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Getting the most out of our military investments

Published: February 10, 2014

With so much going on in this endlessly troubled world of ours, comparatively little attention has been given in the United States to the fact that since the end of the Cold War American military forces in Europe are down 70 percent and that almost 80 percent of our installations there have been closed.

But if those facts haven’t been widely discussed in this country, they certainly have drawn the attention of America’s European allies. Last weekend, at an international security summit in Munich, these allies confronted Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel about this apparent alteration of American priorities. The Europeans fear that the United States may no longer be as committed to its long-standing participation (even leadership) in their security arrangements as it has been since the end of World War II.

Kerry and Hagel both sought to reassure America’s skeptical European allies that the Obama administration’s views on a wide range of issues are justified. Those issues include the persistent unrest in Ukraine (where Russia and the European Union are in an acrimonious standoff about the former Soviet satellite’s economic future) and the shifting American position on deploying troops overseas.

Hagel said that after 12 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the Pentagon took a primary role in foreign policy, the Obama administration had decided that it is time to place more emphasis on more traditional diplomacy.

“Over the last year, John and I have both worked to restore balance to the relationship between American defense and diplomacy,” Hagel observed. “The trans-Atlantic partnership has been successful because of the judicious use of both diplomacy and defense.”

Kerry called for what he described as a “trans-Atlantic renaissance” characterized by greater efforts to “improve all manner of cooperation between the United States and its European allies in NATO.”

Hagel cited the high costs of maintaining a large American military presence on what is generally understood to be, at least for now, a peaceful continent. There are rumblings in the Balkans and tensions elsewhere, but even European countries have been trimming their military spending.

“In the face of budget constraints here on the continent, as well as in the U.S., we must all invest more strategically to protect military capability and readiness,” Hagel explained. “The question is not just how much we spend, but how we spend — together. It’s not just burdens we share, but opportunities, as well.”

As an example of shared burdens, the defense secretary cited his recent trip to Poland where Europe and the United States are cooperating on a new missile-defense system scheduled to be operating by 2018. He also mentioned that four American missile-defense warships will be based in Spain and reminded the Europeans that the first is on its way there now.

With the United States “moving off a 13-year war footing, it is clear to us, as well as President Obama, that our future requires a renewed and enhanced era of partnership with our friends and allies, especially here in Europe,” Hagel added.

The American people haven’t been shouting about it — perhaps because there are so many other pressing issues to shout about — but no doubt many of them have often wondered why, so long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so many of their sons and daughters are deployed in Europe.

The greater risk of conflict would appear to be in the Middle East and even, given China’s naked ambition, in the Far East and in Africa.

Surely a reduction in America’s military presence in Europe does not present an undue burden for the host nations, at least for now. On the contrary, it suggests that Washington recognizes the need to manage our military resources more efficiently.