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Saturday, January 14, 2012

U.S. Military in Europe: On the Tyranny of the Status Quo

On January 14, 2012, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Pentagon would bring home two brigades from Europe. That would reduce the U.S. Army presence by 10,000 to 30,000. “During the height of the cold war,” according to the Times, “when America’s heavily armored and nuclear-tipped force in Europe comforted allies and deterred the Soviet Union, the Army reached a peak of 277,342 troops on the Continent.” A mere 30,000 might seem trite in comparison, and thus palatable, unless it be noticed that the cold war ended with the fall of the USSR. So it is perplexing that the “reductions come as some European leaders and analysts make their case for a sustained American presence on the Continent to deal with uncertainties, including a rambunctious Russia — even as these same NATO allies are unable or unwilling to increase spending for their own defense.” There it is then—a military subsidy of sorts. To be sure, Russia is uneasy about Eastern European countries becoming states in the E.U., but this hardly counts as rambunctiousness—at least at the level justifying a military defense. It is democracy, rather than Europe, that needs defense in terms of Russia, given the hegemony of the United Russia party in Russian politics. As one senior European official said, “We don’t need a massive presence of U.S. troops. After all, we don’t see Russia anymore as an enemy or an adversary, but even as a partner, if a difficult one.” The shift from adversary to ally has perhaps not fully sunk in—human perception being slow to let go of long-held assumptions.

In my opinion, the uncertainty in Europe in the wake of the Pentagon’s announcement involved more than a bit of overreaction. According to the Times, “Philip H. Gordon, the State Department’s assistant secretary for European affairs, already was visiting capitals on the Continent, reassuring an audience in Berlin . . .  that ‘the United States remains committed to a strong Europe, the collective defense of our NATO allies, and to building and maintaining the capacity and partnerships that allow us to work together on a global scale.’” Such reassurance was hardly needed. In fact, it would not be needed were the remaining 30,000 troops pulled out. That would not be tantamount to the United States leaving NATO, after all. Yet strangely, the perception would be exactly that, and in politics perception can create its own effects, even reality.

Beyond the matter of military strategy (in the context of a $15 trillion U.S. Government debt), the fact that the U.S. is leaving 30,000 troops in Europe may itself point to the staying power in the status quo as an object or worship. Beyond lapses in “readjusting,” it may be that the adage, “same old, same old” gets too much air time, particularly given that the twenty-first century is not the twentieth. Thomas Jefferson advocated a new constitution every twenty years, or at least a decision on the matter. It might not be a bad thing were a little “spring cleaning” done  in the first few decades of any new century—rather than simply continuing so much on the books from the last century. The U.S. as protector of Europe is from the standpoint of the twenty-first century so antiquated that a pathological aversion to change can be suspected, with justification itself being presumed to be in the sheer existence of a practice. In other words, “it’s always been done that way, so why question it?” Under the tyranny of the status quo, layers of old laws and regulations pile up like old clothes in a basement. New clothes are instantly labeled as “extreme” and are therefore eliminated from serious consideration. The inertia of ongoing practices stifle even thought itself and render human experience far too constricted, even regimented. To break on through to the other side, where there is fresh air to breath and room to flex one’s muscles as nature intended, the entire order must have collapsed, and this seems hardly necessary.

Tom Shanker and Steven Erlanger, “U.S. Faces New Challenge of Fewer Troops in Europe,” The New York Times, January 13, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/14/world/europe/europe-weighs-implications-of-shrinking-us-troop-presence.html