The Pentagon Has Fired the First Shot in a New Arms Race - Against 'Russian Aggression'
As the voters of New Hampshire braved the snow to play their part in the great pageant of American democracy on Tuesday, the US secretary of defence was setting out his spending requirements for 2017. And while the television cameras may have preferred the miniature dramas at the likes of Dixville Notch, the reorientation of US defence priorities under the outgoing president may turn out to exert the greater influence – and not in a good way, at least for the future of Europe.
In a speech in Washington last week, previewing his announcement, Ash Carter said he would ask for spending on US military forces in Europe to be quadrupled in the light of “Russian aggression”. The allocation for combating Islamic State, in contrast, is to be increased by 50%. The message is unambiguous: as viewed from the Pentagon, the threat from Russia has become more alarming, suddenly, even than the menace that is Isis.
If this is Pentagon thinking, then it reverses a trend that has remained remarkably consistent throughout Barack Obama’s presidency. Even before he was elected there was trepidation in some European quarters that he would be the first genuinely post-cold war president – too young to remember the second world war, and more global than Atlanticist in outlook. And so it proved.
From his first day in the White House, Obama seemed more interested in almost anywhere than Europe. He began his presidency with an appeal in Cairo addressed to the Muslim world, in an initiative that was frustrated by the Arab spring and its aftermath, but partly rescued by last year’s nuclear agreement with Iran. He had no choice but to address the growing competition from China, and he ended half a century of estrangement from Cuba. But Europe, he left largely to its own devices. When France and the UK intervened in Libya, the US “led from behind”. Most of the US troops remaining in Europe, it was disclosed last year, were to be withdrawn.
Nor was such an approach illogical. Europe was at peace – comparatively, at least. The European Union was chugging along, diverted only briefly (so it might have seemed from the US) by the internal crises of Greece and the euro. Even the unrest in Ukraine, at least in its early stages, was treated by Washington more as a local difficulty than a cold war-style standoff.
Day to day policy was handled (fiercely, but to no great effect) by Victoria Nuland at the state department; Sanctions against Russia were agreed and coordinated with the EU. All the while – despite the urging of the Kiev government – Obama kept the conflict at arm’s length. Congress agitated for weapons to be sent, but Obama wisely resisted. This was not, he thereby implied, America’s fight.
In the last months of his presidency, this detachment is ending. The additional funds for Europe’s defence are earmarked for new bases and weapons stores in Poland and the Baltic states. There will be more training for local Nato troops, more state-of-the-art hardware and more manoeuvres.
Now it is just possible that the extra spending and the capability it will buy are no more than sops to the “frontline” EU countries in the runup to the Nato summit in Warsaw in July, to be quietly forgotten afterwards. More probably, though, they are for real – and if so the timing could hardly be worse. Ditto the implications for Europe’s future.
By planning to increase spending in this way, the US is sending hostile signals to Russia at the very time when there is less reason to do so than for a long time. It is nearly two years since Russia annexed Crimea and 18 months since thedowning of MH17. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has died down; there is no evidence of recent Russian material support for the anti-Kiev rebels, and there is a prospect, at least, that the Minsk-2 agreement could be honoured, with Ukraine (minus Crimea) remaining – albeit uneasily – whole.
In Syria, Russia has signed up to the war against Isis; it has helped orchestrate the only diplomatic process there is, and has acquiesced in principle to the eventual departure of President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s continued support is also crucial to the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. The first real prospect of improved Russia-west relations since the ill-fated “reset” of 2009 looks as though it has been scotched almost before it has begun.
Worse still, by attaching the new spending specifically to Poland and the “new” Nato states, the US is sending two more – linked – messages. The first is that Washington is prepared to take direct responsibility for the security of these countries. Not only does this leave them with no incentive whatsoever to normalise relations with their giant neighbour. It will inevitably heighten Russia’s own sense of insecurity, and prompt a new spiral in what we once called the arms race. New nuclear deployments cannot be ruled out.
The second is that once again the EU and the European Nato countries will be able to postpone the self-reliance that must surely come. Obama’s detachment, it seemed, was just starting to have an effect: the understanding that Europe would have to get its defence act together, increase spending, talk seriously to Russia about mutual security, and generally behave like a grownup, seemed finally to be percolating through to Brussels and other European capitals. Now they will be able to revert to their old divided, neglectful ways, confident that whoever becomes the next US president is unlikely to be less Atlanticist than Obama and will surely bail them out, if need be, one last time.