare for this new division of responsibilities. To initiate these changes, the Biden administration should take three steps immediately:

1. Pursue reforms through NATO’s upcoming Strategic Concept. The Biden administration should seek to incorporate these structural reforms into NATO’s new Strategic Concept, to be released at the June 2022 NATO Madrid Summit. The Strategic Concept “sets the Alliance’s strategy” and “outlines NATO’s enduring purpose and nature, its fundamental security tasks, and the challenges and opportunities it faces in a changing security environment.” This guiding document, expected to focus on modernizing the alliance for an era of strategic competition, represents a critical opportunity for the Biden administration to advance the structural reforms needed to rebalance the alliance.

2. Publicly and explicitly endorse EU defense initiatives. A stronger European pillar in NATO depends critically on strengthening European defense capabilities and force readiness. The alliance’s European members should contribute more to their own defense, but the need to address the inefficiency of their spending is equally important. For instance, NATO Europe collectively has seventeen different types of main battle tanks, thirteen different types of air-to-air missiles, and twenty-nine different types of naval frigates. The EU offers a potential solution to this problem. Over the last few years the EU has established the European Defense Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), with sixty defense projects. The Biden administration should propound loud and unambiguous support for EU defense cooperation ahead of Macron’s defense summit and then work with the French leader to embed EU defense in NATO, using the new US-EU security and defense dialogue to that end.

3. Get buy-in from Eastern Europe. The Biden administration should use its diplomatic clout and close relations with NATO’s Eastern European members to secure their support for EU defense efforts. These countries have traditionally opposed European strategic autonomy for fear that it would undermine the centrality of NATO in Europe. Washington should reassure these countries that building more robust European defense capabilities and reallocating NATO commands do not come at the expense of American security guarantees. The administration should use a combination of high-profile diplomatic visits and leader statements to credibly signal US commitment to the alliance. Above all, the administration should convince NATO’s Eastern European members that these reforms are in their core national security interests, given the competing demands on US military resources elsewhere, or risk deterrence failure.

Some forty years ago, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger issued a similar call for NATO reform, noting then, “Everyone has been afraid to take the initiative in changing the present arrangement, lest doing so unravel the whole enterprise,” and warning, “But since drift will surely lead to unraveling—if more imperceptibly—statesmanship impels a new approach.” The Biden administration would do well to heed these words.

Photo by Army Capt. Nadine Wiley De Moura. The appearance of US Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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