Why are US forces still in Europe? Only readers aged 40-plus will remember the menace of Soviet tanks thundering through the Fulda Gap.
One reason is that Europe is a handy jumping-off point for missions to trouble-spots. Keeping some US troops in Europe aids NATO’s interoperability. Sentiment counts for something: US troops are the distant symbolic descendants of the ones who stormed the Normandy beaches in 1944 and flew coal to Berlin in 1948. While they are still here, the US’s commitment to European security is unmistakable.
But the numbers are dropping. The US’s own force posture review aims to cut the number of brigade combat units from four to two when the mission in Afghanistan ends. A rising tide of anti-nuclear sentiment is eroding the commitment too. If Germany, as seems highly likely, orders warplanes that cannot carry nuclear weapons, it will be a step towards denuclearisation of that country. Public opinion in other countries likes the idea too. But the fewer countries that host US nuclear weapons, the more vulnerable politicians in those capitals feel. When the nukes go, conventional US forces are at greater risk in battle. Congress will mind that. Europe will not.
The US will clearly remain a military power in the Mediterranean (because of oil and Israel) and increasingly in the High North. Elsewhere, in places such as Belgium, Germany and Portugal, it is hard to define whom it is defending from what. The worry will come in the handful of countries that still feel jumpy about Russia: the Baltic states, Poland, and their non-NATO Swedish and Finnish neighbors.
Nobody knows what Russia will be like in 2020. It may have shed its Soviet-imperial shadow and made friends with its western neighbors. Or it may be ruled by chauvinistic leaders tempted to whip up opinion against a bogus enemy to keep their fragmenting country together. If so, north-eastern Europe may face a hard-security threat, just as the US’s presence has passed the tipping point of credibility. NATO’s Article 5 and the threat of World War Three against any aggressor may exist on paper. But in practice they may not be much of a deterrent.
Luckily, the pieces are in place to deter this nasty, if unlikely, prospect. The key is to bring the five Nordic countries, chiefly Finland and Sweden, into Baltic defense planning. With strong US encouragement, Nordic security co-operation has intensified, with strengthened joint procurement, intelligence-sharing, interoperability and planning. The US should support the next step: to bring Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania fully into the fold.
In practice, that would mean involving Swedish and Finnish air forces in Baltic air policing. This is a vital component of sovereignty: a country that cannot control its own air space is defenseless. Rather than buy their own planes (cripplingly costly for small countries), the Baltic states have relied on a rota filled by other NATO countries since they joined the alliance in 2004. That has worked well, largely preventing the annoying Russian intrusions of previous years. But it runs out in 2016.
The Nordic solution would mean the Baltics relying on the planes of the excellent Swedish and Finnish air forces while providing bases, money, and people in exchange. Neatly, it does not force Sweden and Finland to address the divisive question of NATO membership. But it strengthens their security: more than any other outside countries, they have a huge stake in the stability and prosperity of the Baltic states. True, Russia may complain – but as with NATO enlargement, it raises an awkward question for the Kremlin: “Just what is it about your neighbors’ burglar alarms that you don’t like?”
The writer is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.