The recent crisis in Ukraine reveals that Europe, again, is content to spend little on defense, can do little to defend itself, and disregards security when making economic deals in general and in matters concerning energy in particular. Now that the US has become involved in Ukraine, it cannot but continue to take the lead in seeking to prevent Putin from extending his empire-building moves. However, the US should put Europe on notice that the US expects the EU and the European members of NATO to lean much less on the US in the future and make major changes so they will be able to deal on their own (or at least, with much less US involvement) with matters that concern them most directly, and take place on their borders or in their backyard. President Obama took the first step in this direction when, on June 3, he stated that every alliance member "has to do its fair share." Obama called on "every NATO member to step up." He noted that with the exception of Poland and the Baltic countries, "we have seen a decline, steadily, in European defense spending generally."
The Europeans on the left are quick to criticize the US for abusing its military power; those on the right speak bravely in favor of it standing up to Russia; both camps scoff at the US for its lack of a national health program and its meager welfare state. They disregard that one major reason they can afford an expansive welfare state is because they spend roughly one third as much on defense as the US. They spend only 1.6 percent on average -- compared to 3.8 percent for the US -- and continue to cut their defense budgets further. The US ends up carrying 70 percent of NATO's financial burden. As a result, the European democracies are again -- as they were in WWI, WWII and during the Cold War -- dependent on the US in order to prevail.
Most recently, after France and Britain initiated an armed humanitarian intervention in Libya in 2011, they soon discovered that their severe shortcomings in intelligence gathering (ISR), ammunition, and refueling capacity made it impossible to them to proceed without extensive US assistance. France and Britain, the strongest European powers, ran low on precision bombs after only two weeks of fighting, forcing the U.S. to resupply them and highlighting Europe's incapacity to sustain "even a relatively small military action over an extended period of time." Now, when the Russian bear is growling on their borders, the Europeans have precious little to put in its way. The forces rushed to Poland and Lithuania, including 12 F-16 and six F-15 fighter jets, two KC-135 refueling tankers, and a frigate, are American.
The Europeans should be put on notice that unless they significantly increase their defense spending, they will have to face Russia on their own when Putin moves next against, say, Moldova. (The US would of course honor its commitments if a NATO member were directly challenged.) True, the US has taken it upon itself to maintain a liberal global order, but this does not mean that it has to engage in every local or regional conflict.
The Europeans -- especially the former members of the Warsaw Pact, now members of the EU (such as Poland, the Baltic Republics, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania) are eager to stop Putin -- but the EU is dragging its feet on the imposition of sanctions. One major reason is its dependence on Russian energy. Natural gas is more difficult to transport than oil, requiring expensive infrastructure investments either in the form of pipelines or liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities. The EU chose to depend on Russia for a third of its natural gas imports, with eastern European states especially dependent on it. This is the case because the Europeans ignored US warnings about the dangers of Russian energy leverage, both when the original USSR-Europe pipelines were built in the 1980s, and during more recent projects (e.g. Gazprom's Nord Stream pipelines built in 2011-2012). The EU did not back the Nabucco pipeline favored by the US that could have supplied gas via Turkey rather than Russia, but was canceled in 2013. The EU is now seeking the US to bail it out by using American oil and gas to dull the Russian edge. Whether such American exports serve US core interests is a debatable point, but in the meantime Europe should move to reduce its dependence on Russian energy by building more pipelines to Central Asia and the Middle East that bypass Russia, and exploiting more of its own resources.
Granted, the Europeans have so long depended on American bailouts that it will take years for them to be weaned off and be able to stand more on their own. However, the Ukraine crisis suggests that the sooner the Europeans are told in no uncertain terms that they cannot continue in the longer run to draw on American taxpayers to pay for much of their defense, and benefit from closer energy and economic ties with Russia -- but let the US play the role of the tough guy when dealing with Putin -- the sooner the Europeans will start mending their ways. And -- maybe they will appreciate more what the US is doing for them.