The Issue

Europe is important to the United States economically, diplomatically, militarily, and politically. The continent physically borders Russia, the Arctic, Iran, Asia Minor, the Caspian Sea, and North Africa. Most of these areas have long histories of instability and a potential for future instability that could directly affect the security interests and economic well-being of the United States.

America’s oldest (France) and closest (the United Kingdom) allies are found there. The U.S. and Europe share a strong commitment to the rule of law, human rights, free markets, and democracy. Many of these ideas, the foundations upon which America was built, were brought over by the millions of immigrants from Europe in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. U.S. sacrifice for Europe has been dear. During the course of the 20th century, millions of Americans fought for a free and secure Europe, and hundreds of thousands died.

America’s economic ties to the region are important as well. A stable, secure, and economically viable Europe is in America’s economic interest. The economies of the 28 (soon to be 27, post Brexit) member states of the European Union, along with the United States, account for approximately half of the global economy. The U.S. and the members of the EU are each other’s principal trading partners.

Europe and the United States face similar challenges: a resurgent Russia, Islamist terrorism, and the desire for economic growth.

The United Kingdom

On March 29, 2017, the United Kingdom invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, beginning the two-year process of exiting the EU. Brexit has given rise to a host of opportunities for enhancing the U.S.–U.K. Special Relationship, one of which is negotiating and signing a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom. The U.S. and the U.K. have long been champions of economic freedom, and have the world’s largest and fifth-largest economies, respectively. The economies of the two nations are closely intertwined, and each is the other partner’s top foreign direct investor. Both nations are well positioned to benefit from a reduction of existing restrictions on trade, and from concluding an agreement that would strengthen their already formidable positions as financial and technological innovators. While an agreement that lowers tariffs would generate some gains, tariffs between the nations are already low; therefore, any agreement must address non-tariff barriers to trade as well. An agreement between the U.S. and U.K. would also have the important added benefit of renewing the close cooperation between the two nations, and reaffirming their shared commitment to economic freedom and national sovereignty.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

NATO has served as the foundation of European security for nearly 70 years. It was founded in 1949 with the mission of protecting the territorial integrity of its members and—if required—defeating the Soviet Union. While NATO members are no longer worried about the spread of communism, many are certainly worried about protecting their territory from Russian expansion.

The United States needs a NATO that can deter aggression and defend the territorial integrity of its members. Everything else that NATO might do is secondary to the No. 1 mission of territorial defense. NATO’s focus on territorial defense, not counterterrorism, does not mean that NATO members should not be working together on counterterrorism operations—but NATO as an institution should not be the leader or main actor in these operations. Instead, if a military operation is required to fight terror groups, it should be led by a coalition of the willing, formed and led by NATO members, but not by NATO itself.

NATO Defense Spending. Since the end of the Cold War, many European nations have, until very recently, consistently cut defense spending. The result, inevitably, has been a significant loss of capability. In 2006, in an effort to encourage defense investment, NATO set a target for member states to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. At the 2014 Wales Summit, member states recommitted to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense and also committed to spending 20 percent of their defense budgets on “major equipment” purchases by 2024. In 2016, only five member states (Estonia, Greece, Poland, the U.K., and the U.S.) hit the 2 percent benchmark, and only 10 member states spent the required 20 percent of their defense budgets on major equipment.

While there have been some recent improvements in European defense spending, there remains a long way to go. As an intergovernmental security alliance, NATO is only as strong as its member states. Weak defense spending on the continent has led to a significant loss of capabilities in the Alliance.

A permanent U.S. presence in Europe shows that the United States is willing and able to live up to its NATO treaty obligations, thus making it less likely that Russia will make a miscalculation. In addition, this close proximity to global hot spots in the Middle East allows U.S. policymakers more numerous and timely options for responding to incidents in the region. This is, for example, why the U.S. maintains a rapid reaction force at Morón Air Base in Spain.

Since its founding, NATO has grown from 12 to 29 members through seven rounds of enlargement. NATO enlargement has helped bind like-minded democracies on both sides of the Atlantic in mutual self-defense. Furthermore, requirements for joining the Alliance have proven to be critical catalysts for reform, particularly reforming the military and strengthening the rule of law in candidate countries.

However, a misnomer exists in regards to the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act, which allegedly prohibited NATO from establishing permanent military bases in former Warsaw Pact nations. This is flat-out untrue. It is a myth created by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine—and it is perpetuated by the lack of diligent research and basic knowledge among commentators, politicians, and policymakers in the West.

The European Union

After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. believed it could safely reduce its role in Europe, and increasingly came to see support for the EU as central to that scaled-back Europe policy. U.S. backing for the EU is therefore not a sign of U.S. commitment to Europe. It is the sign of the waning of that commitment, the end of serious U.S. thought about how it should uphold American interests on the continent.

If the U.S. continues to base its European policy on unthinking support for the supranational EU, it will continue to see rising political illiberalism, ever greater economic strains, and a weaker transatlantic security relationship.

EU Defense Integration. Creation of EU defense structures that duplicate NATO structures weakens NATO. It also threatens to decouple the U.S. from European defense matters. EU defense integration undermines NATO by siphoning scarce resources away from the Alliance. Any money spent on the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) is less money that can be spent on NATO. In addition, the veto power of six non-NATO EU member states (five of which are neutral), almost guarantees that any EU assets would not be available for NATO operations.

The CSDP has not delivered increased military capability for the U.S. or for NATO. Instead, it competes with NATO for scarce European defense resources all the while creating duplicative and competing military structures. This in turn undermines NATO, the ultimate guarantor of transatlantic security. The U.S. should focus on advancing a NATO-first agenda, one that ensures American engagement and influence in Europe-related defense matters.

The Migrant Crisis

Set off initially by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq—millions of migrants from across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have traveled to Europe in search of safety and an easier life in Europe’s most generous welfare states across the last two years. The “open-door” policies of Berlin and Stockholm amplified the scale of the crisis. While a tenuous agreement with Turkey in March 2016 largely capped migrant flows through the Balkans and Greece, migrant arrivals have not stopped. They have merely decreased and shifted to the western Mediterranean.

The migrant crisis is having a devastating impact on Europe, creating ever-growing economic strains, security risks, and societal chaos. Islamist terrorists have already reached Europe hidden in migrant flows, and Islamist propaganda has radicalized individuals on European soil. Terror is far from the only threat posed by unchecked, mostly young male, mostly Muslim mass migration: Germany, for instance, has been experiencing a rape and sex-attack crisis since 2016. Sex attacks committed by Muslim men against non-Muslims have long been a problem in Sweden and Norway, among other countries. European nations need to adopt a new and strict approach toward migrants immediately.

Terrorism in Europe

Europe has faced many Islamist terror attacks in recent years. From 2016 to 2017 alone, terror attacks have been carried out in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the U.K. Tackling the scourge of Islamist terrorism and rooting out the ideology that supports such barbarism is a critical task of European governments.


Negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with the United Kingdom. An agreement creating a free trade area would be good for the economies of both the U.S. and U.K., while serving as an example of trade liberalization that both nations have long championed.

Commit Unconditionally to America’s NATO Treaty Obligations. NATO has served as the very bedrock of transatlantic security for nearly 70 years. It must be clear that the United States remains entirely committed to NATO, including Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that an attack on one NATO member will be considered an attack on all.

Refocus NATO to Its Core Mission: Mutual Defense. NATO does not have to be everywhere doing everything. It does not have to become a global counterterrorism force or the West’s main tool for delivering humanitarian aid. However, NATO does have to be capable of defending its members’ territorial integrity.

Continue and Enhance the U.S. Force Posture in Europe. The U.S. force posture in Europe plays an important role in deterring Russian aggression and safeguarding U.S. national interests. As long as the current threat remains, the U.S. should not scale down its military commitment to Europe.

Continue to Press Allies to Increase Their Spending on Defense. As an intergovernmental security alliance, NATO is only as strong as its member states. Underinvestment in defense by European NATO members threatens to undermine the collective security guarantee. Therefore, the U.S. should encourage its allies in Europe to spend more on defense—and these spending commitments and timelines should be enshrined in legislation by each NATO member. This would help to increase transparency and political accountability.

Keep NATO’s Open-Door Policy. NATO’s open-door policy has been a crucial driver of modernization and reform in candidate countries, has promoted stability and peace in Europe, and has made it easier for the Alliance to coalesce around collective defense. The U.S. should continue to promote NATO’s open-door policy.

Focus on Developing Strong Bilateral Relationships with Individual European Countries Rather than Reflexively Supporting the European Union. The EU is a supranational, undemocratic organization, which infringes on national sovereignty, wastes taxpayer money, harms transatlantic security, and distorts European immigration policies. The U.S. should re-examine its unthinking support for the EU, instead focusing on building and sustaining closer relations with individual European governments.

Push Back Against Further European Defense Integration that Weakens NATO. NATO has been the cornerstone of transatlantic security for almost seven decades. Creation of duplicative European Union structures, such as an EU operational headquarters or the aspirational EU army, weakens NATO. It also threatens to decouple the U.S. from European defense. EU defense integration undermines NATO by siphoning scarce resources from the Alliance.

Encourage European Allies to Take a Realistic Approach Toward Migrants. European nations must take a more realistic approach toward migrants by reinstating border security, developing better screening methods, and quickly deporting people who are rejected for asylum or who have committed criminal offenses.

Reject Calls for an EU-Wide Information-Sharing Network, But Encourage European Partners to Break Down Domestic-Intelligence Firewalls. Instead of focusing on creating an overly ambitious new transnational EU framework, individual European governments should focus on encouraging achievable domestic intelligence reforms within their own countries.

Facts and Figures

FACT: U.S. troops are in Europe first and foremost to protect U.S. national interests.

  • U.S. forces are not based in Europe to allow Europeans to create an elaborate welfare state on the backs of American taxpayers.
  • U.S. bases in Europe provide American leaders with flexibility, resilience, and options in a dangerous world.
  • The huge garrisons of American service personnel in Europe are no longer the fortresses of the Cold War, but the forward operating bases of the 21st century.

FACT: While European NATO allies do not spend enough on defense, such spending has begun to increase.

  • In 2015, 15 NATO members increased defense spending in real terms.
  • In 2016, 16 NATO allies raised defense spending as a share of GDP. Collectively, that year, non-U.S. members of NATO increased spending by 3.8 percent ($10 billion).

FACT: Economic growth in the eurozone remains tepid, and unemployment in many eurozone nations remains high.

  • The eurozone’s overall economic freedom is undermined by the excessive government spending that is required to support elaborate welfare states.
  • Unemployment remains a serious issue, especially among young people in Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Selected Additional Resources

Ted R. Bromund, Luke Coffey, and Daniel Kochis, “Recommitting the United States to European Security and Prosperity: Five Steps for the Incoming Administration,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4646, January 12, 2017.

Luke Coffey and Daniel Kochis, “The 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act Does Not Prohibit Permanent NATO Bases in Eastern Europe,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4555, April 29, 2016.

Nile Gardiner and Ted R. Bromund, “Freedom from the EU: Why Britain and the U.S. Should Pursue a U.S.–U.K. Free Trade Area,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2951, September 26, 2014.

Daniel Kochis and Luke Coffey, “Brussels Mini-Summit: Understanding Key Issues Facing the NATO Alliance,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4707, January 12, 2017.

James Phillips, “How President Trump Can Improve U.S. Syria Policy,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4661, March 3, 2017.

Robin Simcox, “The Threat of Islamist Terrorism in Europe and How the U.S. Should Respond,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3142, August 1, 2016.

Dakota L. Wood, ed., 2017 Index of Military Strength (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 2016).