The Future of US Foreign Policy in Europe

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz – Public Domain

What if there were a war in Europe and the USA was unable to respond? What would happen next? The 2022 Russian military action in Ukraine raised that question. But this question too is central to my thesis in Europe Alone:  Small State Security Without the United States.  It is also front and center in the Biden Administration’s recently released National Security Strategy. In the latter the report declares that “post-Cold War era is definitively over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next..”  While the defense strategy in this report projects the US will continue to shape European security, what if it cannot do that?

Leading up to the Russian invasion it was not clear what the US and its president Joe Biden would do. It had already forsworn off sending troops to Ukraine because it was not a member of NATO. It appeared not to appreciate the threat that Russia’s action had upon other NATO members, many of whom such as Lithuania had once been part of the USSR and which continue to feel the threat that country still posed to them. America did finally send troops to reinforce NATO allies and it worked in concert with European states to impose economic sanctions.

But still the US, distracted by its own internal political diversions, trade wars with China, and an ignominious retreat from Afghanistan in 2021 that left many wondering how reliable America longer term is in guaranteeing or supporting European security needs.

Since WWII such a thought has been inconceivable. At the conclusion of World War II one could make the argument that the US was the lone standing super-power. According to the Wilson Center, the United States accounted for 50 percent of global GDP, held 80 percent of the world’s hard currency reserves, and was a net exporter of petroleum products. It had the highest per capita and standards of living in the world. It had the strongest military force and it was the only state with nuclear weapons. It could be argued that it was the leader of the world. It had the resources and will to defend Europe.

Even in 1960, the US GDP was still 40% of the entire world. It had the resources to sustain its military and its foreign policy principles in Europe.

The USA was there to repel the Nazis and Fascists. It was there with the Marshall Plan. It was there with the creation of NATO in 1949. It was there during the Cold War. It was there for the Berlin airlift in 1948-49 and then when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. It was there after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the USSR in 1991. It was there in 1999 with Serbian bombings. The US has always been a reliable and capable partner to NATO and with European security.

But then two events happened that shook the world. One, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall in1989 that led to regime change across Eastern Europe as communist regimes fell. Then it was the breakup of the USSR in1991. What emerged in 1991 was a point in time similar to 1945. The US was clearly the dominant power in the world. As Francis Fukuyama proclaimed, America had won the Cold War. There was this time a genuine unipolar moment where it appeared that western liberal democratic capitalism had won and all viable rivals had lost. The US could now be the leader of all the world.

In 2000, the US GDP was still 30% of the world, there were no serious economic rivals.  It appeared the US could largely do what it wanted and there were no serious rivals. The US still had both the economic and military resources to act as the sole remaining super-power, and a large degree of internal political consensus to sustain its foreign policy goals. This was the post-Cold War era of American dominance.  But such dominance is perhaps over or may soon be despite the promises of Biden’s National Security Strategy.

When Barack Obama was President his “pivot to Asia” seemed to place European security on the back burner. Then when Donald Trump became president he questioned the continued viability and desirability of NATO, often musing that perhaps the US might pull out, especially if the other members did not pay what he considered their fair share.

Then Biden became president. His unilateral pullout from Afghanistan and the ensuing disaster that accompanied it sent shutters across Europe that the US was pulling away from its international commitments, especially those employing military force. In 2021 and 2022 tensions surrounding Russian aggression against Ukraine increased and President Vladimir Putin demanded that NATO retreat to pre-2008 borders and pull out all troops from former Soviet states.  Biden appeared to waiver. His comments that he would not send troops to Ukraine and that  he was willing to talk to Russia about their security concerns prompted images of British Neville Chamberlain, Munich, and Nazi appeasement in1938. Yet Biden and the US have responded and at least for now reassured Europe it is still there.  But for how much longer?

Despite the dominance of the US at the start of the twenty-first century, it may no longer be in a position in the future to guarantee European security.  It is not simply the prospect of Trump winning the presidency again. It is the political polarization and divide in America that is weakening US democracy and undermining the state.  It is also the arrogance of power and the failure to understand the rest of the world, including the idea that much of the rest of the world does not buy into the American narrative of global dominance. Clearly Russia and China do not.

The US domestically and internationally is no longer in the same place it was in 1945 or 1991. While it still spends heavily on defense, it no longer has the economic dominance it once did. It can no longer push around other countries the way it once did, and it simply does not have the resources to undertake two wars simultaneously as its military policy once was. The solution is not Trump’s inward turn toward economic chauvinism, but it is one possibility.

The US is an overstretched superpower confronting the reality of its limits in a world that looks nothing like 1945 or 1991.  This point is not acknowledged in the National Security Strategy, but it is a reality that must be recognized.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.