For the Next Administration, Europe Must Be a Priority

February 24, 2016

Sally Painter is a board member of the Truman National Security Project and COO of Blue Star Strategies. Views expressed are her own.

On February 2, the White House announced a rare piece of good news about Europe: the administration would be requesting $3.4 billion in funding for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) in fiscal year 2017, quadrupling its prior commitment. The program, developed in June 2014 in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, provides for increased U.S. force presence in Europe, additional military exercises and training for NATO, and other measures to bolster European security. At its new funding level, ERI will dramatically scale up rapid response capacity as new troops and equipment are deployed to countries like Hungary, Romania, and the Baltics.

For concerned observers of Europe, the move marked a welcome shift in attention. Given President Obama’s focus on the Middle East and his “pivot to Asia,” Europe has too often been neglected. The administration’s recommitment to European security represents a necessary course correction. As the U.S. prepares for a transition of power in the coming year, however, it is crucial that the next administration builds on this progress and prioritizes Europe from the very start.

No matter which party is in the White House, Europe has always done best when the United States is deeply engaged in its development and security. After the Cold War, President Clinton’s administration began the process of NATO enlargement, which was enthusiastically continued by President George W. Bush. Albania and Montenegro joined in 2009 under President Obama’s watch, and this year may see the accession of Montenegro and Macedonia. This process has brought a dozen countries into the Western fold, consolidated democratic values, strengthened regional security, and brought newfound prosperity. It is important that enlargement continue, and that the next president reaffirm NATO’s open door policy, especially in the face of Russian threats.

Still, Russia is not the only threat to European stability, and NATO is not the only institution capable of dealing with such challenges. The past year has proven that the European Union is more fragile than ever, beset by an immigration crisis and populist Euroskeptic movements that have divided the continent. The U.S. should take a firm and vocal stand in favor of a strong EU and against the chorus of voices that seek to undermine its authority. The United States must also quietly leverage its special relationship with the UK to push Prime Minister David Cameron and the British public to stay in the EU in the coming Brexit referendum.

The United States should also restart the dialogue on the European migrant crisis, which has overwhelmed Europe’s capacity, threatened the Schengen visa-free travel arrangement, and spurred popular discontent with Brussels. Unfortunately, the United States has not always been a helpful partner, choosing to impose onerous new visa rules on European citizens who have travelled to the Middle East and leave Europe to sort out its own problems. A better approach would be to show solidarity by taking in more refugees, making a deep financial commitment to on-the-ground organizations that are assisting refugees, and revising the recent visa waiver legislation in a way that maintains security while addressing concerns of European diplomats.

These kinds of steps would go a long way toward rekindling trust and demonstrating that the United States considers the EU more than a mere partner of convenience. To that end, the U.S. must also increase intelligence sharing with Europe to prevent future terrorist attacks. In recent years, trust between the U.S. and Europe has eroded due to the Snowden revelations, and any future president must address privacy concerns in order to regain Europe’s trust while safeguarding our shared freedoms.

Rather than a source of tension, cybersecurity could become a new frontier of cooperation between Europe and the United States. Cyber attacks threaten vital infrastructure on both sides of the Atlantic; experts suspect China was behind last year’s data breach of the Office of Personnel Management, and Russia responsible for last month’s cyber attack on Ukraine’s energy grid. In recent years, NATO has dedicated more resources to cyber defense, but U.S. leaders should double down on that commitment, which will pay off in today’s fast-changing threat landscape.

Above all, the transatlantic alliance must prove adaptable for the 21st century, which means meeting commitments. Individual NATO countries can play their part by spending at least 2% of their GDP on defense. In 2015, only five of 28 states met that target,  dampening American enthusiasm for increased defense spending in Europe. Still, the trend is moving in the right direction; after years of widespread budget cuts, 16 NATO countries increased expenditures in 2015, and 23 boosted spending on military vehicles and hardware. If NATO countries continue this progress and meet their targets, it would demonstrate a tangible buy-in to shared security and strengthen the relationship on both sides of the Atlantic.

These goals can only be achieved with sustained, engaged leadership from Washington. The substantially increased funding for ERI is a positive development that will go a long way toward reassuring our nervous European allies. Yet this yearlong measure should be treated as a down payment on European security, not an end point in itself. No matter who takes the White House next, Europe will need reassurance far beyond 2017. Europe still can be whole, free, and at peace—but as always, it will take American leadership to make that vision a reality.