A U.S. in Retreat Will Lead to Increased Unilateral Action by Allies
Under the administration of Donald Trump, the United States has been attempting to rebalance its priorities, giving the appearance that it is stepping back from its traditional role as guarantor of international security, trade, and diplomacy. However, the rhetoric from the executive branch is hardly news. Prior U.S. presidential administrations—recently Obama and Bush—repeatedly pressed NATO allies about the need to increase their defense budgets, arguing that American taxpayers have underwritten European security for decades.
The European Union—and its two largest economies, France and Germany are facing growing uncertainty in their electorates regarding the role of the Union. The bloc is still comprised of vastly contrarian points-of-view, and it remains to be seen how the E.U. will handle Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom. It is likely the bloc will try to make an example out of the United Kingdom in an effort to dissuade other states from pursuing similar political agendas.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as leaders of the two most powerful EU states, will need to alleviate the concerns of their respective electorates, which are increasingly concerned with issues such as terrorism and mass immigration—both of which pose serious challenges to European security and social cohesion. Additionally, they will need to effectively communicate the purpose and value of the bloc, in security, economic, and societal terms.
The European Union is in a better position than China (touted by some as the successor to U.S. global hegemony) to serve as a guarantor of global security. Even with the departure of the United Kingdom, Europe’s armed forces are able to project hard power on a global scale thanks to the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. Other EU members like Spain and Italy both maintain their own carriers, however, these are much smaller and do not rely on nuclear power, reducing range and overall operating capacity.
Important to note, however, is the fact that the capability of the combined Armed Forces of the European Union pales in comparison to those of the United States. While they compare in terms of manpower, American military spending and technological capability far outweigh those of the EU, meaning that the United States remains the only country capable of projecting force on a truly global scale.
Germany became acutely aware of the strategic consequences the EU would face should Marine Le Pen ascend to the French presidency and follow through with her promises to withdraw France from the European Union and the NATO joint military command structure. After the U.S. and Russia, France possesses the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world.
Germany’s Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, was notably concerned about the prospect of France withdrawing from the European Union. Such a move would leave the E.U. without a nuclear deterrent of its own. In this scenario, Germany would become the bloc’s de-facto military and economic leader and would have to consider leading the development of a European Union nuclear weapons program to deter an increasingly aggressive and opportunistic Russia.
Security in the Asia-Pacific Region
Key American allies in East Asia, notably Japan, are also reacting to the “America First” Japan’s military capabilities are restricted by its post-World War II constitution. Japan is limited in its ability to deploy troops overseas and is forbidden from developing or possessing aircraft carriers. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has advocated for constitutional reforms that would allow for expanded military and defense capabilities.
Forbidden from operating traditional aircraft carriers that allow for the takeoff and landing of fixed-wing aircraft, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces currently have in service four “helicopter destroyers”—also referred to as “helicopter carriers.”
Japan’s push to increase its military capabilities isn’t a reaction to the rhetoric currently emanating from the White House. Rather, Japan’s decades-long reluctance to demonstrate its “hard power” capabilities is increasingly outweighed by China’s increasing expansionism and North Korea’s nuclear program.
The remainder of 2017 will likely reveal the limits of China’s influence over the “hermit kingdom;” China recognizes the security threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea with increased intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability, China is more concerned with the prospect of a U.S.-aligned, unified Korea. As such, it likely intends to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.