Source: Getty

The United States Stepping Back From Europe Is a Matter of When, Not Whether

The younger generation is not likely to carry on President Biden’s level of commitment to a leading U.S. role in European security. So the United States stepping back from Europe is a matter of when, not whether.

published by
 on April 1, 2024

Source: Raeson

This interview was originally published in Danish by Raeson on April 1, 2024, and appears here in English translation.

Niels Koch-Rasmussen, RÆSON: Before we go into current events, I would like you to briefly talk about the historical background of what you've described in your book as U.S. global supremacy.

WERTHEIM: I'm glad you started there because this history is crucially important for understanding what's happening now in American foreign policy. I'm not just saying that because I'm a historian. It happens to be the case!

Prior to 1940, the United States had a tradition of avoiding what Thomas Jefferson termed “entanglements” in the so-called Old World, especially on the landmass of Europe and Asia. Even after Nazi Germany conquered France in the middle of 1940, U.S. planners anticipated maintaining a hemispheric defense perimeter: the United States would have continued to keep overseas powers out of the Western Hemisphere, but it would go no further. And that’s what the original people who rallied under the banner of “America First” recommended. Even those who disagreed with them generally conceded that U.S. security and prosperity would not be directly imperiled so long as the United States guarded the Western Hemisphere from outside invasion.

But President Franklin Roosevelt, and other leaders, made a different choice. They thought that while it might be adequate merely to defend the Western Hemisphere, it was deeply undesirable.  They sought to ensure the defeat of the Axis powers even before the United States formally joined the war in December 1941. And crucially, they drew the lesson that the United States should never again allow totalitarian powers to put themselves in a position to dominate Europe and Asia. The United States would step into the void left by the British Empire and become the primary agent ordering the world along liberal and American lines by force of arms.

In other words, a specific kind of threat caused the United States to depart from its historic aversion to political-military entanglements: that was the threat of totalitarian powers conquering or otherwise dominating Europe and Asia.

And where does this great ambition stem from—not only to dominate the Western Hemisphere and maybe safeguard Europe, but to achieve global supremacy?

Americans at the time gave two kinds of rationales for U.S. primacy. First, speaking in an internationalist register, they argued that if totalitarian states became the leading powers, much of the earth would become closed to liberal forms of exchange and interaction and the world would divide into two hostile armed camps. This would limit economic opportunities for Americans and require military buildups.

Second, appealing to American exceptionalism, primacists argued that the United States had a destiny to lead the world to better things and now that totalitarians could conquer their way to preeminence, the United States to needed preeminence of its own in order to define the future. That didn’t necessarily mean the United States needed to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” as John Quincy Adams once put it, but rather that the United States must keep totalitarian great powers at bay—and hold supremacy for itself so that such powers never again got as close as the Axis powers did in 1940 and 1941 to achieving mastery in Europe and Asia.

That was the basic intellectual framework that took the United States through World War II and the Cold War. After the Cold War ended, however, the United States decided to double down on global primacy, even though the conditions that created it no longer existed. By 1992, there were no more great powers, and there were certainly no more totalitarian great powers. And yet the United States decided that the alternative to pulling back from any portion of its Cold War alliances constituted unacceptable isolationism.

If there was no great threat left, there was also little cost and risk in continuing with U.S. global dominance. For the foreseeable future, no state was going to challenge the United States in a significant way, even if, for example, NATO expanded eastward toward Russia. Critics asked, “Why pursue primacy still?” But primacists in effect answered: “Why not?” For U.S. policymakers, primacy became a forever project: it was the right answer when serious rivals existed and still the right answer when they didn’t.

That is the backdrop for our current moment. For every scenario, Washington’s answer is more and better primacy. But today, the costs and risks are no longer low: a U.S. war with China or Russia is terrifyingly imaginable. And yet, neither China nor Russia threatens U.S. interests to the same degree as the Axis powers and Soviet Union did. Russia is too weak to overrun Europe, and China has not embarked on a program of military conquest despite its increasingly coercive practices. In short, the United States is now bearing major costs and risks that outstrip the threats it faces. In that sense, we have now entered a qualitatively new security environment, for which U.S. global primacy looks ill-fitting and unsustainable.

Does the surge of isolationism within the United States, or criticism of U.S. intervention, stem from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or from the fact that several powers are now balancing against the United States?

Most of the popular resentment derives from the failure of the post-9/11 wars—and of the foreign policy establishment to hold itself accountable for mistakes and allow a fair competition of ideas. Today, however, the United States may be on the cusp of a new period of caution due to China’s rise and Russia’s aggression, not to mention the persistence of Iran and North Korea as U.S. adversaries. Although the American political system has not yet absorbed the new reality, U.S. foreign policy could become more restrained if the danger of large-scale conventional war and nuclear war becomes well understood.

That said, it’s a mistake to see isolationism as a real force in the United States today. Some people call “isolationist” anyone who opposes a single war or alliance. Such a definition is absurd. Others think Donald Trump is an isolationist because he combines nativism, opposition to free trade and liberal immigration, and some ambivalence about U.S. global leadership. I don’t think that labeling makes sense. Trump increased military spending and led the country toward a new consensus in favor of something that looks a lot like the containment of China. He didn’t end a single U.S. alliance during his presidency; in fact, NATO expanded. Trump does not embrace a conventional foreign policy of liberal primacy. But “illiberal primacy” better describes his foreign policy vision and record than “isolationism” does.

Please explain to me: How influential is isolationism as a political tendency – or maybe an undercurrent in America today?

Isolationism doesn’t exist and never existed, except as an epithet used to score political points. Even the original “America Firsters” wanted the United States to defend the whole Western Hemisphere (and engage in non-military ways with the rest of the world). But what we are seeing today is important, and that is a reaction to American overstretch and overcommitment in global affairs. The reaction draws upon a sense of the national interest and, in its extreme form, American nationalism.

The backlash would be happening even if Donald Trump had never ridden down his escalator and entered the political arena. Since 2008, every American president who has been elected has gained traction by campaigning against wars. The United States got away with pursuing primacy in the “unipolar moment” of the 1990s because it could cut military spending relative to Cold War levels and still emerge more globally dominant than ever. Since then, the costs have only mounted. Too many people seem to have internalized that the 1990s were normal. No: Unipolarity was abnormal, and it isn’t coming back.

So the political backlash would have arrived regardless of Trump. Indeed, in many ways it began under the administration of Barack Obama, who campaigned against Middle East wars, announced a “pivot” to Asia, and told European allies to pay more for defense.

Looking at the current global landscape, we see three major areas of conflict or potential conflict: Ukraine in Europe, Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East and Taiwan in Asia. How should the United States set priorities for its foreign policy, in your eyes?

You’re right to break down the three regions as you did, because in each of them, the United States has different interests and different opportunities to reduce its military role.

In Asia, the stakes are highest: this is the world’s most economically prosperous and dynamic region, and China could generate the capability to dominate it to the detriment of the United States. China is also a pivotal actor on climate change and pandemics. For these reasons, Asia should take the priority for the United States. That doesn’t mean the United States should adopt a more belligerent approach toward China—it’s imperative to return to a consistent One China policy toward Taiwan, for example—but without a U.S. military role, states in East Asia might not be capable of balancing against China.

By contrast, the United States has limited interests in the Middle East, centered on securing the maritime commons for commerce and preventing terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland. If the United States were not so enmeshed in the region’s problems, it could probably secure its interests with little effort given that no one state is poised to dominate the region and that anti-American terrorism feeds off U.S. military actions. The Biden administration’s unconditional support for Israel’s war in Gaza serves no good strategic purpose, while gratuitously making the United States complicit in extreme brutality against Palestinians.

In between the other regions is Europe: the United States would be adversely affected if one illiberal state were to dominate Europe. Thankfully, Russia lacks the resources to advance that far, even as it seriously threatens its neighbors. The European members of NATO and the EU have vast economic and demographic advantages that ought to enable them to deter Russia. While Russian forces remain concentrated in Ukraine and cannot realistically turn elsewhere, the transatlantic alliance has a unique window of opportunity to transition toward European leadership of European defense.

Put all this together and you get a new strategy: The United States should disentangle itself from the Middle East, shift most of the European defense burden onto its European allies, and seek competitive coexistence with China in the Indo-Pacific. Not only would that formula address the strategic problems of overcommitment and overstretch, but it could forge a durable consensus in American politics to replace the tottering primacist paradigm.

In an article written by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Foreign Affairs—published just before the Hamas attack on 7 October—he argued that a key source of American strength is its global allies. Isn’t there a risk of weakening U.S. national security and global security by pulling back and inviting countries Russia to fill the vacuum?

The risk is real, and let me address it in a moment. But note that there are risks in the other direction, too. It is enormously risky for the United States to try to take the lead in deterring China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and other countries in all places simultaneously. America’s domestic politics does not support doing all those things at once. Even if it did, the United States lacks the resources and interests to be an effective security guarantor across the globe.

The United States used to have a two-war standard: the Pentagon sized and structured the U.S. armed forces to be able to fight in two major regional wars simultaneously. That standard has been abandoned over the last decade because the United States cannot fight China and Russia simultaneously. Even fighting China alone would be extraordinarily difficult. It would require an enormous mobilization of society and Americans would have to be willing to bear far greater costs than for any U.S. foreign policy objective since at least the Vietnam war.

This is what happens when a superpower is overstretched. And if China knows this, Russia knows this, Iran knows this, and North Korea knows this, then deterrence becomes less effective. Is the United States really going to go to war against Russia if Russia attacks Estonia? Well, according to Donald Trump, probably not. But don’t think it’s an easy question if the president is Joe Biden. So these are the risks of the status quo that Jake Sullivan does not deal with in his Foreign Affairs piece.

To your point, the course of action I suggest has risks, too. If the United States suddenly removed a great many forces from a region, actors such as Russia could seize on a window of opportunity. That’s why I think the United States should pull back from Europe and the Middle East in a responsible, gradual, and systematic way. In particular, the transatlantic alliance should formulate a decade-long process in which European states take over the lion’s share of European defense capabilities and responsibilities, while the United States remains within NATO. It’s especially important for Europe to grow its own defense-industrial base rather than buy new weapons systems from the United States or other countries.

A lot of these changes are already happening to a degree, but they need to be channeled in the direction of making Europe no longer dependent for defense on the United States. There must be a political decision to move toward European leadership of European defense, or else the system that’s been built up to maintain American dominance and European dependence will win out.

Do you think the Europeans—with the threats of Donald Trump pulling out of NATO and with Russia on a war footing—are confronting a mess of their own making?

That’s a way of putting it, but I would also blame U.S. policy. After the Soviet collapse, the United States could have held back from Europe and given Europeans incentives and encouragement to take more ownership over the defense of Europe. Not only did the United States work to position itself as the dominant security provider for Europe, but it positively discouraged Europe from taking initiative. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1998 told Europeans to avoid the “three Ds” [no decoupling from NATO, no duplication of NATO capabilities, and no discrimination against NATO members that remained outside the EU]. Whatever Europe does on defense, she said, should not take away from the role of NATO and U.S. leadership of NATO.

The United States wanted to dominate European security. Then it periodically had complained that the European allies weren’t spending enough on defense and weren’t supporting enough of the other things the United States wanted to do. Well, it’s always great to call the shots and get other countries to pay the costs. That’s not a realistic approach, and so it’s no surprise that we are where we are now.

Considering Trump's statement at the campaign rally recently—of encouraging Russia to invade NATO countries who are not paying up—do you think Trump’s threats are beneficial by spurring progress toward European autonomy? What is the difference between Republicans and Democrats on this issue?

I’m glad that the reaction in Europe to Trump’s remarks is, “Oh, yes, this man could be president again, and we had better prepare our defenses.” At the same time, Trump is making hypothetical threats rather than laying out a plan to transition to European leadership of European defense. And Trump has long sounded more interested in getting Europeans to spend more money than in fixing the strategic problem of U.S. overcommitment and European under-commitment.

On the surface, there is a stark choice between Joe Biden, who calls NATO and other alliances a “sacred obligation,” and Donald Trump, who questions the value of NATO and suggested, I think partially for rhetorical effect, that if Russia invaded a NATO country that wasn't meeting its obligation to pay two percent of GDP on defense, he would at best not care and at worst encourage the Russia to do whatever it wanted. The rhetorical gap is certainly huge. But where Republicans and Democrats converge is in prioritizing China over Russia as a threat and rival. That means a big question mark for Europe if Russian aggression moves beyond Ukraine, or if China invades Taiwan or otherwise gets into a conflict with the United States in Asia. Already, the aid to Ukraine is being held up in the U.S. Congress.

My fear is that people on both sides of the Atlantic are wishfully thinking that they can get back on track with the transatlantic alliance as it has supposedly existed for the better part of eight decades. That the norm is Joe Biden’s level of commitment to Europe. But as we’ve discussed, circumstances are essentially different from what has come before, so transatlantic security will have to change.

And how do you see U.S.-European relations shifting in the coming years? Because we seem to be at a turning point with a possible election of Trump?

Obviously, for the next four years, much depends on the outcome of the U.S. election in November. But even if Biden prevails, Trump will remain the defining figure in the Republican party. And Biden represents the past more than the future. The younger generation is not likely to carry on his level of commitment to a leading U.S. role in European security. So the United States stepping back from Europe is a matter of when, not whether. Europeans should decide what to do about that.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.