Don't Abandon Europe in the Name of 'Asia First'

commentary

Mar 22, 2024

U.S. Army helicopters transport vehicles as part of an air assault mission during Saber Junction 19 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, September 26, 2019, photo by Sgt. Thomas Mort/U.S. Army

U.S. Army helicopters transport vehicles as part of an air assault mission during Saber Junction 19 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, September 26, 2019

Photo by Sgt. Thomas Mort/U.S. Army

This commentary originally appeared on Newsweek on March 21, 2024.

In the debate over the future of U.S. grand strategy in the 1990s, some analysts proposed a strategy of “neo-isolationism,” in which the United States would purposefully seek to preserve its freedom of action. The future of NATO would be left to Europe, as would Asian security to Asia. Others proposed a strategy of “selective engagement.” They saw the realist tradition as important but insisted, as Robert Art argued, the reassurance of allies, wherever they might be, should be the first use of American military power.

A strange combination of both approaches—which can be called “selective isolationism”—is now emerging. Instead of engaging selectively, the United States would seek to isolate itself selectively. This is best seen in the “Asia First” approach to foreign policy outlined in a recent Newsweek op-ed, which suggests that the United States has to make strategic choices in “resources and energy” by prioritizing “geopolitical efforts” in Asia instead of Europe. Doing so, it's argued, amounts not to isolationism but strategic necessity.

When actually looking at the metrics, however, U.S. defense capabilities are already skewed in favor of the Middle East and East Asia. Those U.S. capabilities still left in Europe are a fraction of their Cold War size—there isn't much to take away from without creating a political mess. Instead of a strategic calculation, isolating European partners' vital interests because they are “less important” than Asia can only harm the United States' relationship with its Asian partners as well. Because of its capabilities and consistency, the United States should continue to selectively engage in a region and reassure its allies along the way.

Isolating European partners' vital interests because they are “less important” than Asia can only harm the United States' relationship with its Asian partners as well.

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Self-proclaimed “Asia firsters” are correct in assessing that the foremost threat to U.S. national security is the People's Republic of China, but their assessment of U.S. posture in the world is wrong. Compared to the 300,000 military personnel the United States had in Europe in the 1980s, U.S. manpower contribution has fallen by two-thirds. Despite this decline, so long as U.S. commitments to NATO exist and are strong, Russia poses minimal risk in a contingency. Leveraging NATO, in fact, is the only way to counter Russian conventional offensives while the United States can focus its might in East Asia in the event of an opportunistic invasion of Taiwan.

Since the Cold War, the United States has shifted focus to the Middle East and, more recently, the Indo-Pacific. Today, the U.S. stations (PDF) more than 375,000 military personnel across at least 66 distinct defense sites in the Indo-Pacific. The newly established Pacific Deterrence Initiative covers $9.9 billion of the 2025 Defense Department budget, more than twice the amount the United States spends in Europe. Considering European-focused spending represents less than 0.5 percent of the total defense budget, it is hard to qualify these efforts as overburdening U.S. “resources.” By contrast, the Pentagon still spends more than $17.1 billion in the Middle East; more than the two other theaters combined. If “Asia-first supporters” were motivated by helping taxpayers, they would call to decrease the money spent in the Middle East, rather than Europe.

More importantly, the benefits of keeping U.S. capabilities in Europe are significantly higher than the benefits of shifting these same capabilities to Asia. The United States contributes over 100,000 soldiers, a Carrier Strike Group (CSG), and other military assets to Europe. These assets are vital in supporting the deterrence of treaty-bound allies in NATO's eastern flank. The United States could divert the one Carrier Strike Group in Europe to assist the two others deployed in the Pacific, or the two in the Middle East. But the Mediterranean CSG is critical to protect shipping lanes beyond just European security, just like the other CSGs. The 100,000 personnel in Europe, too, cannot simply pivot its mostly Army mass to a littoral island terrain.

U.S. Foreign Military Sales to Taiwan have been experiencing a backlog that has gotten worse during the war in Ukraine, resulting in some public debate over which country to prioritize. “Asia first” advocates call for the United States to support Taiwan over Ukraine. But how can the United States make this move when Taiwan itself is worried that the United States would abandon Ukraine? As one July RAND report notes, the U.S. forces are eroding, but Washington should still continue its support for Ukraine and enhance commitments to become the country's treaty-bound ally.

Empirically, the war in Ukraine has not distracted U.S. military power so far. In truth, it has revitalized the defense industrial base and allowed the United States to emerge stronger and its adversaries weaker. The United States has a strategic interest in keeping this route.

The “Asia first” crowd is correct in its assessment that Europe is not doing enough in defense, which is a current weakness for selective engagement. But when looking into the total Ukraine support numbers, the European Union and its member states contribute twice as much as the United States. Claiming that Europe is not already pulling its weight is incorrect, though not enough of this aid has been security aid—despite several “swap deals” European countries have used to supply Kyiv with armaments. The European Strategy for the Defense Industry could bring a path forward for an independent security export, but much work is needed.

Selective isolationism harms our alliances, including in East Asia. Like Taiwan, the United States' other Asian partners understand the current stakes in Europe. Japan has pledged more than $10 billion worth in aid for Ukraine, and South Korea supplied more shells to Ukraine than all of Europe. It is hard to see how flip-flopping U.S. commitments would not be seen as negative for them. Abandoning some allies causes others to doubt whether their partner is reliable. For instance, supporting Ukraine reassures Taiwan of a comparable support, were they invaded.

Shifting massive military capabilities from Europe meant to deter a destabilizing foe would not reassure Japan or South Korea. Instead, it would needlessly provoke further tensions with China, and could impact other necessary collaborative efforts in transnational issues, like climate change, migration, and economic inequality.

Allies are key to U.S. great power competition. They are the only asset its adversaries do not also share.

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Allies are key to U.S. great power competition. They are the only asset its adversaries do not also share. Claiming otherwise only makes cheap cannon fodder for competitors' rhetoric. Selectively isolating a theater only undermines U.S. credibility to all. Selectively engaging Asia while maintaining support for allies everywhere allows the United States to tap into the potential of a significantly greater share of the world's GDP.

Selective isolationism results in the same poor outcome that regular isolationism does. “Asia firsters” sometimes evoke Teddy Roosevelt to argue that his administration's work in Asia reveals a historical precedent for their strategy. But as an Atlanticist and the founder of the Progressive Party, Roosevelt angrily denounced Woodrow Wilson's choice to “leave a European conflict to the Europeans.” Doing so, he believed, would only mean “supine inaction” at a time when America needed to selectively engage regions. Then, like today, isolationism was not a strategic choice but a political one.


Paul Cormarie is a policy analyst at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution.

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