The Return of Direct Defense in Europe

We are publishing a book next year with Praeger which focuses on the return of direct defense in Europe.

What follows is our introduction to the book. 

The title of our book is the easy part: The Return of Direct Defense in Europe.  The subtitle: Meeting the Russian Challengeis more difficult, for the challenge is occurring in a very different strategic context than when WESTERN Europe was dealing with the Soviet Union.

It is clear that the challenges posed by the Russians share both commonalities but significant differences to those posed by the Soviet Union.

This is one theme of the book.

But the scope of our book is designed to deal with the question of the direct defense in Europe today, which is broader than that of the Russian challenge alone.

The Russians are clearly playing off of the dynamics of change within Europe and the trans-Atlantic relationships, and those dynamics are not generated by the Russians themselves but provide a rich environment in which to shape enhanced influence and capabilities to provide both direct and indirect threats to individual states as well as to deepen fissures within NATO and the European Union, the two collaborative organizations most central to direct defense.

The Cold War is over; but the Russians are back.

Russia clearly is not the Soviet Union; and Western Europe has been replaced by a new geo-strategic reality – the European Union and NATO have moved eastward.

The strategic shock of Russian actions in 2014 in Crimea, which logically followed from their actions against Georgia in 2008 sent shock waves throughout Europe.  But those shock waves were impacting on an evolving West and the global rise of 21stcentury authoritarian states.

This combination has meant that reshaping rethinking and reframing European defense is not a repeat of the period prior to the fall of the Wall; but is something quite different. And crafting a strategic response to the Russian challenges in Europe will itself need to be quite different; even different from what was done before the coming of President Trump and the various European crises of the past few years.

The return of Russia has occurred in the context of a very different geography than the Soviet Union governed with the Warsaw Pact.

In those days, there was a clear Central Front and the flanks served the battle anticipated if war came to the Central Front. The Soviet leadership planned an air ground assault against Germany, combined with an amphibious assault along the lines of what the Germans did against the Northern Flank in World War II along with holding actions in the Southern Flank, the weakest part of any anticipated Soviet assault.

And large numbers of nuclear weapons with fairly clear distinctions between long and short range were woven into the coming battle; with significant uncertainties with regular to nuclear use within the context of any projected European battle.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians faced a new geography. But even with this change in Euro-geography, the Russians remained an immense geographic landmass from Europe to Asia.  Remember the last U.S. Administration’s strategic mistake of referring to them as a regional power? Which region were they referring to?

But now Russia had its famous Window to the West, now again St. Petersburg, directly facing newly independent states, and Moscow now facing an independent Poland, with the Ukraine and Belarus as buffer states. 

If you think in classic geopolitical terms, and that is both the strength and weakness of the approach of the current President of Russia, any further movements West of the European Union (EU) and NATO would put a dagger at the heart of Moscow.

From the West’s point of view, the kind of EU and NATO expansion is to be understood in terms of a greater inclusion of states within the two drivers eastward, the German led European Union and the American led European alliance.

Striking into Crimea clearly made sense to Putin in terms of halting any move eastward. But Russian actions came at a time when both the American and German systems of alliances were in the process of fundamental change and significant pressures which were changing both the EU and NATO.

The coming of Brexit and of Trump represents clear visible signs of change.

But intellectually, if you were to combine the analyses done with regard to U.S. strategy done by John Mearsheimer with that done by Sir Paul Lever with regard to Germany and the EU you would get a realistic understanding of two strategic thrusts coming to a halt.

Or put another way, the return of Russia and how they are shaping their efforts to navigate the shoals of Western policies to their benefit are coming at a time of fundamental change in the West itself.

John Mearsheimer in his book published in 2018 entitledThe Great Delusion describes in considerable detail the thrust of U.S. strategic policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S. has pursued a policy of what he refers to as “liberal hegemony,” and one not even in the interest of the U.S. seen from a more realistic geopolitical perspective. The invasion of Iraq and the endless war in Afghanistan fit no concept within a realist understanding of the world. Indeed, the U.S. engaging in an open ended liberal hegemonic effort has undercut American strategic interests.

“Liberal hegemony is an ambitious strategy in which a state aims to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies like itself while also promoting an open international economy and building international institutions. In essence, the liberal state seeks to spread its own values far and wide.”1

The U.S. does not have the resources, or capability to remake the countries into which it has inserted itself and in trying to do so has undercut its own geopolitical interests. Or put another way, American diplomatic and military approaches have reshaped U.S. tools to do things like stability operations rather than investing in relevant air and naval systems to defend the U.S. directly and to be able to more effectively compete with a rising China or a resurgent Russia.

As Mearsheimer put it: “Liberals tend to think of every area of the world as a potential battlefield, because they are committed to protecting human rights everywhere and spreading liberal democracy far and wide. They would naturally prefer to achieve these goals peacefully, but they are usually willing to countenance using military force if necessary. In short, while realists place strict limits on where they are willing to employ force, liberals have no such limits. For them, vital interests are everywhere.”2

Even though this quote highlights liberals, the liberal hegemonic approach he is discussing has been at the heart of the last three Administration’s policies, whether driven by neo-cons or liberals. With the Soviet Union gone, and the working assumption that the Chinese were being assimilated into the global order, the U.S. was free to work with its allies to reshape the troublesome Middle East and to deal with “Islamic terrorism” as the key strategic threat.

But with the election of Donald Trump, there has been a clear recognition that this strategic direction is not one which the U.S. can resource, or should pursue.  His Pentagon released a new national security strategy, which focused on the return of Great Power rivalry and the need to reshape U.S. policies and capabilities to make such a strategic shift.

It is an open question of whether the Administration has really been reorganized to do this or whether the U.S. can easily shift course. What is not in question is that the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia have put in play 21stcentury authoritarian powers directly challenging the United States and the liberal democratic allies whose challenges need to be met.

The other key strand of a strategic shift is clearly the disaggregation of the German-led European Union. 

Sir Paul Lever in his brilliant book Berlin Ruleshas analyzed the other element of the twin dynamic of the West confronting a strategic environment different from the past thirty years.  In the German-led European Union, the expansion of liberal Europe East has been crafted with the clear image that the new states will act like the older ones and shape a collaborative political-economic enterprise capable of growing into a leading global power for the new age of globalization.

The resurgence of Russia has called this into question along with the flood of Muslim refugees into Europe and the inability with a European Union magic wand to erase 50 years of history in which Eastern Europe was dominated by Russia.  The oft-noted comment by German politicians and analysts that a number of East Europeans are not pursuing “European values,” is less about whether or not these states are acting normally, but more about the fact that there is little prospect for a single European culture dominating life on the continent.

Lever provides his assessment of Germany’s role within Europe and how it has evolved from the war through to the eve of Brexit. His argument is straightforward – the European Union reflects the values and interests of Germany and weaves seamlessly into the German approach to economic policy.

The founding of the Euro created a key venue for Germany to enforce its core economic approach upon those who entered the Euro zone. And although the gap between Eurozone and non-Eurozone members is an important one within the European Union, the EU has provided the framework for Germany to find its national identity after having it shattered in the flames of defeat in World War II.

He argues that the tensions over migration have introduced a fundamental tension in the European Union, which could trigger more fundamental change, but argues that the German political class simply does not contemplate fundamental change in the European Union even with the departure of the United Kingdom.

The Germans have been able to dominate the European Union because of their economic weight and after unification their size relative to other members. The German political leadership has clearly used the EU to protect German national interests and, indeed, as Lever argues they believe that there is no fundamental disconnect between how Europe should behave economically and what Germany wants.

He focuses as well upon the forces driving change within Europe and relates those forces of change to what might become the evolving German approach. He raises three key questions with regard to how Germans may rethink their approach to Europe and their nation.

“How robust is the German consensus on Europe?

“Will Germany’s politicians continue indefinitely to argue for more integration without having to spell out what exactly this would mean?

“Will its electorate always be willing, even if unenthusiastic to go along with whatever next step is proposed along the road of ever-closer union?”3

The title of the book is a clever one as it highlights to core of German policy – EU rules should reflect German approaches and one rules through a European process heavily influenced by Germany.

But the tensions facing Europe may well disrupt this approach and force German leaders to consider alternative approaches to the way ahead for both Germany and Europe.

“The failure to address the issue of compatibility between different identities, national and European, has been a feature of the way in which all German politicians discuss Europe.

“Because their own country takes no pride in its past, they assume that an EU can be developed which equally has no collective past to be proud of. They even make a virtue of it…

“The underlying assumption is that the nation states of Europe failed in the past to prevent wars and that therefore the nation state is itself inadequate as an instrument of governance.”4

In other words, the twin shocks – Trump and Brexit – are not speed bumps along the path of the ever-expanding liberal order supported by a German-American dynamic; we are facing a strategic turn the outcome of which is not clear.

Brexit and Trump are not speed bumps, but they are not clarion calls for a well-defined and clear new strategic approach or order either.

The resurgence of Russia comes as well accompanied by the rise of new broader authoritarian challenges. Rather than some inexplicable return to the 19thCentury suggested by the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, we are seeing the rise of a fundamental set of challenges posed by authoritarian states, which are combing a diverse set of tools to challenge the viability and strategic direction of the liberal democracies. There are viable 21stcentury authoritarian alternatives, rather than the “end of history.”

The Russians are economically weak but playing a high-risk game of chess with the West. In this game they are inventing new approaches for the use of military power with leveraging new tools of the digital age. The term “hybrid war” has been coined to highlight the approach, but this really is a statement that the liberal democracies are facing a new strategic calculus; and new strategic contest 5

The Russians are allied with the Chinese who have growing global presence and are buying their way into liberal democratic societies, finding new ways to use military power in what analysts call the “gray zone” and are clearly reshaping the nature of Western infrastructure necessary for the security and defense of the liberal democracies.

But the gray zone is an ambiguous term itself. The goal is to reshape the external environment in ways favorable without the need to engage in kinetic operations. In the hybrid war concept, lethal operations are the supporting not the tip of the spear element to achieve what the state actor is hoping to achieve tactically or strategically.

Both gray zone ops and hybrid war ops are part of a broader strategic reality, namely, the challenge of mastering crisis management where the liberal democracies need to deal with the authoritarian states in a ongoing peer-to-peer competition.

And then we have the Turkey of President Erdogan.  Here we have a formerly secular state now becoming aggressively Islamic and directly intervening in the internal politics of Europe and importing Russian equipment in a defiant gesture to all of NATO.

This is the context within which the West or the liberal democracies must reshape their capabilities to provide for their direct defense; and to do so will not look like a legacy NATO approach, but will require significant innovation.

How can we recast the direct defense of Europe in ways that would not simply be a badly resourced replay of the Cold War?

How will the U.S. and the very different sets of allies within Europe address the strategic challenges?

And how will the inevitable inability to have a coherent consensus on what to do be managed?

What tools are available now and how can they be worked in an interactive interoperable way to credibly deter Russia?

And how do we handle the inevitable clash of approaches and differences within Europe in which neither the German nor American approach will determine what states do in a crisis?

What might a more realistic approach to the direct defense look like and one which allows the U.S. and its allies to deal with the global challenge of a China which is clearly seeking to reshape the global order in ways which are not in any way liberal democratic?


  1. John J Mearsheimer, Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, Yale University Press, 2018, Kindle Edition, chapter one
  2. Ibid.
  3. Paul Lever, Berlin Rules(I.B.Tauris, 2017, p. 181).
  4. Paul Lever, Ibid., p. 126.
  5. For example, see the 2015 NATO Annual Report: