Understanding US Retrenchment in Europe

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Notwithstanding the crisis in Ukraine, the US will strive to maintain a maximum degree of influence in Europe through minimal presence and effort.
American forward presence in Europe has been no easy sell in recent years. With Washington's intention to ‘rebalance’ towards Asia challenged by a constrained defence-budgetary environment, the idea of scaling back in Europe had begun, until the crisis in Ukraine, to make some headway.1 In 2012, the Pentagon's strategic guidance warned that US force posture in Europe would have to ‘adapt to the evolving strategic landscape’ and develop ‘innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches’.2 In turn, some Europeans have construed the US pivot to Asia as an opportunity to take security matters into their own hands.3
Although moved by different motives, epistemic communities on both sides of the Atlantic had seemed to be coalescing around a shared assumption: Europe is stable and peaceful, and Europeans should be capable of taking care of their own security. Yet the assumption that a US military with-drawal would force Europeans to take security more seriously was doubtful. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the reduction of America's military presence in Europe and the slashing of European defence budgets have gone hand in glove.4 As was clear even before the Ukraine crisis, Europe's main powers have often disagreed as to how to organise the security of the continent and the broader neighbourhood. And, most seriously of all, Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and its continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, may now be calling into question the logic of additional US troop reductions, not least given the growing perception of insecurity in Central and Eastern European countries.
This article does not dispute the basic assumption of a downgrade of Europe's importance in American global strategy, explained by the disappearance of the Soviet military threat and the ongoing shift of the world's economic and geopolitical centre of gravity towards the Asia-Pacific region. But it is important to clarify what this downgrade has actually meant in terms of the specifics of US force posture and defence strategy. That is what this article aims to do, drawing on over 30 confidential interviews with senior US defence, foreign-policy and national-security officials in order to analyse the evolution of US defence strategy and force posture in Europe from 2010–14. Insofar as it continues to have an important stake in the security of Europe and its surroundings, the US will strive to maintain a maximum degree of influence through minimal presence and effort.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)157-172
Number of pages15
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2015

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