A pan-European army makes sense — but not because of Trump

A pan-European army makes sense — but not because of Trump
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Should Europe found a “real, true” pan-European army, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed at a European Parliament meeting on Tuesday?

Yes. Europe should shoulder the burden of its own defense. This is what mature powers do, and the European Union aspires to be a mature power. Furthermore, taking up this burden would hedge against a downturn in transatlantic relations or a wartime catastrophe.

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Forget about transatlantic feuding or President Donald Trump’s negotiating style or skepticism toward alliance entanglements. President TrumpDonald John TrumpFamily says Trump travel ban preventing mother from seeing dying son Saudi Arabia rejects Senate position on Khashoggi killing Five things to know about the Trump inauguration investigation MORE will depart the White House in two or six years, depending on the verdict voters hand down in the 2020 presidential election. Europe should take its destiny into its own hands, as Chancellor Merkel implores it to, because it makes strategic sense. It would be foolish to undertake a project of such magnitude out of dislike toward an abrasive personality.

More than petty animosity should mold strategy.

Let’s review the whys and hows of creating a pan-European army. The whys are philosophical and practical. First, the philosophical. As famed Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich counseled in the closing days of the Napoleonic Wars, alliances, coalitions and “all fraternizations” among nations tend to “disintegrate” unless a “strictly determinate aim” unites them.

NATO, history’s most successful alliance, has defied diplomatic gravity for three decades since the Cold War. It held together even after its strictly determinate aim of collective defense against the Soviet Union lapsed. But Europe shouldn’t assume it will persevere forever. Brussels should cultivate an independent military option in case Prince von Metternich is right and the Atlantic Alliance falters.

Second, the practical. An increasingly contested body of water separates the North American from the European half of the Atlantic community. Should war break out in Europe, the Russian Navy will do what the imperial and Nazi German navies tried to do during the world wars: stop the United States and Canada from rushing manpower and war materiel across the North Atlantic to reinforce ground and air forces in Europe. Moscow will dispatch surface raiders and especially missile-armed nuclear-powered submarines into the Atlantic Ocean to sink freighters and transports making their way across the sea.

Because Germany fell short then does not mean Russia is fated to today. As my last (and first) column for The Hill pointed out, the American merchant fleet has dwindled in numbers over the decades and also may be forced to sail without U.S. Navy protection. This courts disaster. Whether sufficient troops and supplies would reach Europe in time to matter is an open question as a result. Forces already on the ground may have to shift for themselves for an indefinite interval.

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It’s tough to imagine NATO returning to a Cold War posture whereby the U.S. Army and Air Force forward-deploy to the continent in vast numbers. Hundreds of thousands of American personnel called Europe home during the late Cold War; a mere 62,000 do now. This is not a war-winning force against a peer aggressor. U.S. forces will have to cross the wine-dark sea in the face of Russian subs and ships. It behooves Europe to amass a cohesive fighting force of its own lest U.S. forces arrive too late.

Such a force could stave off defeat.

So much for the whys; how should Europe found a combined military? Chiefly by acknowledging and resolving to surmount the many obstacles to pan-European integration. It’s one thing for Merkel or French President Emmanuel Macron to espouse a European army, quite another to put that vision into practice. As strategists joke: hope is not a strategy.

Not a good one, anyway.

Think about culture. A European army would bear some resemblance to polyglot imperial armies of old, and that’s faint praise. It would encounter substantial linguistic and cultural barriers. The Roman Empire in its heyday excelled at incorporating conquered peoples into the empire and its fearsome legions. Great Britain tapped the talents and pugnacity of vanquished Scots and English-speaking Indians as London oversaw an empire on which the sun never set.

More debilitating, and probably more commonplace, are the troubles that plagued multinational forces from Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Soviet Union. For example, disparities in language, culture and history bedeviled Russian commanders squaring off against the Imperial Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Russia lost.

What the U.S. armed forces call “unity of effort” proves elusive when trying to forge a single sharp weapon out of disparate nationalities. Achieving it demands constant, painstaking, patient effort. Would-be founders of a European army must investigate past multinational forces — eschewing their worst traits while emulating their best. Learn from history.

And then there are workmanlike “interoperability” problems. Even a cohesive force such as the U.S. military finds working together hard because of unlike hardware, tactics and procedures, and organizational cultures. Hardware comes from different defense manufacturers. Ground, air and sea forces operate in different domains, and thus ground-pounders, aviators and mariners bring radically different assumptions to tradecraft.

Heck, even a single service, the U.S. Navy, is subdivided into surface, submarine and air communities whose leaders often find themselves at loggerheads over strategy, operations and force design. Subs or aircraft carriers?

Hence the bitter quarrels that afflict the Pentagon amid the stresses and strains of war. Now multiply those problems by 28 EU member states that would contribute forces to an army under the loose federation that is the European Union. Washington has it easy by contrast with Brussels.

Which brings us back to the politicians. Business folk say new products can come fast, cheap or good — pick two of the three. Presumably, Merkel, Macron & Co. want a European force to be good. Otherwise, why bother? And presumably they want to field it before long. After all, the age of great-power competition is upon us. If Europe needs an army, it needs it fast.

Hence this promises to be a pricey venture. If so, Europeans must resolve to invest generously in their armed forces after decades of skimping. That’s the price of independence.

James R. Holmes is J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of “Red Star over the Pacific” (second edition due out next month). The views voiced here are his alone.