James Holmes

5 Ways Europe Can Help the US Pivot

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James Holmes

5 Ways Europe Can Help the US Pivot

Crimea has woken Europe up to geopolitics. Here’s how it can help the U.S. pivot to Asia.

On Friday, the Naval Diplomat had the privilege of discussing the pivot with a visiting European delegation. It was a group whose boisterousness belied its sparse numbers. By the end I half-expected them to raise steam in the lone man-of-war remaining on Narragansett Bay, voyage around the world, and shake their fists at China from just beyond the twelve-mile limit. Spit on your hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats, my friends!

My, how times have changed. A dozen years ago, during the halcyon days of “Old Europe” and “freedom fries” — mmm, fries — Carnegie Endowment pundit Robert Kagan published a nifty little book to the effect that Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus.

Europeans took umbrage at the claim that they sheltered under the American security aegis for decades, and in the process unlearned the habit of defending themselves or even thinking seriously about the use of force. In time, concludes Kagan, they came to inhabit an alternate universe. Perpetual peace had arrived. Fighting for self-defense was something sordid, something others — like Americans — did when necessary.

I’m not sure I wholly sign onto Kagan’s thesis. It’s a tad overstated. But at the same time, I never quite grokked what the fuss was all about. Europeans were hardly the first to enjoy a holiday from history courtesy of a benign great power. Americans themselves entertained some otherworldly ideas about military force during the 19th century. Indeed, it was the labors of a European power and erstwhile imperial overlord, Great Britain and its Royal Navy that granted them a strategic holiday for most of a century. Washington merely repaid the IOU during the Cold War.

That’s no shame. Indeed, free-riding on British-supplied maritime security was a luxury that enabled the United States to grow into a world power. British seafarers kept rival empires largely out of the Americas following a spate of Latin American revolutions in the early 19th century. That spared the United States from constructing a large, expensive fleet and army to defend itself. And it freed up resources for internal improvements and other nation-building ventures. The conviction that the United States must field strong forces to protect its interests was never encoded in America’s strategic DNA.

Or at least not until much later. Such ideas long outlived their usefulness, persisting until a couple of guys named Yamamoto and Nagumo exploded them at Pearl Harbor. Isolationism came to an abrupt halt with the aerial attack on Hawaii, confided isolationist Michigan senator Arthur Vandenberg. Seems it takes a heavy, unexpected blow to shatter assumptions about the world.

Did Vladimir Putin administer such a blow in Ukraine, rearranging Europeans’ mental map of Eurasia? Is Venus realigning with Mars? Maybe so. I’m extrapolating from a sample size of one meeting, of course, but the tenor of European commentary on defense affairs seems to have shifted since the last time I mingled with Europeans, in Berlin last fall (and before Crimea). Geopolitics is no longer abstract or hypothetical, and no longer passé.

It’s possible a slumbering giant awakes, and is gazing about himself bleary-eyed. As he ponders what to do in Asia, here are Five Ways Europe Can Help America Pivot:

1. Learn to stop worrying and love the pivot. Since the late unpleasantness in the Black Sea, a steady stream of commentaries has issued forth from Europeanists pleading with Washington to abandon the Asia pivot, “pivot to Europe,” and so forth. Enough already with the fretting. In aggregate Europe is bigger, more populous, and wealthier than America. It possesses the lineaments of great power. Brussels, then, should be able to manage its environs rather than defer to Washington. It only needs the resolve to do so.

The Asia pivot depends on entry into the region. Forcible access must, and will, be part of any Asia strategy worth the name. That means concentrating the bulk of high-end U.S. forces in the East to pierce Chinese anti-access defenses. By no means should the United States disengage from the North Atlantic world, but Europe must shoulder primary responsibility for its own security and defense. Doing so lets heavy U.S. forces concentrate in East and South Asia. By helping itself, Europe helps its transatlantic ally.

2. Bear a hand. Europe can also take a more direct hand in the pivot, and it can do so without building or committing large forces of its own. The pivot, again, is about access to maritime Asia. Access is a grand-strategic phenomenon. Europeans can help with its nonmilitary dimensions. For example, China’s “three warfares” strategy — media, legal, and psychological warfare that disheartens opponents — is central to its access-denial strategy. Europe can help counter it by, say, helping debunk Beijing’s farcical legal claims in the South China Sea.

Europe prides itself on being the home of international law. Let’s do the legal thing — and indirectly help beleaguered Asian nations like the Philippines and Vietnam. Yes, China will get mad at you. Lawbreakers seldom take kindly to lawmen. But this sort of around-the-margins assistance could prove invaluable.

3. Take charge of safe zones. The transatlantic community ought to hammer out a geographic division of labor whereby Europe manages more or less safe areas on the map and the United States handles the rough stuff. The Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, and western Indian Ocean are permissive seas intimately familiar to European armed forces. Why not assign those waters and adjoining littorals to Brussels and the Pacific Ocean and Bay of Bengal to the United States? Would it chafe me to see, say, French warships anchor in Newport Harbor while performing police duty? Hardly. A French fleet called Newport home during our War of Independence. Welcome home.

4. Police the sea. Along with a geographic division of labor, how about a functional one? Combat and law-enforcement functions comprise sea power. By all accounts European navies have acquitted themselves well battling Blackbeard and Captain Jack Sparrow in the Gulf of Aden. Why not give Europe the lead in the constabulary realm, where it has proved its mettle already, while reserving combat primarily to the U.S. Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, Royal Australian Navy, and other battleworthy Asian forces that reside close to likely scenes of action?

5. Provide “cruisers” and the “flotilla.” And lastly, assets useful for constabulary work — frigates, corvettes, patrol craft — can do double duty in wartime if properly configured. Remember Sir Julian Corbett’s taxonomy of fleets. The battle fleet made up of capital ships fights for command, lightly armed cruisers fan out to control the flow of shipping once command is a done deal, and the flotilla of small craft discharges the multitude of administrative tasks great navies must discharge.

European navies possess only a handful of ships suitable for fleet actions — the Royal Navy’s Daring-class destroyers and the French Navy’s flattop Charles de Gaulle, to name two. Yet they are amply supplied with frigates such as the Royal Danish Navy’s impressive Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates. Those look remarkably like cruisers in the Corbettian sense. Let Asian navies, including the U.S. Navy, take the brunt of the fighting should it come, while European mariners help exploit the fruits of victory. Europeans can help complete a wartime pivot.

General George McClellan was a master of raising, equipping, and training Union armies for the American Civil War. But he feared using them in action. He grossly exaggerated the size and capability of Confederate armies, declined battle except under the most auspicious circumstances, and generally vacillated. An old joke has it that McClellan’s soldiers loved him because he never risked their lives. President Abraham Lincoln once sent him a note asking whether he might borrow the army if McClellan had no plans to use it. At last, in 1862, an exasperated Lincoln sent his general instructions, demanding: you must act.

Europe, you must act. Don’t be known as the George McClellan of world politics.