Biden embraces NATO, but European allies are weak

As US sees threat from China, lack of equipment and capabilities raise doubts about Europe's role.

Biden embraces NATO, but European allies are weak

Donald Trump mostly bullied European NATO allies for being cheap. Joe Biden’s problem is they’re weak.  

As leaders of the 30 allied nations gather for a summit at headquarters in Brussels on Monday, the new U.S. president among them, one big topic will be a push by Washington to focus more on threats posed by China. But European allies have long been ill-prepared to protect themselves closer to home — from Russia, NATO’s historic rival. Against China, defense experts say, many European militaries would be utterly useless.

“European forces aren’t ready to fight with the equipment they have,” analysts from the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank close to the White House, wrote in a recent report. “And the equipment they have isn’t good enough.”

The report said that after decades of decline, “much of Europe’s military hardware is in a shocking state of disrepair. Too many of Europe’s forces aren’t ready to fight. Its fighter jets and helicopters aren’t ready to fly, its ships and submarines aren’t ready to sail, and its vehicles and tanks aren’t ready to roll.” And more crucially, for operations far away, Europe lacks capabilities like air-refueling for fighter jets, transport aircraft for troops, and high-end reconnaissance and surveillance drones.

Even with Biden robustly proclaiming his commitment to NATO, the harsh reality of Europe’s unreadiness could create tensions within the alliance that are even more difficult to smooth over than Trump’s badgering of allies to increase their military spending — something they had all pledged to do at a leaders’ summit in Wales in 2014. But if the threat is in Asia, a real question may emerge about the relevance of allies that can barely act on their own home turf.

While the test of NATO loyalty often focuses on Article 5, the collective defense provision in the NATO treaty, which proclaims that an attack on one is an attack on all, uniformed U.S. military commanders have long insisted that European allies should be focused on meeting their obligations under Article 3, which demands they “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

“I think it’s very, very clear that we are living in a much more dynamic world,” said Retired General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s former supreme allied commander for Europe. “We still have large formations of Russian capability parked along the edges of Ukraine and Crimea, there is plenty to be concerned about in a security context. These nations know what they need to do. They know what their shortcomings are and I think we need to use every tool they have to begin to live up to Article 3 requirements.”

Breedlove, who is now a professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Studies at Georgia Tech university, said European allies provided serious value, despite their spotty capabilities, simply by providing crucial military installations — army bases in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe, for example, or air bases in Italy.

“How would we ever protect American interests in Europe if we didn’t have a NATO and NATO allies that allowed us to come there on their soil and prepare for conflict if it happens?” Breedlove asked. “An even better example — northern Africa. How would we ever do what we do in northern Africa, without the NATO bases on the northern side of the Mediterranean? We learned in Benghazi we were not positioned currently to respond to those types of incidents.”

Strategic choice

In recent days, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has sought to assure the Biden administration that he shares the priority being placed on China, just as he repeatedly sought to assure Trump he was pressing for more spending.

“The good thing is that, it is a bipartisan understanding in the United States, of the importance of having 29 friends and allies in NATO as they have, not least, when they address the security consequences of the rise of China,” Stoltenberg said at a pre-summit news conference on Friday. Stoltenberg has also stressed that China should be brought into discussions on nuclear arms control, echoing a view widely held among Biden’s security team.

For Stoltenberg, insisting that he shares Washington’s priorities carries risks because some allies, notably France, don’t believe NATO should expand its purview beyond the transatlantic sphere mandated in its founding treaty, and others, especially in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, want the focus to remain on Russia.

But some experts are warning that a major breach could soon emerge.

“The absolute crux in all of this is China — how do the European allies position themselves vis-à-vis China in light of America’s absolutely clear determination to see China as the biggest strategic challenger or threat?” said Maximilian Terhalle, an expert in security policy and visiting professor in strategic studies at King’s College London. “As long as these perceptions of China do not converge, NATO will have a big problem.”

Terhalle said that with Washington focused on China, Europe would need to step up to defend itself. “This disagreement will come out,” he said. “Biden has been much more eloquent, much more diplomatic than Trump has, but the threat perception is so vastly different that I see a huge problem for NATO’s cohesion to be emerging. If America gets absorbed in a war with China, NATO’s eastern flank is wide open because the Americans cannot defend both.”

But even if all allies came around to the U.S. point of view on China, claiming consensus with Biden is cheap and easy compared to preparing European militaries for faraway missions.

In a new book, “The Responsibility to Defend,” Terhalle and a co-author, Bastian Giegerich, call on Germany to vastly strengthen its military, saying its current weaknesses endanger all of Europe.

European allies, with the exception perhaps of France and the U.K., don’t deny their limitations. Eastern European countries and the Baltics speak openly about relying on Washington for security guarantees against Russia. And many European allies admit they do not have sufficient equipment, including helicopters and other basic materiel, to manage on their own, let alone the sophisticated command and control capabilities that only the U.S. can provide.

European nations currently provide the majority of the allied presence in Afghanistan. But the Europeans have long said they could not protect their own forces there. Instead, they rely on the U.S. for security and are now preparing to exit Afghanistan by September 11, a deadline set by Biden, even as some allies fear what will happen in the country when they leave.

Different hymn sheet

Some allies don’t share Biden’s perception of China as a military threat.

At a news conference on Sunday following the G7 leaders’ summit, French President Emmanuel Macron made clear that he was focused more on threats closer to the European homeland, and said it was crucial for the alliance to recognize its true adversaries, including Islamist terrorism. France has no soldiers left in Afghanistan and its operations abroad are largely focused on the Sahel region of North Africa.

“Who is the enemy?” Macron asked. “Every power, every actor that wants to harm the territorial integrity of the members of the alliance, that threatens the security of members of the alliance. For me, that’s the enemy. And so, today, if any regional power wants to threaten the territorial integrity of one of the members of the alliance, it would be the enemy. So we must prepare, in our plans, ways and means to protect ourselves in the face of that. And of course, Islamist terrorism is the enemy of NATO since it is clearly, it threatened our societies in their intimacy. That’s also what justifies the presence of NATO within the international coalition in the Iraqi-Syrian zone. On this we very clearly are aligned.”

In the context of military threats, Macron did not mention China.

Biden, at his own news conference, emphasized his support for NATO. “Now I am going to be heading off to Brussels, to NATO,” he said, “and to make the case we are back, as well. We do not view NATO as a sort of a protection racket. We believe that NATO is vital to our ability to maintain American security for … the remainder of the century. And there’s a real enthusiasm.”

Biden noted that the only time Article 5 had been invoked was after the September 11 terror attacks on the U.S. — a point Stoltenberg and European allies often reiterate.

“Remember what happened on 9/11. We were attacked. Immediately, NATO supported us. NATO supported us. NATO went until we got [al-Qaeda founder Osama] bin Laden. NATO was part of the process.” He called the commitment to the alliance “a sacred obligation.”

But some seem to worry that Biden will be too soft on the alliance — including Macron, who has pushed for better political cohesion among allies, and also demanded recognition of Europe’s broader efforts to develop so-called strategic autonomy, the push to build up capabilities on the Continent.

The authors of the Center for American Progress report said Washington was responsible for many of Europe’s military shortfalls, by historically resisting military cooperation among EU allies in the name of avoiding redundancies at NATO. The report said Biden should instead encourage European military integration, pushing allies to cooperate so they can do more to protect themselves, rather than just pressing them to spend more on their individual national forces, which creates waste and inefficiencies.

“The EU could help strengthen the alliance by building a stronger European pillar, creating a more unified, efficient, and capable partner for the USA through NATO,” the report said, adding:  “European defense today remains anemic, despite noticeable increases in spending.”

Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.

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5 places that explain why Joe Biden loves Europe

Biden has returned again and again to Europe — from his ancestral home Ireland to the farthest reaches of the Balkans.

5 places that explain why Joe Biden loves Europe

BERLIN — Few American presidents come into office with as much international travel under their belts as Joe Biden.

During his tenure as vice president alone, Biden logged more than 1 million miles on trips to 57 countries. Adding the hundreds of trips he made as U.S. senator on the foreign relations committee beginning in the 1970s, one could make a good case that Biden has the largest carbon footprint of anyone who’s ever lived in the White House. 

Many of those trips were to Europe, which has always had a special place in Biden’s heart. That’s why it’s no accident that he made his first foreign trip to the Continent. The official purpose of Biden’s trip might be to show European allies some love after the beating they suffered under his predecessor — but Biden also just really likes Europe. 

That enthusiasm has been palpable over the years, whether he was visiting his ancestral home in Ireland, the Munich Security Conference or the farthest reaches of the Balkans, all places that he has returned to time and again.

“It’s been the joy of my life,” Biden said a few years ago about his travels, expressing boyish awe at “how similar we are.”  

Here are five places that helped turn Biden into a closet European. 


A lot of American politicians have Irish heritage, but few seem to really get the place like Biden, both of whose parents were of Irish stock.

That might be because his ancestors passed down tales of the plight of fleeing Ireland’s 19th-century famine. Or, it could be that, unlike John F. Kennedy, another Irish Catholic president, Biden grew up in a working-class family that struggled to make ends meet. He attributes his parents’ lessons about resilience and “never bending” to their Irish roots. During a presidential debate with Donald Trump last year, Biden, who accused his opponent of being a racist, said people like him “look down their nose on people like Irish Catholics and like me and people who don’t have money.”

Just how personal Biden’s Irish connection is to him became clear during a visit he took with his family to County Mayo in western Ireland in 2016. It was from there in the mid-1800s that one of his great grandfathers set out for America. Thousands of locals lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the then-vice president, who spent much of his time there meeting extended relatives.

“It sounds bizarre, but we sat down and it was like we’d known each other forever,” he said.  

The Balkans

The other corner of Europe where the professional and political have melded for Biden is the former Yugoslavia, a region rife with historical divisions not dissimilar to those of Ireland. 

He reflected on those parallels in a 1999 speech following the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia, which forced Belgrade to withdraw from Kosovo. 

“Bosnia and Kosovo have been freed from Belgrade, but, as was the case in … Ireland, the people are often using their freedom to kill each other,” he lamented.

In the early 1990s, he was a staunch advocate for U.S. engagement in the region to prevent the killing of innocents in Bosnia and Kosovo. In a prescient 1993 New York Times op-ed, he warned that a U.N. arms embargo forbidding weapons sales to Bosnia was effectively “codifying Serb aggression” and leading the people there to slaughter.

“The West has dithered so pathetically, and Bosnia has suffered so terribly, that Bosnian leaders are justifiably suspicious,” he began.

The embargo was never lifted, mainly due to European resistance, but as the Srebrenica genocide and other horrors of the war would later illustrate, Biden and other critics were right. 

Biden never gave up on the Balkans, returning time and again, long after most western politicians had lost interest. “The Balkans are not a strategic sideshow,” he told his Senate colleagues after he visited the region in 2001. “Southeastern Europe remains central to security for the entire continent and, hence, for the United States.”

After becoming vice president in 2009, Biden visited the region again, in part because he worried that Washington had all but forgotten about it after 9/11. 

In 2016, Biden visited Kosovo for the opening of a new highway named after his late son, Beau, a lawyer who had worked to help establish a new justice system in the country in the early 2000s. 

“Beau loved this country like I do,” Biden said of his son, who died of brain cancer in 2015. 


As a convinced transatlanticist, Biden is nowhere more at home than in the wheelhouse of the western alliance — NATO headquarters. He’s due to visit there again for the NATO summit on Monday. Unlike his predecessor, who complained about the cost of NATO’s new modern complex and declared the alliance “obsolete,” Biden will celebrate the partnership as one of the greatest achievements of modern history. 

Biden has been a fixture at NATO ever since he entered public service. He was co-chairman of the NATO Observer Group in the Senate, set up in 1997 to prepare for the alliance’s expansion, which he championed. When the Senate approved NATO enlargement in 1998, Biden called it “the beginning of another 50 years of peace.”

For Biden, NATO is more than just an alliance; it represents the power of American ideals and what many of his generation still regard as the U.S.’s historic mission to spread freedom and democracy across the world. Inviting former Warsaw Pact countries into the club wasn’t just about ensuring their future security, he said back in 1998: “We’ll be righting an historical injustice forced upon the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians by Joseph Stalin.”


Biden’s connection to the Bavarian capital has less to do with its famous beer halls than with the annual security conference there, which some lovingly call “Davos with guns.” 

Biden became a regular at the annual meeting during the Cold War when it was still known by its German name: Wehrkunde. Though unpronounceable to most American officials, Wehrkunde became a fixture on the calendar of America’s foreign policy and security establishment stretching back to the 1960s. 

During the Cold War, Biden would join other leading lights of the western alliance in the basement Stube of the five-star hotel that hosts the meeting to talk shop over beers and plot against the Soviets. The personal relationships built in Munich over the years helped create the glue that kept the West together through the challenges of that period and beyond.

Biden never stopped coming. In a speech at the meeting in 2019, now known as the Munich Security Conference, Biden upstaged then-Vice President Mike Pence, who was also there, exclaiming, “I promise you … We’ll be back.” Biden’s message to Europe: Trump won’t be around much longer. Earlier this year, he returned to Munich — at least virtually — to deliver his now-famous call to arms: “America is back.”


Biden’s decision to spend his honeymoon on Hungary’s famous Lake Balaton wouldn’t be that notable if it weren’t for the year he did so: 1977. 

Though the Cold War was thawing a bit that year, Hungary wouldn’t have topped many newlyweds’ dream honeymoon destinations. That didn’t dissuade Biden, then still in his first term as a senator, from taking his bride behind the Iron Curtain. It was Biden’s first trip to the region, and in addition to taking in the beauty of Balaton, he also spent time in Budapest, meeting with communist officials, journalists and dissidents. The trip, which was organized by Tom Lantos, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor who worked as an adviser to Biden before becoming a U.S. congressman, left a strong impression on the future president.

“Until that, I had no idea that the only place in the world where it is worth [it] to eat fish is Balaton,” he said years later. The trip also shaped his view of what was really at stake in the Cold War. Biden won a place in Hungary’s heart that year by promising that the U.S. would return the Hungarian crown, which the country had discovered in Austria in 1945. 

Those good memories notwithstanding, Biden is unlikely to return to Hungary anytime soon. He has made no secret of his displeasure over the country’s authoritarian turn under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in recent years. In 2020, he mentioned the country in the same breath as autocrat-run Belarus, lamenting the “rise of totalitarian regimes around the world.” 

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