Can Europe Defend Itself Without the US?

The NATO defense ministers are discussing aid for Ukraine and Europe’s defense capabilities, raising questions about whether Europe can defend itself without the support of the United States. The potential withdrawal of US troops from Europe could pose challenges, particularly in terms of conventional defense. With issues such as a shortage of ammunition and a protracted war in Ukraine, the reliance on American military assistance becomes evident.

Can Europe defend itself without the US?

The NATO defense ministers are meeting today to discuss aid for Ukraine and their own defense capabilities. If the US were to withdraw from Europe, there would be problems, especially in conventional defense.

The Western alliance already has enough problems. There is a shortage of ammunition for Ukraine, a stagnant war with many casualties and no prospects for a negotiated solution, and the temporary halt to much-needed American military aid in Kiev. “We really need the nuclear debate as the last thing right now,” says German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, emphasizing that it is a complex discussion that should not be started lightly.

This may address coalition partner Christian Lindner of the FDP, but also party colleague Katarina Barley. The SPD lead candidate for the European Parliament elections expressed openness to discussing a European nuclear bomb in the context of a European army in an interview.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also considers such newfound openness to the atomic bomb completely out of place. If something has worked so far, he said at the defense ministers’ meeting, it is nuclear deterrence: “We should not undermine its credibility.” Especially since America’s nuclear umbrella for Europe is pretty much the only thing that hasn’t been questioned in the strategy papers of the Trump camp so far.

From the perspective of political scientist Jana Puglierin, Europeans face a completely different problem, which lies in conventional defense. She sees the danger that the Americans may put their engagement in Europe on hold. The director of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Berlin office refers to “Dormant NATO,” a paper that has caused a stir in Washington. “It’s about ensuring the conventional defense of Europe by the Europeans alone.”

The backbone of Europe’s defense would be broken. American soldiers would be withdrawn from Europe, along with capabilities such as reconnaissance, air transport, and the rapid deployment of combat troops with large stocks of ammunition. Basically, everything that “most European armed forces lack,” says Puglierin.

Little coordination in procurement

The shortage is supposed to be addressed with massive armament. During the war in Ukraine, defense spending in NATO member states saw an unprecedented increase. According to NATO figures, it will be $380 billion alone in 2024, with almost two-thirds of member countries then spending at least two percent of their GDP on the military.

However, Puglierin fears that money alone will not solve the problem. As long as national governments have ambitions to produce their own tanks, submarines, and howitzers, it will be difficult to cooperate on the battlefield. “Coordination of European procurement hardly works,” even though national defense budgets have increased. “National reflexes prevail.”

US expects more Ukraine support from the EU

A European tank for everyone is still a thing of the future. At the moment, a big hole needs to be filled. When the US will release the $60 billion in military aid for Ukraine cannot be predicted, says US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith. “We know our friends in Ukraine need immediate help,” she says in an interview with ARD Brussels. And she makes it clear what America hopes for and expects: that this time, Europeans will step in. “I think the support will come from both Germany and the European Union.” So that those on the ground in Ukraine feel that the assistance is continuing.

High expectations. And an unusual situation in NATO. The United States, the world’s most powerful military, is unable to deliver the promised military assistance through Congress. Under the thoroughly transatlantic President Joe Biden. This gives Europeans a taste of what could become a permanent situation if Donald Trump were to move into the White House.